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Buses vs. streetcars: The debate continues

Last Updated Nov 15, 2017 at 7:20 pm EDT

“They don’t want these damn streetcars blocking up our city!” thundered the late Rob Ford in 2012.

The argument has raged in and out of City Hall for years – buses vs. streetcars. Which is more efficient for riders and drivers?

This summer, the 501 streetcars on Queen Street were replaced by buses during construction. CityNews heard from multiple commuters saying the bus was much faster.

Councillor Michael Ford says he’s even heard from first responders who echo those sentiments. When responding to a call where seconds could mean the difference between life and death, they said buses were the clear winner.

“A Toronto firefighter reached out to us and said … we are responding much quicker, it is easier for us to be getting to calls. And when you have that type of outreach from our first responders and from a variety of people … I think it was a win for everybody. Everyone was moving quicker … and I hope that we will continue to look at this”

Councillor Ford’s motion to conduct a study on whether buses or streetcars are more efficient on Queen Street was rejected by City Council this fall. It was considered redundant as streetcars were already back on that route in September.

The 501 Queen route is the TTC’s longest streetcar line, used by approximately 52,000 riders on a typical weekday. Ford believes some of his colleagues are choosing to remain willfully ignorant and do not want to see what the data might reveal. Having heavily invested in new streetcars, the TTC says they’ve already compiled their own numbers and claim buses are not quicker than streetcars.

Stuart Green from TTC media relations says the decision to use streetcars as the vehicle of choice in the downtown core was made a long time ago and the transit provider is moving forward accordingly. He adds that streetcars accommodate more people than buses and revisiting that decision is unnecessary.

“f you look at Spadina or down on Harbourfront, there are dedicated rights-of-way for the streetcars. Those are the kinds of things that allow streetcars to move even better in traffic, he says. “Certainly in terms of getting people around the city streetcars have proven to be very efficient. Fewer vehicles more people.”

However when it comes to volume, articulated accordion style buses move the same amount of people as a regular streetcar. Transit expert Murtaza Haider is calling on the city to let an independent body dissect the data to see which mode of transit is more efficient – though he says you don’t have to be an engineer to figure out which one keeps traffic moving quicker.

“TTC is looking at operating costs rather than the travel times to make this decision,” he says. “We are told again and again … that a large TTC streetcar carries more passengers than a smaller sized bus, but that’s stating the obvious. What we haven’t been told is that if we deploy the right kind of bus technology – what would be the through put capacity through those versus the streetcar. We already have determined, I believe, that buses would be faster.”

Professor Haider adds that one of the biggest issues with streetcars is the city’s romantic or nostalgic leanings towards the decades old mode of transportation. He questions how much the city and it’s population are willing to pay in terms of travel times and lost proficiency to keep them.

For his part, Councillor Ford says even though his motion was dropped, its a fight he’s looking at revisiting.