Rapid transit? Not on Spadina

Soon-to-be passengers wait as a red light holds up a northbound 510 streetcar at Dundas. Service is slow on this “rapid transit” route because streetcars regularly have to stop twice at intersections, once for the light and once for the passenger platform.

This story first appeared May 7, 2005, in The Globe and Mail. I got threatening and unpleasant phone calls in the weeks that followed (a couple from city councillors) because the St. Clair ROW debate was then at fever pitch. The TTC, which stonewalled on documentation and interview requests, complained, but could find nothing inaccurate. Luckily I worked for a great editor. Left out of the story was reference to a 14-week survey of Bloor-to-Front travel times in which the 511 Bathurst proved to be, on average, 191 seconds faster. A few months later, a TTC source tipped me off that the TTC would reprint its maps to show this route as streetcar rapid transit, even though “they know it was the TTC’s slowest route between the Bloor-Danforth and Queen Street.” The only things I’d change in hindsight would be to make clear that for pedestrians Augusta is 90 seconds closer to Spadina than Bathurst (strengthening the point), and I’d provide details of how misleading the claims are that Spadina ridership soared. City staff have said signal priority, mentioned as a potential solution, won’t work on Spadina because the east-west light cycles are minimum length for pedestrians for a street that wide, and that it would conflict with signal priority on east-west streetcar routes. Work started on the story in January, 2005, with the release of a city/TTC report titled Building a Transit City. More than a decade later, I stand by every word.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Arja Chopra has given up on the Spadina streetcar, just as the Toronto Transit Commission appears set to fully embrace similar dedicated-lane routes across the city.

Bathurst is faster, and it’s much more pleasant than Spadina,” says Ms. Chopra, who operates Sugar & Spice, a health-food store in Kensington Market, part way between the two streetcar lines. “I tried [Bathurst] because I didn’t like the crowds at Spadina station. Then I found it saved me a few minutes each morning.

“He didn’t believe me,” she says, smiling and pointing to husband and business partner Dave Chopra.

“It’s true,” says Mr. Chopra, who adds that he always urged his wife to take Spadina, figuring that the street’s dedicated transit lanes had to make the trip faster. Now he’s convinced they don’t, but he’s puzzled by one thing: “How can there be such a secret? Everybody still thinks Spadina is better.”

Maybe not everybody, but rare are the people who question whether the 510 Spadina route has really been the better way since it replaced the No. 77 bus almost eight years ago, at a cost of $140-million. As Toronto considers constructing Spadina-like rights of way as part of a $600-million citywide “surface rapid transit” network that could see dedicated lanes along Eglinton and Lawrence Avenues and on Don Mills and Kingston Roads, the question is critical. And the answer might surprise.

In January, shortly after the Toronto Transit Commission released a report calling for transit rights of way on these arterial roads, The Globe and Mail tried to assess the effectiveness of the Spadina line. Shown the results, opponents of the proposed right of way on St. Clair Avenue West say they now wish they’d asked more questions about the Spadina route during debates about the St. Clair plan. And a transit expert thinks the findings could place the $65-million St. Clair project in jeopardy.

We found that:

– Instead of living up to pre-construction reports that streetcars on dedicated lanes would cut travel time from Bloor Street to Queen’s Quay by 5 minutes — the original environmental assessment boasted of up to 10 minutes in savings — the 510 appears to take longer than the buses that plied the route from 1948 to 1997. A TTC document obtained last month says the trip takes one minute longer in the afternoon rush hour than in 1990. Run time data on historical and current transfers indicate a 17-minute bus trip in 1993 now takes 19 minutes by streetcar.

– The 510 may be the slowest of all routes between the Bloor-Danforth and Queen Street. Travel times on TTC transfers put Bloor-to-Queen trips at 12 minutes on Spadina, 8 minutes on Bathurst and 10 minutes on other routes.

– The TTC says ridership on Spadina is up 30 per cent since 1997, the year the line opened. But when compared with 1992, the last year before construction tore up the street and cut into ridership, Spadina is actually down 1.5 per cent, while overall TTC ridership is up about 3.4 per cent.

