The Tussle over Transit

So I heard all about last week’s city council session, to discuss the fate of the previous council’s transit plan.

I would have spent my commute reading the paper for all the juicy details.

But I was too busy holding my tote bag between my feet, and holding a subway pole to keep from falling over.

Ah, the joys of living close to the downtown core. The commute’s only a third of the time. Occasionally, though, I do miss those times living in the east end, when I could score a seat at Kennedy or Finch, before other passengers started to fill the aisles of the subway trains.

But, you can’t always get what you want.

Perhaps that’s a phrase Mayor Rob Ford should consider.

He seems mighty determined to spend lots of money our city doesn’t really have, to scrap a plan that would bring more routes to the city relatively faster than putting the money into years, possibly decades, of putting subways underground.

And he’s donned his superhero outfit as Champion of Scarborough (and Other Suburbs).

Full disclosure: When I first heard about the previous council’s plans to replace the Scarborough Rapid Transit with streetcars, I wasn’t happy. I was also still living in northern Scarborough, where I had to ride a bus for 20 minutes, so I could reach the closest point on the rapid transit/subway line, and sometimes cram myself into crowded cars in hopes of making it to work on time.

I’ve moved closer to the core. But I still rely on the system to take me into Scarborough to see family. And the subways are just as crowded, if not more so. Something needs to be done. And soon, because I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure if I’m willing to wait years and years for it to be completed. (Hello, Dufferin Street, anyone?)

Do I think Scarborough is in dire need of a better transit situation? Totally. But so do other parts of the city.

Would I prefer to see a subway built? Absolutely. But frankly, I think we’re 27 years too late. The transit unveiling at Kennedy Station in Scarborough on that spring day in March 1985 should have been for new subway stops, not rapid transit.

But due to the events that led the city council of the day to its decision, that’s not what played out.  The city could have already been well on their way to building the transit system of every urban planning nerd’s dream. But I kind of think they blew it.

Times have changed. Things are even more expensive. Cities like ours are struggling to stay afloat financially.

And considering our mayor and his allies have just spent the previous year in office trying to convince residents (or fight them, depending on your perspective), that there’s fat to be trimmed, services to be done away with, that they can’t afford frivolous things … The last thing they should be doing is taking our money, and flinging it at something that a model that – in this current context – doesn’t make sense.

Unless he’s got a tin box with billions buried under some old tree in a country field, below-ground transit is an unrealistic luxury Mayor Ford cannot afford.

And he also needs to stop using Scarborough as the angry sidekick to bolster his case. As a Scarberian, I’d like that part of the city to receive less vitriol and scorn from the rest of Toronto, for a change.

In any case, it’s going to be interesting to see how things play out from here. And whether this time, things will be different … or if bureaucracy and politics will, once again, keep things from moving forward.

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A Trashy Commute

It was supposed to be a run-of-the-mill, relatively quiet commute home.

I was going to read until I drifted off to sleep, catch a 10 to 15-minute disco nap, then rouse myself and move along to the next connection.

But, nooooo.

It started out the way it was supposed to. I plopped myself down in a bucket seat and pulled out  my magazine.

Across the aisle, there was some dude, wearing a nondescript baseball cap, t-shirt and jean shorts. On the seats before him lay a huge pile of commuter papers and, from what I can remember, I think an orange.

And for roughly five-ish minutes, it was fine.

Then I heard a loud crumple, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the guy lob a crushed plastic bottle.

Uh-oh, I thought, directing my gaze elsewhere, as the train travelled over the Don Valley.

And then a couple of passengers got on at the next station – one of them, a Chinese-Canadian fellow.

Why is that even relevant, you ask? Well, because he was the unfortunate recipient of what happened next.

Whatever the guy in the ballcap was internalizing, he picked THAT moment to spew it out, like molten lava.

The Chinese guy was standing just inside the doors, because, well, there was newspaper all over the seats.

Then Ballcap Dude said rather loudly, “COME ON. SIT. SIT DOWN!” and proceeded to knock all the newspapers off the covered seats all over the ground.

He then started to gather them up, while rather loudly grumbling that no one cared about the state of the subway, that it was ’cause of IMMIGRANTS.

