Stop the war on streetcars .. why does Toronto’s Ford family hate them so much?

Jun 11th, 2017 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

Doug Ford at the wheel of his car, being interviewed by media.

A cogent column by Edward Keenan in this past Saturday’s Toronto Star has prompted me to get something down on paper that has been bothering me for a while now. (Just ask my wife.)

The extended headline reads “Ford’s costly streetcar study will just reveal the obvious : Keenan … TTC CEO Andy Byford calls using streetcars on the Queen St. line ‘inherently more efficient’ than buses, and he estimates the TTC would need three times as many buses as new streetcars.”

I’ll start my story by confessing I have for years (decades in fact) lived along the Queen “501” streetcar line in Toronto.

It descends from an electric streetcar service  that began in the late 19th century. The area I live in was developed during the first few decades of the 20th century and is sometimes called a “streetcar suburb.”

Queen streetcar and rival automobile, later 1920s.

It was built around the great spine of the Queen streetcar service – on which I can get from my house to the heart of downtown Toronto at Queen and Yonge streets in not too much more than half an hour.  (Now, if I have to wait too long for a streetcar … but that’s another issue for another day.)

You might say I moved to the area I live in now – many years ago – because of the Queen “501” streetcar. I travel almost entirely by public transit, and in my experience the streetcar is the most civilized, efficient, and humane form of the genre.

On the other hand, I know some Toronto residents feel almost any form of public transit is just part of a legendary “war on cars.”

And many war-on-cars resisters seem to especially dislike streetcars. I think Edward Keenan’s Toronto Star column is especially good on all this.

Krista Ford, daughter of Doug Ford (and cousin of Michael Ford), at the wheel of her convertible.

He does “know what it’s like to be a car driver stuck behind a streetcar for blocks at a time, feeling like it’s slowing you down because you need to stop behind it every block while it loads passengers … It’s frustrating. And without even thinking that the vehicle has more than 100 people on it, it’s easy for a single car driver to think his car ought to have right of way here.”

Keenan goes on : “It’s easy to think that, in your car, on the way home … But it should be equally easy to realize, on reflection, that the big transit vehicles carrying thousands should get priority over the small personal vehicles carrying dozens … that, because they carry so many people at a time … streetcars are a solution to traffic, not the cause of it.”

But streetcars are not the Ford way …

Edward Keenan finally notes : “It should be easy, but that is not the Ford way.”

New City Councillor Michael Ford thanks supporters, while Uncle Doug Ford looks on, July 2016.

He is referring to city councillor Michael Ford,  key advocate of a “costly streetcar study” of whether buses do the public transit job better on Queen Street in Toronto – during a summer (and fall?) when buses have (supposedly?) temporarily replaced streetcars, to accommodate various seasonal construction projects.

Michael Ford of course is the nephew of both the late Rob Ford, Mayor of Toronto 2010—2014, and his elder brother Doug Ford (who currently seems to think he may be the de facto leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario).

The Fords generally – from Etobicoke in the old west-end Toronto “automobile suburbs” – have long been staunch opponents of the war on cars (and fearless warriors in what some see as the countervailing war on streetcars).

The one thing I feel Edward Keenan goes a little too gently into that good night on, however, is his ultimate argument for taking the pro-streetcar side in this particular Canadian great debate.

Queen streetcar eastbound to Neville Park in the Beaches, 1962.

As best as I can make out, Mr. Keenan (not unlike my wife!)  is telling people like me – who have been worried for some time now about city hall plots to permanently replace the Queen 501 streetcars with Queen 501 buses – not to get too over-excited about this issue.

On this pro-streetcar argument, any rational study will find that, as Toronto Transit Commission CEO Andy Byford has already made clear, using streetcars on the Queen St. line is “inherently more efficient” than buses – many, many more of which would also be required to replace new streetcars already on order.

Yet (partly influenced by changes in the political fabric everywhere, induced by the election of an inherently irrational government official next door) my own argument against Michael Ford’s continuation of his family war on streetcars is more visceral and subjective.

(Although I note quickly that in an earlier incarnation I became acquainted with a few  professional transportation engineers. And I remember some of them also argued that, short of subways, buses were the most “rational” form of urban public transit. Their alleged expertise helped get rid of streetcars in most North American cities, back when I was much younger.)

