Saturday, February 28, 2009

Case Study - Toronto, ON, Canada - Vol. 1

This is the seventh in a series of city case study posts. With the exception of places I've lived, I've been to and spent more days in Toronto than any other city. The Canadian equivalent of Chicago (and possibly Miami), its likely I've spent a cumulative month there from the time I was 9 years old to just this past weekend. In that time a lot has changed around this mega-city, but I believe it has always been an influence in the back of my mind, leading me to become a champion for the greatness of urbanism. Today's post will focus on the schematic (getting there, getting around, hotels), while tomorrow I will come back with the more cultural aspects and some neighborhood profiles.

What is officially Toronto today is an amalgamation of six municipalites (Toronto, East York, Etobicoke, York, Scarborough, and North York). This was more or less forced through by the Ontario Provincial Legislature and took effect on New Year's Day 1998. In a nutshell, it made the arm of government previously known as 'Metro Toronto (something like an American county)' one in the same with city government, much like Nashville-Davidson. The current population estimates are pegged around 2.5 million, making Toronto the largest city in Canada.

Getting to Toronto

Established just east of Fort York on a very hospitable natural harbor, Toronto (or York as it was known then) lied at the crossroads of Dundas St. (West to Windsor), Yonge St. (North to North Bay), and Kingston Rd. Today, the sheer scale of Toronto, and its importance in the economy and financial sector of Canada presents a tremendous number of transportation options.

The vast majority of air travel into and out of Toronto is done through Toronto Pearson International Airport. To chronicle the list of destinations would take me until next Thursday, but suffice it to say that every major international airline is represented there as well as Canadian low-cost carrier WestJet. City Centre Airport, located on a man-made island in Lake Ontario, offers regular service to Chicago-Midway, Halifax, Montréal, Newark, Ottawa, and Quebec City.

On Front St., Union Station is not only Canada's rail Mecca, but also a shining example of how to update an absolute classic for the 21st century. To travel to Union Station is to realize a real sense of arrival at the crossroads of Canada and there are many ways to do it. VIA Rail, Canadian long-haul passenger service, accomodates over 2 million boardings per year to Vancouver, Niagara Falls, Sarnia, Ottawa, Montreal, Windsor, and all intermediate points on those routes. Toronto is also the terminus of one of 3 Amtrak routes that venture over the Canadian Border, the Maple Leaf. This is how I last voyaged to the Queen City.

This passenger load pales in comparison to the 40 million commuters handled by Union Station as the radial emmanation of seven commuter train lines operated by GO Transit and the 20 million subway and streetcar passengers per year.

To get downtown by personal vehicle, the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway are the major West-to-East and North-to-South options. Toronto is fairly drivable considering its density, but I would not recommend it both on principle and due to parking charges.

For two different periods in 2004 and 2005 Canadian American Transportation Systems and Bay Ferries in cooperation with the City of Rochester ran a large catamaran ferry before disbanding due to financial difficulties. This was THE way to go. Sadly, typical defeatist public opinion coupled with late starts of both operating seasons (which severly impacted marketing), lack of an agreement with customs officials to carry large freight containers and trucks, and fees incurred in ports due to its Bahamian ship registry (an early attempt to skirt time delays) doomed the operation. Ultimately the Spirit of Ontario I was sold and became the Tanger Jet II, ferrying passengers and vehicles between Spain and Morocco.

Getting Around Toronto

The Toronto Transit Commission operates buses, subways, streetcars, and rapid transit lines. The system is incredibly comprehensive (with buses running very 5 minutes, even on Sunday), and is the 3rd most-used system in North America. Three subway lines, the Yonge-University-Spadina, Bloor-Danforth, and Sheppard lines in addition to the Scarborough RT light rail service make up the rapid transit portions of the system while over 300,000 people per day ride one or more of 11 streetcar lines still operating in classical fashion on original routes. Many rapid transit station have built-in transfer to bus points (such as Don Mills). The TTC operates 168 bus routes and 24 of those run 24/7.

Accomodations in Toronto

While I understand that not every traveler is as anti-bourgeoisie as I am, I've chosen not to focus on places like the Fairmont Royal York, but will keep it to places I've stayed or considered staying in. Some like the Delta Chelsea are expensive in general, but promotional rates at off-peak times make it a can't miss. The following are hotels with price ranges for a 3/7/09 booking (all prices in CAD) with transport tips for each.

Days Hotel Toronto
30 Carlton Street, Toronto, ON
I've stayed here over 75% of my overnight travels to Toronto. Located next to Maple Leaf Gardens, the only remaining original cathedral of hockey, this hotel seems to consistently provide the right combination of price and proximity. Less than a block from College Park (and a 24-hour supermarket) and the Yonge St. Subway's College Station, the Days is integrated into the heart of the city. Room rates range from $89 to $99 (certain to rise during baseball season).

Delta Chelsea
33 Gerrard Street West, Toronto, ON
An incredibly enormous hotel complex housing pools on both the 2nd and 27th levels with something for the entire family. Just south of the aforementioned College Park, the Chelsea features a balcony on every room with incredible downtown vistas. The Eaton Centre downtown shopping megalith is just a block away. Room rates range from $129 to $229 and the Chelsea is on the Airport Express luxury shuttle bus that runs $16.95 one way.

Travelodge Richmond Hill
10711 Yonge Street, Richmond Hill, ON
Once on short notice, this was the best I could do for a reasonable rate (it was a Knights Inn at the time). It was my introduction to the reverse suburban paradigm. Miserable traffic jams on collector roads, paranoia about security, and extremely long bus rides to connect to the subway at Finch. All that said, it's an option, and is probably closer to things like Canada's Wonderland theme park. There is also a new bus service in the York region called Viva which is rumored to be much improved. Room rates range from $79 to $89.

Howard Johnson Hotel Yorkville
89 Avenue Road, Toronto, ON
I have not stayed here, but have weighed the option on numerous occasions. Located in the Bloor-Yorkville district, this hotel is near the Museum station of the YUS subway and the Bay station on the Bloor-Danforth. Room rates range from $89 to $159.

Novotel Toronto Centre
45 The Esplanade, Toronto, ON
The Novotel is where my parents took me 19 years ago. It is not far some Union Station or any downtown waterfront attractions. Just west of St. Lawrence Market and the Distillery District, the Novotel is first rate. Room rates range from $149 to $199.


Rottenchester said...

The ferry really was an excellent way to travel to TO. Too bad the implementation was bungled so badly.

As a regular train traveler, what's your experience with the reliability of the train's schedule? Is the border as smooth as it was with the ferry?

Bob and Tia said...


As far as adhering to the timetable, I have no complaints from this last trip. Our Toronto-bound train was delayed 35 minutes, but we arrived at Union Station ahead of schedule because they block in 1 hour and 15 minutes for customs and it didn't take that long. Coming back, they plan for 2 hours worth of inspection.

Is it as smooth as the ferry? As long as you aren't hassled, you don't even have to leave your seat, but you can't just go on your way at that point, you are at the mercy of the train.

Unfortunately there apparently is someone with my name and birthday running around Florida that is wanted for some reason. I was removed from the train and was privileged enough to hang out with border agents for a significant amount of time until a fingerprint database check didn't yield a match. I doubt you'll have this problem.

We still were on time arriving at Rochester according to the timetable, but there are ways time can be trimmed off the journey if national attitudes shift somewhat.