And that’s when it began.

He was barely 30 seconds into his rant when a guy sitting about 20 feet away started responding loudly in term – presumably to shut Ballcap Dude up for his anti-immigrant opinion.

That just set him off.

Like a rabid pitbull, he went after the guy 20 feet away, calling him every name in the book, making a point of referring to the fact the guy was fat, yelling at him to shut up, yelling that he’d come all the way from Jane Station and had been picking up EVERYONE’S discarded papers, and what a waste of paper it was.

At one point, Ballcap Dude got up as if making to march over there and punch The Other Guy in the face – assuming the “wanna go?!” stance and literally SPITTING on the floor a couple times.

The Other Guy wouldn’t go down without a (verbal) fight. He got off a stop before Ballcap Guy … but not before the latter had stomped up and got up in the guy’s grill. I seriously was considering pressing the emergency button if The Other Guy hadn’t gotten off.

Ballcap Dude got off a stop later (Woodbine, if you want to know, since he shouted it to THE ENTIRE SUBWAY CAR six stops earlier), papers in hand, seeming to seek sympathy for his ’cause from a fellow commuter just trying to make it to the escalator.

“Look at all this paper! What a waste!” he said in a slightly less deafening tone. “I picked up all this paper. I’m ONLY. ONE. PERSON …”

The thing is, BallCap Dude – despite his multiple issues – had a good point.

A large number of commuters – young, old, large, small, from all walks of life – are pigs. They treat the TTC subway cars like a garbage can, and leave their trash EVERYWHERE.

Despite the commission’s best efforts, a lot of passengers don’t feel as if it’s their job to keep their vehicles clean. (I’m sure there are some out there who think they’re keeping maintenance staff gainfully employed by leaving their crap to be cleaned up.)

Unfortunately, the man’s argument was mothered to death by the big, steaming pile of poop that was his shouty, spittle-flecked, ignorant invective.

Too bad.

Toronto’s Transit Troubles

While at work a few evenings ago, I ran into a colleague of mine.

In the midst of our chat, he told me about going to buy subway tokens on his meal break … and having to go to THREE subway stations for tokens.

At the first two stations, the ticket booth collectors told him they were out of tokens. When he arrived at the third, there was an enormous lineup.

It’s stories like these that I’ve either read or heard, since the TTC approved their impending fare hikes last Tuesday.

The approval was then followed by the official announcement on Wednesday …

And was almost immediately followed by a colossal shutdown on two sides of the Yonge-University-Spadina subway line.

(Which – while completely unrelated, and coincidental in its timing –  was unfortunate, but somehow symbolized the problem with the whole situation.)

The TTC’s decree resulted in people running to subway stations around the city, to buy as many tokens as they could get their hands on. But not before the commission clamped down – first by limiting the number of tokens per person to five, for the princely sum of $11.25 …

And then by ceasing token sales outright … announcing they would only be selling temporary tickets from now into January. (When fares go up, those tickets will have to be supplemented by a quarter to make up the full fare.)

I think there are a few places where they’ve got the five token rule back – for now. But what a mess, indeed. And it’s not just tokens being affected.

Patrons like myself, who use the subway system more than 10 times a week, have to brace for an 11 per cent fare hike …

From the $109 we pay now for monthly passes, to a whopping $121.

And as I read a couple of days ago in one of the commuter dailies’ transit columns, forget about investing in the yearly subscription plan at 2009 prices. They’ll be sold in January at the new prices … which, after taxes, probably puts the total monetary amount somewhere in the mid-$1500 range.

Excuse the crude visual, but talk about bending over and grabbing your ankles.

To be fair, I don’t think the fare hikes are to help pay workers’ wages. Believe what you want, but I don’t think so. It’s a bigger issue of subsidizing – or in our case, a lack thereof. The TTC isn’t exactly at the top of the list when it comes to well-subsidized transit authorities.

In the meantime, the only thing commuters such as myself can feel, is an increasing sense of frustration.

Will things on the transit lines EVER get better, even with the promise of Transit City, some 10 years away from completion?

And will THAT mean we should just prepare for more fare increases to come?

