Posts Tagged: Streetcar



Understanding Travel Decisions—A Human Perspective

Like many people of my generation, I put myself through two university degrees working in restaurants and bars. The last spot I ever worked at was a high-end Irish Pub in Toronto’s financial district.

Thankfully, the pub was located exactly 25 minutes’ walk from my apartment. I knew, because I’d meticulously timed it, measured it and shaved off every potential minute by finding every potential short-cut I could find—demonstrating the kind of meticulous attention to detail that makes us transit geeks so popular with the ladies.

The question then before I walked out my front door was whether to walk or to take transit.

Seems like a simple question, right? It wasn’t. Let me explain:

The most direct transit route from my apartment to the pub involved (in order of sequence of events):

  • a 2 minute journey from my front door to the streetcar stop;
  • an undetermined wait time for the streetcar;
  • a 6 minute streetcar trip;
  • a 2 minute transfer time from the streetcar to the subway;
  • an undetermined wait time for the subway;
  • a 4 minute subway ride;
  • a 2 minute journey from the subway to the pub.

You see the problem right away.

While the trip itself (let’s say the fixed journey time) was 16 minutes long, the wait times for the two vehicles in between were completely undetermined. Generally speaking, those wait times ranged any where from 1 minute to 10 minutes, and predicting them were nigh impossible.

That meant that my actual travel time by transit would be any where from 18 minutes to 36 minutes. Sure there were some situations where transit was a faster option, but that only occurred in 28% of all the possible wait time combinations.

Here’s the most interesting part: If I had to wait 8 minutes or more for either the streetcar or (not both) the subway, travelling by foot always yielded a shorter travel time. I know this because I built a spreadsheet to understand it for myself.

Assuming that an 8 minute wait time for any transit vehicle in Toronto is 50/50 proposition (at best) and given the $3.00 fare, is it any surprise then that I almost always walked?

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Track Replacement Time Lapse

Ken Murphy spent 3 1/2 days taking one photo approximately every 15 seconds of the San Francisco streetcar track replacement occurring outside his house. The following is the mind-blowing result:

Church and 30th St. San Francisco MUNI Construction from Ken Murphy on Vimeo.

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Zombie Streetcars & Transit Bling

One of San Francisco's Fleet of Classic Streetcars.

I am decidedly against the City of Toronto’s decision to purchase almost 2 billion one-and-a-quarter billion dollars worth of new streetcars/light rail. And my problem with the decision has absolutely nothing to do with my position on CPT. I recognize that CPT is not a technology for all environs and I recognize that streetcar technology has its place.

My position on CPT is that it should be included as one among many transit technologies including bus, streetcar/light rail and subway. So let’s leave it at that. Back to the streetcars . . .

My problem with purchasing new vehicles to replace the old fleet is this: It’s nothing more than wasteful Transit Bling. In times of economic trouble, it seems irresponsible to replace that which could be rebuilt. Are Toronto’s existing streetcars decrepit?  Sure.  Are they falling apart?  Probably. Are they comfortable to ride? Not on your life. But none of those issues are unresolvable.

Havana is well-known for its plethora of 1950’s and 1960’s classic American cars.  These cars are at least a generation older than Toronto’s current aging streetcar fleet, but are in good condition, having been well-maintained and rebuilt several times.  These never-dying  zombie cars, have in fact, become something of a tourist attraction themselves.

Classic American cars crowd the roads of Havana to this day. They have even become an unofficial tourist attraction. Despite their age of 50-60 years, they are in good working condition due to ongoing maintenance and rebuilds.

So why then rush to abandon the current fleet of streetcars in Toronto?  Surely there must be some experienced mechanics, engineers and designers capable of creatively rebuilding the fleet at a fraction of the cost of buying new vehicles (around $5-6 million each). I’m even more certain there’s some inexperienced mechanics, engineers and designers in university who could do it. And if they did, it would be a testament to Toronto’s ingenuity, fiscal prudence, dedication to the environment and history.

