Today’s Globe and Mail features an article, in the Toronto section, about Margaret Wente’s week riding the TTC. Wente, for those of you who don’t follow that paper, has written rhapsodies to her SUV, to the joy of driving the most environmentally unfriendly car in the city, rather than taking the TTC to work at the Globe.
For one week, she forsook her car and used the TTC (well, almost a week) and discovered how the other half lives. In the process she made several observations that won’t be news to regular users of the system, but might actually embarrass the folks who run and fund the system for one or two moments.
Among the things she learns:
- Taking the TTC is not the faster way, especially if you live on a route like Queen with notoriously irregular service.
- You can’t shop ’til you drop riding the TTC because you have to carry those goodies home with you (not to mention into and out of all the stores where you might only be browsing).
- You do save on parking, and you do get to catch up on your reading, provided that you got a seat and brought something along to pass the time.
- If you’re trying to go somewhere that’s not on the TTC’s high priority of places to connect, you will take forever.
- Your car-driving friends and family will think you are mad.
- Surface routes take you through interesting neighbourhoods you tend to ignore as a driver.
- Transit riders are a genial bunch overall even though some people have manners and hygiene that leave something to be desired.
- People who use transit organize their lives differently both in time and space to take into account the limitations of the transit system. A lifestyle (including a far-flung circle of friends) that works with a car has its limitations on transit.
- Anyone who is transit dependent has a rough time getting around with anywhere near the comfort of a car owner.
Having said all of that, I must salute Margaret Wente for not just giving up and taking a cab for some of her trips. That’s what a lot of frustrated people downtown do because they’re not going very far and they can eat the odd cab fare when it’s necessary. Indeed, cabs do a good business in my neighbourhood (Riverdale) cruising by TTC stops looking for riders who are giving up on the TTC, at least for this trip.
Intriguingly, Wente’s inbound trip to work is just after the morning peak — 9:10 am from the eastern part of the Beach. Somehow, she manages to take one hour and 15 minutes to get to Spadina and Front. She ran for the first car coming west from Neville to her stop, but it ran faster and passed her by. That elapsed time is astounding and implies a long wait for a car. Later in the article we can figure out that she rides straight across to Queen and Spadina rather than transferring to the King car at Broadview, something that would speed her trip. Oh well, newbies make mistakes like that.
On a return trip later in the week, she encounters the dreaded short-turn at Woodbine Loop. This would have been a minor inconveniece but for the fact that the through car, coming right behind the short turn, didn’t bother to wait for transferring passengers. This marvellous state of affairs is possible thanks to the separate left-turn track eastbound at Kingston Road that allows streetcars, just like buses, to whizz past each other and ignore passengers who want to get on.
Both of these illustrate a trend I have seen far too much of lately. On both the surface and the subway, operators care more about leaving the stop (if they stop at all) than serving the public. Recently, I was on a subway train that was not late (it was held at dispatch points by the signals), but on three occasions, the guard closed the doors before everyone had a chance to board. Some were caught, some were left behind. Darn those pesky passengers for wanting to ride the system without taking time to appreciate the architectural delights of an empty station!
One side effect of Wente’s comparatively late departure to work is that the Beaches Express Bus is not running by 9:10 am. This would take her, for a premium fare, from her home to Peter and Adelaide Streets, a short walk from the Globe’s offices. It’s so nice to know that the TTC will run a special service for you if you live in the right part of town and are willing to pay extra for the privilege while people wanting regular bus service are told there are no buses or operators free to serve them.
Panic sets in when Wente realizes that her dinner arrangements are planned for a restaurant somewhere out in the wasteland of Eglinton Avenue. Actually, it’s four blocks east of Eglinton West station, a location she could easily reach from the Globe via the Spadina car, the subway and a short walk or ride on the Eglinton West bus. Instead, she opts to reschedule and they eat on Queen West.
Had they gone to Eglinton, she probably would have made the wrong choices going home too and could have spent an eternity on various surface routes. Even so, a trip back to the beach in the evening (and in the rain) is fraught with perils. Ms. Wente lives right down by the water, a few blocks south of Queen, and is quite a walk from the south end of the Main bus which is infrequent at the best of times, and runs every half-hour late at night. Taking the Bloor subway east to Main and the bus down to Queen is not really an option here. Someone living in this part of the world will typically drive home or take a cab, if they can find one, unless the Queen car is in view and the operator swears the car will not short-turn.
Another planned trip to the burbs is dropped because the return trip will take too long.
By way of illustrating the importance of frequent service, well-grouped destinations and the benefits of not having to find and pay for parking, here are the trips I took on Saturday, October 7:
- Broadview & Danforth to St. Lawrence Market (King car)
- Return trip (King car)
- Broadview & Danforth to Yonge & Wellesley (subway)
- to Manulife Centre (on foot)
- to Yonge north of Bloor (on foot)
- to Danforth near Chester (subway) (two stores visited)
- to home (on foot)
- Broadview and Danforth to Greenwood & Dundas (subway and Greenwood bus)
- Greenwood & Dundas to Roy Thomson Hall (walk to Queen, streetcar to Yonge, subway to St. Andrew Station)
- RTH to home (King car)
The only service that needs careful planning is the Greenwood bus running every 20 minutes on Saturday afternoons.
I should mention that on one occasion, I was the beneficiary of an operator who waited for me to run to the stop, and on two other occasions, operators waited for elderly passengers. There are still many fine staff at the TTC. Sadly, people remember their negative experiences, and this is a marketing problem that won’t be cured with some spiffy ad campaign.
People trying to get around in the suburbs must wait longer for service, especially if any transferring is involved, and likely have a much more dispersed set of destinations. Travelling by TTC would not be my first choice were I forced to live in such surroundings. If we are going to make transit truly attractive, we need to make it convenient, frequent and reliable everywhere, not just on one or two subway lines.
Margaret Wente’s week on the TTC wasn’t entirely negative, although she is still a confirmed car driver. This is the classic transit vs car problem: car drivers find that the TTC is not worth the hassle and the extra time, never mind the uncertainty, or that it simply does not go where they need to be. Only if we spend more money making transit better, not equal to the car, just better, for most of the people most of the time, will we start to win the political battles. Alas, one of those battles is funding, and without funds for service, well you can see where that is going.
Leadership is vital in changing the way a city thinks about itself and about the services it provides. Leadership on transit is something that has been missing-in-action on Toronto Council for the past term. We are content to celebrate small victories, a transferrable pass, new buses (that might finally see the light of day in late 2007), but we don’t advocate for the betterment of transit for everyone. A subway to York in 2015 is not a vision for region-wide transit, and the sooner that both Mayor Miller and Premier McGuinty start thinking in terms of networks and service rather than megaprojects, the sooner we will see real improvements.
That will take leadership.