Toronto’s Transit Rollercoaster


Ever since I lived in Toronto back in 2003, I’ve always kept an eye on transit developments in the GTA. In the early days, there was David Miller’s Transit City, which promised to criss-cross the city with light rail. Then Rob Ford rumbled into office and promised the gravy train along with the light rail trains. Instead, Rob Ford planned on fewer lines, but with all of them being heavy rail subway lines. Then most recently came John Tory and his SmartTrack which was a vaunted “surface subway” that would start moving Toronto in a new way.

Three mayors with three very different visions over the past 13 years. It’s enough to make any transit follower’s eyes spin.

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Toronto Tempo – video

I’ve been busy doing other stuff lately and I’ve been sorely neglecting the blog. However, here’s a little video to hold you over. The video is a great timelapse video of Toronto. Having lived in Toronto for a year, I remember it fondly. Even though when I was there, it was less than a stellar experience for me. I do admit that the city has grown on me and I do appreciate quite a few things about the city. It’s worth a visit if you’ve never been.

Toronto Tempo from Ryan Emond on Vimeo.

James: TTC teeters on the brink of expansion –

James: TTC teeters on the brink of expansion –

St. Clair West - southbound

It pains me to see what has happened in Toronto.  In the previous municipal government, there was the Transit City plan, which would have spread light rail across the city proper.  There would have been 8 light rail lines, running on surface, that would have covered most of Toronto.

Now with the new Rob Ford administration in charge of Toronto, the light rail plans have been shelved for fewer lines with a higher cost per line. Just read some of the comments from Royson James article in The Toronto Star.

James points out some of the glaring deficiencies of the new transit plans:

They are pursing a subway along Sheppard — only because the new mayor has ordered them to; and they’ve relented, despite the better judgment and wishes of transit staff. Meanwhile, a fully-funded light rail line along Sheppard has been shelved.

The lone transit project running through the city’s poor northwest region along Finch Ave., through priority neighbourhoods Branson, Jane-Finch and Rexdale, has been mothballed to pay for the Sheppard subway dream and the expanded and more expensive vision on Eglinton.

David Gunn, a former TTC boss, says the following:

Stations on the Spadina line extension are unnecessarily expensive, he says. Metrolinx’s plan for a the Eglinton light rail subway is “crazy” and “insane” as it uses a different track gauge than the rest of the TTC, and uses a car that is twice as costly as a subway but with less capacity.

Then there’s the Presto debit card issue:

Transit users don’t know what to believe on basic transit matters. A year ago, the former regime was hell bent on avoiding the province’s Presto debit card fare payment system rolled out with other transit bodies across the GTA. Now, the Ford backers are in bed with Presto. Was former chair Adam Giambrone correct in his claims Presto was not flexible enough and will doom the TTC to a technology other transit bodies are moving away from? The customer does not know whom to trust.

Oh Toronto.  How I feel for your transit woes.

Now that is totally different

Steeles West subway station gets hip, downtown facade –

10 for creativity and being different.  I have no idea what number I’d give for liking it.  One thing for sure – it is different.  I wonder if folks out along Steeles Avenue will appreciate this one.  The new Steeles West Station is designed by Will Alsop.  The same British architect that came up with the Ontario College of Art and Design’s building downtown.  Although when I first saw OCAD’s giant checkered floating shoebox supported by super long steel crayons, I didn’t like it.  However, it has grown on me and I think it’s a great Toronto icon.  We’ll see about this one.

Select Smart Cards from around the world

TransLink and the BC Ministry of Transportation just started a Fare Card Naming Contest recently.  So I thought it would be great to take a look at some of the Smart Cards already in operation out there.  Ours won’t be available until 2013, but we can take a look at what other cities have to offer in their smart cards.

