Toronto Transit Thoughts (The Subway)

The splendid Toronto skyline.

March 12, 2020

It has been about two months since I arrived in Toronto, and things quite busy! Toronto’s a big city, but getting around has been easier than I thought. I’m currently staying quite close to a subway station, and my commute to work is a mere twenty minutes or so, despite working at a downtown office. In this blog post, I’ll write about my early impressions of Toronto’s public transit, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

First of all, a bit of background on the public transit systems I’m used to. For the times in my life where I’ve had the need to take public transit, I’ve lived in smaller cities with lower population densities, like Waterloo. Buses are the most widespread form of transit offered, and I would guess that to be the case due to the lower amounts of infrastructure required, and the flexibility to route bus paths through suburbs.

However, buses do have their disadvantages for the rider: stops are usually frequent, and drivers have to deal with regular road traffic as well. The wait time at a stop can feel like an eternity, especially in the chilly Canadian winter. A lot of people I’ve talked to have complained about their bussing experience, but on the whole, I found taking the bus to be fairly smooth. That is, until I had the pleasure of experiencing Toronto’s subway system. I liked the subway from the beginning.

Imagine this experience from the eyes of a person who has barely seen a train or a subway in his life: Walking past a line of high-tech gates into a bustling station with signs and arrows in all directions, then descending onto a long staging platform reminiscent of a staging area you might see in a sci-fi spaceship, complete with automated messages issuing directives and yellow lines on the ground. There’s the background murmur of people, but it’s fairly quiet. Then, a slow rumbling is heard; a flicker of headlights seen down the tunnel. The wind rises with the noise, then WHOOSH! The subway train blows by in front of you, and breaks squeal as they try to arrest the huge momentum of the train. Carriage windows flash by too quickly to make out the people inside. They soon pass by more and more slowly until the train gracefully glides to a halt. The doors open, and the frozen people standing on the platform and in the train interweave in the small area as they enter and exit. Seconds later, I’m on the train, and the doors close. The train rumbles into motion, and this time, it’s the station platform which accelerates until it’s too fast to make out details.

I’ve rode the subway a hundred times by now, and the novelty hasn’t worn off.

The frequency of the trains makes the subway feel really good to use for me. The time between each train is usually between two and five minutes on the lines I use most—frequent enough to not require schedules posted! It’s a matter of going to the station whenever I feel like it. Part of this experience is due to my holding a monthly pass, which costs a set amount per month regardless of how many rides I take in that month. I bought it in an attempt to make myself get out more, and I think my plan has had a decent effect. It’s much easier to decide to get on the subway when there’s no consideration of cost on a trip-to-trip basis, and I take the subway daily, to work, anyways.

There are some interesting small games to be played on the subway as well. Subway platforms are long enough that it takes a considerable of time to go from one end to the other, and since subway exits are often located at different points along the platform, it’s possible to get on and off the train at specific places to optimize a commute. For example, if you’re going from station A to B, the exit you intend to take upon arrival at station B might be at the Northernmost end of the platform. If you’re waiting for a Northbound train at station A, then walking to the Northernmost part of station A while waiting for the next train is the optimal choice, since it means you can exit station B immediately after arriving. The time spent waiting at station A is therefore converted into active travel time! Exciting, isn’t it?

Of course, the subway has its drawbacks too, and some of them are exacerbated by the current COVID-19 pandemic. The TTC estimates that each subway train replaces about 900 personal vehicles on the road during rush hour (source), and my first-hand experience of crowdedness on the subway correlates with that estimate. A subway car is one of the few places that makes it a daily experience to pack many people into a small space for a moderate length of time, and no matter how rational or irrational it is, I’m extra sensitive to the sounds of coughing or sneezing during rush hour.

That’s my take on the TTC subway! Extreme convenience and occasional extreme people-density. I consider it an amazing feat, and am very, very impressed. It’s another consideration to add to my answer when someone asks the question: “Oh! Your first time in Toronto! How are you finding the city?”

Such is all for now! Thanks for dropping by, and stay healthy, dear reader!

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