Tag Archives: traffic

Public Transit: Telling Tales on Two Cities

Recent stories and editorials in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and elsewhere have accused a surprising number of Toronto Transit Commission employees of unprofessional conduct, ranging from sleeping in their ticket booths, to texting behind their wheels, to pushing the passengers around. To add to the TTC’s besmirched reputation, several of its vehicles have recently been involved in accidents that have left motorists and pedestrians seriously injured and even dead.

There are two sides to everything of course, and out of the hundreds and hundreds of drivers and other employees, this rash of incidences of inattention and frustrated behaviour is probably representative of a small minority. Most of the drivers I’ve run into as I wend my way through Toronto almost exclusively by public transit have been helpful, friendly, attentive and — for the most part — apologetic when something wasn’t working or they couldn’t answer questions. Some have even gone out of their way to help passengers with problems, remind them of an upcoming stop that they have asked about, and patiently listened to the nutbars who stand next to them and yak on and on about religion and politics as the drivers try to steer through traffic and snow to their appointed destinations.

My sympathies for transit staff increased when I read this excellent article in Toronto Life about the impact of “subway jumpers” on the drivers who become their unwilling killers.

It’s true that there are lots of problems with the transit system here — long subway delays (sometimes because of the aforementioned jumpers) are part of the fabric of daily life. When I was at a hospital recently for a minor procedure, I noticed a form that staff needed to fill out to indicate the status of scheduled patients, and one of several boxes that could be checked to indicate the reason for a patient’s non-appearance was “delayed on subway.”

Still, it hasn’t been so long since I lived in a city where the only “rapid transit” was the occasional cab driver who drove too fast, where buses sometimes appeared earlier than the appointed hour and if you missed them, you could be left standing in lethal cold for an entire half hour or longer before the next one came along, and where driver rudeness and inattention seemed more the rule than the exception. On one occasion a bus I was taking to a meeting drew up to a regular stop, and the driver quietly called in to central office for a repair team and then sat and waited for it, without bothering to inform the passengers that the bus would not be going anywhere for quite a while. In the meantime, several other buses went past to which we might have transferred.

So I am not complaining here in my new city. I am still astonished at the number of buses and streetcars that show up on a regular basis throughout downtown Toronto, and I still see the subway as a modern miracle—even if it is apparently outdated and slow compared to those of other large cities. But I also understand why everyone else here is frustrated. This, to them, is like Saskatoon Transit was to me (and apparently still is to those who continue to reside in that otherwise warm, friendly and accommodating prairie city).


Note: I have pretty much stopped posting to this blog. After a year and a bit I no longer consider myself a newcomer to Toronto. But I do still blog, fairly often, and you can check out my other writing locations here:

I’m All Write: Some thoughts and an occasional update for those who don’t follow me on Facebook or Twitter

The Militant Writer: My flagship blog — I am militant about lots of stuff, and I think other writers should be too

Notions: Observations on life that I can’t think where else to put

Book Reviews:  An occasional blog

Film and Movie Reviews: Another occasional blog

Fiction Tips and Writing Tips for Bloggers are even more occasional

Some of my Short Stories

Stepping out

Post #18

Despite how it may have sounded in previous posts (and how it sometimes feels), I have not spent all of my time in the past six weeks moving boxes and their contents around my new living space or wandering around Yonge Street and the roads that intersect it looking for Crazy Glue, Mrs. Dash (original version), a doormat and some Christmas presents.

Here are some of the places to which, so far, I have ventured beyond my home turf:

  • Sotto Sotto Trattoria on Avenue Road near Bloor—apparently one of Toronto’s toniest restaurants, and who am I to disagree? At 8:30 p.m. on the warm Saturday evening in November when a friend and I dined there, would-be patrons formed a line down the block, waiting for the first shift to be finished so they could get to the tables they’d reserved. And when we were finished our dinner at close to 10:30 p.m., another whole phalanx of the chic and slender were waiting to take our seats. The entryway and several walls at Sotto Sotto feature photos of famous people who have eaten there—Brad Pitt, Tim Robbins and Elton John, to name a few. The proximity of the restaurant to the upscale hotels where film folk often stay when they’re in town is rumoured to be a reason for its popularity (according to one review I read, the locals come there either to see who they can see, or not to be seen themselves, depending on who they are), but the food has something to do with its acclaim as well. The fare was outstanding from the antipasto to the espresso, although pricey—as one might expect from a tiny award-winning restaurant that is nevertheless big enough to have its own sommelier. I had a magnificent veal entrée that I am certain would have been capable of melting in my mouth if I had given it the time. The atmosphere of the restaurant, which is  several steps below street level, is candlelit and intimate—effectively evoking a grotto, as intended;

