My Speech to the Assembled at the Rocket Riders Forum on the Queen Streetcar


The above photograph The 501 and is by Lex of It is used in accordance with his Creative Commons license.

On Tuesday, the Rocket Riders (a grassroots organization of TTC riders agitating for better service), the Toronto Environmental Alliance and the Sierra Club put together a public forum on “Fixing the 501” Queen streetcar. The event was the culmination of about a month’s work from a group of hardworking people coordinating their efforts via e-mail, and they succeeded in getting TTC Chairman Adam Giambrone to attend, along with three other high-level managers within the Commission, to face questions from the public.

About 90 people turned up, from the Beach, from Parkdale and from southern Etobicoke, all frustrated with the quality of service they’ve had to suffer through for the past few years. The atmosphere was tense, on occasion, but this is what democracy is all about. There can be no doubt that we brought these people’s problems to the attention of the individuals whose responsibility is to fix them. The question now is, how do we build on what we’ve started?

I was asked, in my capacity as co-webmaster for Transit Toronto to give a five minute speech, which I figured would be a pep talk. Steve Munro would speak after me and would have fifteen minutes, and he would be dealing with describing the problems he has thoroughly catalogued them over on his website and some of the possible solutions he has previously offered. With that in mind, after starting with a joke about Beach residents wanting to come to tar and feather the guests from the TTC, only to have their streetcar short turned, this was my speech:

I remember travelling on the Queen streetcar back when multiple-unit PCCs were used. I was four at the time, and I planted myself on the back seat of the first car in the two-car train and stared at the driver in the front seat of the second car. He would mime pulling back on the brakes as our train came to a stop, mime crashing into my car.

Over twenty years later, it came as a surprise to me to learn that Queen was no longer the king of streetcar routes. The crowds may have moved over to King, a street which doesn’t extend across the city and define us the way Queen, Bloor and Yonge do, but Queen still boasted the articulated streetcars, which I think strike most people as the premiere vehicles on the fleet. The length of 501 Queen, the dense and diverse communities it serves, should make this a major line, and it still is, but with the Queen streetcar only carrying just over 40,000 passengers per day, on average, means that it is mortal. It means that it just another busy route, sharing its place with major bus routes, and not being the centrepiece of the streetcar network that it used to be.

The fact that we’ve lost so many riders on this line, tens of thousands per day, I’m told, even as the annual ridership of the TTC recovers from its mid-nineties lows, tells me that we can do better here. And as we contemplate building a transit city, and bolstering ridership growth throughout the network, we have to do better.

And then there are the complaints. These have plagued the 501 Queen streetcar for as long as I can remember. The residents of the Beach have always had to deal with more than their fair share of short turns, and the irregular service that results from these operating procedures. The TTC has tried fitfully to address these problems, extending running times, for instance, and adding signal priority. But in many ways, the complaints have increased, because service has become measurably worse. Scheduled headways have increased, as have unscheduled delays. The complimenting Kingston Road services aren’t doing their jobs in complementing Queen car service. We have crowded vehicles, large gaps in service, and riders left stranded at stops. It is all unacceptable.

In particular, the use of lengthier ALRVs combined with service cuts have produced headways significantly worse today than they were when I was using the service. TTC standards operate on the assumption that a CLRV operating every six minutes is equivalent to an ALRV operating every nine minutes — that as long as the same number of seats pass a stop each hour, the service is the same. This blatantly disregards the longer wait times that passengers waiting for an ALRV encounter, and the magnification of service disruptions that results. The use of ALRVs along with the amalgamation of the 501 Queen streetcar with service on Lakeshore Boulevard produces unacceptably long headways for residents of the former streetcar suburbs of Mimico, New Toronto and Long Branch. Thanks to ALRVs, TTC service standards call for a streetcar to arrive at a stop in southern Etobicoke every fifteen minutes on occasion. And as sacrilegious as this sounds, if you’re going to run a transit service with those intervals, you might as well be running a bus.

When I was interviewed about this forum by a reporter for the National Post, he asked me if I thought that the TTC was poorly managed. I declined to answer as I know too many hard working individuals within the TTC and I do not want to badmouth them. I also have been impressed by the leadership of several individuals at the TTC, including Adam Giambrone and Chief General Managers current and past, so I remain optimistic. But I did tell him that there has not been enough accountability from the TTC as an organization about the decisions made regarding the 501 Queen streetcar.

When the TTC decided to amalgamate the 501 Queen and 507 Long Branch routes into one of the longest surface routes on the network, they went against TTC staff’s own recommendations which suggested a network of overlapping routes on Queen Street, including 507 Long Branch and the Kingston Road streetcars. There has also been, I’m told, no follow-up on the performance of this route since amalgamation. Earlier suggestions that the route be split again, or split in different ways, or ALRVs replaced with CLRVs, have run up against a brick wall. This is unacceptable.

Part of the frustration is that we have no idea who to hold accountable for these mistakes other than a pretty large and often faceless organization. We have no idea who to tell that the changes that have happened over the past twelve years have made the service measurably worse. There has been no tests that we’ve seen. And so, no wonder ridership has fallen. No wonder, when riders are confronted with unacceptable service and no visible means or timetable for improvement, that they go elsewhere. We shouldn’t have to be having this forum, twelve years after the fact. We shouldn’t be doing the TTC’s job for them.

