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Commentary: It's Time to Break Up the Queen Streetcar


The Queen streetcar remains one of the TTC’s most prominent and well-travelled routes, but it is a shadow of its former self. Twenty-five years ago, 80,000 passengers plied the streetcars on Queen Street each day. Today, that number is closer to 50,000.

Transit activist Steve Munro details a number of reasons for this drop in ridership. It largely amounts to the frustration of passengers who are waiting longer for their streetcars to arrive, assuming those streetcars arrive on time. Service reliability is a big problem on Queen Street, and it’s not just because there are more cars on the road, or that buses are more flexible (given the traffic on Queen Street, buses would be just as unreliable).

501 Queen is one of the longest routes on the TTC network. Even the lengthy suburban routes on Finch and Sheppard are split in half by the Yonge subway; Queen crosses from one end of the city to almost halfway across to the other. Routes that are half as long as Queen experience problems of service reliability, as delays multiply along the route.

The Queen streetcar didn’t used to be this long. In 1996, 501 Queen absorbed the 507 Long Branch streetcar at its western end. The TTC did this in order to provide southern Etobicoke residents a direct, transferless connection to the downtown core. What they ended up doing, however, was multiply the delays that could occur along Queen. It also pushed out headways in southern Etobicoke into frustratingly long waits.

The TTC operates its ALRVs on 501 Queen and 511 Bathurst. ALRVs make sense when streetcar service is frequent (headways less than five minutes). The TTC has a policy where if articulated vehicles are used, headways are increased, so that the same number of seats pass each stop per hour. In theory this means no deterioration of service, but to passengers waiting for a streetcar to show up, they care less whether that car has capacity to hold them than if that car shows up quickly. With half of the cars on 501 Queen turning back at Humber instead of continuing to Long Branch, headways through southern Etobicoke have increased dramatically, with passengers waiting as long as twelve minutes for a streetcar. With headways that long, it makes little sense to show up with an extra long vehicle. You might as well be providing service with a bus, as sacrilgious as that sounds.

Interestingly, the decision to absorb the 507 Long Branch streetcar into 501 Queen wasn’t what the TTC planners recommended in their 1995 service plan. Instead, it was proposed that Long Branch streetcars be extended east along the Queensway and Queen to loop via Church, Richmond and Victoria. Service on the overlapping 501 Queen would have been reduced to compensate.

This is how service is theoretically provided on Queen East, with 501 Queen cars augmented by additional cars operating 502 Downtowner and 503 Kingston Road. By overlapping Queen Street with multiple routes, you make it less likely that delays on one route can spread across all the services.

It is time to bring this operation back to Queen West. It is time to cut back 501 Queen service to Humber loop and serve Long Branch residents either with an augmented 508 Lakeshore car operating downtown via King or a restored 507 Long Branch car operating downtown via Queen. By cutting back 501 Queen cars to Humber loop, service would become more reliable. Better yet, Long Branch service could be provided by shorter CLRVs at shorter headways, ensuring that a streetcar capable of handling the crowds comes along more quickly for residents along Lakeshore Boulevard.

I especially like Steve Munro’s suggestion that 507 Long Branch cars operate via Queensway and Roncesvalles to Dundas West station outside of peak hours. Short turns on 504 King tends to reduce service along the very transit-friendly Roncesvalles Avenue, and by routing the 507 Long Branch streetcar up this avenue, service for these passengers would be more reliable.

The TTC needs to examine this proposal. Streetcar service along Queen Street is not being provided as effectively as it should, and this major arterial and cultural centre of the city deserves better.

Photo by Rob Hutch. Cross-posted with Spacing Wire.