– TTC cost-to-revenue ratio lists show the Spadina and Harbourfront lines (now considered one for accounting purposes) have plunged to 35th-best among the TTC’s 132 surface routes. In 1997, they were No. 1 and No. 9, respectively, with the Spadina bus one of only seven routes turning a profit.

The only finding that Mitch Stambler, the TTC’s manager of service planning, strongly disputes is the question of whether the streetcars are slower than the old buses, although the numbers we’ve used came from the TTC.

But he says that speed isn’t the primary goal of the new dedicated lanes. “We have emphasized over and over again that on Spadina or St. Clair or any other route where we’re looking to establish a right of way, it’s not an issue of speed,” he says. “Service reliability and regularity matter first and foremost.”

Still, he says, the TTC is working to speed up service through gradual changes that include increasing capacity by coupling streetcars and acquiring new cars that accommodate more passengers, as well as providing more locations where operators can manipulate traffic lights.

Ridership on all routes is subject to “many, many macroeconomic factors,” he says, arguing that “apples-to-apples” comparisons aren’t always possible. And besides, he adds, the streetcar lines have benefits that extend beyond passenger numbers. “We’ve never argued that streetcars don’t cost more to operate than buses,” he says, pointing out that they’re still a bargain compared with subways, which cost about 10 times as much to build. “But all the benefits they bring — a smooth, quiet ride; zero emissions; economic development — are well known.”

While Mr. Stambler doesn’t sound worried about our findings, people from both sides of the St. Clair debate had a stronger reaction. “Good God! This is unbelievable,” said Ed Levy, an internationally respected transportation planner and engineer who made a deputation to City Council in favour of the St. Clair plan last year. “I supported light rail then, and I still do,” Mr. Levy of BA Group says. “But you have to do it properly.”

One concern he cites is the built-in delays caused by the positioning of passenger platforms, which should be placed before traffic lights, he says, but instead were put in after them to accommodate left-turn lanes for cars. “We’re forcing [streetcars] to wait at lights before they can pick up and drop off passengers on the far side of the intersections. It’s a mistake, and it looks like they plan to do the same thing on St. Clair.

“All this other stuff [Spadina travel times, ridership and economics] should have been part of the debate,” Mr. Levy says. Now, he says he fears the provincial Ministry of the Environment will call for a full environmental assessment rather than continue to fast-track the process. “They want to start construction this summer, and a full EA will probably kill [the plan] altogether.”

Of course, if the city and TTC’s ideas for St. Clair die, it would please Save Our St. Clair leader Margaret Smith, who says “the so-called Spadina experience and all its wonderful successes were used to sell the project every step of the way.”

She and her group believe advocates oversold potential time savings on St. Clair and ridership-growth figures on Spadina, and says she’s upset that the TTC and the city didn’t mention the streetcar line’s drawbacks in more than 50 public meetings about St. Clair.

“It doesn’t surprise me, but the fact this information is only coming out now is just further proof that the whole process stunk,” she says.

Mr. Stambler defends the TTC’s push for dedicated lanes, however, saying that the round-trip time from Spadina station has actually improved. “That’s a fact I’ll do a bit of digging on,” he says.”The fact that [Spadina] revenue over cost looks worse is: A, no secret; B, we’ve never hid it; C, we’re not embarrassed; and D, it represents an investment in the health of the city and the whole TTC, and that’s a decision council made.”

Mr. Stambler points out as well that the Spadina route became more costly because it went from bus to streetcar, but that this won’t be a factor on St. Clair.

Two others who had roles on opposite sides of the St. Clair debate didn’t sound at all surprised that Spadina doesn’t appear to have lived up to its hype. Richard Gilbert, research director for the Centre for Sustainable Transportation and a former city councillor, opposed St. Clair partly because he feels we haven’t learned from mistakes on Spadina.

“They may have built dedicated lanes for streetcars, but the intersections were designed for cars,” he says. “The St. Clair plan will do much the same thing, and it will only add to the litany of misapplied capital spending the TTC has given us in the past 30 years.”

Greg Gormick, who wrote a report called The Streetcar Renaissance for the TTC and the St. Clair EA process, says if we want any of these lines to really work, we have to make hard decisions.

