This city in winter, man. I don’t know.
Over the past two weeks, you’re either freezing or soaking or slipping and sliding — or all of them at once. On foot, you can march through waist-high snow drifts (if you’re lucky enough to be able to march) over patches of slippery ice where sidewalks haven’t been cleared and then scale mountainous snowbanks at each corner. The roads most days are like a game of frozen bumper cars with real-world stakes. The Scarborough RT is closed much of the time in severe weather. The subways have been crawling along due to signal problems. The buses we have appear to have trouble driving up the slightest incline in snow, if the number of them you spot stalled out at the side of the road, hazard lights flashing, is any indication.
Toronto: it’s a great city to hibernate in but I wouldn’t want to have to get anywhere.
Maybe we all need to take a lesson from my friend and colleague Shawn Micallef and break out our cross-country skis when the snow comes. In a lot of cases, it’s hard to know what else can be done, at least quickly: the RT isn’t going to be replaced for a decade or so, in the best case; the city can’t keep a fleet of plows and drivers on call all the time that’s big enough to handle a once-a-decade snowfall; you aren’t going to suddenly teach this city’s terrible, terrible drivers how to navigate ice overnight. The solutions are either long-term, or they involve a lot of acceptance of inconvenience. At least there’s hockey on TV.
But that — that general realization of “what are you going to do?” — is what specifically makes one of the most disruptive and frequent winter travel hassles so enraging: there are obvious solutions if we want to put them to use.
You would think that in Toronto, where we have streetcars on many downtown streets (and have had them continuously for more than a century), and where we get heavy snowfalls pretty much every year (and have suffered them for as long as people have lived here), we would have found a solution to this problem.
But look: over the past two weeks, we’ve had dozens of streetcar routes shut down because of carelessly parked cars blocking the tracks. A search of the TTC Service Alerts Twitter feed is a broken record of notices for riders of the 506, 504, 501, 505 and 510 routes that the streetcar isn’t moving because some jerk ran into a restaurant and left his car in the road.
TTC spokesperson Stuart Green says there have been 124 reports of cars blocking streetcars in the past week alone, leading to 30- to 60-minute delays requiring route diversions.
When you block a streetcar, of course, you block the entire streetcar line. So what do we do about it?
Well, we shut down the streetcar lines until the driver comes back, mostly.
There is a procedure: as my Star colleagues reported last week, “A streetcar operator who encounters a blockade on the road has to first let customers know that there might be a delay, (TTC spokesperson Hayley) Waldman said, and then notify traffic control, which can contact city parking enforcement for a tow truck.” Then they reroute service or call in buses. Judging by stories of those caught in these delays and the reporting of service disruptions, getting a tow truck to come might take an hour or more. These delays are as epic — inconveniencing thousands of people at a time — as they are frequent.
But never fear, there’s the potential the driver may get a fine. $60.
I apologize, because I realize the mouthful of coffee you had when you read that number is likely all over the surface of whatever you are reading this on. $60. It’s true, though. If you engage in “improper use” of the emergency alarm in subways, you could face a $500 fine. But if you shut down traffic for thousands of people on King St. during rush hour because you don’t feel like walking a block from the parking lot to your espresso shop, the punishment is about the cost of brunch for two.
Many of us can (and have) fantasized about more fitting punishments. I realize mounting a rocket launcher on top of streetcars capable of incinerating a car in moments is likely both impractical and unreasonably dangerous, but I suspect we’d hear cheering in the streets whenever it did its work. Some of my friends on Twitter have discussed an immediate “tow and crush” policy, which does offer some emotional satisfaction even if it is a bit harsh.
But can we at least have the tow part, quickly and immediately? As transit expert Steve Munro suggested on Twitter recently, the TTC itself should have a roving fleet of tow trucks that patrols and immediately tows any parked car that is blocking the tracks.
We already have laws on the books that allow the city to declare a “snow emergency” forbidding parking on major routes after a major snowfall so plows can do their work, but it hasn’t been put to use for two decades. Use that law, as they do in other cities, and add a “snow parking” clause that forbids parking on streetcar routes altogether in snow conditions.
Then get those tow trucks out to immediately tow anyone who parks there anyway.
In a city where the inconveniences of winter can feel like an unstoppable force that cannot be fixed, this would prevent long delays for thousands of people every day and eliminate the TTC logistics-juggling that goes with them. It’s something we can do immediately to make things better.
That and skis, of course. But I suspect more people would benefit from clearing the tracks.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire