Hop on a morning rush hour bus, and just about everyone is asleep, heads lolling towards their lap or a stranger’s. You can spot the students even before the backpacks give them away: they’re the ones snoring into their notes. During a ride in late September, I found myself eavesdropping on a couple toting calculus books. They seemed to be wrapping up a talk about their relationship.
“So we need to focus better, because this year is going to be very busy,” the girl concluded seriously, brushing her bangs out of her face. “Yeah, we need to make more efficient use of time,” the guy said, leaning in towards her.For a second I thought they were going to make out, but he was only reaching into his messenger bag for printouts of lecture slides. He handed a copy to his girlfriend and the pair commenced underlining and flipping pages like a synchronized study team.That’s one of the weird things about public transport: people know full well they’re in public, but act and talk with a surprising lack of inhibition, as though they’re each in their own little bubble. In a way, they are. Commuting is spent in the company of strangers, instead of the million other things you’d rather be doing. Complaints come easy—time lost, constant waiting, sheer monotony—but loneliness might be the highest price paid.“There’s a simple rule of thumb: every 10 minutes of commuting results in 10 per cent fewer social connections,” said Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam in an April 2007 New Yorker article. “Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.” Putnam didn’t explain how he came up with those figures, but U of T commuters probably have some idea of what he’s talking about.
Lonely Hearts Club
Take Kristopher Morrison. He used to trek downtown from Newmarket, or “Hell,” as he calls it in a September 2008 issue of The Mike, the St. Michael’s College newspaper. “Being a commuter leaves you as unfulfilled as Clay Aiken’s ex-girlfriends,” writes Kristopher, who now lives 20 minutes from campus. “I know how hard it is to get a hookup when you live two hours out of the city.”
“Character is destiny,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus is said to have declared. For the tens of thousands of commuters at U of T, it might be more accurate to say that geography is destiny. Commuters account for 85 per cent of undergrads across three campuses, and there are 8,000 residence spots for over 53,000 undergrads. The majority go to St. George campus, which sits in the middle of a 60-kilometre arc between U of T Scarborough and U of T Mississauga. St. George students come from across the GTA, from Brampton to Markham, from Etobicoke to Whitby. Once on campus, getting from one class to the next can be a commute in itself.“Connection is still a mystery for many students,” said Deanne Fisher, communications director of the Student Life office. “We’ve got geography working against us. It’s a long way from Vic to Physics, St. Mike’s to Geography. Our students are travelling longer distances than other universities’.”It’s common wisdom that the vast urban campus doesn’t serve students as well as smaller schools do. In the Globe and Mail’s 2008 survey, for instance, students at small universities gave their school higher satisfaction marks than their big-box counterparts. U of T scored a C- for sense of community on campus, lower than the B- national average.U of T’s effort to engage students is decentralized, with colleges and faculties looking out for their own. “We try to strengthen the college system, and run more things during the day,” Fisher said. Her job is to make sure students know what’s happening on campus. She pointed to the newly retooled Ulife website, which carries a searchable event catalogue, as an attempt to facilitate student engagement.
Student commuters might just be getting a head start. Statistics Canada’s 2006 census found a nationwide trend of longer commutes compared to five and 10 years ago. The average Canadian spent 12 days out of the year on the road. For Torontonians, an average of 79 minutes per day translates to 14 days of the year. Public transit users—surprise—reported significantly higher levels of unhappiness. According to a 2005 StatsCan study, the number of people travelling to the GTA for work was greater than the number of workers living here, a fact apparent to anyone who’s happened on the ghost town that is the financial district on weekends.