San Francisco did just that with a fleet of Zombie Streetcars they purchased on the second/third hand market. The great irony is that many of those streetcars were never part of that city’s historic fleet. Instead, they were vehicles that had once serviced cities as far and wide as Kansas City, Philadelphia, Cleveland and . . . Toronto.

And just to one up those cities further, San Francisco painted these cars in colour schemes that replicated those of their original city of operation. The city positioned them as “Commemorative” streetcars, in effect celebrating that which other cities chose to dispose of. This was brilliant marketing to locals and tourists alike. (The streetcars are not a Toy for Tourists, they are instead an integral part of the San Francisco Muni system.) San Francisco took other cities’ “junk” and put it to good use because they recognized the inherent value these vehicles possessed when others didn’t.

It’s like being savvy enough to spot a Picasso at a yard sale whose owner is selling for $1.

Streetcars in San Francisco are not accessible, but redesigned platform ramps provide the same level of accessibility.

The one argument you could make in support of new purchase over rebuild is the issue of accessibility, which is a 100% legitimate agrument. Sort of.

Are San Francisco’s zombie streetcars accessible? No. But is the system itself accessible? Yes. All streetcar platforms were equipped with simple and cost-effective ramps that, in effect, give the streetcars complete accessibility.

Most amazing is that the San Francisco streetcars date from the early part of the last century. Many of them are 2-3 times older than the streetcars Toronto plans to replace. They’re also stylish to no end with a story that capture people’s attention and imagination.

Ironically, Toronto knows this. The city maintains a couple of these very same Zombie Streetcars for private charter operation and special event rental.

Infrastructure is part of our collective civic imagination and history. Merely replacing this infrastructure every 20 or 30 years robs us of something innate and valuable.

Maybe using Zombie Streetcars doesn’t play as well in the media as spending billions of dollars on brand new Transit Bling. But in the long run, it seems like a far more logical and stylish investment.

At the very least, San Francisco knows where to get a new lot of vintage Toronto streetcars for a very good price.

Creative Commons images by bstoragegj_theWhite and tibchris.

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Pedestrian Safety & Sight-Seeing

From the Toronto Star, January 23rd, 2010.

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Dinner at The Mandarin

I apologize to any reader of this post who is not from Toronto. This is going to be a very Toronto-specific post, but it should still be informative, enlightening and entertaining for others to see how transit planning is done in the city I like to call The City That Used To Work.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is not enamoured by my proposal for cable transit in Toronto, likely because their plan is a multi-billion dollar network of light rail lines throughout Toronto called Transit City. Fair enough.

But let’s actually break down the TTC’s argument and see why they’re not into the idea. Brad Ross, TTC transit spokesman was interviewed for the same story in the Toronto Star as I was. Let’s see what he said:

Brad Ross explicitly states “I don’t know how fast cable cars go.”

Then how can you make an effective comparison between it and Light Rail?

Brad Ross then states that “it’s not speed that makes dedicated rights-of-way (be it streetcar or other mode) so much better. It’s reliability – they don’t operate in mixed traffic and, therefore, are less likely to be delayed due to conditions beyond our control.”

No one was talking about dedicated rights-of-way in the article but, okay I’ll bite:

1) Toronto streetcars that operate in semi-dedicated rights-of way operate at speeds equivalent to those that operate purely in mixed traffic.  The Globe and Mail published an article on this matter a few years ago and the TTC’s own internal statistics demonstrate this. The reliability Mr. Ross speaks of is not due to the dedicated right-of-way. It’s due to the fact that there are far more streetcars on these routes than others, giving the impression that it is more reliable, when in fact it is not.

2) The Transit City Light Rail plan does not include vehicles operating in a dedicated right-of-way. Vehicles will operate in a semi-dedicated right-of-way. This means that at intersections, the vehicles will have to contend with traffic just like everyone else, whether they implement a Transit Signal Priority scheme or not. Only the Eglinton Crosstown will have a dedicated right-of-way and that will be in the downtown portion of the line where vehicles will run underground.