Personally speaking, I also don’t think this latest announcement is going to help encourage people to use transit as an environmentally-friendlier alternative to commuting around Toronto.

If anything, I wouldn’t be surprised if it drove (or kept) them out of the seats of subways and streetcars, and right back into the seats of sedans and SUVs.

Or maybe it won’t change a thing.

Only time will tell, come January 2010.

The Vomit Comet

As I mention on a semi-regular basis on this blog, I live way out in suburbia, but work and (for the most part) play downtown.

Although I’m trying to be more responsible about this, there are times where I’ve stayed out as late as possible, catching the last possible subway without resorting to cabbing it all the way home.

It’s challenging enough dealing with people on public transit during the day – loud voices, annoying personal habits and big, bulky bags, at times packed into buses, streetcars and subway trains.

But in the middle of the night, The Better Way gives way to The Vomit Comet – the nickname given to TTC service at night and the wee hours of the morning. 

It immediately conjures up images of drunken, unruly folks so inebriated they can barely stand – or worse,  when their insides give up the war against alcohol and revolt, causing said drunkards to showcase the contents of their stomachs to  other patrons.

I have somehow avoided witnessing this for myself.*

Until last night.

Two stops into my commute home, a bunch of young guys bounded onto the subway car, making all sorts of noise. Two of them plunked themselves down into the seats just behind me; their friend eased into a two-seater just diagonal from my own, on the other side of the car.

I turned up my iPod as best I could, but I could still hear them. At one point, one of them said something chiding their friend about throwing up somewhere, but I didn’t really pay any attention.

Around the time the train was cruising through Greenwood station, I don’t know WHAT caused me to look up from my book at one point, but I did – and looked over my shoulder.

The guy seated diagonally and across from me had upchucked (if I were to take a wild guess, pizza) into the seat right beside his. His head was bent forward, a long string of mucus just hanging there from his mouth, like a wobbly, gelatinous icicle.

His friends were just whooping and hollering with laughter.

I looked away, not processing what I saw. Then I looked again. Yep, I thought. THAT’s vomit. Time to move.

I should have left the car entirely. But I just moved as far down to the opposite end as I could.

Near the end of my trip, I turned to see if the young dude was still there. He was. And so were his friends – taking pictures of his digestive artwork with their cellphones.

The young guy was still retching as I got off the subway at the end of the line.

I feel sorry for that kid when he finds out what his friends did.

And I feel sorry for whomever had to clean up his mess. 

 

*By which I mean seeing OTHER people vomit. I was a victim of this once, but I had (a) the luxury of having a subway car to myself and (b) a plastic bag, into which I could deposit – and later dispose of at my final destination – the evidence.

On The TTC …

Seeing as I just finished a late-night subway commute home after a Friday night dinner and a movie, I thought it fitting to post the following video.

I saw it for the first time yesterday. But no doubt that – if you’re from Toronto – you may have already seen this on local TV newscasts and the like.

All I have to say is that I relate to it completely and that it’s awesome.

So for all you fellow commuters – and bloggers like The Daily Commuter, who have linked here from time to time (I see you!) – this one’s for you:

Mad props, Randal and Syrus. It’s viral-worthy. For real.

On The Way To The Gellért

So a funny thing happened when I took the metro in Budapest …

To rewind: American tour-mate Randy and I leave our sightseeing posse mid-afternoon to make a stop at the hotel and hoof it over to the Gellért before the pool shuts for the evening.

We enter the metro at Kossuth Lajos tér. Randy spots an automated ticket machine. I think, Great! I don’t have to worry about dealing with people!

Um, not so great.

Randy has enough change for his ticket, which costs about 220 Hungarian forint (0.94 Euro, or $1.46 CAD). I, however, only have a 5,000-forint note (about $33 CAD) – and the machine doesn’t take bills of that size. Plus I don’t have enough coinage. So I have to deal with a ticket person.

Sigh.

I walk over to the ticket booth. I can barely see the woman behind the glass, because apparently Budapest Metro feels it’s necessary to use the kind of opaque glass seen in police interrogation rooms. So I’m squinting and trying to ask her for a ticket.

