Posts Tagged: Streetcars



Toronto Downsizes Streetcar Fleet Due to Winter Storms

Toronto Ice Storm.

In my neighbourhood. Creative Commons image by flickr user Bad Alley.

Over the holidays, a particularly nasty ice storm wreaked havoc in my hometown of Toronto (and much of the surrounding area for that matter). The storm was so bad it left hundreds of thousands of people without power over Christmas. The problem was then compounded by several wicked cold snaps that saw the mercury plunge into the minus 20’s celsius on several occasions.

Like the transit nerds that we are, we couldn’t help but note the fact that the city had to downsize its fleet of streetcars to cope with the frigid temperatures. According to the linked article, the city’s (admittedly very old) streetcar fleet cannot cope with temperatures that cold. Which is interesting because to people in the Great Lakes, winter weather such as this is nothing unfamiliar. Minus 20 (30 with the wind chill) is par for the course.

And as any Torontonian knows: There is nothing worse than waiting for a streetcar in a frigid winter storm — because in all likelihood it just won’t ever come.

Astute readers will immediately point out that — obviously — such a problem wouldn’t happen with a gondola or cable transit system. But hold on there, tiger, because that’s not the point. We’re not braggarts and we’re not about to say to Toronto “hey, Toronto, why don’t you just replace all of your streetcars with gondolas.” That would be ridiculous. That would be illogical. And that would smack of techno-zealotry — a character flaw we try very hard to avoid. 

The point instead is this: When you choose to use winter weather as an argument against cable cars (as a surprising number of people do), understand first that an urban gondola or cable car is basically a souped-up ski lift. And you know what works really well in really bad winter weather? Ski lifts.

And you know what doesn’t work really well in really bad winter weather? Streetcars in Toronto. Yet people rarely ever take the time to realize that.

It’s a strange paradox that has less to do with transit and more to do with people in general. People will almost always hold the unfamiliar to an irrationally higher standard than that which they’re (un)comfortably accustomed to.

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Speed Is Not Dependent Upon Technology

The Toronto Star reports today that the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and a waterfront development agency are at loggerheads over a planned new streetcar corridor.

The essence of the conflict is this:

The Toronto Transit Commission wants to experiment with track design on a new streetcar route to speed up Toronto’s failingly low streetcar speeds (between 10 and 12 km/hr, on average). Their solution is to place both track directions on the North side of Queens Quay (a major waterfront boulevard), and place both directions of vehicular traffic on the south side.

(Note: Traditionally, streetcars are placed in the center of a roadway with – say – eastbound streetcars moving on the same side of the street as eastbound traffic and westbound streetcars moving on the same side of the street as westbound traffic).

Neither the TTC nor the article offered an explanation as to how, why, or if this plan would increase average streetcar speeds. Nevertheless, TTC officials quoted in the article claim that according to their plan streetcars would experience average speeds of 13 – 15 km/hr, a significant speed premium.

Waterfront Toronto (the development agency), however, envisions a 3 km long stretch of Queen’s Quay  with up to 20 separate traffic lights to contend with the myriad of developments they have in the area. Of course this 3 km long stretch of roadway is the same as that which is to be used for the TTC’s new streetcar line.

For those who are counting, Waterfront Toronto’s plan would result in 1 traffic light every 150 meters.

TTC officials state that so many traffic lights would result in a streetcar line “even slower” than other Toronto streetcars (those within the 10 – 12 km/hr range).

Waterfront Toronto officials, however, contend that their plan for having extended greens and transit signal priority (TSP) schemes along the stretch would result in average speeds of 16.6 – 19.5 km/hr.

As I’ve argued before, transit signal priority schemes have a very dubious track record and there is little consensus about whether the technologies actually work (at least in a North American sense). At best, TSP seems to reduce travel times (and increase travel speeds) by around 6 – 10%. At worst, it actually increases travel times and reduces speed.

Waterfront Toronto, however, is convinced that their TSP plan would result in an increase in travel times of roughly 65%. This speed increase, meanwhile, would be realized in a corridor with 43% more traffic lights than some of the most congested sections in all of downtown Toronto.

The TTC accurately described the plan as “death by a thousand cuts.”

