Some people today are barely joking when they claim that TTC really stands for "Take the Car." I remember well, before I switched to travelling downtown by the infinitely more reliable 504 King, arriving at a 501 Queen stop and having no idea if I'd have to wait thirty seconds or thirty minutes for the next car in the middle of the day; both ended up happening fairly regularly, with seemingly little regard to the actual schedule.
It wasn't always like this, though. Back in the day, streetcars were a Toronto fixture, and the TTC claim was that there was always a streetcar in sight, a claim made possible when Toronto became the beneficiary of so many other North American cities who abandoned their own streetcar systems and sold their used cars at firesale prices.
PCC #4549, one of two Presidents' Conference Committee streetcars presently retained by the TTC. In 1957, the TTC operated seven hundred and sixty-five such streetcars.
So I had to wonder - what could be behind such a shift? While Toronto did go through a streetcar abandonment phase from the 1950s to 1970s, the decline of its system was nowhere near as precipitous as other cities that retained their systems - take New Orleans, for example, which went from operating dozens of lines to only one. Could it be that there was too much system and not enough cars to service it? Even before the post-subway line abandonments, Toronto's system does not seem to have been magnitudes larger back then than it is now.
With that in mind, I decided I would determine the per capita nature of the streetcar system - not in terms of population, but in terms of the number of vehicles operated per kilometer of track. For perspective, I did the same determination in other cities in North America, Europe, and Asia. Here's what I found.
Hiroshima: 19 km of track, 271 vehicles = 14.2 vehicles per km
Kenosha: 3 km of track, 5 vehicles = 1.6 vehicles per km
Melbourne: 245 km of track, 500 vehicles = 2.04 vehicles per km
Portland: 6.3 km of track, 11 vehicles = 1.7 vehicles per km
San Francisco: 9.3 km of track, 26 vehicles = 2.79 vehicles per km*
Seattle: 2.1 km of track, 3 vehicles = 1.4 vehicles per km
Warsaw: 120 km of track, 863 vehicles = 7.19 vehicles per km
Toronto: 75 km of track, 248 vehicles = 3.3 vehicles per km
*San Francisco does possess additional PCC cars, including one painted in Toronto's colors, but they are not currently in service; the number given here is for streetcars listed by the SFMTA as being in service as of May 30, 2011. For this calculation I considered only the trackage of the F Market & Wharves line.
If the numbers I used are accurate, then, Toronto actually looks pretty good in terms of that assumption - better than anywhere else I looked at in North America, even. However, this won't last forever; as the existing CLRV and ALRVs are set to be replaced with two hundred and four new LRVs sometime after 2013, if there is no change in the length of the system once the fleet has been completely renewed, Toronto will be reduced to 2.72 vehicles per kilometer, just behind San Francisco.
Toronto's system isn't like a baggy pair of pants, then. There are enough streetcars to fill it - leaving us with the question of where the real problem lies. Traffic congestion? Poor route management? Poor route design? I'm not sure. But it's a question that should be asked if Toronto's streetcars are going to be responsive to the needs of the people who ride them, if they're going to be an integral part of Toronto's transit mix in years to come.