Riding the streetcars is a great way to learn about a city. In Toronto, the 501 Queen car from Long Branch in the west to Neville Park in the east is one of the longest lines in the world. It may take forever, but the trip across town is fascinating. It passes by the Lakeshore, High Park, upbeat Queen Street West, historic Osgoode Hall, the Four Seasons opera house, new City Hall, old City Hall, the Eaton Centre, Metropolitan United Church, Old Cabbagetown, trendy new Leslieville, along the Beach to the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant built in the 1930s and widely acclaimed as an Art Deco treasure and a well-used movie site. In Vancouver, the original SkyTrain is a raised light rapid transit line running from the Waterfront at the harbour, through underground tunnels built beneath the city decades ago to False Creek, past the Science Centre, through quirky Commercial Drive, past Central Park into Burnaby and along the crest of the ridge into New Westminster and over the river into Surrey. It provides a wonderful vista of the city, the mountains and the Fraser River. When the ticketing system allows getting on and off at will, either time limited as is the normal ticket in Vancouver, or on a day pass as is generally used for touring in Toronto, you can follow your fancy, linger to sight see or to shop, get off for a drink or a treat.
In Vienna, I spent much of yesterday using my Vienna Card to reorient myself to the city. A deal for visitors, Vienna Cards are available for unlimited transit for 48 hours or for 72 hours, and offer a host of discounts. The heart of Vienna is a complex of grand buildings (e.g.: the Hofburg, the Karlskirche, the Musikverein, the Staatsoper, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Universität, the Votivkirche), which show off the imperial might of the historic Hapsburg empire and are surrounded with parks and plazas. They are conveniently arranged on a series of wide, tree-lined boulevards which ring the inner city. The tram passes by many of these historical treasures, winds its way through the narrow streets of the inner city, and ultimately leads to the shady expanse of the vast Prater Park near the Danube. On and off privileges make for easy sight-seeing. When the spirit moves me, I get off and walk local areas. And the wine “village” of Grinzing, with its inexpensive Austrian food and drink served in lovely gardens with a nice breeze, large shade trees and a little music, is only a 20-minute tram ride to the end of the line. A nice respite on a hot evening.
The trams are totally integrated with the subway and bus lines. Many are newly designed with lowered entries and audio and visual indicators telling the location of the particular vehicle, and the times for the next cars (not generally very long). Our local stop is a complex interchange which also serves as a stacked turn-around point for suburban rapid transit. It is intriguing to watch the suburban trams spiral into the station, one on top of the other on different levels.
When we were last in London, we rode the traditional double-decker red buses and the new above-ground light rapid transit lines, using the automated Oyster transit pass. And in Istanbul, we used the Akbil, another automated ticketing system which has now given way to the Istanbulkart. It includes use of their subways, light rapid transit, municipal ferries across the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, the historic and modern funiculars strategically located in interesting places, and even the cable car from Eyup over the Moslem graveyard on the hillside at the head of the Golden Horn.
Riding these systems abroad makes me realize how antiquated our Toronto public transit has become. Those who say light rapid transit is problematic or should be abandoned obviously don’t travel much. If it works so well elsewhere, why not in Toronto?