Thursday, June 28, 2018

Toronto is better. Except for the thing with the cars.

Whenever I'm in both my hometown of New York City and my current home of Toronto in a short span of time, I can't help but compare. And it's a comparison where Toronto does quite well. Not always, but generally. Even setting aside (is this possible, though?) such things as universal healthcare; the knowledge that Trump either is or is not the leader of the country you're in (though I did see a MAGA hat today in Pusateri's); and Canada's flaws and xenophobes versus America's... baby-cage immigration policy, Toronto, for me at least, generally comes out ahead.

Day to day, it's just more livable. Mostly, the streets here are not coated in garbage-juice slick, with the accompanying smell (and water bugs) this implies. Apparently it's possible to have a big and vibrant city without a layer of filth. Who knew? The subways... there aren't a whole lot of them here, but the ones there are will arrive every few minutes, with the time posted, and with stations not covered in a still-stickier version of the sidewalk slime. The streetcars are also a good time, most of the time anyway.

And while both cities are expensive/gentrified, this is to wildly different degrees. In Toronto it means there are lots of often-but-thankfully-not-always expensive little shops and cafés. Whereas in New York, it's empty storefronts (the landlords apparently holding out hope for ultra-upscale tenants) interrupted by the occasional bank or Potbelly sandwich establishment. It baffles me to no end that Torontonians make shopping trips to New York, when the journey makes so, so much more sense in the other direction. What are they even buying? (The Everlane showroom and Reformation sample sale had such potential, but were meh and disappointing, respectively. Whereas Durumi, it's like, please ring it all up, yes even the stuff meant for 19-year-olds.)

But then there's this one teensy thing: cars. For whichever structural and cultural reasons, in Toronto, crossing the street is regularly a near-death experience, while in New York, not so much.

The structural bit is clear: Toronto's a city of large, two-way streets, with right on red permitted, and with much of the population living in places not well-served by public transportation.* Parking spots are often on the sidewalk itself, and even where they're not, ubiquitous garages mean you risk getting hit by a car even between intersections. Also: there aren't a whole lot of crosswalks, even in high-foot-traffic areas. West Queen West is basically a more dense (and fun!) version of Bedford in Williamsburg, with plenty on both sides of the street, but practically no way to get from one side to the other. The city's layout is such that the limited attention paid to car-alternatives seems to focus on biking, as versus walking. This, even though the climate here is maaaybe a bit more conducive to the latter. 

In terms of the city's layout, I have to admit, carless though I am here, it's genuinely limiting here not to have a car. A fact I'm reminded of every time I look up some destination (generally Japanese groceries) in another part of town. (Google Maps tells me it's an hour and five minutes to the Japanese strip mall by public transit, or 28 minutes by car.) But I can just... walk to HMart for many of the same ingredients. For me and my udon needs, it's not a big deal. But if any part of your routine (work, school, etc.) demands a journey like the one I've described, then yeah you likely need a car. I can't rule out the possibility of this at some point applying to me, either.

The cultural factors are trickier for me to make sense of, but I suspect the usual stigma on adult carlessness, which much of New York somehow avoids, exists here, even in the absence of necessity. There's also a pedestrian culture of respecting (or just not wanting to be mowed down by?) drivers. It's not just that, when the pedestrian and traffic lights turn green, one or several cars get to make the right turn before however many pedestrians get to cross. (You can try to march ahead, but this will lead either to coming close to getting run over or just to getting drivers furious.) It's also the infuriating thing where you get to an intersection and a fellow pedestrian is gesturing that rare, reticent driver to go ahead and make the turn, without acknowledging that maybe other pedestrians don't want this or more to the point, didn't see this in time.

In any case, the news here is full of stories of... exactly what feels like it's going to happen all the time. People walking or biking beside the massive highway system that is our downtown roads end up getting mowed down. As I understand it, political opposition to this state of affairs isn't where it needs to be. ('Cars are people, too' seems to be a respectable opinion.) So how about it, Toronto? Why not let the people cross?

*If you're willing to put up with NY-style space and amenities or lack thereof, then you, too, might be able to live somewhere in Toronto where driving isn't necessary. Whenever someone wonders at my walk to work, I feel obliged to explain the laundry; space; and a/c situations, none of which are, by this city's standards, what might be considered optimal. I also think having spent the first few years of my life sharing a one-bedroom with my parents makes me less sympathetic than most to the notion that having even one child somehow ethically necessitates such luxuries as extra rooms; a yard; and the ability to drive around several children at a time. The notion that carless urbanites are simply rich people who can afford to live suburban lifestyles but in the city center doesn't necessarily add up.

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