Seattle – ORCA Card


ORCA Card (from fueled by beer blog)


Let’s start close to home.  The Seattle area’s several transit agencies rolled out a smart card system in 2009.  ORCA is an acronym for One Region Card for All.  An orca, or killer whale, is also conveniently one of the great natural symbols of the Pacific Northwest.  The card can be used on seven agencies in the Greater Seattle area.  It costs $5 to get the card and you can load it up with cash right away.  It can carry anywhere from $5 to $300 on balance.  You can also start an online My Orca account to set up Autoload and to track your card’s balance online.  A rider with the ORCA card will tap the card when they get on a vehicle and/or when they get off the vehicle.  It looks like it depends on which transit vehicle you’re taking.  Fueled by Beer blog has a “Seattle’s Metro Transit System for Dummies” guide that helps explain the ins and outs of the ORCA card, as well as summarizes the entire transit system.

I have no experience with this card, but am highly tempted to just purchase one for a souvenir the next time I am down in Seattle.  The Orca name is also one that I would have liked to seen for our new TransLink smart card; however, there may be some copyright issues there.

Hong Kong – Octopus Card


adult Octopus Card (wikipedia)


I am most familiar with the smart card from Hong Kong.  Hong Kong’s Octopus card is the “take-you-everywhere” and “use-it-everywhere” smart card.  I can safely say that almost every single one of Hong Kong’s 7 million denizens has one of these cards.  In Seattle, they talk about “tapping” your card; in Hong Kong, you “doot” your card.  That’s the sound the reader makes when the Octopus card is read.

The Octopus Card has been serving Hong Kong since 1997.  As usual, Hong Kong is an early adopter for new technology.  For a basic adult Octopus card, you pay HK$150 for a HK$50 deposit to get the card. The remaining HK$100 is for you to use for your initial travels.  The card can be used on virtually on means of public transport in the Hong Kong SAR.  It is also possible to use the Octopus card to pay for parking at parking meters.  Large franchise retailers such as 7-Eleven, KFC, and McDonald’s, to name a few, accept payments using the Octopus Card.  I’ve even refilled my card at a 7-Eleven once.  No wonder you can carry up to HK$1,000 on the card.  You should check out the Octopus Card’s official site for a full look at the marketing success that the Octopus Card is.

London – Oyster Card


London's Oyster Card (wikipedia)


Now, I have no experience with London’s Oyster card.  However, I hear about it a lot.  Many transit folk who talk about smart cards will often talk about the Oyster card.  Well, the world is your oyster, in London anyway.  Since 2003.

The Oyster works almost like the Octopus, but it doesn’t seem to have all the additional non-transport functionality that the Octopus has.  You can get the Oyster card at one of many Oyster stops in the London area or even register for an account online.  The card is used on the Underground, Docklands Light Rail,  Overground trains, National Rail trains in London, boats, and, of course, buses.  It seems that you can get cheaper fares over cash fares by using the Oyster.  That’s the same for Octopus, as well.  That’s all I can glean from the various Oyster pages.  You can see for yourself on Wikipedia and on the Transport for London pages.

Toronto – Presto Card (GO Transit)


Presto Card


Sticking within Canada, I’ve got to talk about Toronto and it’s current smart card, Presto, for use on the GO Transit only.  There’s a lot of talk about the Toronto Transit Commission coming up with their own smart card.  What’s impressive about the Presto Card is that it aims to be the smart card for all of Ontario.  That’s going to be tough if the TTC is not part of the equation.  Currently, the TTC will take the Presto Card, but at only select subway stations and nowhere else.  However, Oakville, Burlington, Brampton, and Mississauga’s transit systems also now take the Presto Card.  So that may force the TTC to accept the card throughout its system.  Even Ottawa’s OC Transpo is expected to roll out the Presto Card in early 2012.

So it’ll be interesting to see if Presto reaches all of Ontario.  Then you just need one smart card throughout the province.  That would be a huge bonus for Ontarians.  That might also be incentive to use the Presto Card for other cash related transactions.  It would be neat if you could use the Presto card for your ride on the train, then use it to pay for a double-double at Tim Horton’s at the station.  Then go down to the Mac’s convenience store and pay for a pack of chewing gum all with the same card.  One can dream, eh?

