Light Rail

A Desire Named Streetcar

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 16, 2007

If you didn't happen to catch it on the weekend, I urge you to check out the fantastic report on streetcars that the Toronto Star published on Sunday.

Exploring the increasingly prevalent idea that the trundling curiosity of yesteryear is the urban transit mode of the future, the article traces the tumultuous history of Toronto's streetcar fleet, including its 1971 near-death experience, subsequent erosion by neglect from 48 routes to just eleven, and its recent revival under Mayor David Miller and TTC chair Adam Giambrone.

It's a long read, but makes a compelling case for street rail, not just for its charm but also its sheer efficacy as a way of moving people through the city. Giambrone makes a strong case in defence of giving streetcars rights of way in dedicated lanes.

Streetcars move more people than buses, last longer (as much as three times longer, up to 40 years), and, thanks to the system's web of overhead electric wires, run cleanly and exhaust-free. TTC statistics show that the Dufferin bus, the city's heaviest-volume bus, carries slightly more than 30,000 people per day; the King streetcar moves almost 50,000.

"The average car in Toronto carries 1.1 people," Giambrone says. "A streetcar displaces 130 cars. We're all citizens. If you assign everyone one value point, that streetcar takes priority."

The article is also, perhaps inevitably, a study in the struggle between cars and people for primacy in the city. Consider the following exchange, which should ring familiar to Hamilton readers:

Witness the great hue and cry [on St. Clair Ave.] recently, where a vociferous gang of local merchants pushed back hard when told their street would sacrifice a parking lane for a dedicated streetcar right-of-way. "They thought, 'This will destroy the area,'" recalls local merchant Gino Cucchi.

Cucchi, who came to Canada in 1958 and started the menswear shop Gino Fashion, has watched St. Clair flourish, and then, as suburban malls became a retail force, make a long, slow decline.

As vice-chair of the area's Business Improvement Association, Cucchi took it upon himself to advocate for the streetcar right-of-way in the neighbourhood. "The idea, for me, was to keep the customers here, not send them to Yorkdale Mall," he says.

The best way to do that, he believes, is with fast, reliable transit. "In a year, St. Clair will be beautiful, clean, alive again, and it will be because of the streetcar."

He can steer them to Spadina Ave., where opposition to the streetcar right-of-way began in 1973, when it was first tabled, and remained entrenched until it opened in 1997, and proved all the opponents gloriously wrong.

"The loss of parking was fought tooth and nail," recalls Steve Munro, who runs a website, stevemunro.ca, devoted to transit issues. "The theory being that, without parking, Spadina's commercial aspect would wither away to nothing. But look at the number of people on Spadina every day, shopping. They didn't get there by driving."

Hamilton could be so lucky as to have BIA leadership with this kind of insight into how cities work best.

The article ends on a wistful, heartfelt note that is alone worth the price of admission, but the entire piece, including the sidebar on the fall of light rail in North America, is worth the time you'll take to read it.

I read it, ironically, at a rest stop on Highway 11 coming back from Muskoka, with cars buzzing by at 120 km/h and the wind tugging the corners of the pages around my picnic table.

I was overcome with sadness at all the decades wasted and the opportunities missed as cities carved themselves out to make room for cars; and furthermore that it's still so damned hard even today to get some people to recognize the terrible price we've paid for the illusion of convenience inside our six cylinder bubbles.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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