Scarborough might be in for an epic wait for new transit, so we rode some of the existing routes to see just what they’re lacking.
Along with being the end of the subway line, Kennedy Station is sort of like the pre-renovation Union Station of Scarborough. The faded tan and brown décor screams for a paint job, and the smell of cheap vanilla body spray hangs in the air. And during last Thursday’s rush hour, many passengers, visibly listless and disconcertingly silent after nearly an hour commute from downtown, still had a long way to go, whether they planned to ride any of the 10 or so buses that connect there, or the once-celebrated, but now worn-out, RT system.
The commuters’ apparent resignation stood in stark contrast to the blustery opinions we’ve been hearing recently about the station’s future connections. There’s the proposed subway line, which occupied a great deal of council’s time two weeks ago, and remains something of a financial question mark, despite being approved at City Hall. It would replace the RT by travelling roughly beneath what is currently the 16 McCowan bus route, and include three stops. Then there’s the scrapped plan for a light-rail transit route through a hydro corridor, which would have included stops at several priority neighbourhoods and Centennial College—areas currently serviced by either the 57 Midland or 43 Kennedy buses.
Beyond the official renderings, press release maps, and the mayor’s insistence that people in Scarborough deserve better than buses or “streetcars,” it’s been difficult to get a clear sense of the transit reality in our easternmost borough. So, to determine what the situation really looks like and who might benefit from the various proposals, I rode the would-be rocket in its current incarnation: lots of buses.
Upon boarding the 43 Kennedy northbound (which runs parallel to part of the proposed LRT route), passengers continued texting or reading books. A woman in a tie-dyed muumuu dozed. At 6:11 p.m., the bus was moderately full, but not bursting. We glided past varied terrain: squat brick homes, weathered high-rises, strip malls, and long stretches with little to look at save for grey pavement and fenced-in industrial yards. Without a car, doing any errands could easily become a tedious ordeal in this area. The 57 Midland bus, which travels along the other side of the LRT route, wasn’t much different. With its wide streets and ample parking, Scarborugh really does seem like a suburb built for drivers—if you can afford a car.
Pat Spencer has been a bus driver on the Scarborough routes for 12 years. In the past decade, she conceded, “There’s more people. It’s to the point where we need more buses on the lines.” Her busiest routes are Victoria Park and Markham Road. Her least favourite route to drive is the 16 McCowan due to “high volume, and pockets where higher numbers of people don’t want to pay fares.” As far as transit planning goes, Spencer said it should begin by consulting “drivers on the higher-volume lines, passengers who ride every day, and city planners who made the original long-term plans. Sometimes those older plans are still valid—a little tweak here and there, they’re actually not bad.”
At the beginning of rush hour on Friday morning, Robert MacEachern was one of two passengers heading to work on the 16 McCowan bus, which follows the route of the proposed subway extension. “I think subways are always better than buses,” he said, echoing underground champions like the mayor and the Scarborough councillors, before adding his own reality check. “They’re not making a decision in any way—whether it’s an LRT line, the subway, or extra buses. There’s a lot of politics behind it. It seems to me, as a major city, our system is pretty Mickey Mouse compared to a lot [of others].”
Later, on the same route, Raymond Humenuk sat with his knees pressed up against the seat in front of him. On this route, he has to wait up to 15 minutes for a bus, whereas the Lawrence buses come “every five minutes or so.” As we travelled past modest homes with ample lawns, he pondered a subway on this route, saying that it would be advantageous: “It just needs to go further into Scarborough, because the RT system is pretty dated.”
In the meantime, Humenuk was left with a mixture of hope and resignation: “I think it would be cool if they replaced the RT with a subway. But it would take so long. They probably will one day—but it won’t be much use to me by then.”