“A commute is a distillation of a life’s main ingredients, a product of fundamental values and choices,” writes Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker. For his article “There and back again,” Paumgarten rode along with several “extreme commuters,” so called by the U.S. Census Bureau because they travel more than three hours each day.Among the extreme commuters profiled was Judy Rossi, a legal secretary who travels 6.5 hours per day from her home in Pike County, Pennsylvania, to work in Manhattan. That sounds insane, but consider that Rossi was commuting for an 8-hour workday, whereas some students come to campus for classes as short as a single hour. That’s why any commuter student worth her salt bundles like mad. “I try to fit as many lectures and tutorials as possible into the same day so that I will not have to go back to school for a one-hour class on any day of the week,” says Tiffany Tom, a second-year at UTSC.The New Yorker also cites a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox,” by Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, economists at the University of Zurich. Using data from Germany, the study found that for a two-hour round trip, a commuter would have to make 40 per cent more in salary to be as satisfied as a non-commuter. Furthermore, said Stutzer, workers who travel long distances report lower wellbeing because they trade social goods for material goods. According to Frey, as with other systemic mistakes, commuters who do not change their behaviour are stuck in their habits and begin to undervalue their own quality of life.Pierre Belanger, an assistant professor in U of T’s architecture faculty who studies mobility and urban development, offers a different view. “There are plenty of reasons why living outside the city centre and commuting with mass-transit would be the intelligent way to go,” he says.“If it wasn’t for urban decentralization, some students wouldn’t be able to live with their families or have the size of space they might need for a variety of different reasons.”To Paumgarten’s credit, he points out that the Zurich economists’ analysis assumes commuting is a rational choice, where people try to maximize benefits and minimize costs. But not every student can afford to weigh the social costs of commuting versus moving out.Rez fees run from $5,960 to $13,474 for the academic year, depending on the residence and meal plan. That’s a good chunk of change commuters aren’t spending—perhaps because they don’t have it to spend.“You learn over time to just deal with the little quirks,” Oliver Truong says of his 90-minute round trip from Brampton, where he lives with his family. Four days a week, Oliver gets up at 6 a.m. to catch the 7:40 a.m. GO train to Toronto with his older brother, who works downtown, so they can drive to the station together. The brothers go home on the 5:45.“By far, the worst thing is that you run by their schedule, so everything you do has to be planned with the transit system in mind,” he says. Happily, the GO train schedule hasn’t kept Oliver from table tennis intramurals, the Vietnamese Students Association, or VicXposure, the Victoria College photography club: “U of T is my school […] just because I don’t live on it, doesn’t mean I’m not a part of it.”Oliver met his girlfriend through a First-year Learning Community, a program offered to first-year students in a handful of departments including Life Sciences and Economics. FLC students take a number of courses together and meet regularly outside of class. “Through that, I got to meet a lot of people that I still talk to today,” he says.
Don’t hate, participate
As two yellow school buses pull up outside Hart House, an expectant stir travels the line of students headed to UTM. But the doors stay closed and the drivers appear to be on break. Incommunicative and rude drivers are a pet peeve for Katie, an OISE student from Milton. Twice a week, Katie drops off her five-year-old son at private school and walks 10 minutes to catch the shuttle at UTM. “I love what is waiting for me, so I learn to manage and enjoy my commute,” she says. It’s usually too noisy to read, but Katie doesn’t mind. “I’m a sociologist, so I enjoy just listening to lively conversations around me.”
Not Mike Silla, first-year mechanical engineering student and aggrieved commuter. “I hate commuting, but I can’t afford to move downtown.”The shuttle leaves at five after the hour, so Mike has to scramble lickety-split after class. “I have class down there,” he gestures towards College Street, “and I have to run up every day.” After a 30-minute ride to UTM, he spends another 40 minutes getting home. “I always make it though,” he says. Nicole Yeo, the fourth-year next to Mike, is a little more sanguine. “I just take my time,” she says. “But it would make a lot more sense if the bus left at 6:15.”Petty annoyances from the daily grind add up quickly, and commuters love to compare notes. Commuter talk has its own lexicon, whether it’s comparing itineraries or horror stories. Those who don’t have far to go try to adopt a thankful tone without sounding smug. Cyclists are downright enthusiastic, and extreme commuters revel in a kind of perverse pride even as they grouse. They bond over the discomfort of bouncing buses and debate the merits of drivers with surplus good cheer. (Creepy or cute? You decide.) And though they’re always on the move, the persistent ones manage to form communities.
