Urban Transportation | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Urban Transportation

Horse-drawn trams were a vast improvement, but they were far from ideal transportation. Heavy loads could not be hauled, and horses were expensive and required frequent rest periods; they also polluted the streets.

Urban Transportation

 With the spread of industrialism and the growing size of cities, it was no longer possible for many city dwellers to live within walking distance of work. Urban transportation has become increasingly important as our cities continue to grow. Early attempts to solve the urban transportation problem were made in other countries. In 1819, for example, Paris benefited from the operation of a system of horse-drawn stagecoaches. In the next decade, omnibuses began operating in New York City and in London, England. The development of railways for intercity passenger transportation in the 1820s and 1830s was quickly followed by their adaptation for use in cities. Steam locomotives were unsuitable for urban use as they scared horses and were dirty, so most of the early street railways used horses or mules for propulsion. Toronto had horse-drawn trams in operation by 1845, Montréal by the 1860s, and soon after other Canadian cities introduced these vehicles.

Horse-drawn trams were a vast improvement, but they were far from ideal transportation. Heavy loads could not be hauled, and horses were expensive and required frequent rest periods; they also polluted the streets. Numerous attempts were made to substitute mechanical power for muscle power: the invention of the first successful electric railway in 1879 by Dr E.W. von Siemens in Germany led to a revolution in transportation. German, US and British inventors were soon busy perfecting the electric streetcar. One of the first full-scale examples of the new technology was built at the Toronto Industrial Exposition of 1885. This short line introduced another important invention, the trolley pole, which permitted the efficient and safe collection of electric power from overhead wires. Commercial use followed, and Canada was one of the first countries to exploit fully the technological advances. The first electric railway line in Canada was established in Windsor, Ont, and opened 28 May 1886 using 1.5 miles (2.4 km) of track. Another electric streetcar system was opened the following year in St Catharines, Ont, with several systems following in the next few years. Ultimately, most Canadian cities and their adjoining suburbs, located in every province except PEI, had STREET RAILWAYS.

 Although the streetcar provided an effective service when there was no alternative, its era was over almost as soon as it began. The development of the AUTOMOBILE eventually resulted in most Canadians having access to cheap and convenient TRANSPORTATION. The motor vehicle also revolutionized public transportation, as BUSES came into general use in the 1920s. Although slower and less comfortable than streetcars, motorbuses provided street railway companies with the means of facing increasing competition from the automobile.

To combine the good features of both streetcars and motorbuses, experiments were made with trolleybuses, which ran on rubber tires but drew their power from overhead lines. Windsor was the first Canadian city to try the new mode, with the Lincoln Road route being opened on 5 May 1922. Toronto also experimented with trolleybuses, opening a route in June 1922. Both of these experiments were abandoned by 1926, but the trolleybus replaced many streetcars after WWII.

The automobile continued to divert traffic from the street railway monopolies throughout the 1920s. The Depression of the 1930s brought further reductions in traffic, and many street railways were abandoned during this period, as the rolling stock deteriorated. With little capital available, bus manufacturers persuaded some street railways to opt for motorbuses. Transit systems in the largest cities, particularly Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver, purchased new streetcars and modernized their equipment.

WWII saw a dramatic resurgence of all forms of public transportation, as supplies of gasoline, tires and spare parts, as well as new cars, were severely restricted. By 1945 most public transit systems in Canada were worn out and required extensive new investment. The return to peace permitted more automobiles to be purchased, and the end of wartime emergencies saw a general decline in the demand for public transport. The decision was made in most cities to abandon all streetcar services, replacing them with modern trolleybuses and motorbuses. After the 1959 closure of the Montréal and Ottawa systems, only Toronto operated streetcars.

An important addition to Canadian urban transportation was the opening of Toronto's Yonge St subway in 1954. SUBWAYS provide high passenger capacities, as their trains operate on protected rights-of-way totally separated from interference by other traffic.

Significant improvements to private transportation were also made possible in the 1950s through the construction of expressways. The dramatic postwar increase in automobile ownership put pressure on conventional street systems, and the average time required to make a particular journey by either automobile or public transit actually increased. Expressways are intended to remove motor vehicles from local streets, placing them on separate rights-of-way, avoiding other traffic. As with subways, traffic on expressways moves at high speeds, permitting greater capacity. Both subways and expressways have severe disadvantages and cannot be universally applied as solutions to transportation problems. One disadvantage shared by subways and expressways is the extremely high cost of construction. Both forms consume large amounts of scarce land, although land used by subways can be built over once the subway is completed.

Despite the number of expressways constructed, traffic congestion continued to grow in Canadian cities in the 1960s and 1970s. A dramatic increase in the price of oil, as well as increases in parking and other costs, started a return to public transit. Many systems were rejuvenated with new equipment, and passengers once again began to use public transportation. Most transit expansion in this era depended on motorbuses and conventional rail-based systems. As the subway systems in Toronto and Montréal were extended, other cities looked for cheaper solutions to their transportation problems. Light Rail Transit provides most of the advantages of subways at less cost, and LRT lines were opened in Edmonton (1978), Calgary (1981) and Vancouver (1986).