I slide my 5,000-forint note onto the sliding stainless steel plate. The lady swivels the plate onto her side of the glass, takes my cash, and then swivels the plate back to me, presenting me with a ticket and a bunch of coins.

As I’m walking away from the ticket booth, I slow down to check the change in my hand.

Wa-aaait a minute …

I stay right where I am and count it twice before realizing the woman has only given me 280 forint ($1.86 CAD) … and is holding on to my other 4,500 forint (almost $30 CAD).

I turn right back ’round, approach the booth, and say, “‘Scuse me, please – I paid 220 forint, and I only got 220 forint ba – ”

The woman puts the missing bills on the plate, swivels it my way, and is like, “Okay, okay, bye-bye.”

“She totally tried to rip you off,” Randy remarks as we  go down the elevator. “And she was watching you, too. Good job. If you hadn’t have checked …” 

“I KNOW,” I say, really annoyed that she’d tried that shit on me. I can’t believe it … and I want justice. But I have to settle for getting belatedly my money back. 

Riding the metro on the way to the Gellért, though, is another story.

We enter at Blaha Lujza tér station and buy our tickets from one of the machines. It isn’t until we validate the tickets and ride the escalator downstairs that Randy realizes our mistake: we only bought 220-forint tickets, which you can only use on one metro line. If you have to change metro lines, you need to buy a ticket for 270 forints. 

Randy apologizes, saying it’s his fault; I say, “No worries. You couldn’t have known that.”

The only solution: ride to the transfer point – Deák Ferenc tér – and simply buy another ticket.

We get off the train, go down another escalator, and walk to the nearest ticket machine.

It only takes coins.

Randy doesn’t have any change. I don’t have enough change. And there’s no other machine or even a ticket booth.

D’oh.

“What’re we going to do?” I ask.

Randy looks at the validation machines, and looks back at me. 

“I dunno, ” says Randy. “Do we take a chance?”

“I dunno about this … ” I say, looking at the validation machines, then back at him.

In the end, we head right past the validation machines and then down the escalator.

This makes me nervous. As someone who rides the subway in Toronto, the last thing I’d ever want to do is incur a fine of any sort. (Fare evasion on the TTC, for example, will cost $345 when the by-law is approved this week.)

I remember the little handout we get from Carla earlier in our trip, which says that it’s a 1,500-forint fine (about $9.92 CAD) for travelling around without the proper ticket. So I’m trying to rationalize things by thinking, Maybe we won’t get caught … and if we do, maybe it won’t be so bad … 

Waiting for the train, I take my backpack off, hold it in my hands, and look straight ahead. I already feel like a TV show criminal.

Randy spots a Budapest Metro lady on the platform and tells me as such; we move farther along the platform. The train arrives a couple moments later and we board.

As we pass the stops one by one, the fear of having my ticket checked subsides, and is replaced by relief. Which is then replaced by a little cockiness. We’re just bending the rules a bit, I think smugly. Besides, that woman at the ticket booth tried to RIP ME OFF. I’m getting some subway justice.

That justice, as it turns out, is short-lived. As my ex-pat friend Martin would later explain, the Budapest Metro folks tend to check certain stops more frequently than others. In any case, anyone who gets caught isn’t spared from a fine, especially residents.

So the feeling of getting away scot-free lasts from the train, mid-way up the escalator – right about the moment when Randy and I look up and see the two middle-aged ladies in blue Budapest Metro shirts, standing at the top of the escalator.

Shitshitshit-le-shit.

We look at each other and know we’re so very SCREWED. Our only defence at this point is to play as dumb as possible and hope, at the last possible minute, they wouldn’t ask for our tickets.

Fat. Chance.

Randy gets the lady on the left; I get the lady on the right.

She asks for my ticket, which I produce (and cringe as she checks it). She motions to me that it’s the wrong ticket (to which I respond by wearing my “dumb” face) and she gestures to me to step to the side.

She asks if I speak German or English (I obviously choose the latter). She asks me how long I am in Budapest for; I tell her, “One day. We leave tomorrow.”

