All photos courtesy of Allan Rosen

All photos courtesy of Allan Rosen

THE COMMUTE: I recently came back home from a week-long vacation in Niagara Falls and Toronto, Canada. I also stopped off on the way back in Albany and Kingston, New York. I will spare you the hundreds of photos and videos of Niagara Falls, and will concentrate only on the transit- and transportation-related aspects of the trip.

Bunching Is Also A Problem In Toronto

Let’s start with that beautiful looking picture of a Toronto subway train. I loved the open effect of being able to see through the cars and easily walk between cars to even out passenger loads. From what I remember, the MTA considered ordering similar cars at the time of the last subway car purchase, but for whatever reason decided against it. After all, if you could walk easily between cars, how could you give summonses for it? But seriously, there must have been other reasons why the MTA instead chose the design we currently have. It would be nice, however, if the MTA would have revealed its rationale, rather than just ask us to trust that they made the best possible decision, which I do not believe they always do.

Now, for the title of this section. Notice I didn’t say “bus bunching.” That is because, during my three days in Toronto, I hardly saw any buses except for tour buses. In Downtown, there are mostly subways and streetcars, or trolleys. We had no problems at all with the subways. However, it seemed whenever we took a trolley, we were delayed, twice having to wait about a half-hour for one. They also seemed to be operating at least two at a time.

The first time, the operator apologized for the delay claiming there was an accident preventing the cars from getting through. He said he preferred not to start his shift that way and thanked everyone for his or her understanding. He also made a public announcement each time someone gave up a priority seat for the elderly, calling those people “angels.”

No apology announcements were made for any of the other delays. A round about trip on the subway would have been quicker than a direct trolley ride on one of our excursions. On most trolley routes, the right-of-way is shared with automobiles, which didn’t seem to pose any problems traffic-wise. New York City gave up its last trolley in 1956. One of the reasons was that, without refuge islands and the increasing number of cars on the road, it was no longer safe for pedestrians to board in the center of the street.

I would have to agree with that. In Toronto, when a streetcar stops to pick up and discharge passengers, a stop sign on the inside of the doors tells cars to stop and give the pedestrians the right of way, much like the stop signs now on school buses. All the cars obey. Somehow, I guess because so few cars give pedestrians the right of way at intersections in New York City, I just can’t imagine that scenario working here without many pedestrians getting killed before cars realize they have to stop.

Another difference between Toronto and New York is that, when surface transit is running late, the operators instruct everyone with a pass to board through the rear door and be honest about it in order to minimize delays. Other than SBS, bus operators in New York City who allow boarding through the rear door risk being reprimanded for doing that, although it may be a transfer point in which virtually everyone is transferring from the train and no revenue would be lost. Toronto also has some routes in which you can board through any door and require proof of payment, as well as a Downtown Express bus requiring an extra fare, but I didn’t see or ride on those routes.

On at least one streetcar route, along Spadina Avenue (pictured above, and pronounced with a long “A”), the streetcars have their own right of way down the center of the street with their own stations. The route is also not very long. It is difficult for me to understand why that route experienced the greatest amount of bunching I encountered, with at least four streetcars arriving all crowded and at the same time after a 30-minute wait. If bunching occurs there, why should we believe the MTA that a similar configuration — either in the center or sides of Woodhaven Boulevard for SBS, which is presently being studied — would improve service?

One noticeable difference between Spadina Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard is that Spadina has numerous parallel ‘through’ streets to accommodate cars and trucks, so that the exclusive right of way does not cause traffic back-ups, even in the rush hour, whereas Woodhaven has no through parallel streets to accommodate displaced traffic. Because of this, traffic on Woodhaven is greatly worsened. That is not to say that Toronto has no traffic problems during its rush hours. It does. We got stuck in the car on a parkway that looked more like a parking lot, with a 29-minute wait until the next exit. Local streets were not much better.

Kingston, New York

On the way home, we stopped in Kingston. In addition to it being a very nice historic district, Kingston is also the home of the New York Trolley Museum. The museum houses a few old European trolleys and gives trolley rides. It also houses several former New York City subway cars, one of which is adorned in graffiti. I wonder if those vandals, or “artists,” as some refer to them, ever realized their work would someday be exhibited in a museum.

In the museum, the ridiculousness of a 1904 notice appearing on street railway transfer tickets, obviously written by lawyers, caught my attention. It read: “Whoever uses a transfer ticket in violation of any such condition, or whoever uses or attempts to use a transfer ticket not issued to him, or whoever for value disposes of or attempts to dispose of a transfer ticket issued to him to any other person, or whoever for value delivers or attempts to deliver a transfer ticket not issued to him to any person, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding FIFTY DOLLARS, or by imprisonment for a term not exceeding THIRTY DAYS.”

