The Spadina Streetcar/LRT


Somebody Googled me to ask, "has the Spadina LRT helped pedestrians?"

Why don't you ask the pedestrians? There are some over there, getting off the streetcar as we speak.

I think I would call the Spadina streetcar line a great success. Despite some initial teething pains, caused by car drivers getting in the way of streetcars (and solved by truly isolating the streetcar line from the cars), pedestrians have taken strongly to the new line. Ridership along the route is well up from the days when the buses (already one of the most travelled on the TTC) struggled through the street's traffic.

As a former resident of the neighbourhood, I feel that the streetcar route completed Spadina Avenue. Streetcars were a major part of Toronto's downtown life, Spadina was a major downtown street, but it had no streetcars operating along it since 1966. Now it has those streetcars, and they're always full. Spadina's streetcar line is now the backbone of the street, moving people up and down the various shopping areas much more effectively than buses in mixed traffic. It's an excellent way to tour one of Toronto's best streets, and the line was money well spent.

You may have noticed that I referred to the Spadina LRT as a streetcar line. That's because that's what it is. LRT (standing for Light Rail Transit) is the same thing as a streetcar, except that it geneally operates on exclusive right-of-way, and it was built since the early 1970s.

Streetcars started to fade from North American cities following the Second World War. With maintenance long deferred by the war, and rubber tired vehicles very much "in", many transit companies, ailing from falling ridership, decided to replace their streetcars with buses. For many, this spelled the end of viable public transit in the cities. They discovered that, although streetcars could get caught behind automobiles, the flexibility of buses was overrated. Buses carried fewer people than streetcars did, were dirtier and less comfortable to ride.

The transit agencies that managed to escape their death cycle of falling service rushing to keep up with falling ridership were either slow in abandoning their streetcar networks, or brought the streetcars back, in the form of LRTs. LRTs could be hooked into trains, operating as miniature subways carrying loads of people in slick comfort. The one problem was the name: streetcar -- still synonymous with yesteryear's technology. But these weren't streetcars, replied the transit authorities quickly, these were Light Rail vehicles. Totally new! We got them from Germany and Japan. These are high tech solutions to today's traffic problems, not tried-and-true 19th century technology being used to good effect.

When the time came to expand Toronto's streetcar network with a line along the waterfront and up Spadina Avenue, planners labelled the extension by the high tech moniker -- LRT. Politicians could understand this: it was a high-tech megaproject, designed to create jobs and show how forward looking the city was. The Harbourfront and the Spadina LRT lines won the support of Toronto council.

But the Spadina LRT ran into opposition from local residents and business owners. Why? Because they were the reverse of the politicians. "Streetcar" they understood. "LRT" they didn't. They saw the construction of something impersonal and unfriendly, designed to move people at high speeds through the neighbourhood rather than take them too it. They saw the destruction of the chaotic character of Spadina with a Berlin Wall type barrier reinforced by screaming electric vehicles.

It didn't help that the local media, looking for file footage of an LRT in operation, focused on the "RT" of "LRT" and took pictures of the Scarborough RT, a high-tech mini-subway operating on elevated right-of-way. That's when the poop hit the fan. One opponent went so far as to make a composite shot of a Scarborough RT mini-subway train operating on an elevated guideway down the middle of Spadina Avenue. The planners behind the project could only shake their heads in bewilderment.

Opposition vanished when the Spadina LRT was renamed the Spadina streetcar line. Streetcars were already integral componets to the life of College Street, Dundas Street, Queen Street and King, after all. Who wouldn't want to duplicate the success of the streetcars in Chinatown on Chinatown's second main street? Coupled with other improvements that added stations and recalled the tree-lined right-of-way that existed up to the late 20s, and the area residents and businesses eventually came to support the Spadina line, and make it one of the most successful streetcar lines in the city.

It's all in the packaging. Politicians who want to be seen to be spending money on forward-looking solutions to transit problems will embrace the LRT monicker. Residents who want a transit solution that respects the pedestrian-friendly nature of the neighbourhood would rather have a streetcar. But whether you call it a streetcar or an LRT, the Spadina line gets the job done, showing that rail may be at the heart of the solution to Toronto's traffic woes.

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