But here we are. And I’m glad we’re here. It is in our interest as citizens that public transit be effective and reliable, a viable alternative to the automobile, and a strong enhancement to the mobility of Torontonians. Even speaking to you as a resident of the City of Kitchener, it is in the interests of citizens outside Toronto as well as inside that the grease that lubricates this engine of Ontario’s economy doesn’t wear out. We, the people who are the TTC’s mandate to serve, have much to offer in terms of feedback and suggestions for improvements. And so, we meet today to help the TTC meet its mandate, and I’m pleased to see that representatives of TTC, Mitch Stambler, Adam Giambrone, are reaching out to Torontonians by attending this forum. It is good to have the ear of people who can make the changes we want.

We believe we have much to offer the TTC, for we are riders intimately familiar with the service, keenly aware of its flaws, and eager to see improvements. We find the Queen car to be important to our lives and we wish it every success. But most of all, it is good that we finally have a chance to talk. It is a profound relief to finally have someone with their ears on offer, and we have a lot to tell you.

Thank you all for coming out. Let’s get talking.

In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the streetcars along Lake Shore Boulevard and Queen Street carried over 90,000 passengers per day, Steve tells me. Today, that number is down to 47,000. This despite the return of the TTC to near record ridership levels this past year. And many of us believe that this precipitous drop is due to the highly unreliable service offered on Queen Street. And don’t blame this on the problem of streetcars operating in mixed traffic; as Steve Munro noted, Queen Street is four lanes throughout, with parking, so buses would be as badly caught in congestion.

Rather, the line has not been properly managed; there has been a reliance on longer vehicles travelling less frequently, and the line itself is likely too long to manage (especially after an amalgamation in 1995 which turned it into one of the longest surface lines on the TTC, and certainly the longest to operate through the downtown core). Possible solutions include more personnel to more actively manage the route, and breaking the route into smaller, overlapping pieces, so the delays don’t have the chance to multiply as they proceed across the route’s length.

The TTC did itself a world of good at this event by frankly acknowledging there was a problem, especially Mitch Stambler, manager of service planning, who acknowledged that he used the service every day, living in the Beach, and he felt that it “sucked”. As Steve and I joked later, it was like the first step in the twelve step alcoholics’ program: admit there is a problem. This is a good thing. Now, if only we can find a power greater than ourselves to restore the service to sanity, but I digress.

The excellent turnout is not surprising if you think about it, and neither is the passion the public brought to this event. Something like this affects people in their home; it affects their ability to go home. And if the TTC isn’t doing an effective job of managing their commute home, it significantly affects the commuters’ quality of life. So no wonder there was a tension in the air, and why so many got up to speak, even if this attendee felt that it got wearing after a while. Something this pent up has to be released.

Now that we’ve brought the public’s anger to the attention of management, and the local media were on hand to report about it, what do we do with it? After the event, a number of the Rocket Riders and some attendees retired to the Tim Horton’s across the street to plot their next moves. And, as I said, TTC management has at least admitted that they have a problem. And thanks to recent moves by the City of Toronto, the TTC will have (fingers crossed) $21 million in new operating subsidies to improve services throughout the city. Mitch Stambler promised that we’d notice the improvements come February 2008. Hopefully, with the public frustration on display, here, we have a confluence of events that will ensure that resources go into making transit services in the Beach and southern Etobicoke more reliable, and actually useful to those who want to use the service.

This issue is one to watch over the next few weeks.

Further Reading

Congestion is Everybody’s Problem

While I sympathized with the frustration of every speaker who spoke at the forum, I do have to respectfully take issue with one commuter who complained loudly that the irregularity of service on 501 Queen meant that a 25 minute trip from the Beach turned into a 2 hour trek, and that people could drive to Buffalo or Kitchener in less time. Not to disagree with her comments on the poor quality of the service from the Beach, I still have to caution her against exaggerating too much in the things she chooses to compare it to.

I’ve taken the run between downtown Toronto and Buffalo. Without traffic congestion, it’s three hours, at least, and that’s assuming that the border crossings aren’t clogged. And let me re-emphasize that this is without traffic congestion. The only people routinely making the run from Hamilton, rather than Buffalo, faster than those living in the Beach on a bad day are those who take GO Transit — during those periods when the track switches haven’t frozen.

As for Kitchener, I’ve taken that trip even more frequently. The downtown-to-downtown run between the two cities is 90 minutes in perfect conditions, largely because I’m able to drive on a roadway whose legal speed limit is twice that of Queen Street, and probably not a corridor the Beach resident would want to live alongside. During rush hours, however, the Greyhound express bus between the two cities schedules an additional half hour into its running time. In my experience, that run is a half hour late or more at least one time in four.

When I head into Toronto, which I do quite often, I try to schedule my meetings for the afternoon, or some time after ten a.m.. The run into the city just after the rush hour isn’t bad, and I can park near the subway at Old Mill, buy a day pass, and comfortably take transit throughout the city for the rest of the day. The City of Toronto is exceptionally livable during the midday and on weekends. If I have to be in Toronto at 9 a.m., however, I park at Aldershot GO station. For those who don’t know, Aldershot is halfway between Burlington and Hamilton and it’s an hour trip to downtown Toronto by GO Train. It’s not a bad deal: $16.80 is the price of a return ticket, which is less than I’d pay for parking in some places in the city. But that’s how far I’m willing to go to avoid Toronto’s rush hour traffic.

My point is, while we should do as much as we can to improve service to the Beach, the residents of the neighbourhood should not feel themselves singled out for bad service. It doesn’t matter if you live in Hamilton, Long Branch, the Beach or Kitchener, rush hour commuting is an exercise in frustration. Congestion in this city is probably unavoidable. Indeed, I’d suggest that it is a symptom of economic prosperity. We will probably never eliminate it. The question is, can we manage it so that it doesn’t stifle the economic growth that’s creating it?


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