Thursday, September 04, 2014

A New Streetcar Everyone Desired

The Toronto Transit Corporation (TTC) had been teasing us about the new streetcars for a year now. They were supposed to be accessible, air conditioned, quieter, smoother and so on. I knew that they would be rolling out the new streetcars on the Spadina route on Aug 31, 2014. Two days before that, I was thrilled to get a glimpse of the new streetcar while they were testing it.

It really looked slick. It was futuristic and looked completely different than the streetcars currently used in service. I couldn't wait for Aug 31 to come.

On September 1, Labour Day, my brother and I decided to head downtown for some work. We would be using the Spadina route. As we waited for our streetcar to come, I was disappointed to see they were still using the old streetcars on the route. I asked someone with a TTC badge, and they replied initially there was only 2 new models on the route; the rest would be rolled out gradually. Something about a workers' strike at the Bombardier plant. Ah, strikes - the price of freedom and labour equality and all that stuff. Grunting a sigh, I boarded the old streetcar.

Yesterday, September 3, I stepped off the subway platform at Spadina and saw a huuuuuuge lineup for the streetcars. What was going on?

It turned out that it was just a regular rush hour crunch. We were all waiting for streetcars. I was wondering - would I get to ride the new streetcar?

YES! Suddenly the new streetcar rolled into the station. Almost immediately everyone headed for the doors. There was no time to take a picture - I had to board. I was in! Once seated, I noticed just how big (and spacious) this new streetcar was. This one streetcar had almost four times the capacity (or even more - I am estimating) of the old streetcar. It was crowded, but not suffocating.

And then, it was my stop. My ride lasted a mere 4 quick stops, and it was over before it had begun.

Hmm. I thought. That was great (it was a very smooth ride) but how do I get to ride one again? I had the lunch hour coming up, and I have a transit pass that allows me unlimited rides, but I knew there was only 2 new streetcars on the route. I didn't want to spend 30 minutes waiting streetcar after streetcar until the one I wanted came by.

Enter the Internet. So there is this website that lets you know where the next streetcar is, and if it's the new one or not. I love living in the First World where this sort of thing is possible. I picked a time a little after lunch hour, when I thought the car would be less crowded, monitored the map, and then headed out for the stop.

And old streetcar came ambling by.

I let it go. I noticed that they had installed new fare machines on each stop, and there was a TTC person on hand to explain the machine to riders. And then I saw the new streetcar come into view.

I got in! My plan was to ride it to the Spadina station and then back again to my stop. Boy was it spacious inside. It almost felt like I was in a train or an LRT instead of in a streetcar. There was a streetcar route map on board. By 2019, every one of those routes would have these modern streetcars.

Surprisingly the streetcar was fairly packed. Not quite full, but not empty either. Talking to some people I found that like me, they had especially waited to board this new streetcar.

There were displays for the street name, and even an announcement of every stop. Besides, if someone requested a stop, you would see the signal light up. Very good UI.

 There was that familiar yellow strip bar to press in case of emergencies. Just like the train.

Big windows and doors let in maximum sunlight, thus creating a roomy feeling. The floor was quite low, and yet the ride was very smooth. You would not even hear the wheels against the rails. I guess the true test would come in the years ahead - the older streetcars had been plying the roads for over 30 years.

And then the streetcar got to Spadina station. This was the terminus stop. I would probably have at most a minute as the passengers unloaded, and moved away, before the next set of passengers would load. Time to take some pictures of the now empty streetcar.

It was long. The new streetcar has 5 modules, and is almost 30 metres in length. This is more than 4 times the length of the older streetcar.

The driver no longer collects the fare. You pay your fare on these new machines that takes tokens or cash. You can board through any of the doors now (which prevent the jamming up at the front problem that occurs on regular streetcars as people don't move to the empty space at the rear). I wondered what would happen on a really crowded car - how would you get to the fare machine? The answer - every stop on route has a fare machine, as well as the stations.

See the blue seats? That's part of the new designated Priority Area for customers with wheelchairs and other mobility devices. Besides, the new streetcar has a low floor, and is accessible to all by a ramp that is deployed by operators when requested (you push the illuminated blue accessibility button on the second set of doors). As folks were now starting to board, I got to see the new ramp in action.

It soon got busy again as the streetcar started to head back down Spadina.

Everyone was taking pictures of the new ride and enjoying the roomy seating and the bright, big windows.