    CN Tower in the rain

  • Bloor Street United Church, where a friend and I attended a recital by soprano Maria Knight. Ms. Knight, who looked beautiful and sang stunningly as well, proved herself a trouper by hitting each sweet note bang on in spite of the fact that the heat in the church was on the fritz and her arms were bare. The rest of us were so chilly we kept our coats on. Ms. Knight was accompanied by an outstanding pianist, David Eliakis, and the Artelli String Quartet from Guelph supported her exquisite rendition of Chausson’s “Chanson perpétuelle.” I was also beguiled by the occasional rumblings of the subway making its way through the ground beneath our feet. I am in love with the subway;
  • The waterfront of Lake Ontario, downhill from the elegant and lovely old section of Toronto called The Beaches, where a friend and I skipped stones into the water (I am no better at that in November than I am in July, I discovered. In the west, lakes freeze in winter, and skipping stones becomes much easier) and ate brunch at The Beacher Café. I spent some time considering how nice (and expensive) it would be to live in an apartment across the street from Lake Ontario;
  • Trinity St. Paul’s Centre, where I heard Handel’s Messiah performed by Tafelmusik. At $25, my seat put me in perfect line to see the shoes of the orchestra and the noses and skirts/trouser legs of the soloists, but the sound was unimpaired and it was an outstanding presentation. Tafelmusik is considered by many critics to be one of the finest Baroque orchestras (and chorus) in the world, and many of the musicians perform on period instruments, and I was honoured to have heard them perform in their own space;

    I also went out to Yonge St. on December 17 and watched the Olympic Torch go by

  • The Monarch Tavern near Korea Town for a well attended launch of four books by Mansfield Press, not to mention the celebration of the nomination of one of the press’s poets, David McFadden, for a Governor General’s award;
  • Sherwood Park near my apartment, which is a beautiful section of the miles and miles of well-treed valley through the city. I look forward to running and walking there frequently;
  • The Toronto Centre for the Arts to see Jersey Boys – the musical that tells the tale of the rise to fame of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The music was great and the facility was outstanding: there is not a bad seat in the house (and I know because I was in the back row, and only occasionally even felt inclined to put my opera glasses to use).

I have also been to a Starbucks on Queen Street near Strachan (pronounced “Strawn”) where I met my friend Mary who was visiting from Edmonton, and I’ve walked down Bay Street to Front Street near Harbourfront (where I once read) with my friend Nik from Regina. We admired the art-deco architecture of the Bay Street bank buildings and he introduced me to two of the more interesting bookstores I’ve ever been in – Ben McNally Books on Bay, and Nicholas Hoare on Front. I’ll be going back to both as soon as my ship comes in. (The stores are handily located near the waterfront, so it won’t take me long to get there from the ship.)

Art-deco entranceway, 320 Bay Street

I have managed to get myself to all these places by subway and trolley bus, almost without a hitch. (I do have to stop and orient myself sometimes before I can proceed.) I love the transit system here.

You say tomato and I say tomato

Here is a list of a few more things I have found unfamiliar in Toronto. I don’t know whether the unfamiliarity is because I have been living in western Canada for so long, or because I have been living in smaller-than-Toronto cities for so long, or because Toronto just has its own way of doing things (and therefore these things would be unfamiliar even if I came from Montréal), but:

  • Rather than parking meters, one per car, there are ticket dispensers, usually one per block, where a person buys a ticket for a given length of time to place on the dashboard, like in a parking lot;
  • There are little apron-sized parks, maybe a quarter of a city block square, that are called “parkettes” and are named after people or things;
  • I hear people on the street say the word “fuck” far less often than I do out west;
  • (on the other hand) I hear many more drivers telling other drivers to smarten up by blasting their car horns at them;
  • There are more hybrid cars here, I think, than there are in Edmonton or Saskatoon (or in New York, for that matter).  I often notice that there is a lot of traffic, but hardly any car noise;
  • Lesser streets meet major streets in a staggered fashion. The stoplights are usually at the bigger intersections, and the only crosswalks are there too, so often one needs to walk at least four blocks to legally cross a major street. This creates interesting strategy problems when it comes to choosing how to hit specific stores on a shopping excursion without walking miles farther than necessary;
  • There is one major intersection somewhere (I can’t remember where I saw it) where all the lights turn red at once, so pedestrians can cross in any direction—including diagonally—at the same time;
  • Liquor stores are still run by the government, and so is the place where you have to go to get a driver’s license, a new health-care card, or other documentation from the province. Good old Ralph Klein really spoiled us Albertans in this area with all his privatization: the wait to apply for an Ontario driver’s license was  2.5 hours the day that I went to the Ontario Services office near Bloor and College (and that was during a strike by people who do the road tests which would,  I think, have reduced the number of people waiting in line considerably from the norm).

