I spent the weekend in Toronto with GF’s family, including the cutest niece in the history of babies.  But with this Jarrett Walker post from a little while ago stuck in my head, I was also paying close attention to how people get onto and off of the TTCs streetcars.  The streetcars are in the left-hand lanes of traffic, to try to limit the time they spend stuck behind cars turning right or parallel parking or whatever.  But that means there’s a lane of car traffic between the sidewalk and the streetcar.  So how do people get onto the streetcars without getting mowed down by cars?

Well, whenever I’ve taken streetcars in Toronto in the past, I’d always gotten on from an island in the middle of the street.  So where there are these islands, you just cross the street as a light to get to the island, wait there for the streetcar, and then get onto the streetcar from the middle of the road.  That has its advantages and disadvantages.  But when I was thinking about downtown Toronto streets, I couldn’t remember there being all that many islands.  So I wanted to know how you got onto a streetcar when there’s no island.

Well, I spent all of Saturday night sitting in the window of the Free Times Cafe, eating latkes, drinking beer, and watching streetcars let people on and off on College St.  Here’s how it works. The streetcars just stop in the left-hand lane, and then people trot across the right-hand lane of traffic to get on and off.  They just walk through a lane of traffic.  There’s seems to be no infrastructure at all to make drivers stop behind a streetcar to let people on or off in the right-hand lane.

But even if there’s no infrastructure, there are some very robust social norms.  When a driver doesn’t stop behind the streetcar to let people walk through the right-hand lane, people honk.  A lot of people honk.  There seemed to be an impressive effort to everyone’s part to enforce the norm that when a streetcar’s stopped, you don’t pass it on the right.

That said, having nothing but norms — even very robust ones, backed up by traffic laws — keeping that right-hand lane clear for people getting on and off the streetcar has obvious downsides.  Over the course of three of so hours, I heard that honking three different times.  Three different times while I was sitting and drinking my beer, drivers failed to observe the norm, and drove into a lane that pedestrians were trying to use.  Nobody got killed.  But still, that’s not a friendly space for people trying to get onto the streetcar.

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