The Speed of CPT (and Chickadees)

The other day I wrote about how Toronto’s streetcars were like shooting chickadees with cannonballs.  In terms of speed, the streetcars were designed to operate at speeds far in excess of what was possible in an urban environment.

So how does CPT stack up on our Cannonball Index (that doesn’t exist, by the way, but wouldn’t it be great if it did)? Pretty well, in fact.

Cable-Propelled Transit maxes out at around 40 km/hr and most are built with a maximum speed of around 27 – 35 km/hr. Doesn’t sound too impressive, does it?  Remember, though, these vehicles actually travel at that speed. None of this built to go 100 but actually goes 10 nonsense.

Of course we have to factor in the time required for the vehicle to stop and allow passengers to alight and board but that time is offset by three major factors:

First, terminal time.  Because CPT is almost always fully automated, terminal time (the time a vehicle idles at its two terminal stations) is statistically irrelevant.

Second, drivers’ breaks.  Again, because CPT is typically fully automated with driverless vehicles no time and speed loss occurs due to bathroom breaks.

Third, crawl speed.  In the case of aerial-supported Gondola systems, vehicles don’t stop at stations. Instead, they are slowed down to what is known as “crawl speed” or “creep speed”.  Vehicles move through the stations at a speed of less than a meter per second allowing passengers to safely board and alight.  For those with accessibility issues, the vehicles can be stopped entirely for safe loading. Crawl speed doesn’t have a dramatic impact on overall average speed, but it does increase it somewhat.

So next time you’re riding a streetcar in Toronto . . . please, think of the chickadees.

Plz kanz yous think of me?

Please, think of me?

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Analysis / Light Rail & Streetcars / Toronto
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(For those of you not statistically or mathematically inclined, you’ll probably want to skip this post)

PPHPD is an acronym for persons per hour per direction and is a great tool for calculating offered capacity of a transit line. Unfortunately, it’s not a term that has any sort of mainstream usage or understanding and that means it’s easy for us to be confused when we read reports or news articles about our cities’ transit systems.

When we read a news clipping where someone lauds a transit line carrying “40,000 people” (as is common in my hometown of Toronto), we tend to nod our heads and say “hmm . . . yes . . . that’s a lot of people. We should be proud of ourselves.”

But what does 40,000 people really mean . . ? We’ll get back to that in a minute.

PPHPD boils things down to their lowest common denominator. PPHPD defines this:  How many total passenger spaces per hour pass a given point on a transit line in a the single peak direction?

In other words, if over the course of one rush hour, a westbound streetcar is scheduled to arrive at a given stop every fifteen minutes; and those streetcars can each carry 100 passengers each, then we know that the PPHPD of that line at that time is 400 (60 minutes / 15 minutes x 100 passengers = 400 PPHPD).

So let’s apply that knowledge, going back to our 40,000 people example:

The 501 Queen Streetcar in Toronto has the distinction of being the world’s longest Streetcar line, it’s also one of North America’s busiest. That should tell you something. At around 30 km long and running 24 hours per day, it carries 40,000 people (on average) per weekday.

Impressive? I guess, unless you look at it from the perspective of PPHPD. If you look at the 501 from the perspective of PPHPD, you find that on any given day, the501 Queen Streetcar only offers around 2,000 PPHPD at peak rush hour.  See the difference there? It’s classic bait-and-switch.

40,000 people sounds impressive so that’s the statistic planners and journalists trot out. 2,000 on the other hand, doesn’t just sound common, it sounds inadequate.  What politician wouldn’t want to say 40,000 instead of 2,000?

My point in bringing this up is this:  Light Rail/Streetcar technology is very expensive to build. It ranges, generally, between $30 – 75 million USD per kilometer.  Some instances such as Seattle, have had costs explode over $100 million USD per kilometer. Meanwhile, there is no single Light Rail line in all of North America that provides an offered capacity greater than ~ 5,000 PPHPD.

(For the wonks out there: Yes, I know Boston’s Green Line provides offered capacity of over 9,000 but that’s only in the trunk section of three converging lines.)

Cable, on the other hand, can be built for between $15 – 45 million USD per kilometer and can provide capacity up to 6,000 PPHPD.

How much sense does that make?

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Shooting a Chickadee with a Cannonball

The Swiss have an expression to describe solving a problem with far more than is necessary.

To do so, they say, is to “shoot a chickadee with a cannonball,” and is a perfect description of what light rail is to the transit planning problem.

As an example: Toronto’s current fleet of streetcars were designed to reach a top speed of around 100 km/hr, and yet they never reach that speed. Not even close. In fact, if one looks at the Toronto Transit Commission‘s own service summaries, one sees that the average speeds of most streetcar lines in Toronto rarely eclipse 15 km/hr. Most hover around 12 or 13.

(You can find several TTC service summaries on the fine Transit Toronto website.)

Anyone whose ever ridden a Toronto streetcar can tell you the reason. Streetcars in Toronto stop constantly to linger at red lights, pick-up and drop-off passengers and avoid any of the pitfalls of modern urban traffic.

Yes, terminal time and driver’s bathroom breaks also factor into the equation, but the point is still the same:

Streetcars in Toronto will never reach speeds of 100 km/hr because the nature of urban environments preclude it. In fact, even subway trains, which stop far less frequently and operate in exclusive rights-of way, rarely surpass average speeds of 35 km/hr.

It’s like that guy who buys a Ferrari and drives it into the city every day only to get stuck in traffic jam-after-traffic jam. It’s all fine and well that you have a Ferrari that can go zero to 200 in 3.2 nano-seconds (or whatever), but if you use it in the city, you will never get to do so.

So what’s the point? There isn’t one . . . unless you like shooting chickadees with cannonballs.

That Guy

That Guy

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Light Rail & Streetcars / Thoughts / Toronto
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