Administration, Planning and Finance

No less dramatic than the change in technology has been the change in the administrative, financial and planning structures of urban transportation. Careful planning and scheduling of manpower and equipment are required to provide services at the times passengers wish to travel. Vehicles must be maintained; supervisors must ensure that the vehicles adhere to predetermined schedules and that every passenger pays the fare. These activities are co-ordinated by transportation management. In the early days of public transportation, these organizations were usually privately owned concerns which operated in the expectation of profit. Fares collected were expected to cover all costs and to provide a reasonable return on invested capital. Many cities even charged the private companies a franchise fee for the privilege of using their streets, and imposed other requirements on the transit systems. Other cities had a more direct involvement in the provision of transportation. In some cases, no suitable private company could be found to construct a streetcar system, and in other cities local residents were reluctant to give a private company a profitable monopoly.

In 1909 municipally owned streetcars began to operate in Calgary, and in 1911 the first streetcars in Saskatchewan, also municipally owned, began service in Regina. In 1921 the newly created Toronto Transportation Commission took over and extended the networks of both privately and municipally owned street railway companies. Private ownership remained important in other cities, however, with Halifax, Winnipeg and Vancouver, among others, being served by privately owned companies until the 1950s or later.

Whether ownership was private or public, all early transportation systems were operated with the expectation of profit, or at least with the aim of meeting expenses. Within a few years, some systems found it difficult to achieve this goal. Streetcar services had to be provided not only throughout the day, but on weekends and evenings when there were relatively few riders available. Large amounts of equipment and manpower had to be reserved for the journeys to and from work.

As riders started to drift away from public transportation to private automobiles, the financial problems of the transit systems accelerated. Fewer riders meant that higher fares had to be charged to cover operating costs. Higher fares resulted in even fewer riders. Attempts to cut costs were not totally effective, particularly as transit-system operating costs started to rise dramatically. In 1960 the average Canadian transit passenger brought a profit of 1.7c per trip, but by 1971 this profit had disappeared with an average net cost per passenger of 0.7c. Losses have increased so that the average cost per passenger on transit systems was 38.1c in 1980 and 52c in 1985.

This reversal of the profitability of urban transportation systems caused planners to revise their thinking. The problems encountered by freeway systems in meeting urban transportation needs made it obvious that support of public transit systems was a viable, less costly alternative. By deliberately deferring or cancelling roadway construction projects and by introducing measures to support transit systems, automobile travel in our cities was made relatively unattractive in comparison to public transit. Innovative traffic management measures, such as "bus-only" lanes and streets, and transit-operated traffic signals, provided cheap ways of accelerating transit schedules. Buses required no downtown parking spaces and, per passenger, consumed less roadway space than that required by automobiles. There was virtual unanimity across the country in the 1970s that public transportation should receive some form of subsidy to attract more passengers and to allow public transit to compete on a fair basis with the private car. Many of the traffic management measures undertaken specifically to aid buses in their travels through city streets have also assisted automobiles, as conflict between buses and other vehicles slows the speed of all traffic.

Having made the commitment to support public transit services, urban planners found that direct control over the type and quality of services enabled them to achieve innovations in the actual design and layout of cities and suburbs. The provision of transit service to a particular area was an added amenity which attracted development. If the transit service was permanent, such as a subway, LRT or trolleybus line, the attraction would be even stronger than that of a motorbus route which could be easily moved to another location without warning. Subway lines in Toronto and Montréal, although underground, can be readily identified from the air by the high-density developments around many stations. Residential areas can be made more attractive if there is a commitment to provide an alternative, reliable, permanent transit service. The development of the False Creek community in Vancouver saved thousands of dollars per housing unit by restricting garage space and by providing a frequent bus service as an alternative to second and third family cars. Even in remote suburbs, which are often difficult to serve effectively by public transit, steps are now being taken to provide walkways at the ends of cul-de-sacs, thereby bringing public transit within easy walking distance of all houses in the subdivision.

The trend towards public transportation was reinforced in the 1970s when automobile fuel and parking costs in major cities rose dramatically. Many Canadians turned to public transit for the first time in their lives as a result of the energy crisis; others moved to individual means of transportation, by foot, bicycle or motorcycle. Some transit companies experimented with special bus services to enable handicapped people to use public transport. Although the automobile still has a major role in urban transportation, it is unlikely that it will ever regain its popularity of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, in contrast to the low usage rates of the early 1990s, urban transit enjoyed an 11.6% increase in ridership between 1995 and 1997.

In 1997 the 67 transit systems belonging to the Canadian Urban Transit Association operated 10 828 buses, 520 light rail vehicles, 1381 heavy rail vehicles and 336 commuter rail vehicles. Among them, these vehicles achieved $1.7 billion in operating revenue and carried 1.4 billion regular service passengers. They consumed 335.7 million L of diesel fuel, 546.8 million kWh of electricity and 6.5 million m3of natural gas. Over 38 000 persons were employed in the industry.

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