One evening last week I left the office for what I thought would be an uneventful trip home on public transit. Normally it’s a simple if leisurely ride involving one streetcar and one bus. This ride would be something different.
Before I go on, I should say that I am a loyal customer of the Toronto Transit Commission. A native Torontonian, I’ve been taking it for more than half a century. Like any TTC rider, I get frustrated sometimes, but I recognize that, for all its problems, the TTC is one of the best and most extensive transit networks in North America.
I also understand that it’s an enormous task to move all those people around every day while at the same time maintaining and upgrading the tracks, wires, tunnels, stops and stations. After years of underfunding by governments, the TTC has been working full out to make sure the system is in good repair. The city, too, has been fixing and upgrading the systems that keep Toronto running.
Inevitably, that means delays. Subway lines are closed, streetcars and buses diverted from their usual paths. This year the TTC is facing an “unprecedented” number of diversions. “Currently 48 bus routes and five streetcar routes are impacted by construction – road works, city infrastructure, TTC rail replacement, Metrolinx construction,” says TTC spokesman Stuart Green (who emphasizes he is not making any excuses and that the TTC should do better).
It’s the price we pay for a busy, working city. Still …
I left the office around 7. It was a chilly, blustery early fall evening. The streetcar arrived shortly – one of those sleek, extra-long red-and-white beauties that are the trademark of the TTC.
The 504 King car normally takes me all the way across downtown to Dufferin Street, where I board the 29 bus and ride it a short distance north to my neighbourhood. But a few blocks in came the announcement that every TTC rider dreads: “This streetcar will be short-turning.”
Okay, not the end of the world. Transit operators sometimes have to reroute their vehicles to ensure an even flow. I joined in the collective sigh emitted by my fellow riders, but got out of my seat and filed off dutifully to wait for the next streetcar to come along.
It did. But a few blocks later, with no announcement at all, at least that I heard, it took a left turn and headed south on Bathurst Street toward the waterfront. I was supposed to be proceeding west, not south. I sat there bewildered. Other riders started looking up from their phones, obviously wondering what on earth was happening.
One of the features of the sleek new streetcars is that the drivers are shut off from the riders. They have their own closed-in booth, so you can’t just run up and ask what’s going on, at least not easily. I thought to myself: Well, this is a pain, but I suppose this streetcar will take me to the Exhibition Loop on the west end of the waterfront. The Dufferin bus ends up somewhere down there, too, so I should be able to make a connection.
Then came yet another announcement: Sorry for the inconvenience, folks, but this streetcar will be turning back east. East? East! East is where I was coming from.
The driver told us another streetcar would be arriving shortly. We got off again. A 511 streetcar soon rolled up and stopped. We stepped off the curb and made to hop on. The doors didn’t open. The driver got out to inform us, “This isn’t a stop. The stop is over there.” She pointed to a spot just around the corner.
But why couldn’t we get on here? The streetcar was right in front of us. Nope: not allowed. When one bold rider managed to get in through the door, the driver shooed him off. We trudged the few steps to the official stop and waited for her to pull up again. It was past 8 now, more than an hour after I got on the first streetcar.
This one did indeed take me to Exhibition. When I got there, I saw a bus coming so dashed across a darkened street to meet it at a Stop sign. Miraculously, the driver opened his door. “Was this the Dufferin bus?” I asked, a little desperately.
Yes, he said, but it would be another 20 minutes before he started his route. Better if I walked back to another stop and got a bus that was already in progress. When he saw me heading the wrong way, he left his seat and came out onto the sidewalk to hail me down and give me directions. It was the only human contact I had all night from the TTC, and I thanked him for it.
Around about 8:30 I finally boarded a bus for home. By the time I reached my doorstep it was close to 9. That’s two hours for a trip that normally takes around 45 minutes. I could have taken a cab or ride-hailing service and been home in 25 minutes. I could have walked it in an hour and a half.
Many Torontonians stopped taking public transit during the pandemic, if they commuted at all. The TTC says it wants them back. It has a funny way of showing it.