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What the Toronto streetcar network looked like in 1945

Posted by Derek Flack / March 17, 2014

Streetcar map torontoCrossing the pothole-strewn intersection of Dovercourt and Geary this winter, one notices something that looks a bit out of place: streetcar tracks. They're not particularly conspicuous, but are easy enough to identify once you've spotted them and had a closer look. So what are they doing there? Prior to the construction of the subway in in 1954, Toronto had a far more extensive streetcar network than today. And Dovercourt, along with a host of others, was once one of the streets where you'd find old Peter Witt and PCC cars rumbling along.

With the rise of the automobile and, later, the arrival of the subway in Toronto (both the Yonge-University Line and Bloor-Danforth), the TTC abandoned a number of its old streetcar routes as part of a plan to ditch the fleet in its entirety by the 1980s. Routes on Bloor, Church, Yonge, Bay, Avenue Rd., Dupont, Harbord, and Mount Pleasant (to name only a few), were paved over at various points in the past.

Before the TTC went all the way through with its streetcar abandonment plans, an activist group called the Streetcars For Toronto Committee successfully campaigned the Commission to keep its fleet in the early 1970s. This bucked the trend insofar as most other North American cities did away with streetcar transit starting around the 1930s.

Streetcar MapTo get a sense of just how predominant streetcars once were in Toronto, this map of the network in 1945 (click for high resolution version) from Transit Toronto is good start. Nine years before the Yonge Line would open, the city is covered in streetcar tracks, some of which have complicated and meandering routes. It's rather remarkable to think about how vast the coverage was in the first half of the 20th century before the city was altered to accommodate the crush of car traffic.

So keep your eye out for old tracks peeking through the pavement -- there's lots of them.

Lead photo from the Toronto Archives



Torontonian / March 17, 2014 at 12:46 am
The photo is from the 1950s because it shows a hatted man carrying a child down the subway stairs at the north-east
corner of Yonge and Queen Streets.

Godfrey Mallion / March 17, 2014 at 05:31 am
The YONGE subway line, Union Station to Eglinton, was constructed between 1949 and 1954.
Derek replying to a comment from Torontonian / March 17, 2014 at 08:13 am
Yup. The photo isn't from 1945, just the map.
Ryan / March 17, 2014 at 09:09 am
Yeah I saw this on /r/Toronto yesterday too
iSkyscraper / March 17, 2014 at 09:36 am
1945 is a bit of a cheat since WWII boosted transit everywhere and stalled the outward migration of residents and other changes in transportation patterns. But yes, like every other city on the continent, there used to be more streetcar routes than today.

But the real story is not how different the streetcar network in Toronto is today compared to 1945, but how similar. In the 1940s, streetcars were:

- single-ended, requiring loops
- pay-at-the-door
- moving in mixed traffic
- blocked by left-turning cars
- stopped frequently
- subject to bunching and short turns
- boarded via steps
- used trolley poles for power
- depicted the same way as buses on maps

As of 2014, all of the above is still the case. Sure, the new vehicles coming soon will take care of the steps and payment issues, but that's it.

Meanwhile, in US cities that lost their entire 1945 streetcar network but have now rebuilt new streetcar lines (Portland, Seattle, DC, Tucson, LA, Atlanta, Dallas, Cincinnati) you see:

- double-ended, making reversing easier
- payment off-vehicle
- sometimes exclusive right-of-way
- usually along curb lane (i.e. not blocked by left turns)
- wider stop spacing
- less bunching
- low-floor boarding
- pantograph power delivery
- called out separately on maps

What Toronto needs to do is keep and expand its priceless streetcar network but start thinking it is 2015 and not 1945. The new vehicles are great but as long as they are operated as if it's WWII things are not going to improve.

It's sad to see North America's greatest streetcar city turning its own residents against this valuable asset through constant political and operational mismanagement. It needs to stop.
Greg / March 17, 2014 at 09:51 am
I saw this map on Reddit, but I had no idea about the back story. Great stuff.
W. K. Lis / March 17, 2014 at 09:53 am
Here's a Russian version of today's (actually a few years out-of-date) streetcar tracks.
W. K. Lis / March 17, 2014 at 09:56 am
This one zooms in more:
Basssss / March 17, 2014 at 10:18 am
The PCC doors look different than the ones I remember. The windows look more square.
iSkyscraper replying to a comment from Basssss / March 17, 2014 at 10:28 am
Since Toronto was grabbing PCC cars from various US cities as they were abandoned, many different models (similar but with slight variations like those windows) were in use at different times:'_Conference_Committee_(Toronto_streetcar)
Brent / March 17, 2014 at 11:03 am
The biggest difference was arguably not the map, but the schedule.

Transit Toronto recently posted a copy of the service summary from January 1964 (after the University subway opened, but before the Bloor-Danforth). Lists all the routes operated by the TTC, and the scheduled frequency at any given time of the day.

It is remarkable to see the number of routes operating every two minutes or even more frequently than that. Basically show up and see a streetcar on its way... and easy transfers. A lot of routes are mere shadows of their former selves today. (3MB PDF)
jameson / March 17, 2014 at 12:24 pm
Yup, lots of intercity public transit was removed to pay for the suburban focused subway

Honestly to me, the only real streetcar route removal I don't understand is along Dundas to the Junction and out east to Coxwell. All the major Avenues in the Official Plan should have enhanced public transit service, as these are the areas that after the waterfront is built out, are going to receive a lot of mid-rise intensification in the next 10+ years.

But the City isn't focused on planning for the future, more directed at trying to deliver barely good enough service for the present.
Tom replying to a comment from Basssss / March 17, 2014 at 01:21 pm
Good eyes

What you're looking at is the first generation of PCC car, the pre WWII cars commonly know as an 'Air-electric' after the use of compressed air in their brakes. These ran in Toronto until the 1960s. The ones that ran in Toronto until the 1990s (and still have a couple on the roster) are the postwar 2nd gen 'all-electric' cars.
AG Pennypacker / March 17, 2014 at 02:15 pm
That Harbord line was amazing - it went from Lansdowne & Lappin, to Ossington, Harbord, Spadina, Dundas and Gerrard East. What a crazy route.
Al / March 17, 2014 at 03:34 pm
When the TTC re-built the St. Clair line, they should have extended the Bathurst streetcar up to it. The tracks are still there.
W. K. Lis replying to a comment from jameson / March 17, 2014 at 04:54 pm
With the politicians on the TTC board, they are only interested in planning for the next election. The citizens on the board are there only depending on their network on other boards of directors. The TTC board should include people with transit knowledge.
linden / March 17, 2014 at 07:34 pm
this is something that Europian cities do-build subway and keep existing transportation network. Recent example,a city built a subway line and closed one of the majour tourist atractitions street for trafic, turning it enirelly in pedastrian with coffee shops, restaurants and shops on both sides. Toronto is a world apart from such thinking.
happy / December 7, 2014 at 06:20 am
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