New streetcar tech could get traffic moving

If you don’t drive, chances are that you sometimes use a streetcar to help you get from point A to point B. Streetcars have long been a fixture in Toronto. In fact, they’ve long been an iconic symbol of the city. Several streetcar routes run through East York neighbourhoods, helping thousands of commuters who depend on public transit to travel throughout the neighbourhood, towards the downtown core and beyond.

If you’re fortunate to have your own private vehicle and drive most of the time, however, you probably view streetcars with disdain. You’re probably frustrated that you have to stop behind streetcars whenever they need to pick up and disembark passengers. Anyone who drives where there are streetcars knows this frustration.

Green light. Streetcar doors open and you have to stop. You sit and wait. Streetcar doors close, red light.

You’re trying to get somewhere quickly. Maybe you’re late for work or an appointment. On your way, you end up behind a streetcar. Rage slowly builds inside you as the streetcar ahead of you lumbers along, stopping at almost every second block to board and drop off passengers. You try to get around the streetcar, but there are cars parked on the side of the road and there’s nowhere to go. You might try to pass the streetcar when its doors are open for riders to get on and off, but doing so is illegal and extremely dangerous. People can and have gotten hurt by vehicles passing streetcars with open doors.

In fact, some politicians are now calling for cameras to be installed on streetcars to catch drivers that perform such an act.

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Streetcars can also cause frustration when they’re not even present. Like when you want to listen to an AM radio station, but there’s too much interference from the streetcar wires overhead. Then there are the times when the city needs to close stretches of streets and intersections to repair or replace streetcar tracks. Ask anyone close to the intersection of Queen Street East and Kingston Road, where streetcar tracks are currently being replaced, and they’ll probably tell you how much of an inconvenience it is, to say the least.

There have always been people in Toronto who would like to do away with streetcars.

But how would that work? The people who use them now rely on them. The city can’t just remove the streetcars and leave commuters stranded. They would have to be replaced by something. Buses, perhaps? Unlike streetcars, buses can change lanes and stop at the curbside to pick up and drop off passengers with the traffic behind them simply passing by on the left side. Plus, they don’t require the track or wire infrastructure that streetcars do.

Buses do require gas, however, and depending on the price of oil, fuelling more buses would probably cost the city a lot more than using streetcars. There are electric buses, but it’s very unlikely that the city could afford to pay for a new fleet of these to replace the streetcars it is currently using. Not to mention the fact that buses just don’t have the passenger capacity that Toronto’s new fleet of streetcars does.

Talk to any regular streetcar rider and they’ll probably tell you how much more comfortable and quiet riding on one is, as opposed to the loud and bumpy ride that they’d get on a bus.

Besides, the folks at City Hall have pretty much made up their minds and decided that Toronto will be using streetcars for the foreseeable future. Bummer for drivers, I guess, who will continue to stew in traffic behind them every time they stop. Can’t Toronto use streetcars and still make it so that motorists aren’t fuming every time they have to stop behind one?

It is possible, but it would require that the city make use of new technology. The kind that controls traffic signals to give priority to transit vehicles. So for example, when a bus or streetcar approaches a green light, that light would still be green even after the transit vehicle stops to board and disembark commuters, allowing it to pass through the intersection without having to wait at a red light.

In the context of Toronto, this would mean that even when a streetcar stops, the light wouldn’t turn red until after the transit vehicle has passed through the intersection, meaning the vehicular traffic immediately behind it wouldn’t necessarily have to wait at a red light. It would also mean that streetcars wouldn’t have to hold for a red light after waiting for a private vehicle in front of it to make a left turn. In essence, this technology would benefit public transit users, including streetcar riders, as much as it would benefit motorists.

The city already plans to use this type of technology on the Eglinton Crosstown LRT so that the LRT vehicles won’t be sitting idle at red lights for long periods of time.

Such technology is currently utilized in Israel on the Jerusalem light rail line, cutting commute times on the holy city’s mass transit line by almost half. Indeed, Israel is a leader in creating new technology designed to improve the flow of traffic. For example, the popular driver app, WAZE, is an Israeli invention that helps multitudes of people get to their destinations faster.

Our leaders at City Hall know all about the new technology that can get Toronto’s traffic moving faster. So I have one question for them. Why aren’t we using it!?