I think that’s all I’ll do for smart cards from around the world.  If I have more time, I’ll look up some more places and see if there’s anything unique about one system’s smart card.  For now, have a look at TransLink’s YouTube video about the Fare Card Naming Contest.

My top transit experiences of the decade (2000-2009)

Here’s a break from my Japan and Kansai travel posts.  This post is inspired by Jhen over at the Buzzer Blog.  In a recent post, she asked us to share our top transit moments over the past decade.  Thanks to Jhen for a great job over the past year.  The Buzzer Blog has really become a regular read for me.

I rang in the new millennium in my apartment in Wuhu, China 10 years ago and got my first new year phone call from my student, Blair.  It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed since I was teaching English in China.  OMG….I’m really starting to feel my age.  Well here’s my list of my top transit moments of the decade (2000-2009) in chronological order.

Shanghai Metro (2000)

Shanghai Metro (Xu Edison

The Shanghai Metro was in its infancy back in 2000.  I got to ride the new east-west Line 2 soon after it had opened.  There were only 2 metro lines at the time and this was the brand spanking new one.  It went under the busy pedestrian mall of East Nanjing Road (Nanjing Dong Lu) and under the Huangpu River to Pudong which is home to all the new towers in Shanghai.  At the time, the metro was so new that the card gates and ticket machines were not working yet.  You literally bought a paper ticket from a hostess monitoring the gates.  The paper ticket was like the ones you get for admission into parks in China.  There was no smart card or magnetic readers.  Then, the train itself was really empty.  Probably because it was still a lot cheaper to take the bus or ferry across the river at the time.

The Shanghai Metro has now exploded to 11 lines with more expansion on the way.  Shanghai will also host the 2010 World Expo.  So if you think Vancouver has developed quickly, you’ve obviously never been to Shanghai.  And, hopefully by now, I’m sure they have smart cards and gates all working now.

Tuk-tuks and Red Trucks in Chiang Mai, Thailand (2000)

Tuk Tuks (Bjorn Edgar Pedersen @WikiMedia)

I had the great fortune of having a mid-year teachers conference in Thailand when I was teaching in China.  It was a great getaway.  Chiang Mai is a resort town in the northern hills and mountains of Thailand.  I was in Chiang Mai during February and it literally felt like a Vancouver summer.  The best way to get around Chiang Mai is on bicycle, but if you don’t want to break out in a sweat, there are the Tuk-tuks and Red Trucks.

The Tuk-tuks are three-wheel motorcycles with a bench in the back for up to 3 people to sit.  Three will fit if you’re anorexic and only 2 good-sized Americans could fit in the back.  However, I must say this is the best taxi/transit experience I have ever had.  It’s exhilarating to hear the tuk-tuk sound of the vehicle as it speeds along the roads to your destination.  The wind blows through your hair as you smell the sweet fragrance of northern Thailand.  It was a wonderful way to get around.  As I rode these Tuk-tuks, I kept wondering how I could import one of these to Vancouver.

However, if you had more people travelling together or you wanted to save some money, then there were the Red Trucks.  These are literally pick-up trucks that are painted red.  The bed is covered in a canopy and benches are installed along the sides.  You can stuff up to 10 people into the back of these trucks.  The Red Trucks run like maxi-taxis.  The more people you have, the cheaper your fare.  That’s why these Red Trucks were such a deal.  And if you had less than enough people to fill the truck, you could share the ride with other folks who may be going in your general direction.  It’s a great way to meet other tourists in Chiang Mai.

MTR, Hong Kong (2000, 2005, 2006)

North Point MTR Station

MTR (Mass Transit Railway) is Hong Kong’s subway or metro system.  It’s only been existence since the early 80’s, but it is my personal gold standard of what subway and metros should be like.  The MTR trains are long and wide with 50-doors.  All stations have glass barriers to separate passengers from the track.  All stations are announced in three languages (Cantonese, Mandarin, and English).  LED lights mark which door to exit and at which station you have arrived.  The Octopus smart card gives a seamless experience of entering and exiting stations.  You can collect MTR points on every ride you take.  And all changes between MTR lines involve either walking across the platform or just going up one level (with the major exceptions of Quarry Bay and walking from Central to Hong Kong Station, which are both a pain to change lines).

