At last passengers can feel good about being taken for a ride by the TTC.
The Toronto Transit Commission’s new streetcars went into service Sunday morning and though it’s early days, it seems the city’s love affair with the Red Rocket as about to get all warm and sticky again. Streetcars in Toronto aren’t just a means of getting around; they’re part of the city’s heritage, its self-image. In that most-overused word, streetcars are iconic. No representation of Toronto is complete without one.
So when the TTC introduces a new fleet, there’s interest from more than users. These articulated vehicles — five segments long — are the look of Toronto’s future. The muscular streamlined esthetic gives them a slightly retro feel reminiscent perhaps not only of Art Moderne but also of urban transit’s Golden Age.
Inside, however, these streetcars reflect contemporary concerns such as accessibility, transparency, comfort and convenience. Longer, lower, lighter and leaner, the new vehicles are designed to allow for maximum visibility. They don’t have windows so much entire sides made of glass. This will strengthen the connection between passengers and the landscape.
For those used to climbing up the equivalent of a stepladder to board the current streetcars, new lower floors are transformational. This is the key to total accessibility and will change how we use surface transit.
Another big move is the arrangement of seating into four-person pods, two seats facing two seats. GO riders will be familiar with the pattern, which may be why commuter trains tend to be more collegial than the TTC, where it’s every man — and pregnant woman — for themselves.
Given the problems the TTC already faces with seat hogs, passage blockers and space invaders; it’s inevitable that this new configuration will present serious challenges to some passengers. Now it’s possible for one person to block three seats just by sitting in the fourth.
Operators, on the other hand, have a cabin of their own. For those drivers who took a vow of silence before joining the TTC, the extra privacy will no doubt be welcome. And with four doors, getting on and off should theoretically be easier; but again, never underestimate the average TTC users’ capacity for confusion.
Fittingly, the inaugural streetcar left Spadina station jammed to the rafters. That meant between 250 and 280 people, most of them standing. The air conditioning was appreciated, especially on such a muggy day. And because of the see-through walls, you always knew where you were, always nice. The white interiors enhanced the sense of openness and brought some crispness to things.
In addition to moving the masses, the TTC’s new rolling stock must shift attitudes. Its ultimate success will depend on its ability to change the notion of streetcars as being just this side of the horse and buggy.
Seeing these beautiful behemoths rolling through Toronto might force us to reconsider the complaint heard over and over that streetcars are forever in the way. Once all 204 new vehicles have been deployed in four or five years, they will be the undisputed masters of the streets; it will be cars that will have to make way.
A smiling TTC CEO Andy Byford called Sunday’s launch “the start of a new era.” Given the chaotic state of transit and transit planning in Toronto, and the hostility to streetcars at the highest levels of City Hall; it was also a much-needed bit of good news.
Just when it seemed the future might never arrive in Toronto, it’s the TTC that leads the way.
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