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A Tram Barcelona LRT leaves the Francesc Macia terminus, en route to Llevant-Les Planes, on October 10, 2013Oliver Moore/The Globe and Mail

You've got to leave Toronto to see an LRT in action.

Light rail technology is used in dozens of cities – including Austin, Calgary, Jerusalem, Paris, Sydney, and Spain's second city, where a pair of lines carry millions of people annually.

But it will not be operational in Toronto until the Crosstown line along Eglinton Avenue is up and running later this decade.

That lack of exposure to the technology in the midst of a battle between those who like transit only when it is below-ground and those who say surface rail has a place – allows opponents to muddy the waters. Politicians from Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak to the brothers Ford at Toronto City Hall have repeatedly dismissed LRTs as little better than streetcars.

"It's willful ignorance or deliberate mischaracterization," one senior transit official said privately.

Adding to the confusion, some cities call LRTs "trams," which in other places is a synonym for streetcars.

While no specific feature distinguishes the two types of transit, there are key differences. LRTs usually have higher speeds, greater capacity and accelerated boarding. They run separately from traffic, typically with efforts made to minimize the effect on drivers by re-engineering the road.

Barcelona has a smooth and fast system running mostly above ground on its own right of way. Large sections of the tracks are surrounded by grass, an idea Toronto's planning staff is also proposing.

Passengers buy tickets on the covered platform and quickly board the trams, as they are called here, through multiple doors. During several trips, the average dwell time – the period spent stationary at each station – was about 25 seconds. The speed reached about 40 kilometres per hour.

Olatz Ortiz, who is charge of studies and projects for Tram Barcelona, said the two lines carried nearly 24 million passengers last year, a number that is not high enough to justify the much greater cost of digging a subway.

"Everything is a [result] of demand," she told The Globe and Mail. "I mean, you have to take into account that constructing one kilometre of tramway costs around €20-million [$28.8-million] and constructing metro, it can cost around €100-million."

But don't tell Mr. Hudak. The Opposition Leader called LRTs "glorified streetcars" on a recent visit to The Globe and Mail, and would like to focus almost entirely on underground rail. It also would not be welcomed by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who abhors surface transit, saying it gets in the way of private vehicles. Before his most recent troubles, Mr. Ford seized the transit agenda with the populist slogan, "Subways, subways, subways," saying the much higher cost of tunnelling was worth the convenience and perceived prestige value.

City hall watchers wondered if Mr. Ford, a vehement LRT opponent, learned more about the technology on a trip to Austin last month. It is unclear whether he saw them. A message to his then deputy chief of staff and spokesman was not returned.

At City Hall in the summer, Councillor Josh Matlow challenged Mr. Ford to say how many LRT lines Toronto has.

"There's one," the mayor shot back. "It's called St. Clair … and that's a complete disaster."

However, a recent discussion paper from a provincially appointed panel studying transit specified that the St. Clair Avenue streetcar line is "not an LRT" and "not the model for future LRTs."

Still, the conflation has allowed opponents to link an unfamiliar proposed technology with an existing one many drivers do not like.

The stakes in Toronto's transit debates are high. Mr. Ford would like to replace proposed LRTs on Sheppard and Finch avenues with subways, although that would add enormously to the cost. And hampering the discussion over whether tunnelling these routes is worthwhile is the fact that Toronto residents who do not travel have never ridden an LRT.

In an apparent acknowledgment that it was losing the rhetorical battle, the regional transit agency Metrolinx recently rolled out an advertising video that seeks to explain LRT technology.

The situation reminds Jack Collins, the Metrolinx executive vice-president for rapid transit implementation, of the opposition he faced building LRTs in San Jose.

"It was really interesting that you had to build the first one to show people what it was, before they would accept it," he said in an interview.

That will be some time yet in Toronto. The contract to dig the eastern portion of the Eglinton Crosstown was recently awarded, but only a few hundred metres of the tunnel's 10-kilometre length has been dug. The new line is not forecast to open until the end of the decade. But insiders hope it will change the framework of the debate about transit expansion.

"I think people need to see what a modern light rail system is and ride it and experience it to say, 'Hey, that ain't so bad, we could use more of that,'" Mr. Collins said.