In her fragmented English – and I’m sure Randy’s getting the exact same spiel – she tells me about the one-day ticket one can purchase, which can be used on whatever metro line one takes; one can even transfer to other metro lines, if one chooses.

Then she looks down at her cell phone (which maybe she wants me to think is her magical “ticket fine calculator”), looks up at me and tells me I have to pay 6,000 forints (about 25 Euros, or almost $40 CAD).

“Six thousand forint?” I repeat a bit incredulously. Gulp. I fish around in my wallet and show her I only have 4,500 forint.

The woman pauses a moment, then says, “Okay, okay … give me 30 Euro, then.”

Same problem – I only have a 20 Euro bill.

That’s when opportunity presented itself.

She looks over to her co-worker, who is talking to Randy, looks back at me and says:

“Are you …” and makes the international waving-finger symbol for “together”.

I think I understand what she’s getting at, but I doubt myself.

“What?” I ask, confused.

The woman repeats, “Are YOU …” and takes my hand and Randy’s, and holds them close together, as if she’s about to join us in holy matrimony.

Randy knows exactly what’s going on and is nodding empathically. I start half-nodding too – whatever will get us out of this mess. Especially if that lady likes Randy.

So instead of paying 6,000 forints each, I end up paying 20 Euros, plus 2,000 forints (which equals roughly 6,600 forints – 28 Euros or  $43 CAD) for the pair of us. Randy and I later do the math, and we figure the odd sum is actually the 6,000 forints I was originally going to pay, plus a nifty 600-forint “tip” the Budapest Metro lady generously took for her leniency.

So either way I lose to the metro. But at least the lady was nice. It could’ve been a lot worse. And now I have a fake husband for the rest of the trip.

So boys and girls, the morals of this story are:

(1) If you’re going to use the metro in Budapest, buy an all-day ticket.

(2) If you don’t want – or don’t think you need – an all-day ticket, then make sure you buy a fare that allows you to transfer onto different metro lines.

(3) If you don’t have the right fare and get caught, (a) pray you get a nice transit lady that reprimands you, (b) act dumb whenever possible and (c) if you’re with another person, pretend you’re married to get the fine reduced. 

Okay, so maybe not that last one. But now you know. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Portrait of a Strike

“You folks taking the TTC?” asked the server at the pub my friends and I had just finished eating at. We’d been sitting around waiting for him to return my friend Morgan’s credit card.

“Yeah,” said my friend Christine. “Why?”

“TTC’s going on strike as of midnight.”

“What?” I said in a semi fatigue-and-cider-induced haze. “Are you kidding?’ (I’m sure there was a cuss word in there somewhere.)

“I just heard it on the news. They’re shutting down the subway at midnight.”

I looked at my oh-so-stylish plastic Casio. The time read 11:22.

Aw, HELL no.

I’d just begun a really decent Friday night after surviving a stressful work week. I’d gone to the Eaton Centre for some retail therapy. Met my friends for dinner.

And now this.

We quickly made our way to Queen subway station. While waiting for the next train northbound to Bloor, I truly couldn’t believe what the server at the pub had been so kind to tell us. So I went up to the burly guy in the ticket booth and asked: “Is it true the TTC’s going on strike?”

“Yeah, it’s true,” he said. “I just found out myself.”

Essentially he went on to tell me the deal (which union boss Bob Kinnear had proudly announced earlier in the week – prematurely, as it turns out) wasn’t as good as everyone had been led to believe. And he apologized, albeit half-heartedly.

My friends and I made it to Bloor, went down a floor to the Yonge station platform and parted ways as the subway to Kipling arrived. An eastbound train arrived for me just a couple minutes later.

I was a bit concerned about how far I’d get, because the train stopped longer than usual at a couple of stops along the way. But as luck would have it, the train pulled into Kennedy Station in the opening minutes of the strike.

I made a hurried dash up the stairs, down the hall, through the turnstile and up the escalator to the taxi stand running parallel to the Eglinton Ave. bridge.

Wishful thinking. Not a cab in sight. Obviously. And at least 30 or 40 people standing around on either side of the street waiting for cabs as empty buses – with “Sorry … OUT OF SERVICE” blazing in harsh, flourescent orange lettering on their electronic signage – drove past.