I moved to the end of the streetcar and saw a button on the door. I asked one of the TTC folks (helpfully seated there to orient riders with the features of the new car) on why this button was there. He replied that this will open the door of the car at the stop. On busy routes at rush hour, all the doors automatically open, so I wouldn't need to press the button. However, at night or if the streetcar isn't on a busy route, doors may remain shut unless there are passengers waiting to exit. I like it.

Soon it was my turn to exit. All in all, it was a great ride, and makes for a much better transit experience. And to think this is what some people who hated streetcars fought against! I can't wait until they replace the whole fleet on every route with these new vehicles.

Note: All pictures taken with my Google Nexus 4 phone camera.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

3 Reasons Why Olivia Chow Continues to Sink

And no, it has nothing to do with Warren Kinsella, however much you despise the man.

A week is a long time in politics, and Olivia Chow still has roughly seven weeks to work with. It could still happen that after the night of Oct 27, 2014, we could be talking about "Chow time in Toronto". This, despite the fact that she is polling third, behind Rob Ford, and an almost out of reach John Tory at first, after Labour day. Rob Ford could still have a "drunken stupor". Tory could, well, be a Tory - and propose something silly like funding for transit for the religious or something.

However, barring an upset of epic proportions, the one time front runner Olivia Chow is going to be an also-ran in this year's municipal elections, and John Tory (who entered the race a distant third) is going to be Toronto's next mayor. Here is why.

Transit, and Scarborough

Transit is the number 1 issue on the minds of Torontonians. When David Miller was mayor, he worked out a deal with the province that would have LRTs across the city, especially Scarborough. He dubbed the plan "Transit City". At last, something was going to get done. Then along came Rob Ford, and he killed that plan, and we started all over again. Everyone now wanted a subway. The provincial election happened, and all the pro-subway candidates got elected. The province said fine, we will give you your subway.

So now, finally, we have a deal to have a Scarborough subway, and along comes Olivia Chow, to kill that plan, and go back to LRTs. Folks in the city want this endless flip flopping to stop, and just build something. Anything. Even if a 3-stop subway is less effective than a 7-stop LRT, so be it - just don't keep changing the plans. Olivia Chow doesn't get that. In her plan, she would keep the tax increase that was to pay for the subway, but kill the subway. That is a losing proposition from day one.

Even with the rest of the city, Olivia Chow has no subway plans, except a small downtown relief portion, when clearly going underground would be the best way to move everyone. Yes, there is a cost to it. Olivia Chow would have LRTs, and more buses. More buses?!!! That's just adding to the gridlock.

Against this, John Tory's SmartTrack proposal sounds logical, doable, and well thought out. He started from the gate early on with this proposal and it had the whole summer to build traction. Yes, some has called it "snake oil", but crucially, he seems to have the backing of the Liberal government at Queen's Park. Tory's plan connects the city right across from Mississauga to Markham, and is ambitious, sexy and everything that Chow's plan is not. And the day Chow did decide to release her own transit map, along comes Warren Kinsella to cause a ruckus by labeling Tory as a "segregationist". Dumb, dumb move, yes, but Chow's real problem with transit starts way before that.

Chow is not a great speaker

You may be really good, sincere and honest. You could be hardworking with a lot of great ideas. You could be this and that - but you need to be able to communicate your ideas and experience. You need to be articulate. You need to have charisma.

Olivia Chow, sadly, doesn't. When she speaks, all you want to do is turn the TV off. She can't communicate her platform properly. Her sentences are sometimes wrong grammatically. She cannot give an inspiring speech to save her career. On the stump she comes across as wooden, irritated and rehearsed. She only needs to look at Barbara Hall and Stephane Dion to see how careers were destroyed by the inability to string a coherent sentence together with charisma.

Chow's Platform is too unfocused, and does not resonate

What's Rob Ford about? Subways (and crack).

What's John Tory about? Smart Track.

What's Olivia Chow about? Err ... purple?

Even her platform website is too unwieldy. She has too many ideas out there, and no focus on a single one. And caring for kids - who in Toronto really cares about the breakfast program, for which she would raise Land Transfer taxes? When I was a kid I ate my breakfast at home. She should have focused on a handful of issues that most Torontonians actually cared about, and not about 20 issues. Whoever is running her campaign and advising her needs to be fired.

So now, it's September 4, and Olivia Chow has about seven weeks to rescue her floundering ship. It will be an interesting election day on Oct 27, 2014.