Home away from home
The smell of pancakes fills the University College commuter lounge on St. George Street. I definitely picked the right day to show up—it’s 2:30 p.m., but brunch is still on. A guy in a blue T-shirt offers me “spooky pancakes” in honour of Halloween. Tyler Ricer has been here for almost eight hours. At 4:30 p.m., he’s the last one left washing dishes. Tyler’s part of the University College Off-campus Commission, which he joined during a mixer for new commuters.
“There’s nothing really bad about it,” he says when I try to prod him into venting about his hour-long commute from Richmond Hill. This guy is, in his own words, “exceptionally mellow.” Adjusting his heavy black-rimmed glasses, Ricer admits his level of gung-ho is “maybe a little atypical.” He’s part of UC’s mentorship program and joined the Wallace residence as a “house associate” (for $20, he gets access to their common room and a listserv that sends out house activities).“I love this room,” Tyler sighs. People are splayed out on couches or studying with ski-hill backs. Lockers cluster around the entrance. Someone helps himself to pizza from the surprisingly full communal fridge. In the carpeted annex, there are completed crosswords proudly stuck to the orange walls.As Tyler looks around fondly, a tall kid in a hoodie and vest plunks himself down and gripes that discount metropasses are sold out. “I don’t wanna pay an extra 10 bucks! Every time I wanted to get one, there were people in line,” says Dushyaan Sri Renganathan, a first-year.Tyler, a more seasoned commuter, got his metropass on the first day of sales. He waves over one of the two UC off-campus dons, Arman Hamidian. (“That’s Armani without the ‘i’ and Hamidian, which rhymes with comedian.”) “Last year I got offered residence don but ended up taking commuter don,” says Arman, who’s on campus from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. six days a week. He goes home to Richmond Hill to study and sleep. “I rarely spend much time with my family, which kinda sucks.” Commuters seem to fall loosely into two groups: those who only spend time on-campus for scheduled activities and those who, like Arman, seem determined to make their trip worthwhile by staying downtown for hours on end.On the plus side, travelling during off-peak hours reduces the commute. “You have the commute down to an art,” says Tyler. “You get on at a certain point so when you stop you’re right near the staircase [to transfer to a bus or another subway line].” He beams. “I picked that up in first year.”“And that saves like, minutes,” says Arman, nodding.“At St. George I go by the bench, right now it’s the Private Practice poster on the wall—stand in front of it,” Tyler instructs.During the course of the afternoon, more than a dozen people have passed by to say hi or park themselves at the table. There’s mock wrestling and a lot of giggling over costumes for tomorrow’s Halloween pub crawl. These are the core Off-campus Commission members. I can’t decide whether they form a service group, a club, or just a group of really close friends. They’re probably most like roommates who have adopted the lounge as an unofficial residence: a place to keep your stuff, nap, and microwave your food, a home away from home.
Nuts and bolts
The bottom-line issues for public transportation are frequency, reliability, comfort, and cost, according to Professor Belanger. “Mass transit during rush hours should be more than affordable, it should be free. Ridership would explode, just imagine the empty highways, while the urban areas are teeming with people.”