(Incidentally: I am very positive on the Eglinton Crosstown line. It is the only Light Rail line we should truly be considering in my opinion.)

3) Virtually every cable transit system in the world operates in a fully exclusive dedicated right-of-way. Shouldn’t the TTC prefer a technology that operates in a fully dedicated right-of-way rather than a semi-dedicated right-of-way?

Brad Ross states that the TTC’s new streetcars will hold twice as many riders, about 260.

Okay … The Sheppard Avenue LRT plan has one streetcar arriving every 4.5 minutes.  That means, every 4.5 minutes, 260 spaces will pass by a given stop. A solid, good gondola system, meanwhile can only carry 24. But let’s say you have a vehicle arriving every 25 seconds, which is totally doable with cable.  Over the course of 4.5 minutes you’d have (wait for it) 260 spaces pass by the same spot. If you had a vehicle pass by every 10 seconds (also doable) you’d have 648 spaces pass by the same spot.

Brad Ross also believes that cable “would be more expensive to build, maintain and operate.”

The facts simply do not support this statement. I’ll be in Toronto for a couple of weeks in January. I cordially invite Mr. Ross to prove his point of view over dinner at The Mandarin Chinese All-You-Can-Eat Buffet (neutral territory). My treat.


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(For those of you not statistically or mathematically inclined, you’ll probably want to skip this post)

PPHPD is an acronym for persons per hour per direction and is a great tool for calculating offered capacity of a transit line. Unfortunately, it’s not a term that has any sort of mainstream usage or understanding and that means it’s easy for us to be confused when we read reports or news articles about our cities’ transit systems.

When we read a news clipping where someone lauds a transit line carrying “40,000 people” (as is common in my hometown of Toronto), we tend to nod our heads and say “hmm . . . yes . . . that’s a lot of people. We should be proud of ourselves.”

But what does 40,000 people really mean . . ? We’ll get back to that in a minute.

PPHPD boils things down to their lowest common denominator. PPHPD defines this:  How many total passenger spaces per hour pass a given point on a transit line in a the single peak direction?

In other words, if over the course of one rush hour, a westbound streetcar is scheduled to arrive at a given stop every fifteen minutes; and those streetcars can each carry 100 passengers each, then we know that the PPHPD of that line at that time is 400 (60 minutes / 15 minutes x 100 passengers = 400 PPHPD).

So let’s apply that knowledge, going back to our 40,000 people example:

The 501 Queen Streetcar in Toronto has the distinction of being the world’s longest Streetcar line, it’s also one of North America’s busiest. That should tell you something. At around 30 km long and running 24 hours per day, it carries 40,000 people (on average) per weekday.

Impressive? I guess, unless you look at it from the perspective of PPHPD. If you look at the 501 from the perspective of PPHPD, you find that on any given day, the501 Queen Streetcar only offers around 2,000 PPHPD at peak rush hour.  See the difference there? It’s classic bait-and-switch.

40,000 people sounds impressive so that’s the statistic planners and journalists trot out. 2,000 on the other hand, doesn’t just sound common, it sounds inadequate.  What politician wouldn’t want to say 40,000 instead of 2,000?

My point in bringing this up is this:  Light Rail/Streetcar technology is very expensive to build. It ranges, generally, between $30 – 75 million USD per kilometer.  Some instances such as Seattle, have had costs explode over $100 million USD per kilometer. Meanwhile, there is no single Light Rail line in all of North America that provides an offered capacity greater than ~ 5,000 PPHPD.

(For the wonks out there: Yes, I know Boston’s Green Line provides offered capacity of over 9,000 but that’s only in the trunk section of three converging lines.)

Cable, on the other hand, can be built for between $15 – 45 million USD per kilometer and can provide capacity up to 6,000 PPHPD.

How much sense does that make?

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