Toronto may be North America's most fascinating transit city. It has virtually every mode in abundance and its per capita ridership is far above any US city except New York. Here are eight things I learned while visiting, both positive and negative.
1. Streetcar transitways are awesome
Yes, streetcars really do work much better in dedicated transit lanes than when they mix with car traffic. Toronto's 50-mile streetcar network is the largest and most successful in North America, and although it has a mix of transit lanes and mixed-traffic segments, the dedicated sections stand out as being particularly good models for US cities to follow. Thanks to the transitways, Toronto can run trains more often, with fewer delays. As a result, more people ride and trips are faster.
The transitways are good for cars, too. For example on the Spadina line, which has a transitway, streetcars carry about 45,000 riders per day and come every 2-3 minutes. Imagine being a car driver and trying to navigate around these 99 foot long trams every two minutes, or imagine tens of thousands of extra cars. Either alternative would be exasperating.
This is more or less the layout DC proposes for the K Street transitway, which DDOT estimates will carry about 20,000 riders per day. It would be a big improvement over H Street's design.
2. Mixed traffic streetcars belong as far from the parking lane as possible
Most of Toronto's older streetcar lines run in mixed-traffic. But unlike DC's H Street, where streetcars closely hug the curbside parking lane, Toronto's streetcar tracks are as close to the center of the road as possible.
On streets with only one traffic lane each direction, where streetcars are adjacent to a parking lane, aligning the tracks a few inches closer to the center of the lane, away from the parking, avoids many of the short delays that plague H Street. Streetcars don't have to slow to a crawl to guarantee clearance when they come upon a car that's parked close to the outer line. That little bit of extra room helps a lot.
On streets with multiple traffic lanes, island platforms would be ideal. Unfortunately Toronto doesn't have many. Instead, riders at most stops have to literally walk across a traffic lane to reach the streetcar. It's a seemingly crazy layout, that no 21st Century American engineer would ever approve.
But in Toronto, it mostly works. Laws require car drivers to stop behind streetcars, even if they're in a different lane. And just like with US school buses, most drivers do stop. As a result, Toronto combines the benefits of curbside tracks (easy construction, no need for islands) with the benefits of center tracks (faster running, fewer conflicts with parking cars).
3. Suburban BRT is possible, but has difficult challenges
Toronto's suburban Viva "Rapidway" network is exactly the type of bus rapid transit system that Montgomery County is hoping to build. It's completely beautiful, with its red-paved center busway and blue glass stations complete with pre-pay and indoor waiting areas. Honestly, it's the best-looking BRT I've personally laid eyes on.
But it's far from perfect, and its problems offer lessons just as valuable as its successes. Wide suburban highways make crossing the street to reach stations intimidating to say the least. Buses don't come often enough, especially off-peak when 16 minute headways are common. And local buses still use curbside stops, forcing riders to commit to one route or another even when multiple parallel lines would work for them.
4. Open gangways are indeed great
Toronto's newest subway trains, like those in Montreal and just about everywhere outside the United States, are open gangway, meaning their interior is one long open hallway, rather than a bunch of individual train cars separated by doors. The result: A 10% increase in train capacity beyond normal railcars, and riders can walk up and down the train to spread out.
5. Subway doors are natural places to display messages
Over the past year, WMATA has opened up to the power of stickers, applying new stick-on wayfinding signs to train platforms and the ground outside stations. But how do you tell riders to get out of the way of exiting passengers before boarding, or not to stick their arms inside closing doors? How about stickers on the door windows.
6. WMATA deserves credit for its smooth ticketing
TTC, the Toronto Transit Commission, may be great at getting riders on buses & trains, but it's bad at selling tickets. Not only does their subway still use physical tokens, the token machines don't accept credit cards or $5 bills. Unless they have the right combination of coins or bills, riders hoping to buy tokens have to find an open human-staffed ticket booth.
Meanwhile there is a smart card, called the Presto. But they only finished adding Presto capabilities to all subway stations in December 2016.
And while there are abundant machines to refill an empty Presto card, heaven help you trying to buy your first one. The human-staffed ticket booths don't sell them, and there are no automated machines. Instead, you have to find a newstand inside a subway station, and buy one from the person inside, assuming the stand is open at all. There are no instructions for this anywhere; to find a Presto card, I had to ask three different TTC workers on three separate entries into the subway, before success.
And even then, the TTC recommends riders using Presto still obtain a paper transfer (which still exist), because the software is weak and doesn't know how to deal with all types of transfers.
WMATA, for all the flak we give it on other issues, generally makes ticket-buying comparatively easy. All stations have automated fare machines, and our smart card has been working well for almost 20 years. Chalk one win up for DC.
7. The Americans with Disabilities Act makes US transit unusually accessible
Another win for the USA: If you're in a wheelchair, carrying a stroller, or carting around groceries, any modern US transit system will be far more accessible than most in other countries, including Toronto's.
8. Airport express trains are a so-so idea
In 2015 Toronto opened North America's most direct airport express train. The Union-Pearson Express runs DMU trains every 15 minutes between Union Station in downtown Toronto and Pearson International Airport, with only two stops in-between. The full 15-mile trip takes 25 minutes.
Unfortunately, ridership has not been strong. With tickets initially running $19-28 Canadian for a one-way ride, only around 2,000-3,000 people per day rode the train during its first few months. Officials lowered fares to $9-12 each way, and ridership climbed to around 8,000 per day. But even at its new higher ridership level, a lot of seats go unsold.
Those numbers might be OK for a starter line, or for a more basic operation with less frequent trains. But they're low for a 15 mile long complete line with relatively frequent service.
For comparison, Denver, a far smaller city with a far less robust transit system, recently opened a similar airport train. It's 24 miles long, with trains coming every 15 minutes and fares at $9 American ($12 Canadian). But it has twice as many stops as Toronto's train, and carries twice as many riders.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that direct airport express trains, while convenient, probably aren't very efficient ways to spend transit dollars. If you exclude airport workers with high ticket prices, and don't serve other destinations along the line, the market probably isn't big enough to really support a train.
Correction: An earlier version of this story understated the number of accessible subway stations.