Far more than the fare it’s worth, commuting is an all-encompassing experience — a metallic, engine-powered beast shackles its passengers to unpredictable departure times and overcrowded, sardine-like travel conditions. Approximately 80 per cent of the University of Toronto’s St. George campus’s 55,000 students are commuters, a large chunk of which come from all over the GTA.
A certain culture accompanies the commuter experience on campus, derived from both the inherent nature of commuting as well as from the individual experience of each weary traveller. Every commuter sacrifices hours of their day, but everyone goes about it differently, some opting for the subway, others for the bus, the bike, and so on.
Commuter culture is not defined by living off campus, but by the reasons students find to stay on campus. Breaking the chains of the TTC and establishing positive ties through campus life is as crucial to commuter culture as Metropasses, granola bars, and invasions of personal space by mouth-breathing businessmen.
Barriers to commuter integration
The most troublesome issue faced by the common commuter is a temporal one. With commuting, time is constantly of the essence: waking up on time, leaving enough time to eat, making the bus on time, and getting to class ten minutes after the hour.
Will Power, a second-year commuter from Victoria College, said that the time his commute takes has hindered his ability to actively enjoy campus life: “I’m not really involved with anything. I don’t have time to do anything on campus because between the three hours a day I’m on transit and studying, it doesn’t leave much time for anything else. I would have liked to have been involved with CINSSU [Cinema Studies Student Union], Raindance, some art shows, I’d like to get into those. There’s not enough time for these, though.”
Many commuter students have part-time jobs to support their various expenses, such as transportation, quick meals, textbooks, and tuition.
With work hours as well, balancing a commuter’s schedule becomes even more difficult, and academic life can become monotonous and repetative, the only enjoyment coming from watching the landscape rush by from the window seat of a crowded GO train.
There are also significant institutional barriers to the involvement of commuters in campus life at the university. Classes that either start too early in the day or finish too late in the evening can wreak havoc on a commuter’s schedule and their ability to participate in extracurricular activities. Commuting early in the morning and late in the evening can also jeopardize students’ mental health by causing stress and lack of sleep.
Commuters may have to compromise in their course selection based on the times when courses take place. With the need to fulfill program and breadth requirements, avoiding an inconveniently timed morning or evening course is often challenging. Classes in the morning coincide with rush hour, making getting to campus in a timely manner difficult.
More flexible timetable options or lowering residence and meal plan fees are potential ways to mitigate the inconveniences that commuter students face. Creating a central, campus-wide commuter space would also foster positive community relations. University College (uc) offers rooms in residence for $15 for one evening, which is another way to accommodate commuters who need to stay on campus for late night classes.
A matter of perception
Sarah Qidwai, a fourth-year history specialist and the commissioner of the University College Off-Campus Commission (UCOC), contends that commuting is about perception: “I could choose to commute and say that it is the worst, but I don’t. It’s all about making a conscious decision regarding your time spent commuting.”
As head of the UCOC, Sarah, her deputy Eric Schwenger, and the members of her commission work to overturn the stigma associated with commuting through planning commuter-friendly events.
“We have tried to have a constant stream of events that cater to commuters’ availability,” said Schwenger. “The biggest part of being commuter-friendly is timing. Having events that end earlier, or that are ongoing throughout the day, so students can come and go as they see fit with their schedules, makes these events commuter-friendly.”
The fundamental goal of UCOC, says Schwenger, is to ensure that the off-campus population is engaged in student life on campus. The paradox of commuting is that in order to embrace it, you have to decide not be a slave to it.
Commuters who seek to be involved in campus life need to compromise the “go to school, go home,” mentality that is a model for many off-campus students who operate on TTC schedules rather than social calendars. Students instead establish ties to clubs and activities on campus that provide reasons to stick around after class, in spite of the sacrifice of getting home later. This integration can manifest in different ways, such as joining a course union, finding a work-study, taking on a lab role, or joining a college council.
Integration can also occur when commuters embrace their identity as such and get involved with commuter initiatives on campus, fostering an on campus community for off-campus students.
“The crux of the off-campus community,” said Schwenger, “is the community of students… who are there for each other, who help each other out, who can come together in a similar way students in a residence house would, but even closer, because of the challenges they face.”
Christine De la Cruz, the Commuter Commissioner of Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) and a co-chair on Victoria Off-Campus Association (VOCA), plans events that cater to the needs of commuter students: “Judging from the amount of students at our events, as well as the way people interact with each other, I feel like there is a sense of community there. These are the people who keep coming back every week, and I think the reason they keep coming back is because they’ve made friends at these events. Interacting with other commuter students, forming friendships — that’s how I think community is built. It’s very important, especially for commuters, as it would take more time for us to make friends here at U of T.”
Every college has its own ways of fostering a unique commuter identity. As most of these involve free food, it is apparent that the way to the commuter’s heart is through their stomach. New College recently held a grilled cheese breakfast in their lounge, which was open to all students; Woodsworth throws lavish pancake brunches every Wednesday; uc holds tea and cookies at the Union; and the Cat’s Eye at Victoria College has pancake breakfasts.
