As Premier Doug Ford’s decision to cut council almost in half reignites talk of the urban-suburban divide, the Star finds the old differences aren’t what they used to be. In a new occasional series, One Toronto, we take a look at what divides us and what we share, no matter where the ward lines fall.
Haicheng Mao dreads Jays games.
Haicheng Mao is a “reverse commuter.” He drives from CityPlace to Burlington four days a week. (STEVE RUSSELL /TORONTO STAR)
It’s not that he doesn’t love the team. He just knows weekday evening games mean traffic will slow to a crawl on his drive home from work.
“On the worst days it’s pretty much a parking lot,” said the 24-year-old of the Gardiner Expressway. “Literally, I sit in traffic staring at my building wondering what my dog’s doing.”
Sports events mess with Mao’s commute because he’s going in the opposite direction of most Toronto drivers. Instead of leaving the city at 5 p.m., he’s heading toward his downtown apartment at CityPlace from his job in Burlington, as one of a growing number of “reverse commuters” in Toronto.
As part of an occasional series, the Star is taking a look at some of the old stereotypes of the megacity, the urban-suburban fracture, and some of the unexpected ways we’re united and divided 20 years after amalgamation.
While they’re still the minority, about 11 per cent of people living in the old city of Toronto work outside today’s municipal lines, commuting to Mississauga, Vaughan and beyond, according to the 2016 census. They’re bucking the stereotype that all commuters are coming from the suburbs to downtown — and putting new stress on a regional transit system designed to funnel people in the other direction.
In downtown census tracts near the waterfront, as many as 27 per cent of commuters work outside Toronto — like Mao, who’s part of the 12 per cent of people living in the area around CityPlace who work out of municipal bounds — suggesting they’re taking advantage of the nearby Gardiner and Union Station to reverse-commute.
Data from transit agency Metrolinx also shows the percentage of Toronto commuter trips that end outside the city has been growing over the past 30 years, from about 16 per cent in 1986 to about 25 per cent in 2016.
The bigger wave of commuters still heads downtown: 20 per cent of all morning rush hour trips from Scarborough end in old Toronto, according to the 2016 Transportation Tomorrow Survey. That number is 24 per cent from Etobicoke.
For suburban Torontonians, the picture is largely the same as before amalgamation: in 1996, 18 per cent of commuters from Etobicoke travelled downtown, slightly fewer than today. In Scarborough, the 1996 number was roughly the same as it is today.
But Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins said the agency is well aware of the growing number of reverse commuters, and is working to expand service in either direction.
“We’ve been gradually increasing as much as we can,” she said, naming all-day weekday service on the Barrie GO line as a recent example.
The plan is still for all-day two-way GO train service across the network, she said, but that’s “a huge amount of work” and there are obstacles, like the fact that they need more rail lines in some areas.
Aikins said GO also has a tender out for a partnership with a ride-share service “in order to make it accessible and affordable for customers so they don’t have to use their car” to get to stations.
That’s something some cities in the U.S. have already been experimenting with, said Cherise Burda, executive director of Ryerson City Building Institute.
The City of Mercer Island, a wealthy island suburb of Seattle, recently launched a six-month pilot with Lyft and Uber, offering ride shares to the park-and-ride area where commuters catch express buses downtown for just $2.
It’s one way to fix the “first mile/last mile” problem of how to get people to and from transit stations where there aren’t enough commuters to support bus lines.
“First mile/last mile is a critical issue to solve regardless of where people work, because a lot of people live in proximity to GO stations or transit stations,” said Burda.
In response to a social media call-out, the Star received dozens of responses from people commuting out of downtown neighbourhoods to as far away as Markham, Pickering, Orangeville and Waterloo.
Mao used to take the GO train but found schedule changes and unexpected delays “kind of infuriating,” so he ended up buying a white sedan in June.
Although he loves his job at an automotive marketing company, moving to Burlington just isn’t for him. He would miss Toronto’s culture, food and diversity too much.
Most days he enjoys the time to disconnect from email, throwing on a podcast, whizzing by the line of cars going the other way and getting to work in about 35 minutes on a good morning. On the way home, barring sports games, it’s about an hour.
But he would appreciate more carpooling options for people headed out of the city, and better public transit.
“The problem with taking the GO train to work outside of the city,” he said, “is that once you’re off the GO train, usually municipal transit is garbage.
“Outside of Toronto you’re in a desolate wasteland.”
While reverse-commuting is interesting, the bigger challenge, Burda said, is the “crunch of overcapacity” on roads and public transit downtown, and investment in transit is sorely needed there.
The 2016 Transportation Tomorrow Survey on transit habits backs this up.
It found 44 per cent of trips made during morning rush hour from across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area to Toronto are to old Toronto, compared to 11 per cent to Etobicoke and 15 per cent to Scarborough.
It also found that across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area most commuters, regardless of the direction they’re going, are driving to and from work.
Lawyer Shannon Paine, who commutes daily from Leslieville to Mississauga, said she’d consider taking public transit if it made sense for her.
But neither her office, nor her home is near a station, and driving is just a lot quicker.
“I think it would take me over an hour and a half on a good day to get there, just given the trajectory,” said the 30-year-old of the GO train.
“If I ever had the opportunity I probably would.”
According to the Transportation Tomorrow Survey, about 57 per cent of morning rush hour trips made by residents in the region were made by drivers in 2016.
Michael Piovesana is able to make a commute out of the city on the GO bus to Malton work by planning his morning out by the minute.
“If I’m a minute late I have to run, kind of,” he said with a laugh.
The biggest thing that would improve his commute, he said, would be better bus connections in Brampton, which he needs to get from the GO to his office.
“You’ve got this archaic municipal transit system that’s not adapting to this new regional transit demand.”
To really get people out of their cars, especially in more suburban areas, Ryerson’s Burda said regional transit and growth plans need to be aligned, so that growth is happening around transit hubs and transit is being built around high-growth areas.
“We need to be building complete communities,” she said.
“You can’t just keep adding parking.”
By MAY WARREN
Staff Reporter Sun., Aug. 26, 2018