“Queen Street West is my patio”: a weekend in Toronto
“Queen Street West is my patio!” — so said a good-natured guy to his friends on the other corner as my friend and I walked down the namesake street of Toronto’s West Queen West neighborhood last weekend. I found it a witty aphorism that something that captured my experience of Toronto, its public space and sense of urbanism in my short three-day tour last weekend.
Toronto reminds me of a lot of Chicago: it’s a denser, older, gridded lakefront city that simultaneously has less touristy pizzazz but more of the vibrant energy that comes from being a nation’s largest and preeminent metropolis. Both are towns with few natural barriers aside from their respective Great Lakes, with suburban development spreading in all directions away from the water. The differences are considerable as well: Toronto has a significantly more international feel, and the density of the Greater Toronto Area is nearly twice that of the Chicago metropolitan area.
This post got a little unwieldy in the writing, so I’ll discuss my transit, walking and wayfinding experiences in the city this week, and finish up with my thoughts on Toronto’s lakefront, ravines and industrial heritage next week.
Take the Rocket
I of course couldn’t go to Toronto without taking a spin on the streetcar system, since it has by far the largest remaining streetcar system in North America. I’m of two minds on it: the ride is markedly smoother than taking a normal city bus (although I have taken Taipei city buses in reserved bus lanes, which does go a great way toward reducing that jarring-and-lurching feeling.) On the other hand, I walked down Queen Street West during the Friday afternoon rush and those streetcars were plodding down the street, stuck in traffic and bunching just like the North Ave bus on a Saturday afternoon. The answer here is to rip up the rails à la Rob Ford and replace the streetcars with buses; but it did underline the fact that streetcars don’t intrinsically move any faster, although the riding experience is considerably more pleasant.
Coming from Chicago, Toronto’s street grid felt very familiar. There is a distinctive lack of diagonal arteries by comparison, and there’s unfortunately no “Philadelphia system” of house numbering, so you can’t say that Eglinton is “2300 North,” in the way that you can say it in many cities west of the Appalachians.
Toronto’s long continuous straight thoroughfares lend themselves to long bus/streetcar routes that largely follow one street: so you can get lines like the Queen, Eglinton or Lawrence lines, much like you have the Fullerton, Garfield or Western buses in Chicago (in contrast to places like Boston, New York or Washington, whose buses I find confusing both in naming and in route.) The subway lines largely follow surface streets, as you can see in their names: the Yonge-University-Spadina and Bloor-Danforth subways follow, well, Yonge, University, Spadina, Bloor and Danforth streets. In fact, the in-car maps on the subway have street grid numbers to help identify addresses along those streets, much like how all of Chicago’s L stations have street coordinates on the signs.
The one thing I will pile on the TTC for is: token and paper transfers?! I mean, I enjoyed attempting to decipher the cryptic codes on the transfer slips, and the tokens were a blast-from-a-past-I-never-experienced (I’ve never taken any transit system at a point when tokens remained the only way to pay the fare.) The TTC’s passes do come in paper card form, but even then these have to be scanned by TTC operators and subway station attendants. It’s just surprising that individual fares are still being issued on tokens and not some sort of smart card.
On the other hand, I’m a big fan of the way that bus-subway and streetcar-subway transfers are smoothly integrated in the city outside of downtown: I took the 28A Davisville bus from the Evergreen Brick Works, which pulled into a bay inside the fare-paid section of the Davisville subway, meaning that I didn’t have to pay another fare. It’s diametrically opposed to the Los Angeles approach, where many transit riders are illogically punished by having to pay double fare to transfer, and underlines the grid-based nature of Toronto’s system. Obviously, for those with passes, this doesn’t matter. But psychologically, I think that it underlines the fact that transfers are a natural, normal part of a well-functioning transit system.
By comparison, the CTA’s Orange Line is the line with the best bus-train integration — although the location of many of those stations, between highways, industrial canals or strip malls, dictates that many, if not most, of the riders arrive by bus — with dedicated bus bays, but the Orange Line stations don’t incorporate a single fare-paid zone.
Finally, Toronto has some snazzy bus shelters. Even in some more suburban areas that I would assume don’t see extremely high ridership, I saw some nicely appointed bus stations that go a little way toward avoiding the second-class (or worse) status to which the bus rider is often relegated.
A forest of condos
North York is supposedly Toronto’s “second downtown,” and is pretty close to the geographic center of the region today, so I took the Yonge subway up here on a whim on my last Sunday in Toronto to check it out. It’s unlike nearly all suburban development I’ve seen in the United States. The street that it in fact most clearly reminds me of is Wilshire Blvd in Los Angeles, which similarly is a linear forest of tall buildings rising starkly away from its squat surroundings. But the vast majority of buildings on Wilshire are commercial and office buildings, while the majority of the tall glass-and-steel behemoths rising on either side of Yonge Street are condos.
North York’s an unmistakeably suburban streetscape: Yonge Street is considerably wider than it is just a few miles south, there are more curb cuts and the number of pedestrians is significantly reduced. At the same time, sidewalks are quite generously proportioned, many of the storefronts are pedestrian-oriented and face onto the street, and of course there’s a reliable form of rapid transit throughout the corridor. The subway from North York Centre to Bloor/Yonge, the busiest in the system, takes no more than 20 minutes.
Encouraging denser development around transit systems is of course axiomatic in modern transit and land-use planning. But what is fascinating about North York is that the visual density around the station is much higher than some closer to the center city (Summerhill or Rosedale, for instance) and that there’s an extremely sharp delineation between the tall condo development and single-family homes. A five-minute walk away from Yonge will bring you to classic postwar inner-ring single-family homes and lawns. It’s a little jarring.
Walking a very long patio
Transit wasn’t actually my main way around the city: I actually ended up using walking as my primary method of transportation, and as an attraction in itself — I spent most of my Friday walking down Queen Street West from downtown Toronto to Roncesvalles, circling north on Roncesvalles and walking back downtown on Dundas.
Queen Street West is one of my favorite urban streets. Many of the shops on that street don’t even really appeal to me, and I’ve never been much of an fine art/gallery kind of guy, which comprises a large portion of the street. (The one thing I did do was poke my head into several bookstores, of which Toronto seems to still be amply supplied — at least for now). But the storefronts on Queen Street, for the most part, come up to the street and are continuously built-up; there are very few surface parking lots, cars can be parked all the way along the street and there’s of course a streetcar line running down the entire length.
Queen Street compares favorably to the other large public space I saw in Toronto, Yonge-Dundas Square. That was filled with lots of people à la Times Square in Manhattan, but seemed to be largely a glitzy crossroads of people trying to get from one place to another. Queen Street’s also obviously filled with people trying to get from one place to another, but it seems more of an organic public realm — people lingered and chatted, they strolled, they popped in and out of stores. In many ways, as I read in American Urban Form, the street is the North American public space par excellence, and so it seems appropriate that Queen Street was one of the best public spaces — “patios,” if you will — that I encountered on my trip.
Next week: Toronto’s landscape, both industrial and natural