Drivers complain that gridlock is inescapable in this city during rush hour, no matter the route. We rented a Zipcar to test out how bad it really gets.
At 5:36 p.m. last Wednesday evening, the car lights looked like two ribbons streaming endlessly in either direction—glittery red on the right and sparkling white on the left. Pretty, I thought, as I merged onto the 427 heading south towards the Gardiner. Soon, the stop-start of the brake lights on this supposed expressway emulated the start-stop of traffic lights I had encountered on the main streets. Over an hour and a half of bumper-to-bumper traffic later, the lustre of all the pretty lights had worn off.
This harrowing rush-hour trek (both morning and evening) would be no surprise to a seasoned automobile commuter, but for those of us who mostly read about how Toronto has the worst commute times among major cities around the world, it’s an eye opener. The fact that the city’s economy is losing billions of dollars due to congestion isn’t one of those abstract problems that only exist in urban-planning theses and government financial reports—you can see it and experience it for yourself, any rush hour of the week. That’s what I set out to do.
Inside a rented Zipcar at 6:30 the following morning, I assessed my fellow drivers tooling around at this unholy hour in -19 °C weather. The average commute in Toronto is 32 minutes, and I observed that the more tenacious drivers take advantage of their time spent idling to transform their vehicles into personal-grooming pods by indiscriminately picking at their faces. The default posture for most, however, seems to be clenching the steering wheel, with a set jaw and a vague, catatonic stare. I made my way west across Bloor Street close to Ossington, past cyclists in balaclavas, the chewed-up road surface tossing the small car around like rumble strips along the route.
Later, as I waited with fellow motorists just off Lake Shore Boulevard for another seemingly endless light to change, ditching the car started to seem like a reasonable plan. (Lake Shore and Bathurst was recently named as one of the city’s 10 most congested intersections.) I’d heard of people leaving at 5 a.m. to avoid getting stuck in this and could certainly see why—brief moments of speedy reprieve were immediately followed by constipated slogs, stuck with hundreds of others sitting alone in their cars. Heading up Yonge Street, sparkly overhangs covered in stars added a festive touch to the trip, as a traffic reporter rattled off the now-familiar screed: “…westbound 401 lanes are all blocked…broken water mains…problems continuing along Jarvis….”
When traffic is moving, however, the car rules. I looked down and was impressed with my excellent gas mileage, and deeply appreciated not being at the mercy of the enigmatic College streetcar. In the car you also have the illusion of limitless options when the open road becomes a little less open (though from a glance at the city’s online road restrictions map, there aren’t many uninterrupted routes out there).
My most peaceful ride occurred on Eglinton going west from Bayview to Spadina, where I was briefly certain this was the better way. That feeling lasted only until I tried to head back downtown. As traffic plodded along King West, pedestrians made better time than the motorists.
As I passed looming cranes and streets in various states of repair and resurfacing, dotted with pylons, yawning chasms, and orange-vested workers, I imagined how this would look when it was all “done.” At another backed-up intersection, an older man shook his head and rested his forehead briefly on the steering wheel. If this is progress, get me out of the car.