What will make voters like me very, very angry …

Rob Ford, Doug Ford, and current Toronto Mayor John Tory, in happier days.

What I’d like to make clear to someone I may or may not vote for at some point is that I have been paying taxes and maintaining my property in the Toronto neighbourhood I live in for more than 40 years now. I choose not to drive a car, and the Queen 501 streetcar is one of the public transit services I depend on and value highly.

To me the Ford family and other war-on-cars protesters from the automobile suburbs developed after the Second World War are coming into my old urban neighbourhood and telling me I have to live like them.

But I don’t want to live like them. I don’t go into their neighbourhoods and insist that streetcar tracks be installed on all the main thoroughfares. I give them the freedom to live as they like. And I think they should let me live as I like. (Especially when my way costs much less!)

There has been a streetcar on Queen Street all my life and even for well over 100 years now. That’s one reason I moved into the area I live in – and raised a family there and so forth.

Queen streetcar eastbound at Victoria Street downtown, 1968. Note Town Tavern jazz club to the right, on north side of Queen Street.

If people from Etobicoke and other “old” suburbs find driving cars on Queen Street too challenging, they should drive on other streets. Queen Street is not the only east/west path across the city. And I really like and highly value the streetcars on Queen Street, where I live.

Moreover, I was on one of the so-called temporary replacement buses at rush hour in the early evening just a few days ago. The experience was much worse than similar experiences on streetcars.

I have now timed the bus ride downtown as well (again ask my wife). It is certainly no shorter and sometimes longer than the streetcar. It is also true from simple observation that there are a lot more buses clogging up the road to carry the same number of people as the streetcars.

Anyway, I want to at least make clear in some quasi-public forum that if the city fathers in their wisdom (and mothers nowadays too of course) finally do decide to replace the streetcars on Queen Street with buses – as Councillor Michael Ford from Etobicoke wants – I will be VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY ANGRY indeed.

Lock him (her) up and make the streetcars great again!

Queen 501 streetcar eastbound to Neville, October 2016.

In fact, if the streetcars go I will work tirelessly to help defeat all those city councillors who voted against them. I will not rest until every anti-streetcar councillor has been consigned to their own home basement offices, from which they can pointlessly carry on their retrogressive wars.

I will not rest until some new authentically urbane populist movement has arisen, to rain very unhappy times on all those who try to bully other people into living just like them (for reasons I confess I have never understood and probably never will).

I would finally urge young Michael Ford as well to consider the real heart and soul of the rising generation, if he values his longer term political career. Old confirmed streetcar/public transit rebels like me are just harbingers of broader trends.

Late Toronto mayor Rob Ford with wife Renata and two friends from New York City – where more than half of all households do not have cars.

According to the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan, the percentage of US households with no automobile at all rose from 8.87% in 2005 to 9.22% in 2012.

Still more to the point for a place like Toronto, “more than half the households in New York City had no vehicle in 2012 (56 percent) and at least a quarter of households in seven other US cities were without a vehicle in 2012: Washington, DC (38 percent), Boston (37 percent), Philadelphia (33 percent), San Francisco (31 percent), Baltimore (31 percent), Chicago (28 percent) and Detroit (26 percent).”

Young Mr. Ford might also want to ask someone on his staff to read Julie Beck on “The Decline of the Driver’s License … Fewer people of all ages are getting them,” in The Atlantic, January 22, 2016, and Kate Lunau on “For today’s youth, cars no longer represent freedom … Fewer young people are learning to drive. The biggest reason for the move away from driving is the Internet,” from Maclean’s,  June 5, 2012.

Enough said ...

And (for one last time) remember : If buses ever do permanently replace the streetcars on Queen Street in Toronto, I am 100% ready to go to every subsequent public appearance of the politicians responsible and start chants of “lock her up” or “lock him up,” as the case may be. Because, just like everyone else these days, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more …

I wanna make the streetcars great again, like they used to be when I was young. (Or maybe that was my parents – but anyway, you get the point. And maybe some day Michael Ford will too. He is still very young and inexperienced himself.)

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