The MTR is the backbone of an extensive transit system which I have had the pleasure of riding many times.  I keep my Octopus card even after travelling to Hong Kong, so that the next time I’m there, I just refill it with cash at the airport and I’m good to go again.  My favourite moment on the MTR would be getting off at Admiralty and seeing the whole station decorated from head to toe in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” ads.  Who says ads are all bad?

Airport Express, Hong Kong (2000)

Airport Express Hong Kong (Kawaguchi @WikiMedia)

I love the Airport Express in Hong Kong.  If you want to arrive in Hong Kong’s Central or Kowloon areas in style, the Airport Express is the ultimate airport to city rail experience in Hong Kong (I think the best in the world would likely be Shanghai’s Maglev train which I haven’t ridden…yet).  When I took the Airport Express, I was taking it to Chek Lap Kok Airport.  I’ve never taken it the other way mainly because I was either picked up by somebody or I was taking a bus into the New Territories.

When I was leaving Asia in July 2000 after a year of teaching, I was staying with a relative on Hong Kong Island.  I was totally on my own that day I went to the airport.  I went down to the Airport Express’ Hong Kong Station in Central.  I went to the check-in counter and literally checked in for my flight.  Cathay Pacific had a counter at Hong Kong Station to print my boarding pass and to take my luggage.  What a godsend!  I checked in my two pieces of luggage, got my boarding pass, and went back into town to do some last minute walking about.  How many places in the world check your luggage in downtown and take it to the airport for you?

When I came back to the station, I just made sure I had HKD$75 on my Octopus smart card.  I “doot” my card on the gate’s card reader and I was in.  The train itself was very comfortable with a place to stow your carry-ons and TV screens to watch.  The ride was very quick and very smooth.  Plus, it takes me directly into the terminal so that I just go straight into security with my boarding pass.  I tell you.  No other city does transit like Hong Kong.  Nobody.

Beijing Subway (2002)

old Beijing Subway ticket (

On a return visit to China in 2002, I started off in Beijing.  At the time, Beijing was only starting to build its many subway lines for the 2008 Summer Olympics.  When I arrived in 2002, there was only two Beijing Subway lines – the original east-west line and the Circle Line.  Getting onto the subway in Beijing was cheap beyond belief.  For 2 RMB (~20 cents Canadian), you could ride for as far and as long as you wanted.  The architecture of the stations was a distinct Soviet style which was repeated in every single station in the system.  So you had to read the signs carefully to see when to get off.  Changing lines was also an adventure of going up a series of stairs and crossing over the tracks with hundreds of Beijing commuters.  Now in 2009, there 8 lines and an airport express in Beijing.  Thanks to the Olympics, Beijing has leapfrogged to forefront of rapid transit systems in Asia.

Toronto Transit Commission (2003)

TTC Streetcar

For the first time in my life, I visited the “centre of the universe”.  Heck.  I wasn’t just visiting; I was moving there.  What did Canada’s largest city have in store for me transit-wise?  Downtown was easy to get around on the TTC subway or streetcar.  The trademark red streetcars were easily recognizable, but a little on the slow side.  I got to ride the new Sheppard Line up in North York.  That was extremely important to me when I went to get furniture from Ikea. Plus, I started taking most of my transit photos with the TTC.

The breadth of the TTC is indeed impressive, but you could easily see the aging system was struggling.  Even from a surface perspective, you could see stations were on the brink of disrepair.  As I read articles about the TTC since 2003, I keep reading about lack of funding.  If you think Vancouver has been hitting transit roadblocks, then Toronto has been running into a giant brick wall.

