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All streetcars are not created equal

With Toronto preparing to deploy the first batch of its new streetcars this summer, there’s been a lot of talk about streetcars in general. Rob Ford has said he wants to get rid of them all together and I hear a lot of other people expressing similar frustrations: Streetcars are rolling stop signs. Streetcars block 2 lanes of traffic. Why don’t we just use more buses? Streetcars cause traffic. And so on.

So what should we do?

First, let me start by saying that buses suck. I’m a huge proponent of public transportation in cities, but there’s nothing quite like a rush hour bus ride to have you question your economic status in life. Bus routes have also been shown to have little economic development value, where as fixed rail lines (such as streetcar, LRT and subway) generally increase surrounding property values and spur investment.

Second, my view is that streetcars themselves as a transportation technology aren’t the problem. It’s our execution. I’ve touched on this topic before on ATC, but I’d like to reiterate a few points here. 

The value of light rail is that it’s a relatively inexpensive way (compared to subway) of efficiently moving a lot of people. But in order to do that, you need deploy it in a sensible way. In my mind, that primarily involves 3 things: giving streetcars their own dedicated lanes (grade separation), having a reasonable number of required stops, and streamlining the onboarding and off boarding process. Today, we don’t do a great job at most of these things (although our new streetcars will use a proof of payment model).

Take a look at this comparison between Dublin’s Luas light rail system and Toronto’s streetcar system. Both images are at the same scale. Notice the dramatically different stop spacing. Much of the Luas system also runs on its own dedicated lanes.





Every time a Toronto streetcar stops it generates waste. Cars are forced to stop behind it. Everyone on the streetcar has to sit and wait while somebody fumbles through their change looking for a token. But there are other ways to do this. There are ways to make light rail more subway-like, despite the fact that it may be above ground.  And so I don’t think we should be so quick to write off all streetcars.

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