Canadian Consulting Engineer

Stepping out on Spadina

Spadina Avenue is one of downtown Toronto's liveliest streets. It teems with cars, delivery trucks, tour buses, bicycles, sidewalk vendors, pedestrians. The chaotic bustle is one of its charms.During ...

January 1, 2000  Canadian Consulting Engineer

Spadina Avenue is one of downtown Toronto’s liveliest streets. It teems with cars, delivery trucks, tour buses, bicycles, sidewalk vendors, pedestrians. The chaotic bustle is one of its charms.

During the 1980s, however, the charm was wearing thin for some of the street’s users, the passengers on its bus service. The rush hour crowd would be crammed into the buses, while the vehicles dodged and wove in and out of traffic. With the bus route believed to be nearing capacity, the city and the Toronto Transit Commission proposed replacing it with a Light Rail Transit service (LRT).

As a public venture, the project required an environmental assessment, which was completed in 1990. Nine years later, the LRT system has been operational for some time and the effects are a reality. Even a fleeting comparison illustrates the complexities of the environmental assessment process and provides insights into the perils of prediction.

Tom Middlebrook is chief engineer in the engineering department of the TTC. He points to the rationale for the LRT as described in the environmental assessment. At the time, buses arriving at one-and-a-half minute intervals were carrying 2,800 passengers per direction per hour at peak times. The need as perceived at the time called for greater and more reliable transit capacity.

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Of the 23 alternative solutions identified in the environmental assessment, the LRT was deemed the best option. The LRT gives streetcars their own right of way, unlike regular streetcars or buses, which share the road with other traffic. On a track reserved for their use between intersections, light rail cars can move more freely. The LRT cars also carry more passengers than buses. At an estimated cost of $105 million, light rail would move more people more quickly up and down Spadina Avenue.

In 1992 the project was approved subject to a number of terms and conditions. Streetscape design issues and community concerns raised in the environmental assessment had to be dealt with. These were the subject of a separate design study. With its primary focus on pedestrians, the design study makes a number of recommendations to increase and improve sidewalk space. It pays attention to accessibility, safety, landscaping and street art. However, the one issue which does not feature prominently, if at all, either on the list of community concerns or in the environmental assessment, is the one that has been causing the greatest grief. Light rail streetcars and vehicles have been colliding with each other at an unprecedented rate.

According to Middlebrook, there have been “hundreds” of collisions. These occur mainly at the intersections. A report in the Globe and Mail stated that accidents occur at four times the rate on other streetcar routes. The LRT which was to separate public transit vehicles from traffic seems to be running into traffic all the time. The problem has had transportation engineers scratching their heads for a solution. As a temporary measure, rows of green bollards have been placed on either side of the tracks to separate vehicles and streetcars between intersections with traffic signals.

Did the environmental assessment anticipate the problem? The answer is not entirely clear. The report states that “the transit lanes will be 3 to 4 inches higher than the traffic lanes,” and that they “will be visually delineated by a mountable rolled curb, which will permit vehicles and pedestrians to cross the lanes.” At the signalized intersections, the transit and traffic lanes would be at the same level. Transit lanes would be paved in rough stone to warn drivers they were on lanes reserved for streetcars.

Despite the recommendations of the report, one of the conditions of the approval process called for curbs no higher than 2 inches. The higher curbs mentioned in the original plan might have kept more cars off the tracks, except that they were also meant to “permit vehicles to cross the lanes.” The question of curb height has been under discussion lately. The TTC is proposing to replace the green bollards with 6-inch high curbs, says Tom Middlebrook. With luck this will finally keep traffic in its place.

This project was justified on the basis of a predicted increase in TTC users — a projection which was in the hands of the proponent rather than the environmental assessment. A good deal of the demand was expected to arise from development in the area but nearly 10 years later this is only starting to happen. According to Gary Carr of the TTC, the LRT has not seen the increase in ridership expected.

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