Time to end TTC Streetcar “whack-a-mole?”

Remember those old war movies, when the young green paratroopers would stand at the door, looking apprehensive before their jump into the battle zone?  Watching those movies, we all knew some would not make it.  They’d drown in a river or get shot as they tumbled toward earth. 

When I first moved to Toronto, I would imagine myself one of those paratroopers as I’d stand on the step of the streetcar, waiting for the conductor (jump master) to flip the switch for the doors to open for my exit (jump) into the busy street.

Too dramatic an analogy for you?  How about whack-a-mole’ then?  Emerging passengers are like the little moles that emerge from the holes in the game, only to risk being ‘whacked’ by a club wielding protagonist (oncoming traffic).

That was years ago. Now, I tend to walk as much as I can in Toronto, avoiding the TTC whenever possible.  Why?  It seems so often that when I do choose “the better way” to get around, I get caught in delays that actually lengthen my travels.  Nowadays, I only take the TTC  for trips longer than a twenty-minute walk.

I walk daily along Queen Street West, between University and Spadina, on my way to my office.  I play a little game each day.  I like to see how far along Queen Street I can get before my 12 minute walk is overtaken by a passing streetcar.  Many days I can walk the whole stretch without being passed by a “Red Rocket.”  Other days, I’m amazed at the cluster of streetcars that finally come along, single file.  The front car will be packed of course; the cars that follow inevitably empty.

I’ve been giving some thought to the dangers and frustrations faced by both streetcar passengers and the other vehicular traffic that shares the road.  I am astounded that more TTC patrons are not run over by cars as they enter and exit streetcars.  But don’t get me wrong, this is not a rant against drivers.   There are real dangers for passengers and vehicles alike.  It’s time the TTC got serious, and more practical with streetcar passenger safety.  I’ve asked the TTC for their annual statistics on streetcar deaths and injuries, but I have not heard back yet.  I’ll post them when/if they arrive.

You’ve probably seen those big decals plastered over the rear right windows of streetcars.  They show a graphic stop sign reminding drivers that ‘It’s the law!” to stop for streetcar passengers.  Ontario law states:

(1) Where a person in charge of a vehicle or on a bicycle or on horseback or leading a horse on a highway overtakes a street car or a car of an electric railway, operated in or near the centre of the roadway, which is stationary for the purpose of taking on or discharging passengers, he or she shall not pass the car or approach nearer than 2 metres measured back from the rear or front entrance or exit, as the case may be, of the car on the side on which passengers are getting on or off until the passengers have got on or got safely to the side of the street, as the case may be….”

The law’s very clear, so I guess police, the courts and the occasional coroner’s inquest jury must find it all pretty straightforward!  But really, in practical terms, does the TTC procedure for exiting and boarding patrons actually work?  I don’t think so, and here’s why.

– when passengers exit, the external warning light for approaching traffic comes on when the doors open and the passenger is just nano-seconds from stepping into the traffic lane.

– those lights are about 3 inches in circumference. Because of how they are mounted (projecting out from the side, rather than pointing toward the rear of the streetcar), they are hardly visible to traffic approaching from behind, in the curb lane.

– To put it in perspective, these same warning lights would be too small–if they were brake lights— to meet the minimum size standards for large motorized vehicles anywhere in this country.

(The top photo on the left was taken a heartbeat before the doors opened.  Below, passengers rush from the streetcar.  Can you see the tiny red light?)

– the warning lights mounted on the side of the streetcar are about 7 feet off the ground, well above an approaching driver’s eye-level. 

This really messes up drivers:

– drivers must be extremely vigilant, watching for that obscure little red light on the side of the streetcar to turn on, anytime a streetcar comes to a stop—regardless of whether the streetcar is boarding or exiting passengers

– streetcars can’t change lanes. When they slow down or stop for left turning vehicles in front of them, other drivers right behind them or in the righthand lane can’t see why they are slowing down.  So, these drivers are constantly stopping for phantom passengers.  That just slows down all traffic on the street.

– in heavy traffic, because the warning lights come on so suddenly (only when the passenger is about to exit) many drivers find themselves next to streetcar doors, blocking passengers, and not behind them, as the law requires.

– on many streets with streetcar routes, the righthand lane is taken by parked cars for extended stretches. When the right lane opens up, frustrated drivers who have been following the streetcars feel compelled to scoot up the right side of the streetcar to pass.  For exiting and boarding streetcar passengers, it’s a recipe for disaster.

What could and should be done? 

First, the big decals in the rear window are a cop-out.  They help no-one. Get rid of them.  They don’t improve passenger safety.  While they scream out about the law to stop, let’s remember that the law requires drivers to yield to “passengers… getting on or off until the passengers have got on or got safely to the side of the street.” And that’s the problem. With no advance warning, drivers of approaching vehicles have absolutely no way of knowing whether there are actually any passengers boarding or exiting… until it may be too late. 

Second, the streetcar driver should exercise control of  the warning lights,  so that they serve as an advance warning to approaching vehicles.  When a passenger pulls the cord signaling an intention to get off, or when the driver sees someone at an upcoming stop, the driver should be signaling this fact to other traffic.  It could safe lives and limbs.

Third, the warning lights should be on the back of the streetcar.  They should be of sufficient size to actually be noticed by approaching drivers who must also be alert to myriad other attention-getters.  School buses have large, visible flashing lights.  Why can’t streetcars use similar signals when passengers are about to board and exit? 

The current ‘system’ is grossly unfair to the drivers of approaching vehicles.  It’s also dangerous for TTC patrons.  Why is this allowed to continue?   When will TTC’s game of “whack-a-mole” end?

(A final thought… I wonder if the person who dreamed up the monster warning stickers on the back of  streetcars is the same one who had the ‘walk left/stand right’ signs on subway escalators removed.    Apparently, there was a concern that because escalators are intended for standing on– not walking on– there could be a successful lawsuit.   Poof, no more signs.  They used to be everywhere; not anymore.)

John Ecker, Pantheon

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About Pantheon

www.johnecker.ca Lives in Canada. Likes to travel. Loves Europe. Avid Photographer. Drives Mazdas
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