Free transit would be nice, but prices are going the wrong way. The Toronto Transit Commission has raised fares eight times in the past 11 years. Since the University of Toronto Students’ Union started buying metropasses in bulk in 2005, the discount price has gone from $87 to $96. (The regular adult metropass now costs $109.)During peak months of the school year, UTSU orders 12,000 metropasses per month. In October, they sold out faster than ever. “We buy the passes on credit and it’s not feasible to buy any more than that,” says VP external Dave Scrivener.Scrivener is negotiating a Universal Pass with the TTC, along with student unions from OCAD, Ryerson, George Brown, and York. The U-Pass would give unlimited travel on the TTC and York transit for even cheaper—$60 or $65 per month—but only if all undergrads buy one. In a March referendum, UTSC students rejected the U-Pass proposal, sending negotiations back to the drawing board. Talks are going slowly, Scrivener says, but he hopes to put the matter to a student referendum by next year. UTM students already have a U-Pass for Mississauga Transit, at $89 for the entire school year.Most students I spoke to didn’t much care for the TTC’s reliability or frequency. It’s alright if you only need the subway, they say, but try waiting for the bus, and supposedly “frequent-service” streetcars, in the dead of winter. Hard feelings over the strike in April, when drivers walked off the job over derailed contract negotiations, have mostly dissipated, but students haven’t forgotten that they and other commuters are at the mercy of the transit system. Some upper years still shake their head over the wildcat strike in 2006, which hit the city without warning and shut down transit for a day. On Oct. 30, city council narrowly rejected a proposal to ask the province to designate the TTC an essential service, which would have made it illegal to strike.
Much ink has been spilled over disaffected twenty-something slackers who work McJobs and sponge off mom and dad. Those trite criticisms do contain a grain of truth: more and more students are postponing the flight from the nest.
StatsCan reports that in 2001, 57 per cent of those aged 20 to 24 were living with parents, a 16 per cent jump from 1981. Nesters are likely to be single, full-time students with lower incomes and parents in large metropolitan areas. The study “Parents with adult children living at home” notes parents born in South America, Asia, and Europe (excluding the U.K.) were much more likely to host adult children. As these parents spent more time in Canada, the likelihood of parent-child co-residence decreased.The findings correspond with anecdotes from students who don’t find it a hindrance to live with their parents, and for whom family is a bigger attraction than money in the bank. “I feel like I can be more like myself. After I moved out and came back, my relationship with my family grew,” says Tiffany, a boomerang kid who moved back in with her parents after first year. “I’m still the same person, but something has changed and I’m not sure what it is. I’m grateful for not living too far from school.”Living at home offers Tiffany less distractions and a healthier lifestyle: “When I lived on residence, I went as far as having only one meal every 12 hours or so.”Commuters can definitely avoid big-time hassles like exploitative landlords, sketchy roommates, and laundry. “During frosh week, I wondered, ‘Why don’t I live down here?’” Dushyaan says. “It’s because I’d miss the comforts of home.” Even if your parents still nag you for staying up late, familiar arguments are easier to handle than the unknown. For one thing, mom and dad are less likely to destroy your stuff after an argument over loud music or chores.But when it’s about coming into one’s own, comfort and support can be false friends. The title of the StatsCan study says it all: young adults who live with their parents are “adult children.” For most university students, these are the years where they transition from adolescence to adulthood. A choice to commute is often a choice to live at home. Is that decision delaying our generation’s coming of age?Oliver doesn’t think so. “I’ve forced myself to learn things that I would have to learn had I gone to residence, like cook!, because I know I’d have to learn someday.”“It was a little tough in first year between my family and I because they weren’t used to me staying up really, really late studying, or being as stressed out as I was.”For other students, acquiring life skills simply isn’t a priority at the moment.“It would be nice to be independent, but this is the time to focus on your education, not learn how to make your way through life,” said Ash, a final-year student. She picked U of T for the convenience and sees no reason to move out. “I come from a tad traditional family, so usually you don’t move out until you’re married.”Ash spends around 20 hours a week on campus, for classes and for work. “Usually after every class, I have to go off-campus to work [at a second job] or volunteer,” she says. “It’s really busy this year because I have to do a lot of things in order to apply for teacher’s college. It costs a grand just to apply.”Education is about more than just the classroom, she says, but she doesn’t have the time to hang out on campus at will.Of the 3,800 commuters at UC, only 300 are on the off-campus listserv. Commuter don Arman says he’ll be using U of T’s Portal to send out messages so more students know about events, but he doesn’t think apathy towards campus life is the end of the world. Toronto offers students a wealth of opportunities, says Arman, and he knows plenty of people who are active off-campus. “As much as you want people to be involved with the university and love it, the fact they’re doing something else is good.”