New Territories to Kowloon KMB ride in Hong Kong (2005)

Road Show TV on a KMB bus

Hong Kong is well known by transit-philes for its top-class MTR metro system with its easy transfers and world-class trains.  However, the buses in Hong Kong are no slouch.  In 2005, I stayed further out of town in the New Territories and would have to take the 20-30 minute ride on a Kowloon Motor Bus (KMB) into busy Kowloon.  Taking the train into Kowloon was quick, but would cost more and involve a couple of transfers.  The ride on the bus was a little slower, but more direct and involved no transfers.

This bus ride was one of the most comfortable transit rides in my experience.  I would board the bus in the New Territories and immediately ascend to the second-floor of the double-decker bus.  The seats all had high head rests.  You could basically close your eyes and easily fall asleep with the high head rests.  The ride was a great nap for a weary jet-lagged traveller like myself.  If I wasn’t napping on the ride, then I could enjoy the view of the Tolo Harbour on the way in and out of the New Territories.

Yurikamome Line in Tokyo (2006)

Yurikamome Line Train (

This small and indirect line doesn’t seem all that interesting at first. The fare is even a little on the pricey side.  However, the Yurikamome Line connects the man-made island of Odaiba and it’s many popular waterfront destinations to Shinbashi in Tokyo.  One of the most interesting tidbits about the Yurikamome Line is that it is one of the few rubber tired transit systems in the world. The ride is definitely very quiet.  You can barely tell when the train is approaching the platform too.  The train is also worth the cost for the ride on the lower deck of the Rainbow Bridge across Tokyo Bay.  On the Tokyo side of the water, it felt like a surreal Blade Runner experience where buildings towered on either side of the track as the train snaked its way from the Rainbow Bridge to Shinbashi Station.  The ride is definitely circuitous, but if you have time and you plan to visit Odaiba, it is a nice way to get across the harbour.

Portland Streetcar (2009)

Portland Streetcar

Portland is often labeled as the most progressive city in the USA for its cycling and its transit.  I didn’t take advantage of renting a bike in Portland, but I took both the MAX and the Portland Streetcar.  Even though the MAX LRT is the more extensive rail line, I must say I was most impressed with the Portland Streetcar.  Visually, the streetcars are stand out of the crowd.  The Skoda cars are painted in bold bright colours of green, orange, purple, and blue.  They might not the fastest form of transit, but the ride was really enjoyable and it took you to different destinations like Nob Hill, the Pearl District, Downtown, Portland State University, and the very Vancouver-ist neigbourhoods of the South Waterfront.  Add the ride with Portland’s Fareless Square downtown, and you can’t go wrong.  Now I just wish that the Aerial Tram at the southern terminus of the streetcar was running the day I went.

Canada Line, Vancouver (2009)

Canada Line train on Opening Day

I must have followed the entire planning, construction, and now operation phases of the Canada Line over the years.  So it was with great anticipation that I rode the Canada Line on Day 1.  For all its shortcomings (short platforms and small stations), the Canada Line fills in a big gap in the rapid transit picture in Vancouver.  When the RAV line was originally announced, I remember hearing people on the bus saying that “no one would ever use the train” and “I’m so glad they didn’t put the train down Arbutus”.  Now the Canada Line is one of the most popular lines in the region.  The numbers are already showing that there are 80,000 passengers a day.  The “experts” were targeting for 100,000 passengers a day years down the road.  As a transit fan, I feel a bit of vindication that the Canada Line has thumbed its nose at the experts and naysayers.

Nuit Blanche TTC Pass

scotiabank nuit blanche – October 3, 2009

For all you lucky Torontonians, Nuit Blanche is coming up on October 3, 2009.  It’s a “free all night contemporary art thing.”  Last fall, I lucked out being in Halifax for their all night art thing called Nocturne.

Toronto seems to have a lot more of these neat public art events.  Illuminato was a big event back in the spring and now Nuit Blanche.  Vancouver is severely lacking in the realm of public art events.

TTC and Nuit Blanche

TTC and Nuit Blanche

The TTC is also an active participant in Nuit Blanche and offering a Nuit Blanche TTC pass just for the event.  Sounds like a transit collector’s item.  Buses and the trains sound like they will be busy all night.  I better ask my friends if they are going and if I can have their pass 🙂

The Buzzer blog » How big is TransLink’s service area?