Something doesn’t make sense here. Both Waterfront Toronto and the TTC cannot be right. Both could however be wrong. That they differ in their opinions so widely suggests someone’s (or both’s) forecasting models are severely flawed.

At the end of the day, what this quibble shows is this: Road based transit speed has almost nothing to do with technology choice. Speed and travel times is dependent almost entirely on how the technology is implemented in relation to its surrounding environs.

Transit enthusiasts, advocates, planners and researchers need to get out of the habit of saying their technology preference is the fastest. After all, as the above demonstrates, your technology preference could be the fastest but it could also be the slowest.

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Taken For A Ride

Taken For A Ride is a documentary first broadcast on PBS in 1996. It tells the story of how a consortium led by General Motors, Firestone Tires and Standard Oil systematically worked to uproot the American streetcar network and replace it with roads, buses and private automobiles.

The short hand for this incident is the National City Lines Conspiracy (or the Great American Streetcar Scandal) and has its share of supporters and its detractors.

Those who believe in the conspiracy believe it whole-heartedly, and portray General Motors as a scheming, money-hungry corporation that is solely to blame for America’s shoddy public transit infrastructure.

Those who don’t believe in the conspiracy tend to say streetcars were too expensive to begin with and replacing them with buses and cars was simply a natural economic event.

Complicating the debate is the case against National City Lines, whereby the US government found that General Motors, et al did not conspire to monopolize the public transit industry, but did conspire to monopolize the provisions of supplies and parts to its subsidiaries.

The debate rages on to this day, 60-80 years after the original transgressions.

My guess is the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. GM, et al probably were up to some shenanigans, but they probably weren’t solely responsible for the death of public transit in America.

Nevertheless, Taken For A Ride is a classic, and well worth exploring with an open, skeptical mind:

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I’d just like to thank everyone for the kind words and support the above article generated.

I actually found out this article had landed after the fact. Myself and my partner, Gabriela, were driving home from visiting the Hungerburgbahn in Austria. I received a phone call on my cell from the Toronto radio station CFRB. They wanted an interview. About what, I asked.

About what, indeed . . . One interview spiraled into several and now here we are:  Cable’s gone mainstream. Of course, lurking in the shadows is the typical Rabble, but that’s just par for the course, I suppose.

Have a happy New Years Eve, everyone! I’m going to relax, recoup and get myself ready for tomorrow.  A whole new year, a whole new decade and – with a little bit of luck and a whole lotta’ passion- a whole new era’s literally a day away.  Kinda’ exciting . . .

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One Friday Night in Toronto

The frustration of transit riders made clear on April 27th, 2008, the day after a midnight wildcat strike by transit personnel in Toronto

On April 26th, 2008 unionized staff of the Toronto Transit Commission walked off the job at 12:01 am. The action occurred on a Friday night, thereby stranding late night workers, revelers and bar patrons.

People were not happy.

At the time, I was without a contract and was scrambling to find a way to continue my research and pay my bills. I’d been playing with the idea of soliciting donations online, but thought better of it. I’d rather a good idea not be subject to the irrational whims of charity and realized such a strategy would bear few, if any, fruits.

Nevertheless, I’d mentioned the idea to some friends and colleagues and the concept, if not the act, was out there.

But back to the strike . . .

I’d gone to sleep early that evening and hadn’t even been aware that a strike had occurred. The next morning I had two phone messages from friends. Each message said that they and their friends were stranded in a bar somewhere in downtown and they had dozens of people ready to each give me $10 right there to continue my work.

Of course I never took them up on their offers for three reasons:

a) Canadians are notorious story-tellers with a fondness for exaggeration. “Dozens” likely meant “three.”

b) The offers were likely made in a state of drunken, angry rebellion (which only heightens Canadians’ fondness for exaggerated story-telling) and;

b) The logic behind the offers was misguided. Just because a city has urban gondolas or cable cars as transit, doesn’t prevent the workers from halting the operation of that transit (although that very thing occurred in New York City once).

Nevertheless, the gesture had an impact on me: People were behind this idea not despite it being revolutionary, but because it was revolutionary.

Revolution, after all, is just a synonym for change. On that night, people had had it with the status quo and wanted change.

