Another Transit Lesson for New York (and Other Cities) from Toronto

Just as Toronto's subway cars provide an example of the benefits that await New Yorkers when their new 'open gangway' cars arrive in 2020, Toronto's extensive streetcar network also provides an example for New York — of what not to do.
September 11, 2016, 7am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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In August, Emma G. Fitzsimmons, transit reporter at The New York Timesreported from Toronto on the open-end subway cars that have been in operation for almost five years, in preparation for the arrival of similar cars in New York as part of an ambitious $27-billion design overhaul.

The purpose of her latest report is take back lessons for the new 16-mile streetcar line planned for Brooklyn and Queens known as the Brooklyn Queens Connector (BQX). It's not by coincidence that "New York City hired Adam Giambrone, a former chairman of the Toronto Transit Commission, to run the project and sell the concept to residents along the line," writes Fitzsimmons. The line should open by 2024. And the lessons apply equally to any city planning streetcar lines.

Her new report from Canada's most populous city is about North America's largest, most heavily used and second oldest streetcar network, composed of 11 routes with a daily ridership of 285,000. Total network length (2016) is 83 km (51 miles), dating back to the horsedrawn era in 1861. Only the New Orleans St. Charles line is older.

Unlike the open gangway subway cars, which received an uncategorical A+ grade by Torontonians, streetcars were disliked by many, though it wasn't the cars but the routes. More specifically, the routes that lacked dedicated lanes, generally designated by raised curbs separating them from the adjacent mixed-traffic lanes.

"As New York works to complete a rigorous study of the [BQX] line by the fall, streetcar riders and transit experts in Toronto have repeated the same two warnings: build dedicated lanes to keep the streetcars from getting trapped in traffic and be prepared for outrage over the loss of street space and parking," reports Fitzsimmons. Transit expert Yonah Freemark had tweeted the same warnings in an April Planetizen post.

Mr. Giambrone, who is living near the proposed streetcar corridor on the border of Downtown Brooklyn and Fort Greene, seemed to understand the challenges ahead and was enthusiastic to begin. He said he had already walked the corridor and envisioned several rounds of public meetings.

He said he understood how frustrating it was when streetcars in Toronto were stuck in traffic, adding that the New York line would be “heavily reliant” on a dedicated right of way. In fact, city officials have said they want more than 70 percent of the line to have its own lane — a configuration more common on light rail systems like the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail in New Jersey.

More streetcar information:

Hat tip to David Orr.

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Published on Wednesday, September 7, 2016 in The New York Times - N.Y. / Region
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