The biggest enemy of LRT in Toronto isn’t Rob Ford, or some suburban subway fetish, or a mistrust of surface rail. It’s the technology’s own vague identity.
In Toronto, we know what subways are, and we like them. That’s because we have two well-run lines that are the backbone of our aging transit network. The trains come frequently, and they run fast. Given traffic issues, the subway is often more reliable than driving.
We have less of a sense of what LRT actually is. Wikipedia has a decent definition: “typically an urban form of public transport using steel-tracked fixed guideways that operate primarily along exclusive rights of way and have vehicles capable of operating as a single train or as multiple units coupled together.” When the technology was proposed back in the 60s, it was differentiated from then-unpopular trolley/tram/streetcar systems by the following features –
- having the capacity to carry more passengers
- appearing like a train, with more than one car connected together
- having more doors to facilitate full utilization of the space
- faster and quieter in operation
Dedicated rights of way, multiple cars and low-to-the ground operation tend to be important. Wider-spaced stops and all-door boarding are other common features of LRT lines. LRT speeds average 27km/h, closer to that of subways (32 km/h) than streetcars (17km/h). Many LRT systems operate off-street, in their own corridors and with their own stations, more like a subway than a Toronto streetcar line. Essentially, LRT is something you can build in areas with less density, areas which don’t yet need the expense of the subway, but need something better than buses or streetcars.
Opponents in Toronto have managed to tar LRT with the brush of two less-loved technologies: streetcars and the SRT in Scarborough. The SRT is a type of light rail, but a very poor implementation of it, based on an unproven (and now discredited) technology, ICTS. It is loud, unreliable, and slow.
Streetcars have been running in Toronto since 1861 and were the backbone of our transit system for almost a century. Their modern implementation, however, is marred by old, unreliable cars, poor route management, and – more than anything else – by their operation in mixed traffic on some of the most congested streets in the country.
The TTC itself has muddied the waters around LRT, often affixing the name to streetcar-based projects like the Spadina, Harbourfront and St. Clair streetcar lines. Combined with the poor state of the streetcar system and of the taxonomically-similar SRT, it’s no surprise that LRT has gotten a bad name.
Things may change once people are able to take a ride on the Eglinton Crosstown LRT (currently under construction), which will run underground for most of its length, and which has subway-like stations (although more closely spaced). Unfortunately, that won’t be until 2022 – and transit advocate Steve Munro is worried that if the current irrational trajectory of transit debate in Toronto continues, even the crosstown line could get torpedoed.
Before then, those who want a rational transit network in Toronto will have to paint a better picture of LRT – or we will be paying for expensive, underused suburban subway lines like Sheppard and the prospective Scarborough extension for decades to come.