Creative Commons image by jbcurio.

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The Cost of Light Rail

I tend to pick on Light Rail for a reason. It’s a technology akin to the average beauty contestant. It looks good on the outside, but is kind of useless on the inside.

Subways (HRT) can move hordes of people quickly and buses can move a moderate number of people cheaply, but Light Rail seems incapable of either. LRT is not quick, it doesn’t move a tonne of people, and it’s certainly not cheap. But as I’ve said before, Light Rail managed to come up the middle between a technology we cannot afford and a technology we do not like.

I’ve talked in the past about the speed of Light Rail, but let’s now talk specifically about that cost matter.

According to several recent studies by Bent Flyvberg, a respected scholar from Denmark, urban rail systems cost on average, US$50-150 million per route-kilometre. Granted, this range includes both light rail and heavy rail, but the point is this: At the low end of analysis, an urban rail system will cost a minimum of US$50 million per route kilometre to construct. It’s reasonable to assume that systems in that range will be of the light rather than heavy variety.

Cable systems rarely reach such costs. The Portland Aerial Tram, yes, reached the US$50 million per kilometre threshold, but that system is the exception rather than the rule. When looking at systems build worldwide, cable rarely eclipses the US$30 million per kilometre mark.

Given that cable is cleaner, quieter, more reliable and safer than light rail, the cost factor more than justifies cable’s place in the minds of transit planners everywhere.

I’m not saying forget about Light Rail entirely. I’m just saying that there are several instances where cable could do the job and is worthy of consideration.

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LRT is Chicken

When you actually examine the data (Bent Flyvberg‘s data is particularly illuminating) you see that Light Rail Transit’s (LRT) ability to heal a city’s transit woes are negligible at best and non-existent at worst, especially in relation to the costs associated with the technology.

So why, then, do we keep coming back to LRT?

Well, imagine for a second, a series of traditional transit technologies ranked by capacity and cost, from low to high. Seriously, close your eyes and think about it or scratch it out on a slip of paper.

Now what does your series look like?  I’m guessing you imagined something like this:

Bus (BRT)

Streetcar, Light Rail (LRT)

Subway (HRT)

Now, tell me this: Which is the “medium class” or moderate technology.  Did you say “streetcar”? Good, so did I.

Whether by accident or intention, Streetcars and Light Rail occupy that wonderful sweet-spot between a technology we don’t like (Bus) and a technology we can’t afford (Subway), and because of its fortuitous placement, we gravitate towards it.

The same phenomenon occurs in restaurants.  When most of us dine out we don’t want boring pasta but we also don’t want to pay for high-priced steak.  The moderately-priced chicken, however, satisfies our needs and we tend to opt for it.

(Incidentally, most successful restaurants and retail establishments know this and ensure the profit margin on mid-priced products are higher than on other higher or lower-priced products. You can find a detailed explanation of this concept in Dan Ariely‘s fantastic book Predictably Irrational.)

I suspect a similar phenomenon occurs in transit planning.

If you will, LRT is the conservatively-pleasing chicken when the only other options available are the plain-jane pasta Buses and steeply-priced steak Subways. I suspect our preference for LRT is not guided by the qualities of the technology itself, but is instead guided by our need to gravitate towards a moderate option which is defined in relation to other technologies.

Ill have the light rail, please.

"I'll have the light rail, please."

The ironic thing is this:  LRT is not moderate.  Not at all. In fact, no such moderate system is commonly thought to exist, a point made explicit in the Urban Transit series of textbooks by Dr. Vukan Vuchic.

When one examines the cost and theoretical capacity of LRT, one finds it to be better suited to less-than-heavy-but-more-than-moderate capacity installations.  Yet because LRT occupies the middle grounds of our minds, we opt for it even where it is demonstrable overkill.

So then the obvious question is this:  How would we opt if we included a fourth legitimate, yet virtually forgotten technology?  How about cable?  What would that series look like and what would you opt for?

Bus (BRT)

Gondola / Cable Car (CPT)

Streetcar, Light Rail (LRT)

Subway (HRT)

The decision’s a little bit harder now, isn’t it?

Creative Commons image by avlxyz

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