Notes from Toronto

I had the distinct pleasure several weeks ago of visiting the lovely city of Toronto for a wedding.

Toronto is wildly diverse, and integrated in a way I’ve not seen before in North America. This isn’t to say there was nothing resembling a Chinatown – there certainly was – but even within that, not every restaurant or shop was Chinese, nor were there none anywhere else. Naturally, I looked up the official demographics. As of 2011, the city was:

  • 50% white
  • 13% East Asian
  • 12% South Asian
  • 9% black
  • 7% Southeast Asian
  • 3% Latin Canadian
  • 6% other

And it feels like it! Cantonese grocery stores border Vietnamese pho bars next to West Indian restaurants. This kind of integration seems all too rare in balkanized America. But it’s wonderful to see in person. Moving west from Spadina we also wandered through Kensington Market, a wildly hip area home to everything from head shops to cocktail bars to garden stores to bagelries (and most, if not all, with apartments or other housing above). There were also a number of pot dispensaries, but most seemed closed, perhaps due to Mayor John Tory’s crackdown. Given the narrow streets and miniscule sidewalks, I was actually surprised that the area was open to vehicle traffic, but it seemed most drivers felt the same and we had to dodge very few cars.

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We also explored the properly pedestrianized Distillery District – sadly home to not so many distilleries, but among other things, to a proper sake brewery. The old brick warehouses and industrial facilities – coupled with the wharves being redeveloped – reminded me of a DC Navy Yard, only with a bit more soul (a bit).

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I can’t help but guess that at least some portion of this is owed to Toronto’s wonderful walkability – while it suffers from some of the same wide boulevard problems as US cities, waiting to cross the street never seemed to take too long and the light rail, especially on Spadina, made for a natural pedestrian refuge.

But let’s talk transit. From Pearson International Airport, the Union-Pearson (UP) Express takes you to Toronto’s downtown Union Station in about 25 minutes, with only two intervening stops. I was reminded very much of Heathrow Express in terms of the seating and luggage arrangement, and minor as it is, the luggage rack had an ingenious holding bar that swung up, so you didn’t have to lift a heavy bag over it (apologies for the lack of UP Express photos).

I believe this was the first diesel multiple unit (DMU) I’ve ridden, and the ride was smooth and fast into Union Station. This is a worthy express train, especially given the current fares of 12 CAD, rather than the 25 it charged when it first opened. We had just missed a train, but fortunately, the next one was 15 minutes away, and arrived in 10 so we were able to take our seats well before it departed. However, when returning to the airport, we had a 7:30am flight, and given the pre-clearance US customs, potential security lines, and other travails of modern air travel, a 5:30 opening for the UP Express didn’t seem quite early enough, so we took an Uber instead. We probably would have been okay with the train, especially seeing how close it was to us, but settled for piece of mind and a higher fare.

I know local Torontonians loathe the streetcars. But maybe it was their charm, or the fact that I was visiting over a holiday weekend (Victoria Day) – I enjoyed them thoroughly. For the most part, frequency was as good as I’d hoped it might be. The longest wait was about six minutes, except for the one time we gave up as the next streetcar was more than ten minutes away.

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Even though new mixed-traffed streetcars tend to be an awful idea, I understand a little better why the simple rail > bus argument can work in their favor. I can imagine gridlock paralysis during peak workday hours, but compared with a bus, the ride was remarkably smooth, the routes fairly clear, and the experience immeasurably better. It helps, too, that Toronto has accompanied the rollout of the Presto farecard with all-door boarding.

However, we did encounter one of the downsides to fixed guideway, mixed traffic transit. On King St. approaching Bathurst, our streetcar suddenly glided to a halt, and the driver announced that we’d lost power. He deboarded and looked towards the intersection and radioed in, only to be informed that a streetcar on the other side of the intersection had caught fire around the bogie, and so they’d cut the power to the last few hundred feet of all the catenaries approaching the intersection. We got off and walked, where we could see streetcars backing up in all directions:

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We also took a closer look at the affected streetcar, which had already been liberally fire-extinguished:

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After a brisk walk, we were able to find a cab and continue on.

However, getting a Presto card proved rather more difficult than anticipated. Based on numerous TTC personnel asked, the only place to get one (as opposed to using tokens) was at Union Station itself. Luckily, we were staying nearby, but even then it took almost 20 minutes of wandering the underground corridors and passages, seemingly through construction sites and abandoned rooms, until I found the GO Transit desk where I could get a pair of cards. Once we had them, though, they worked quite well across subway, streetcar, and light rail.

Speaking of the subway, Toronto’s seemed impressive, at least for off-peak travel. We were there on a holiday weekend and probably took half a dozen or eight rides (all on the Yonge-University Line); not once did we even wait long enough to look around the platform for a next train display (if I hadn’t looked up this, I wouldn’t have known they even had them). The Toronto Rocket, as the new Bombardier railcars are known, is open-gangway and has ample standing room.

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Given the peak hour crush, this is a necessity, but now that Toronto’s committed to the Downtown Relief Line, hopefully that will be alleviated. But again, the frequencies were more than adequate, and that’s what was most important.

Train nerd bonus: not only did our hotel room overlook the tracks in and out of Union Station:

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But also “Roundhouse Park,” home to old railcars and engines, the Toronto Railway Museum, and a brewery:

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And was within walking distance of many a shooting location, particularly this one for Orphan Black fans:

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Anyways, moral of the story is: great city, very good transit, very walkable, do go visit. They seem to have things figured out, and many of our cities could take a few lessons from.


One thought on “Notes from Toronto

  1. Visited Toronto around this same time a few years ago. I was impressed by Kensington Market, which I heard used to be the city’s Chinatown but now seems a bit like the Lower East Side in NYC, with dilapidated buildings, graffiti chic, and a real fun mix of independent retail and food. We happened to visit on the first Sunday of the month, when there was live music on every corner and they closed the streets to all cars.

    Honestly, in the trip in between Kensington Market and the Distillery District we didn’t see much going on, but I suppose Toronto is DC-like in that it’s mostly busy during the work week. It was very lightly traveled on the weekend despite the nice weather, in a pleasant way, but then again it really isn’t a city given to walking outside of the downtown area, despite the decent public transit. Reminds me a bit of Chicago with the massive freeways, Midwest openness, and massive urbanized area, only with less heavy rail.

    Some really transformative projects are planned for the city’s transit network, which I hope come to fruition because despite the light coverage Toronto has very robust transit mode share. When we rode the subway it broke down and we had to bus bridge all the way to downtown, which was very well orchestrated for the passengers but a bit frustrating.

    GO Transit is a bit hamstrung by their pledge of free parking to all commuter rail passengers, though they have been trying recently to extend connecting service and avoid the crush of drive-to-the-train customers. Apparently parking backs up all the way to the roadside outside of the parking lots. It doesn’t help that many of the suburban stations are in industrial areas along the rail right-of-way and highway and not in walkable urban places.


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