Were they kidding? Fifty dollars in 1904 or 30 days in jail (I presume for those not having $50) for misusing a transfer? What was the penalty for fare evasion? Probably death for not paying your nickel.

Next Week: The fare, driving in Toronto, and more.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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  • ES

    So clean… so spacious… it’s almost like looking at a science fiction movie.

    • fdtutf

      “Toronto is what New York would be if it were run by the Swiss.”

      • Allan Rosen

        Full of holes like their cheese?

        • fdtutf

          Uh, not exactly. Ever been to Switzerland? And isn’t New York already full of holes? 😉

          • Allan Rosen

            Was in Switzerland for one day. Visited their Transport Museum in Luzerne. That was a long time ago.

    • Allan Rosen

      I fell in love with that train as soon as I got on. Also like the way all the seats are not longitudinal. The seats also were not hard.

      Even the older trains that were not articulated, were also attractive and comfortable.

      • fdtutf

        I agree that this type of train provides a good passenger experience.

        One disadvantage is that a serious mechanical fault requiring a long repair period takes an entire train out of service, instead of just a car or two.

        • Allan Rosen

          I can understand not going for a full ten-car articulated train because that limits flexibility. But we buy subway cars in units of five linked carsets anyway. So why couldn’t five cars be articuated, so that passengers would walk between half the train?

          • fdtutf

            If the linked cars can be separated without too much difficulty, that not only helps keep trains in service when there are breakdowns; it also improves operational flexibility in matching offered capacity to demand.

            If they can’t, then I tend to agree with you. I don’t know what the MTA’s reasoning was, though, when they rejected the concept.

          • Allan Rosen

            Also we don’t know how easy or difficult it is to separate the articulated cars, if at all possible. I would guess it might be more difficult than the linked cars, but that is just a guess.

          • fdtutf

            A single articulated car that is the equivalent of, say, five “regular” cars cannot be separated. That’s the point: it’s a single car.
            So if you have a mechanical problem with that single articulated car, you’ve lost the capacity equivalent of five “regular” cars until the problem is fixed. And if you need to adjust capacity to match demand, running a train equivalent to, say, six or eight “regular” cars isn’t an option — it’s ten, five, or nothing.

      • sonicboy678

        The practicality of having longitudinal seating on trains depends on the size of the cars. The 75′ cars we have are the largest subway cars we have in revenue service, both by width and length, so they are fully capable of the seating configuration they have. None of the others are that spacious, so having longitudinal seating for those cars would be more practical. This especially applies to A Division cars, which are the narrowest cars we have.

        • Allan Rosen

          No one has suggested anything other than longitudinal seating on the A Division. We are talking about the 67 foot cars on the B Division which are no narrower than the 75 foot cars which only have longitudinal seating.

          I believe the MTA did a ridership preferences survey, but just ignored the results. I remember around 2000 when they stated there would be three different seat color schemes, cars with blue seats, yellow seats, and green seats. Then ordered all blue seats anyway.

          • sonicboy678

            The last 67′t cars I remember us having were the R110B cars, none of which have been in service since at least 2000. The 60′ cars we have are slightly narrower than the 75′ cars and simply have no practicality for anything but longitudinal seating. The size of the 60′ cars simply prohibits that feature.

            As for the blue seats, I don’t particularly mind if the seats are benches; however, if they’re bucket seats, they should have separate colors so people can see they’re not simple benches.

  • fdtutf

    “In Toronto, when a streetcar stops to pick up and discharge passengers, a stop sign on the inside of the doors tells cars to stop and give the pedestrians the right of way, much like the stop signs now on school buses. All the cars obey. Somehow, I guess because so few cars give pedestrians the right of way at intersections in New York City, I just can’t imagine that scenario working here without many pedestrians getting killed before cars realize they have to stop.”

    Or perhaps it would help New York City drivers learn to look for pedestrians in all situations. I’d like to think so, anyway. “You may say I’m a dreamer…”

    • sonicboy678

      Make that triple for people on bikes. I almost got hit by THREE at 17th Street and 5th Avenue while heading home today, all turning the wrong way and two going against the light at that.

  • winson

    I wonder if we can have light rails like in New Jersey, Hudson-Bergen and Newark.

    • Allan Rosen

      I like Bob Diamond’s idea of a waterfront trolley. Would be great for tourism.

  • Andrew

    From what I remember, the MTA considered ordering similar cars at the time of the last subway car purchase, but for whatever reason decided against it.

