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Streetcars of Toronto
Rob Hutchison

There is something different about Toronto's downtown. It is a mostly bustling, pot pourri of experiences where tourists, University students, business folk, shoppers, theatre goers and local residents can be found milling around at all hours of the day and night. It's a place where restaurants and hotels are flourishing and hot dog vendors and homeless folk fight for the best corners. It's also true for the first time in a long time that the population of downtown is expanding. Cranes are dropping new condos all over downtown - but particularly on the waterfront as a largely younger crowd seek a more urban lifestyle.

But what is different? It's downtown, streetcar network - the only one left in North America. It's true that cities like Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco have streetcars (or trolleys), but their downtown running is confined to tunnels to keep them away from the traffic. San Francisco has recently introduced a historic streetcar line on Market street that has proven to be very successful - but that is only one line - not part of a network. The Toronto Transit Commission has 11 streetcar routes, 10 of which pass through downtown. Streetcar service is provided on major east/west streets, Carlton, Dundas, Queen, King and Queens Quay as well as north/south service on Bathurst and Spadina.

All of the TTCs streetcar routes run through downtown in mixed traffic except for the 509 and 510 routes which were built in phases since 1990 and are separated from street traffic by a private right of way.

How did the streetcars survive in Toronto?

Ten years after World War II ended, most major North American cities had already gotten rid of streetcars or were about to. Even major systems like Brooklyn and Chicago were completely abandoned by 1956. Cities that kept streetcars did so mainly because they ran through tunnels that could not be used by buses. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were slower to phase out their street running routes, but they eventually disappeared too. Many transit fans blame National City Lines, the General Motors subsidiary that bought many transit systems and converted streetcars to buses for this change. Realistically though, when the automobile became available to most families, transit ridership dropped very sharply. With lower ridership, cheaper, lower capacity diesel buses were preferable to streetcars.

But when most properties were abandoning streetcars in the 1950s - the TTC
was buying. Taking advantage of the large "used" streetcar market, the TTC
bought second hand streetcars from Cincinnati, Cleveland, Birmingham and Kansas City. The reason why the TTC bought streetcars instead of dismantling the streetcar network is up for debate. Many claim that the ridership stayed strong after the war, since Toronto did not enjoy the same level of prosperity as some American cities, fewer people could buy cars. The most important thing that happened was the downtown staying strong. While Toronto did have and continues to have it's share of suburban growth - the downtown has always remained very strong. No doubt the streetcars are not only the beneficiaries of a strong downtown, but one of the many causes.

In the 1960s, the TTC decided to abandon the streetcar network in phases -
with the last cars to run on Queen street in 1980. One of the reasons for this is that the PCC cars that had been manufactured between 1938-1947 were showing their age. The earlier cars (called Air Electrics) were sold off or sent to scrap in the 1960s and early 1970s. The postwar (All Electric) cars would need major work if they were to continue. As well, many of the TTC's streetcar routes had disappeared between 1947-1968. Some routes with lower ridership were converted to trolleybuses or diesel. But most streetcar ridership was taken by the subways. The TTCs two busies car routes, Yonge and Bloor / Danforth were replaced with subways that were better able to serve Toronto's needs. Toronto had become a large city in a geographic sense, so high speed transit over longer distances was required. The subways were designed with this purpose and continue to serve it very well today.

With fewer important streetcar routes and the high cost of maintaining an aging fleet looming, replacement of the streetcars seemed reasonable. No new streetcar had even been built in North America since 1952. There was a citizen's coalition that disagreed, however. Streetcars for Toronto put pressure on the TTC to reconsider its decision arguing that the streetcars still were the most efficient means of transportation and should be kept. The TTC agreed and we still have streetcars today. The TTC rebuilt many of it's All Electrics to serve the system until 196 new cars (CLRVs) arrived in
1978. The TTC accepted delivery of 52 articulated cars between 1987-1990
and the last PCC car was taken out of regular service in December 1995.

Streetcars are enjoying a renaissance in Toronto at the moment. For the first time in over 50 years, new streetcar routes have been under construction. In 1990, the 604 Harbourfront line opened to the public. This line featured an underground loop at Union station (Toronto's commuter and passenger railway terminal), a tunnel under Bay street to the ferry docks and surface tracks along Queens Quay to Spadina Ave. In 1997, a streetcar line down Spadina from Bloor street to Queens Quay opened. This line featured an underground loop at Spadina station (served by the Bloor and Spadina subway lines) and absorbed the 604 line as part of the route. In July 2000, trackage along Queens Quay from Spadina to Bathurst was opened allowing the new 509 route to go from Union station straight to the exhibition.