“We have to decide whether we’re doing light rapid transit or streetcars. Both are good concepts, but Spadina is neither fish nor fowl — too many stops, too many concessions to cars. It’s the worst of both worlds and … unless we give transit real priority, we’ll repeat the mistakes, starting with St. Clair.”

And back at the health-food store in Kensington Market, Arja Chopra has a decision to make, too.

“They’re going to tear up the tracks on Bathurst this summer. I’ll probably use the replacement bus. We’ll see how it goes.”

Gunn’s broadside is ignored by people guiding the TTC

Veteran transit manager invited back to advise Toronto heading into its budget crunch, but gets the silent treatment from politicians and transit staff

One of the Toronto Transit Commission's new Rocket subway trains and an older T1 model pass each other like ghosts in the night at Davisville station. David Gunn says the fully linked six-car trains will have to be more reliable than ones made up of three two-car units.

This story first appeared July 5, 2011 in The Globe and Mail. Some readers misunderstood  David Gunn’s comments on streetcars (and I’ll take the blame for that). Gunn is in favour of retaining streetcars in Toronto and knows the fleet must be replaced. But he says the buying 70% low-floor vehicles instead of 100% ones would have provided far better value for the money, with better accessibility and lower maintenance costs. 

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Veteran transit manager David Gunn had a blunt message for the Toronto Transit Commission when he came at its invitation to provide 2012 budget advice.

“You’re headed for a cliff” and “this plan for a low-floor streetcar subway on Eglinton is insane,” were among the warnings given by Mr. Gunn to TTC staff, chair Karen Stintz and vice-chair Peter Milczyn in closed-door sessions.

Mr. Gunn, who has held top transit jobs in New York, Boston and Washington, as well as at Amtrak, the U.S. passenger rail service, said he is stunned by lack of response to his stern advice, given in May. “There was no reaction, no questions,” he said.

“They’re taking on huge financial and technological risks. There are serious safety implications. I think they’re headed for a cliff while people talk about new uniforms.”

Torontonians may remember Mr. Gunn as the man who got the TTC’s house in order with his emphasis on “state of good repair” after the fatal 1995 subway crash, which happened a few months after he arrived in town. Signal-systems neglect was deemed to be partly to blame and further examination revealed the entire TTC, once praised continent-wide, was imperilled by corner-cutting on maintenance and repair work.

Speaking from the notes he used on his visit, Mr. Gunn has provided Globe and Mail readers with a synopsis of his remarks, largely an analysis of the financial, technological, managerial and safety issues facing the TTC.

MAINTENANCE AND EFFICIENCY: These issues will never be as sexy as expansion announcements and ribbon cutting, but Mr. Gunn emphasized we “should stick with two priorities – state of good repair and improved cost recovery.”

On the former, he says the $4.2-billion in the long-term state-of-good repair budget, a small part of overall capital proposals, likely isn’t enough. “But as I told the commissioners, you better protect that 4.2 like your life depends on it.”

On cost recovery, he points out that in the past decade, the proportion of operating costs covered by fares has slipped to 70 per cent from 84. “It was a conscious decision by the previous commission. You had a 350 per cent rise in the deficit while ridership rose 15 per cent. You’ve got to get the economics back. A lot of the expansion was marginal service (increased frequency on existing routes). You can undo some of that, but it’s politically tough. Give a lower priority to expansion and the bells and whistles. The capital budget is chaotic. There are enough plans on the books to bankrupt the province,” he said.

SHEPPARD: Before he arrived in town this spring, Mr. Gunn made clear he believes the proposed subway extension to Scarborough will be a drain on operating funds, and the idea that the private sector would build it for the city is laughable. But he has another beef: “North-south capacity on Yonge is the TTC’s big problem. So, what are they doing? They’re planning extensions to feed the Yonge line.”

SPADINA: “The subway extension is basically on schedule and on budget, though they may be doing stuff you wouldn’t do if you had a rational commission. The stations and the line are not built to minimize costs because that previous commission (under chair Adam Giambrone) had the visions of grandeur. The stations are grandiose. They’re going to be way more expensive than necessary.”