Chaos looked ready to ensue.

I looked around, realized what I was up against and called my father.

While I waited, I could do nothing but listen to my iPod and take in the scene around me.

A young woman in braids was in the lone phone booth behind me, talking on the phone while an older black man said in a loud voice, “Hey, hurry up! People need to use the phone! There’s a strike on!”

A small huddle of high school kids loitered on the small patch of grass, joking around – and probably trying to figure out how the hell they were getting home.

A white woman carrying plastic grocery bags – one of the last people to surface before they locked the glass doors – came up the escalator, walked towards the empty taxi stand. Within minutes, a cab arrived. She walked over, and slowly got in, amid the protests of a couple of black women who, it seems, had called for a cab. They also got in and drove off.

A woman in a dark jacket came up to me, asking if I was waiting for a ride. I said yes, because of the cab situation. I guess she’d been hoping to share one with me. I said no and wished her good luck. Didn’t care. She’d already turned away.

I heard a loud bang behind me. A young guy in a hoodie standing with his back to the glass door entrance to the subway, had kicked one of the panes. He skulked away, revealing the web-like fracture in the glass.

A group of kids had given up on finding transportation, crossed the road, walked up the hill and were climbing over the low guardrail lining the Eglinton Ave. bridge, to start taking their long walk home.

The whole scene was an eerie cross between the blackout from several years ago, and the equivalent of being at the airport after going through customs and collecting your luggage, and making your way into reception, searching for your loved ones or friends to come greet you and take you home.

Some minutes and one narrowly-missed cell phone call later, my dad arrived to my rescue and we were on our way home. And I was one of the luckier ones.

My dad couldn’t believe it. He didn’t even know there was a strike on until I’d called him.

He wasn’t enraged, but he was disappointed. Unlike a lot of people’s dads, mine used to work for TTC. Not as a driver, who most passengers blame for this situation, but as a mechanic and engine builder at one of the commission’s garages.

He didn’t think some of the union’s demands at the negotiation table were completely unreasonable. And when the union announced days ago that they wouldn’t strike, he was probably as relieved in his mind as the rest of us.

However, he voiced his displeasure at the way the TTC stranded thousands of people out on a Friday night, without providing a way for them to get home safely. The very least they could have done, he said, was finish their shifts and then officially start the strike Saturday morning.

His sentiment was echoed by TTC workers who’d called in to late-night talk shows to extend their sympathies to stranded passengers.

He also doesn’t think that the entire union – made up of some 9,000 people, NOT ALL bus, streetcar and subway operators, by the way – just decided to wilfully screw 1.5 million people over, as many reliant on TTC, in their ire, would like to believe.

Between what my father said last night, and what I’ve hearing this morning, the main group within the union with the biggest beef over the deal that was to be ratified were the maintenance workers – particularly with the issue of contracting out their work.

Apparently they weren’t particularly happy with what the union reps at the negotiation table were accepting. So it sounds like they decided to use their trump card and call on their fellow union brothers and sisters to send the union negotation team a message. After all, the maintenance workers supported the other TTC workers in strikes gone by. It was time to return the favour, no? Or so the scenario goes. Of course, this could be complete hearsay.

Personally, I’m torn on the issue. My dad’s a retired TTC worker. I myself am part of a union, in a different industry. People should, in theory, be able to fight for the right to fair working conditions and compensation if they are injured, or worse.

But I find this current situation deplorable. Passengers like me who rely on TTC as the primary mode of transport, have now been taken hostage and are being made to suffer. Make no mistake – if there were any passengers who respected TTC workers, that respect evaporated just after 11 p.m. last night when we were all given absolutely no notice.

And the saddest part?

As hard as this might be for some people to believe, not all of those workers are scum. There are TTC employees who are not only sympathetic to the passengers being left in the lurch, but who are also angry at the fashion in which this thing has been handled.

But when this thing is settled and the ink dries, they’ll be the ones on the first day back who’ll take abuse by people who think every single worker is scum, who truly believes these guys deserve to be spat on, kicked, and generally disrespected.

Take note. ‘Cause this could get nasty.