Monday, June 14, 2010

The Snazzier Red Rocket: Design the TTC's Newest Ride

The TTC is inviting Torontonians to design their new streetcars, oh sorry, LRVs. Apparently, we're adopting the European moniker. No, wait, the TTC is saying that's an engineer's name for the new vehicles, and it wants us riders to give it a new, snazzy name, just like the new subway cars are being called the "Toronto Rocket." I seem to have missed that announcement. I wonder if it'll take hold...  Anyhoo, as a long-time Torontonian proud of our Red Rockets, in all their incarnations, I like the traditional. "Streetcar" is traditional. So is Red Rocket (though that seems to have fallen out of use...). So my first step in designing my ride is to call it a streetcar, the modern Red Rocket.

On to the practical side of designing my new ride. The TTC says it is accessible, low-floor (no weird upper decks like on the so-called accessible buses), more seats, comfortable, can board through four doorways, two of which are wide, accommodates bicycles (what about dogs and those enormous strollers?), large windows (the better to cover them with large ads), AC (whoo hoo!), spacious, more room for me (well, OK, that's nice but what are you saying TTC?). But what locals probably really want to know is, will they rumble the ground like the current crop of streetcars. Apparently so.

Accessibility is a long-unkept promise. The TTC failed big time when they opened the new Spadina streetcar route with inaccessible streetcars, contrary to what they had promised. They are rectifying that mistake finally. The new streetcars will have low floors -- no having to negotiate steps in mid-vehicle like our current crop of "accessible" buses. And even though they are low floor, they do have a ramp the driver can deploy so that people who have trouble with steps (whether with feet or strollers) don't even have to struggle with the one step into the car. The problem with that is the driver: I've often seen drivers sit and watch people try to negotiate a stroller onto a bus without offering to kneel the bus to make it easier. In the end, only better service will make these cars truly accessible.

I'm also concerned about upper-body accessibility. The old buses used a body-weight triggered mechanism to open the back doors. The new "accessible" buses require one to have upper-body strength in the shoulders and arms to open up the back door. I usually have to exit the front door or hope someone will go out the back ahead of me. So how do these new streetcar doors open? Do they all open automatically so no worries about having to open it either with weight or weak shoulders and arms?
"When the vehicle is safely stopped the Operator will remotely unlock the doors. Customers both inside and outside the vehicle can then press a brightly lit, easy-to-reach, tactile button on the door.  This is common practice for many LRVs in use around the world.  Doors will close after a set amount of time or when the Operator chooses to close the doors remotely.  Warning lights and audible tones will let people know when the doors are opening or closing." (FAQ, LRV TTC website)
Cool. Finally, an engineer understands accessibility isn't just a matter of the legs. As for the stop request buttons, they say they'll be conveniently located, no reaching over people's heads like now. Those buttons are the one good thing in the "accessible" buses; hopefully, they'll make the locations even better.

Design is so important; our environment, even paint colour, can affect our mood. With surly drivers and inconsiderate passengers, it's even more important that the interior of the streetcars create a peaceful, calming, good mood milieu and a feeling of room while surrounded by the sweaty masses. Claustrophobia is one of the things I really hate about the "accessible" buses, which is exacerbated by being painted black inside. Talk about putting one in an instant bad mood. The new streetcars will have large windows and "a panoramic view [out back], just like the present streetcars." That will definitely counter the feeling of being hemmed in. Also if the interior is painted anything but black. The hip video on the main page of the TTC's LRV website doesn't say what colour it will be painted inside. But I guess that's what the design panel will determine. I vote for sunny, mellow yellow.

The new streetcars will be longer than the articulated ones we have now. More room! More seats! It may even be possible to get on one during rush hour as it approaches the downtown core. And once on, easier to get off with all those doors opening at once. But if you're all the way at the back, 30m away from the front doors, it'll be hard to see where you are on the route, will require more reliance on clear stop announcements. Plus you'll be even further from the intersection than currently if you get off at the back doors, which is good if you're walking in the opposite direction.

In a year and a half, three prototypes will come to our city. The TTC doesn't say if we'll be able to check them out while they test them throughout the winter for 9 months. We will see the first ones in 2013, only 3 years from now. Can you wait?

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