TORONTO - Stepping past mounds of lingering snow melting at the curb, a group of 30 Philadelphia-area transit officials, planners and students recently climbed aboard Toronto's hot vehicle of the future: a streetcar.

"All else being equal, we get more riders on streetcars than on buses," said Scott Haskell, route planner for the Toronto Transit Commission. "Some people who wouldn't ride a bus will ride a streetcar."

In contrast to Philadelphia, which has abandoned many of its streetcar routes, Toronto is bolstering its fleet of beloved "Red Rockets" and making new streetcar routes with dedicated lanes a linchpin of its expanding transit system.

In Canada's largest city to examine firsthand the sprawling complexity of a system that moves 1.6 million riders a day across 3,182 square miles, the U.S. visitors discovered lots to like.

They also saw some familiar problems, like the struggle to develop an automatic fare card.

They found things they could only dream of in Philadelphia: frequent service (about two minutes between peak-hour streetcars, buses and subways); free transfers; packed vehicles at all hours; fare revenue that covers 75 percent of operating costs, and a transit-oriented culture.

They also found some puzzlers. No train from the airport? A subway with no obvious reason to exist? Eleven different transit agencies?

Toronto's transit system, unlike Philadelphia's, serves a region that is booming. Enlarged in 1998 by merging old Toronto with six surrounding communities, the city has become a magnet for about 70,000 immigrants a year. The greater Toronto area draws an additional 30,000 a year.

The city is home to 2.5 million people. The region has 6 million, half of whom were born outside Canada.

Philadelphia, by comparison, has about 1.5 million people, and the eight-county Pennsylvania-New Jersey region about 5 million.

One of the prime lessons for the Philadelphia-area visitors was that a transit system that is extremely convenient, dependable and safe gets lots of use. And, because it gets so many riders, it requires a smaller government subsidy than any U.S. transit agency.

"It's a chicken-and-egg thing," said Harris Steinberg, director of PennPraxis, a planning arm of the University of Pennsylvania Design School, who was on the tour. "They understand you have to make the investment to develop the ridership."

The three top attributes of the Toronto system are "service, service, service," noted Edward D'Alba, president of Urban Engineers, another in the group.

"With frequent and quality service, public transport works for everyone," Alba said.

"The fur-coat crowd rides transit as well," he said. "It is not the mode of last resort."

The visitors spent two days this month meeting with transit officials and riding trains, subways, buses and streetcars in a trip coordinated by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and Penn's School of Design regional transit planning studio. The William Penn Foundation paid the $75,000 tab.

Toronto needs to seize the "chance to be beyond bold" in expanding its transit system, Paul Bedford, former chief planner for Toronto, told his guests. "We'll never get another chance like we have now."

"People aren't totally stupid," Bedford said. "They're starting to realize that they're at the tipping point in gridlock tolerance."

The largest of greater Toronto's transit agencies is the Toronto Transit Commission, which carries about 76 percent of the region's passengers on its buses, subways and streetcars. The Government of Ontario's "GO" trains and buses transport about 10 percent, and the rest of the riders are scattered among nine much smaller municipal systems.

The Toronto commission is, in some ways, comparable to SEPTA, with about the same size workforce (roughly 10,000) and operating budget (about $1 billion). But it carries 50 percent more passengers: 460 million, compared with SEPTA's 301 million a year.

With so many more customers, and a higher base fare ($2.75 versus $2), the Toronto commission recovers about 80 percent of its operating costs from riders, compared with about 43 percent for SEPTA.

"Cost is much less important to customers than speed and reliability," Haskell said. "We never abandon routes."

"The best thing to do is run more service. It's all about adding more service," he said.

"So far, everyone is willing to pay the price."

The next big push for the Toronto commission will be to add seven light-rail routes, each with a dedicated right-of-way. Planners hope the light-rail vehicles, dubbed "the new Rockets" in homage to their popular cousins, will carry 175 million passengers a year by 2021.

"We're now going to start blanketing the city with light rail," said Rod McPhail, director of transit planning for Toronto. "They're cheaper than subways and better for the environment than buses."

John McGee, SEPTA's chief officer for revenue and ridership, met with Toronto officials to see how they are progressing in their shift to a "Presto" automated fare card. Two years since awarding a contract, the Toronto system is still in the midst of tests.

"Many of the things they learn are transferrable," McGee said. "We can learn from decisions they make about equipment - do they keep old equipment or supplement it? And we can learn from how they deal with the vendors [of the fare card and equipment]."

Barry Seymour, executive director of the planning commission, said he especially liked Toronto's rail-to-bus service, which provides smooth transitions and little waiting between buses and trains.

Laurie Actman, the chief policy development officer of Select Greater Philadelphia, came away impressed with how "Toronto regards transit as a key component of their sustainability strategy, not surprising since the city and country is way ahead of the United States on placing importance on environmental issues."

One of the Toronto priorities that the Philadelphia-area visitors envied was the determination to build higher-density or "intensified" housing and commercial developments around transit hubs to reduce dependence on cars.

One thing "that really impacted me was the sheer size of development within a quarter to half a mile of the Toronto subway stations," said Andrew Levecchia, senior planner for the Camden County Improvement Authority.

"Thirty thousand to 40,000 people at a transit node. This is what we need. . . . They seem to be more willing to intensify density" than suburban Philadelphia residents, he said.

Shawn McCaney of the William Penn Foundation said the trip was valuable for providing members of the group something to compare SEPTA to.

"SEPTA matches up fairly well against Toronto's transit system," McCaney said. "In my opinion, the real dramatic difference is not between the transit systems themselves, but rather how Toronto and the greater Toronto region seems to have much more effectively exploited its transit system as an economic development asset."

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.