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The new streetcars will accommodate 70 passengers seated and 181 standing.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

As the $1.2-billion price tag attests, 204 new streetcars will be part of Toronto traffic for a long time, with emphasis on long. The new vehicles are twice the length of the current crop of non-articulated streetcars.

As is, the track-bound trams serve as pace cars for a line of traffic behind. Due to their enormity, the new streetcars are already distressing drivers even before they begin operation. How are they to pass the 30-metre long cars on clogged Queen, King and Dundas streets?

Duncan Purcell has lived in Toronto most of his 40 years, though he's currently working in Victoria where he walks 10 minutes to work as project manager for a digital advertising company. "Streetcars are terrible where no dedicated lane exists [as on St. Clair and Spadina]," he says. "Roads like King Street suffer terribly when, on a green light, all the cars stop while the streetcar stops. During rush hour, it's a complete disaster."

When the streetcar trundles forward, the race is on for downtown drivers to jump ahead of it before the next Toronto Transit Commission stop, where both lanes of traffic will be arrested again as passengers unload through two exits, and enter only through the front doors. Impatient drivers look for gaps in the parked cars in curb lane to gain position on the streetcar by zipping ahead before merging in front.

This passing exercise is about to get significantly more difficult. The vast majority of Toronto's 25- to 37-year-old streetcars are 15 metres long, with one set of doors in front and another halfway to the rear. The new models are twice the size, with four sets of doors that go right to the rear.

Through a spokesman, the TTC noted that the higher-capacity vehicles will reduce the number of streetcars on the road during rush hour. On busy routes, streetcars are currently scheduled to pass every two to three minutes. That rate will slow to every four to five minutes once more passengers can fit on every ride. Loading and unloading will also take place through all doors, shortening the time spent at each stop.

Meanwhile, City of Toronto transportation spokesperson Steve Johnston says more than 400 intersections are equipped with a system that manipulates light timing, when appropriate, to give priority to the streetcar. This mostly happens at side streets where an approaching streetcar can send a signal to the traffic signals, prompting it to either shorten or lengthen the light.

Nigel Ryce, co-owner of A Leg Up Pet Services at Bathurst and Bloor, has seen the new streetcars on test runs during dog-walking rounds. "If something that long makes a turn it's going to take up half the green light," he says. "They look about as long as a subway."

He questions whether the length means automobile drivers will be spending a lot more time beside the streetcar, wondering whether it's safe – and legal – to proceed.

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