Traveling along the 509 and 510 routes it is very easy to be optimistic both about streetcars and urban life in Toronto. Twenty years ago, Queens Quay was known for weeds, railway tracks and grimy industrial rustbelt. The manufacturing industries that had once dominated the lakeshore, had closed and the future seemed bleak. But it became an antique destination, then a redevelopment started to replace the weeds and railway tracks with walking trails and a cultural centre. In the late 1980s, when the 604 line was under construction, a wall of condos started to appear on the North side of Queens Quay. The Provincial government mandated that the condos were not built on the south side of the street, as that would have blocked off the waterfront. Instead, the condos blocked Queens Quay off from the Gardiner Expressway, an awful concrete and iron structure that is better off ignored. The condos and streetcars have continued west along Queens Quay to Bathurst.

This area is now active with the many local residents, jogging, cycling, walking and playing basketball - as well as the many tourists and Torontonians who come to shop, tan or rollerblade here. The traffic is very heavy on the weekends, so the streetcars in the private right of way are even more attractive to riders. Queens Quay east of Bay is still barren and may be the next place of urban renewal. There is talk of putting a streetcar line along Queens Quay east if this occurs.

Before the 510 route opened in 1997, the bus route that served Spadina avenue was one of the most heavily used in the system. Spadina is a major destination due to the pull of Chinatown - which centres at Spadina and Dundas. Busy every day of the week and in all seasons, Chinatown attracts shoppers and tourists like no other part of Toronto. The Spadina streetcar also sees a lot of traffic from University of Toronto students and those heading down to trendy King and Queen street destinations to dine, shop or dance. Since the streetcars replaced the buses, the ridership has increased
approximately 15%.

The other streetcar routes continue to run completely in mixed traffic with automobiles, as they have for 80-100 years. The one exception is a small part of the Queen route in the west end the runs on a right of way along the Queensway. At first glance having streetcars run in mixed traffic looks foolish. The cars run in the centre lanes so when they stop, the pedestrians must walk across the curb lane to get to the side walk. Autos are supposed to stop behind the streetcars so they don't run over riders who are exiting - but this is not always observed. Tourists, out of towners and ignorant Torontonians sometimes pass streetcars as they are exiting, causing riders to duck for cover. As well the streetcars are stuck behind left turning autos in many cases because the city of Toronto has not seemed fit to put up advanced green lights or arrows to allow traffic to flow properly. The third problem is that if a car parks or stalls on the tracks, the streetcar cannot move around it. Why not have buses then? Streetcars do provide a number of advantages even in street traffic. They control the traffic, not the autos. When a streetcar stops, the traffic has to stop, where buses are pushed off to the side and then have to remerge. Streetcars have higher capacity than buses and they do not add to the downtown smog problem.

Streetcars serve a wide variety of neighbourhoods in Toronto and carry a diverse bunch of riders. Two Chinatowns, the theatre district, the Air Canada Centre, Skydome, the CN Tower, public housing projects, upper/middle class residential neighbourhoods, trendy commercial strips, the loft dwellers, the Beach, working class suburbs, beautiful parks and gardens, two Little Italies, Little Portugal, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the U of T and the downtown office towers are all served by streetcars.

A wide variety of ridership is also attracted - not just those too young or too pour to drive. The TTC estimates that 60% of riders are "choice" riders - that is those who have a car, but choose to take the TTC instead.

The TTC keeps the cars and infrastructure in great condition so the immediate future of streetcars seems assured. Unfortunately, there is no funding available from any level of government for any capital projects the TTC may wish to pursue. There is no money to even buy new buses or streetcars. The 1978-1980 CLRVs have a designed 30 year life span so they will either need to be completely rebuilt or replaced in the next few years. There are plans calling for streetcars along the waterfront to an Olympic village, should Toronto be awarded the 2008 Olympic games. Perhaps if the Olympics come then the public money will follow. There is also a drive underway to tear down the Gardiner expressway and replace it with surface boulevards and better commuter train service. Whether streetcars will be part of the solution is unknown.

With all the effort spent on building new lines within the past decade, streetcars are on the rise. One of the main reasons they are still around is that many Torontonians like them and consider them an important part of the city. Like San Francisco and the cable cars, it is hard to picture Toronto without streetcars. Last year, when the TTC was hoping to get rid of it's last two historic PCC streetcars, political pressure and media attention assured that the cars were preserved. Toronto, which at one time had 744 PCCs, still has at least two available for charter and a marvelous active network for Torontonians to enjoy.

Rob Hutchison is a transit fan and a contributor to He lives in Toronto.

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