    There’s no reason to rely on your memory. A basic Google search would have revealed that, as of October 2013, open gangways are being considered for a future car purchase – the R211′s, which haven’t even been designed yet let alone ordered – rather than the last car purchase:

    As far as I know, no decision has even been made as to the length of the cars. If they’re 75 feet long, open gangways are not feasible – and the primary advantage of 75 foot cars is the significantly lower capital cost (since there would be 20% fewer cars to make up the same number of trains). If they’re 60 feet long, open gangways are probably feasible, but the exact design of the gangways – in particular, their width – is dictated by track geometry engineering constraints, such as maximum curvature and tunnel clearances. (The Yonge–University–Spadina line opened in 1954 and the Bloor–Danforth line opened in 1966. Curves are much gentler than on the BMT. A design that works in Toronto is unlikely to work in New York. In particular, if we get open gangways in New York, expect them to be narrower than the ones you saw in Toronto.)

    • Allan Rosen

      I thought that we decided we weren’t going to purchase any more 75 foot cars. And how can you be so sure that my memory is wrong and open gangways, as you call it, were not considered the last time around and ruled out?

      • Andrew

        I thought that we decided we weren’t going to purchase any more 75 foot cars.

        The question’s been batted about for years, and there certainly hasn’t been a final decision for all cars, forever. The R160 and R179 orders include Eastern Division cars, so the cars had to be 60 feet. The R211 order doesn’t, so the 75 foot option is very much on the table. Given the very significant cost advantage, failing to even consider 75 foot cars would have been downright stupid.

        And how can you be so sure that my memory is wrong and open gangways, as you call it, were not considered the last time around and ruled out?

        The R179 order (the most recently placed B Division order) is for cars configured exactly like the R160 order, which was in turn for cars configured exactly like the R143 order. The extensive design process currently under way for the R211′s did not take place with the R179′s – the order was too small (300 cars is a small order by New York standards) and the time frame too tight.

  • Subway Stinker

    NYC subways should not have bucket seating because so many NY’er are lard-assed passengers who take up a seat and a half or more. It is a public health problem as well as a transit matter, but as long as people want to devour KFC and Mickey D food in mass quantities, we suffer and they die young. I would like to see trolleys back in nyc but there is little interest by city or state office holders or officials. They are overwhelmed just keeping the bus, subway and commuter rail lines running. Maybe a pilot trolley line for the south shore of Staten Island is due?

    • Allan Rosen

      I don’t see how you can do a pilot for trolleys. I think the north shore is more feasible for light rail in SI.

  • Allan Rosen

    Looks like I’m not te only one who is complaining about the bunching with Toronto’s streetcars. This piece:
    blames the auto traffic, but most of my complaints were with the route that has its own lane and is unaffected by auto traffic.

    • Andrew


      Transit experts point to two major problems in the line’s operation: lack of traffic signal priority, and an inefficient passenger boarding system[citation needed]. While the line was designed to allow streetcars to have priority at all signalized intersections (which would essentially eliminate the requirement to wait for any red lights), the City of Toronto’s Traffic Services department refuses to turn the system on, fearing that it will cause too much inconvenience for motorists.
      With the current non-priority system, streetcars are usually forced to wait for left-turning and through traffic, only to proceed and stop at the other side of the intersection, where most of the passenger platforms are located; the experts claim that this feature alone significantly increases travel times on the line.

      • fdtutf

        The National Post piece is about the King Street line, though, not the Spadina line. I have no idea whether the King Street cars have signal priority or not, but I’m guessing not, given the Traffic Services attitude.

        • Andrew

          Agreed. My point is that, contrary to Allan’s assertion that the Spadina line’s problems can’t possibly be blamed on auto traffic, the Wikipedia article states that its streetcar signal priority system was never enabled for fear of delaying auto traffic. (I have no idea if the King and Spadina problems are in any way related.)

          • Allan Rosen

            I really don’t see how a signal priority system would make the line more reliable. I see how it would quicken travel on the trolleys but that doesn’t necessarily mean reliability would be improved. As far as delaying auto traffic, one has to look at the trade off as to how much auto traffic woud be delayed and how much the trolleys would be helped.

    • Andrej

      There’s nothing that can really be done about the issues with King. It runs on a downtown street, and as per most downtown streets, they are far too narrow to implement a ROW.

  • Georgia

    Allan I am glad you enjoyed your vacation. The train is awesome and the trolly car is nice. I never seen a transit system so clean, it’s a shame our MTA could not have cars like that. Thank you for sharing waiting to see more pictures.

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