Other initiatives, not involving food, have also been successful. Innis has a monthly spirit day, in which they give out a free metropass to one lucky commuter. UC, Vic, and St. Michael’s College have hired community coordinators, whose role is to provide support for commuters and implement them into both campus life and the commuter community. UC is also home to the Commuter Student Centre, a beacon of commuter activity since its establishment in 2007. Housing both a quiet study space and a rambunctious back area, the Commuter Student Centre (CSC) is a haven for commuters and residence students alike, open to students from all of the colleges.
Commuting, says Ezra Shanto, an English major from New College, brings people together: “Making friends simply because you have to take the same ride home is a good feeling. It’s always a good feeling to have someone who doesn’t need to understand what you’re taking, but just understands that you’re taking the same long commute home as them, and you have that personal connection.”
Commuting is a necessary evil, but it also offers students the potential for genuinely fulfilling engagement with the downtown campus. Commuter culture grows stronger by perpetuating itself. It establishes more reasons for students to seek ties to campus and bond with like-minded individuals, and forges a sense of community.
A guide to commuting
Keeping busy during your commute
Read: There’s something about reading Faulkner on a crowded locomotive that just seems right. You’re already the object of everyone’s awkward eye contact, so make the most of it by milking your intellectualism. They’ll think you’re much more interesting than you really are.
Listen to music: Most albums are just under an hour, which is probably similar to the length of your commute. Drown out the sounds of other people’s loud music with your own.
Work: In all likelihood, you’re terribly behind on your readings. Sometimes, you’ve just got to whip out the highlighter, the pen, the sticky notes, and the Plato, and grasp the Form of the Good. Your participation marks in tutorial will thank you for it.
Sleep: The glass partitions on the TTC are perfect for leaning your head against and catching some shut-eye. They’re also breeding grounds for bacteria, but what’s a bit of lice to the fastest-moving catnap in Toronto?
Prepare your next move in Words with Friends: Maybe if you stare at the board just a bit longer, the perfect word for the coveted triple-word score spot will appear to you.
People-watch: You’re bound to find all sorts of colourful characters on public transportation to keep you thoroughly entertained.
Catch up on texts: Let us all give thanks to Wilson, Yorkdale, Lawrence West, Glencairn, Eglinton West, Kipling, Old Mill, Keele, Davisville, Rosedale, Victoria Park, Warden, Kennedy, Lawrence East, Ellesmere, Midland, Scarborough Centre, and McCowan. Make the most of cell service before it’s gone.
DO give up your seat. Be chivalrous by letting an elderly person take your spot. You’ll be out of a seat, but you’ll feel better for it.
DON’T take phone calls. If it’s done at a reasonable volume, go ahead. But if it’s shouted and vulgar, then no. Think of the children — and the generally disgruntled patrons who don’t want to hear all about your day.
DO avoid eye contact. This is one of the unspoken rules of commuting. Rumour has it that the rule stems from a sixteenth-century tradition in which European settlers in the Americas would have to battle to the death after making eye contact of more than two seconds.
DON’T blast your music — especially if you are listening to something particularly profane or embarrassing — because everyone is judging you.
DO the electric slide — otherwise known as musical chairs. If you are sitting directly beside a fellow commuter and a seat opens up elsewhere, it is your sworn duty to switch to the available chair. (Note: the person from which you have moved away may take offence, and may start to wonder if it was something they said).
How to be a busker
Getting on the subway is as easy as a swipe of a Metropass, a clink of a token, and the whirl of a turnstile. Getting on the subway as a musician, though, is a little harder.
The ttc is full of buskers, musicians scattered about subway entrances and platforms who perform for the commuting masses. Before getting there, the buskers have to compete for a much-coveted license.
Each year, the TTC takes applications for subway performance permits. The first 175 musicians to submit an application get an audition. The auditions are held during the first three days of the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), and the public is invited to attend to watch them take place on a stage near the food building. Each busker is allotted a seven-minute audition, and must perform three songs. Adjudicators award licenses to 75 musicians to play in the subway. The license itself is billed at a fee of $150.
While most stationary instruments, such as drums, are not permitted, a lot of buskers like to keep things interesting, breaking up the procession of acoustic guitars. More eclectic options — such as accordions, violins, cellos, pan flutes, dizis, and steel pans — are all likely to be found on any given day around the subway. A notable exception is Billy James, a popular busker who has been joyfully strumming away on a dilapidated acoustic in stations all over transit lines since 1978, the first year the TTC allowed performers in the subway.
Subway buskers are given free entrance to the station, but aren’t given free passes for transportation — so becoming a busker is unfortunately not a way to cut down on your fare expenditure.
The subway in haiku
The end of the line
Closer to Mississauga
Than Islington. Ugh.
Across from the park!
Want to go frolick outside,
Must stay on subway.
Classes lie beyond,
Bedford or Bata, your choice;
Where dreams come to die
Start of the Yonge Line
GO bus, YRT, all there
Home of Pan Flute Guy
Come up for fresh air
The day shines bright upon me
Getting cell service
Green and yellow meet
Packed in the train like sardines
Until mass exodus
Four levelled station,
RT, but not a retweet
Scarborough crime hub