The Buzzer blog » How big is TransLink’s service area?.

TTC Service Area vs. TransLink Service Area

I’ve always been interested to know how Toronto stacks up geographically to Vancouver.  Now I have the answer. Thanks Jhenifer.

No wonder I barely ever travel to the North Shore, the Northeast, or South of the Fraser.  That’s a huge area of land to cover.

It looks like from the eastern edge of Etobicoke to the western edge of Scarborough matches up with the distance from UBC to PoCo.  In Toronto, any one ride within the system would cost $2.75 (limited to travel in one direction).  If you go beyond the Toronto Transit Commission’s service area, then you pay another $2-4 for your transfer to one of the outer surburbs.  In Vancouver, a trip from UBC to PoCo would cost $5.00 on a weekday.

It makes me think that it would make sense to consolidate Burnaby/New West and Vancouver into 1 zone.  Then the trip from UBC to PoCo could be reduced to $3.75.  However, all these fare zones in the system will become moot point when TransLink shifts to a distance-based fare system in the future.  With a SmartCard pass, then the distance can be calculated and the fare deducted accordingly.

Maps >> How does the Greater Toronto commute?

The Star Blogs >> Map(s) of the Week: How we commute

As a follow up to yesterday’s post.  This is also old news, but the map is quite an interesting tale of how the Greater Toronto Area moves around.  There is a distinct centre in Toronto’s metropolitan core.  The least motorized travel occurs in Toronto Centre and Trinity-Spadina.  The downtown area is served with not only the TTC Subway, but by also an extensive streetcar network than runs from the neighbourhoods just outside of downtown into downtown itself.  Also telling is how the subway affects travel in the GTA.  All the lighter areas represent many of the areas that are serviced by the subway.  The Willowdale section, which includes North York Centre is a lighter spot in the midst of some more blue areas.  That’s probably because of the densification of offices and apartments around North York’s three subway stations alogn the Yonge line (Yonge-Sheppard, North York Centre, and Finch).

As for Vancouver, a similar map can be found at re:place magazine.  The map is done by Erick Villagomez who has a host of interesting maps for all you cartography buffs. | GTA | Transit City full speed ahead | GTA | Transit City full speed ahead.

This piece is a week or two old now, but nice to see Toronto is moving ahead on some new transit ventures.  Transit City is an ambitious plan by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to criss-cross the city with light rail corridors.  Part of the plan has been completed already.  The St. Clair streetcar was converted over to a right-of-way light rail that helps to prioritize the movement of light rail trains up and down the major east-west street.

One of the other bright possibilities is the replacement of the much maligned Scarborough RT, Vancouver SkyTrain’s driver operated cousin.  The RT runs for a few stations from the end of the Danforth Line to Scarborough Town Centre, but it is a really expensive technology which is only provided by Bombardier and does not interact with its environs very well.  A street level light rail replacement would be welcome and likely less expensive to operate than the RT.

Nice to see that Toronto is deciding to save some precious money by going with light rail.  It will hopefully be a good example for the rest of Canada if it works.  All the light rail pundits say that light rail is financially more effective than subways and metro systems for less than extremely busy routes.  The pundits also say that light rail helps to animate the street and brings transit to a human level without trapping the train in the rest of traffic.

If you scan many of the comments that accompany the article, one finds a lot of support for subways to criss-cross the city instead of light rail.  However, the price tag seems to sky rocket with tunnelling and larger rolling stock.  Also, critics would say that subways promote the movement of people through neighbourhoods instead of feeding them into the neighbourhood.

Given how cash strapped the TTC has been for so long, light rail is definitely a better option than more subways at this point.  If you have ridden the TTC subways in the past decade, you will have noticed a lot of wear and tear compared to a lot of other transit systems in Canada.  Transit City seems like a sound plan.  Let’s hope for once that a decent transit plan can reach its full potential unhindered by political and financial forces.