Public Transit Is More Popular Than Ever, And That’s The Problem

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Toronto’s day transit pass (left) and a Montreal 3-day pass.

By Micheline Maynard

Over the past few years, there has been a record demand for public transportation. Environmentalists think that’s great news. So do businesses near bus stops and subway stations.

There’s only one problem. The interest in public transportation is swamping cities’ ability to provide fast and comfortable service. Every day, Twitter is full of alerts about train lines breaking down, subway delays and street closings that cause buses to detour.

I experienced some of these issues with the public transit lines in Toronto and Montreal during my visit. While they didn’t keep me from getting where I needed to go, the delays and detours threw me off schedule. Multiply that by the thousands of people who use the systems each day, and you begin to see that productivity can be under pressure.

The first problem happened on my first ride in Toronto. I hopped aboard a street car headed toward Lit Espresso Bar, on College Street, a main east-west route, figuring I’d revive myself after my Via Rail journey from Windsor.

Perhaps a mile into the trip, the driver made an announcement that our journey was going to entail a “short turn.” That means the car wouldn’t proceed to the end of the line, but would dump passengers off at the next stop, where they could pick up the next car.

It turns out this happens all the time in Toronto, and the transit authority even produced a video at one point to explain it. (The video is now gone from YouTube.) Essentially, if there’s bad traffic, construction or too few people riding a streetcar, the system dumps people off and turns around.Pretty much everyone on my streetcar got off docilely, save for one unhappy man, who might have been recovering from a Saturday night bender. Once on the street, he kicked the back of the car, and used the kind of language usually heard at hockey games.

The next day, as I was on my way to the University of Toronto, I heard a garbled announcement alerting passengers that the electricity had gone out at the Sheppard-Yonge station, which is west of downtown Toronto. Riders were told they would have to exit at the station before Sheppard, and the system couldn’t estimate when electricity would be restored.

From what I later heard, the situation caused delays for a few hours, which I thought explained why the subway car I was riding at 11 a.m. was so full. No, my friends told me: the subway and many streetcars in Toronto are ALWAYS full, both due to problems with the system, and the rising demand for transit use.

Once I got to Montreal, I got off to a good start on the Metro system. Montreal subsidizes public transit — there are all kinds of deals for students, seniors and visitors. I bought a three-day pass for just $18, versus the $10.25 for each day pass that I bought in Toronto.

I had a swift, and crowd-free Metro ride from Westmount to the McGill University campus, and I subsequently jumped on a bus to go up to the Mile End neighborhood, home of several of Montreal’s famous bagel bakeries.

On my way back down, however, I ran into the crowds that I’d encountered in Toronto. I got off the bus at Sherbrooke, a main east-west avenue, to continue on to my hotel. Montrealers are good about queuing up to wait for the bus, so I joined the end of the line, chatting pleasantly with the woman next to me about our respective cobalt blue walking shoes.

After a few minutes, I noticed that the bus we were all waiting for was late. Then it was even later, and the queue grew longer and longer. Finally, the bus arrived, completely packed, with another, empty bus on its heels. A bunch of us surged toward the empty bus, which filled up rapidly.

As had happened in Toronto, it turned out there may have been a reason why the buses were late and crowded: the Metro system had completely shut down earlier in the day, due to a ventilation problem. Although it was only closed for 20 minutes, the residual issues apparently had caused hiccups for hours.

For me, the issues in Montreal and Toronto were simply temporary inconveniences. But if I were a resident, and ran into them every day, I might be tempted to kick a streetcar, like my fellow rider in Toronto.

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