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The Globe and Mail

Snow, streetcars and street parking: A perennial recipe for traffic chaos

Some days, you can't help feeling that Rob Ford has a point about streetcars.

After a snowstorm like the one that hit the city on Friday, the same problem always crops up. Because of the snow piled up at the side of the street, motorists park too far from the curb, making it impossible for streetcars to get past. So the streetcar halts in the middle of the road. Cars and other streetcars line up behind. Pretty soon, you have a right mess.

According to the Toronto Transit Commission, it happened 22 times on Friday, causing delays averaging 20 minutes; 42 times on Saturday, causing delays averaging 22 minutes; and 38 times on Sunday, causing delays averaging 34 minutes. Thousands of transit riders had to sit and wait on their streetcar or get off in the cold and find another way to their destination. As they say, it's no way to run a railroad.

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The main blame has to lie with the drivers. There should be a special chamber of Hell reserved for the motorists who leave their vehicles in the way of streetcars. It does not take an advanced degree to tell when your car is hanging out in the street. If it is even close to the tracks, the obvious thing to do is find somewhere else to park. Even an overhanging side mirror can hold up a procession of streetcars. But, given that there will always be careless and callous people, the city ought to have better ways to deal with the problem.

The way it works now, a streetcar driver who finds a car "afoul of rail" (as TTC jargon puts it) must call transit control, which then dispatches a supervisor and a parking-enforcement officer to ticket the car and have it towed. When a big snowstorm hits, transit supervisors take along a couple of extra parking officers to help them deal with this perennial problem.

Transit activist Steve Munro says a better way would be to give the TTC power to ticket and order tows on its own authority. The TTC used to have special constables riding transit, but the police services board took away their status in 2010. If they got that status back, as the TTC wants, they could help enforce the law against blocking streetcars.

Mr. Munro says that the city should also take advantage of its power to declare a snow emergency, banning any parking on major routes, including those with streetcar lines, for 72 hours. That would avoid "afoul of rail" incidents and, as a bonus, make it possible for plows to clear the roads without working around parked cars. As it is, those "No parking, snow route" signs are meaningless. Other cities, such as Montreal and Ottawa, are a lot tougher about getting cars off the streets while they clean up after a snowstorm.

Of course, the ultimate solution would be to get rid of streetcars altogether. A bus could at least pull around a car jutting into the street. That would make the mayor happy, no doubt. People "don't want these damn streetcars clogging up our city," he famously exclaimed during a city council debate last year.

But the city's 11 streetcar routes are a vital part of its transit network. A streetcar carries about 50 per cent more passengers than a typical bus, and the new, bigger streetcars coming next year will carry even more. Replacing the streetcar fleet with buses would fill downtown streets with roaring diesel vehicles. Getting past them as they pulled in and out of stops on these relatively narrow roadways would be no treat either.

Instead of banning streetcars, the city should focus on making them run more smoothly and reliably. One way is to limit left-hand turns and street parking. Another would be to make the busiest routes, like King Street, car-free during rush hours.

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For now, though, the least Toronto can do is to get better at keeping cars out of their way after a big snowfall.

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