The loon really was straight out of central casting.
Easing a kayak out of a garage in Toronto’s east end, the piercing call of a bird more often heard farther north broke the quiet morning air. It was one of the only things awake around dawn to witness this test of whether paddling – the quintessentially Canadian way to get around – was a viable alternative to the road congestion for which the country’s biggest city is now known.
It’s never all that quick getting into the city from the Beaches. A normal commute can range from about 25 minutes in a car to an hour on the streetcar, if you don’t short-turn. And the 501 Queen streetcar got a lot worse this summer, when a series of construction projects forced it onto epic diversions.
Not long before the construction started, the idea of water transportation had been mooted on the mayoral campaign trail, which left me wondering about bypassing traffic in a kayak. But how feasible is it to paddle to work? I recently set out to test the waters, “commuting” each way and storing the boat overnight at the home of a helpful expat couple.
The only company as I launched earlier this month, not far from the Balmy Beach Club, was a group of stand-up paddle boarders. A few of them carrying small dogs on their boards, they moved east toward the sun that was climbing huge and red from the horizon. I went west, paralleling the beach and then curving out to cross the mouth of Ashbridge’s Bay.
The first half-hour toward the downtown was probably the most peaceful commuting I’d ever done. Just me, the birds and the rhythmic dip and splash of the paddle. I was reminded of The Wind in the Willows and the water rat’s love of “messing about in boats.”
Urban life intruded near the base of the Leslie Street Spit. The distant hum of traffic was punctuated by the beeping of reversing trucks. The first plane roared overhead at 7:02, but quiet fell again as I looped around the spit, passing a couple of skippers who seemed to be waking up aboard their yachts near the end.
I was more than halfway there. Less than an hour later, I was pulling the boat out in downtown Toronto.
Taking to the water
When driving along the waterfront highways, gridlock often gives commuters a chance to look at the lake. In the summer months, it can be a beautiful glittering sight. And it’s usually pretty empty, particularly in the morning.
People have long mused about using Lake Ontario as a commuting alternative. The urban theorist Jane Jacobs thought it could be done in all seasons, arguing decades ago that the city should start “hydro-foil and ice hovercraft transportation.”
This spring, mayoral candidate John Tory’s transportation plan included the teaser that “the water remains an untapped resource for most Torontonians.” He mentioned water taxis and commuter services, but didn’t go into detail.
The idea is not far-fetched, with the examples of many other cities to learn from.
In Chicago, a water-taxi service connects several parts of the city. Hong Kong has high-speed boats bringing commuters from outlying islands and the venerable Star Ferry remains used by residents in spite of the excellent subway between Kowloon and the island. And in Venice, while the tourists ride the clichéd gondolas, water buses operated by the transit agency help locals get around.
In Toronto, though, some issues would need to be resolved. Would there be a series of pick-up spots or a pair of major terminals, with correspondingly large parking requirements, to the east and west? Where would commuter ferries dock in the core and how would their passengers connect with the transit network? Could it be run in winter, or would it be service for summer only, when traffic volumes already are down a bit?
Of course, these issues do nothing to prevent a person driving their own boat into the city’s downtown from the east or west. But there are not a lot of places to moor when you arrive. A kayak, on the other hand, is small enough that there are more options. Clubs in the core and near Cherry Beach offer storage, for a fee, and striking a deal with a waterfront condo resident could mean space in their storage locker.