Speaking of that application…  as of earlier this week, I have an Ontario driver’s license! I must, therefore, be an Ontarioan. An Ontarioite? A Torontonian, at least. But until I stop noticing the strange things that happen here (and appreciating the weather) I won’t really be a Torontonian.

In the meantime, I’m happy to report that the people here are much friendlier and warmer than most people who live in Western Canada think they are.

In which Mary is grateful for a pair of good shoes

Post #16

Today I went to drop off an application to rent an apartment. The apartment itself is near to where I am staying now, but the rental-management company’s office is closer to downtown; it is, according to Google maps, 6.3 kilometres from here. It was a lovely day for a walk and I decided that I could use the exercise — and that by walking, I would gain a better sense of at least a small portion of my new city. There was no way I could get lost (even if I hadn’t had the Maps app on my iPhone, which I do): from the house where I’ve been staying, a few blocks north of Eglinton, I simply needed to walk straight down Yonge Street to a few blocks south of Bloor, then turn east for three blocks. Simple.

I planned that after I dropped off my application, I would stop for a coffee, Google some information about the transit system, and return home either by bus or subway.

Would-be transit users stranded at Bloor and Yonge.

I enjoyed my stroll, which took just over an hour. I noticed lots of stores and restaurants and a library I intend to investigate more fully when I have more time—not to mention the scenic expanses of Mount Pleasant Cemetery (“We have lots of vacancies!” the sign outside announces) which clearly merits an investigation of its own some day.

When I got to Yonge and Bloor, however, I began to suspect that my return trip might be more complicated than I’d hoped. I could barely get past the subway station there because hundreds and hundreds of people were standing on the sidewalk and more were pouring out of the station (thousands, I learned later), being herded into line by TTC security and police. The streets out front were jammed with cars, buses, taxis, and television news trucks.

After I dropped off my application, I went to a Second Cup, where I checked the Toronto Star website.  The lead story told me that a private contractor had somehow damaged a tunnel near Bloor and Yonge and the subway line had been closed.

So I walked home again. I had lots and lots of company on the return trip – although most of the other pedestrians were on their cell phones trying to find someone they knew to come and save them from the enforced hike. The special “subway express” buses that had been pressed into service to help relieve the commuter congestion were packed, and cab drivers were taking on three or four fares with different destinations at a time. The happiest looking person I saw was a man with an electric scooter. Next happiest was a woman who was telling someone on her cell phone that she had decided she was “just going to walk. It’s a good day for a walk.” I agree with that approach under normal circumstances, but after 12.6 kilometres (most of the return trip of which was uphill) today, I am planning no expeditions for tomorrow.

Welcome to the big city, Mary.

The cultural/social differences between prairie Canada and Toronto continue to present themselves: albeit subtly. Yesterday, after I’d had Part One of an emergency root canal, I decided to get a frappuccino for a late lunch. I was hungry. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I knew it was going to be hours before the freezing came out of my face enough that I could eat anything that required chewing. But when I placed my order at Starbucks, the barista looked astonished. She said to me, “You do know you have ordered a frozen coffee, right?” I assured her that I did know what I’d ordered. It wasn’t until I heard a few people complaining about the cold weather (I think it had gone all the way down to zero, but it was sunny) that I realized why she had asked me: I guess Torontonians don’t often order frozen coffees in November. I’ll have to be careful not to make myself stand out from the crowd in future.

Also in Toronto, as compared to Edmonton and Saskatoon, there are:

  • Many many more tailors, which makes sense because there are also
  • Many many more people who are perfectly tailored!

There are also

  • Fewer people who are overweight
  • More people who honk their horns at other drivers and
  • Many more people carrying cases containing violins, cellos and other musical instruments (unless they contain machine guns, of course. I didn’t think to ask).