EGLINTON: “Low-floor streetcars in a tunnel will cost you more than a subway while delivering less. I can’t for the life of me figure out how this decision was made.”
Cost is a big selling point for light rail, but Mr. Gunn said to put it underground requires tunnels bigger than for subways, while low-floor light-rail vehicles cost twice as much as subway cars and have less capacity. “It’s just crazy, it’s insane.” Metrolinx says that the smaller underground stations and reusing the Scarborough RT’s right of way make light rail the more cost-effective option. Mr. Gunn says “that’s such nonsense, but I guess if you can defend mixing the track gauges, you can defend anything.”

MIXING TRACK GAUGES: Claiming it will save money, Metrolinx has decided its rail projects will use North American standard gauge track, which is 60 millimetres narrower than the gauge used for the rest of the system. Mr. Gunn says Metrolinx doesn’t know what it’s talking about. “It won’t save you a nickel. Adding standard-gauge cars means a separate shop for heavy maintenance, and you don’t have the people to do the work. It reduces flexibility. It may seem obscure, but it really matters. It’ll go down in railway lore as one of the dumbest decisions ever.”

STREETCARS: “It makes no sense to replace the current fleet for $1.2-billion (plus $430-million minimum for a new storage and maintenance facility). It might cost $2-billion by the time you’re done. You could buy 200 articulated buses for less than $200-million.

“Maintenance costs will be horrific. There’ll be lots of bugs and they won’t be built like the CLRVs (current streetcars), which easily win all collisions with automobiles.   “Oh, and they’re not accessible. The floor height is about a foot. You won’t be able to load a wheelchair on the street. There will be ramps, but the floor height is going to be about a foot. The ramps will be too steep. I’d cancel the order. They’ll eat you out of house and home.”

ROCKETS: The new subways rolling out this month “will probably be fine trains,” he said, with reservations. “When you go from married pairs [detachable two-car units] to a six-car permanently linked train, reliability needs skyrocket. [A minor problem on one car takes an entire train out of service.] You’ve also got to change your shops and you don’t have interchangeability.” He’s also not sold on the larger capacity argument, fearing that being able to move freely through the train may lead too many people to try exiting at the same doors. “A 10 or 15 second delay from this can have big effects. Let’s see how people really use the trains.”

SIGNALS: Long-term, the TTC is looking to automate subway train control and operations. In anticipation, it’s rebuilding an old signal system while installing a new one. “That’s really pushing it,” Mr. Gunn says. “They don’t have the people and they don’t have a general superintendent knowledgeable in this area who can arbitrate between competing projects. And the signal work will conflict with necessary station and track work. “The best risk on this signal stuff is you lose capacity from a screw-up and work trains get in the way. The worst is an accident. That’s what happened last time (with the fatal crash in 1995).

FRAGMENTATION: “You must fight this fragmentation of authority, I said. There’s Metrolinx and Toronto Transit Infrastructure Ltd., the mayor’s office. If you don’t go through the commission chain of command, you’ll end up with crazy decisions. ”Mr. Gunn, who had to endure the Sheppard subway project while heading the TTC, says he told current chief general manager Gary Webster: “Trust me, the last thing you want is to get tasked with a stupid project. Another thing I said was that if the province wants to take over parts of the TTC, give them the whole thing. The rail and the bus system are one. It’s the most integrated system, probably in the world, certainly the Western world. It’s brilliant.”

LABOUR COSTS: “Despite the rhetoric about trimming fat, (Mayor Rob Ford) struck a rich deal with the police, which will roll into the TTC. He also got the TTC put under essential services, which means you’re going to have a terrible labour settlement. I don’t like strikes, but at least the threat of one forces both sides to get real. “Then there’s absenteeism: It’s about four or five per cent, the equivalent of an extra 400 to 500 employees covering for people calling in sick. That’s at least $30 million, maybe a lot more.”

IMPRESSIONS: “Not that things were pristine in my day, but the system looks dirty. The platforms used to get cleaned, but I was getting on at St. Clair every day for a week and there was this same mud swirl the whole time I was in Toronto. The trains aren’t getting washed either. They look shabby. It’s kinda depressing.”