"I'm on the last American exit to the northland I'm on the last American exit to my homeland I'm on the last American exit to my last chance They keep calling out my name, I shout it down"“Last American Exit” – The Tragically Hip
The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is roughly three times the population of the Greater Columbus, Ohio metropolitan area. Based on raw numbers, and perhaps how the area codes of the two cities are reverses of each other (416 and 614), one might expect that Toronto might just contain roughly three times the stuff that Columbus has within.
But Toronto, like Columbus, is something of an entity many have no clue about. Both Columbus and Toronto offer a lot of sprawl land area-wise, and both are capital cities next or adjacent to bodies of water. But while Columbus has the feel of a smaller city with big city aspirations, Toronto I found is really a big city like Los Angeles and New York are, and not just another random city that most people have heard of. The GTA exceeds what the Columbus metro area has to offer by several times over.
Like LA and NYC, Toronto has its enclaves and neighborhoods – the suburbs like Mississauga and Brampton remind me very much of places like Van Nuys and Northridge in LA, though very much substantial population centers in their own right. Toronto also has plenty of height – it could donate a hundredth of its total building stories to Columbus and not really miss it, and Columbus would seem so much more like a major city as a result. And it also seems to have a night life – it may not be a city that never sleeps like NYC, but there were plenty of people around and about the one night we were out late.
But perhaps my best snapshot of Toronto’s essence came as we were about to leave. As I packed our trunk to head off to our next destination, I spied the parking lot of a nearby Tim Horton’s and saw two Sikh gentlemen conversing with two older White gentlemen. And this was no argument either – there was an ease to their gestures and expressions, as if they had known each for decades and met at this same parking lot every weekend to share how life was going over donuts and coffee.
What struck me was that this was the proverbial suburbs of Toronto proper. Could I imagine such a casual meeting between similar in at some random Skyline Chili in Cincinnati, Wendy’s in Columbus, or a Winking Lizard in Cleveland in their respective suburbs? It’s hard to picture it in my mind. In fact, I think a fair number of Americans would find that thought scary. And that’s perhaps why I found Toronto so appealing after my days there.
TORONTO/ONTARIO – THE METRIC LIFE
This jaunt into Canada was something that my spouse and I have loved doing since we started dating – long road trips. And nothing about this 10th anniversary celebration was going to stop us from embarking on a jaunt through both Ontario and Quebec.
As we entered into Ontario, the landscape wasn’t too much different from Ohio. In fact, it took a little while before we sensed anything much different. Also, it took a little bit of time to adjust to kilometers and meters, but we were pretty comfortable with it by our second full day of driving. For those used to miles, the change to kilometers had a pleasant mental effect – mileage signs aren’t as imposing – 200 km to Toronto is more like two hours out, as opposed to 200 miles out in the US (which is closer to three.). However, in city driving, the change to meters has the opposite effect – a GPS warning of 400 meters is still a ways away (roughly 1/4 of a mile) vs. a 400-foot notice in the states.
For all the whining about gas prices in the United States, Canada helps put things in perspective. Prices look cheap, but they’re priced per liter. With a gallon equaling roughly 3.8 liters, our gas price paid during our trip ranged between $6.10 and $6.80/gal CAD. Even with the favorable exchange rate, these prices work out to just at or over $5/gallon USD (in contrast, a just over the border gas station in Vermont with no nearby competitors was $4.30/gallon, and got significantly lower as we got back to Ohio.)
Gas prices are more tightly spaced among various gas brands, and you won’t see a huge difference between a downtown Toronto station and one in the suburbs as you would, say, one in downtown San Francisco and one in the suburbs. Still, it’s worth it to look out for bargains – we found a gas station for just over $1.60/litre in the Toronto suburbs. It’s also worth it to pay attention to local radio – changes in gas prices are announced ahead of time and are specific (a seven cent increase, in our case.)
Finally, many gas stations have prepay authorization going into Toronto, with specific dollar amounts or, in some cases, amounts you can plug in specifically. As we figured out, it’s better to guess slightly over versus slightly under. This isn’t necessarily true for all gas stations though – the one station we stopped at about 100 km from the Ontario/Quebec provincial line was more of a standard American setup (pay for what you pump.)
TORONTO – PARKING & TRAFFIC
For the most part, we spent our days in Toronto driving since our hotel, located near Pearson International Airport in Brampton, left us about a little more over 20 miles from city centre (for Columbus natives, that’s roughly the distance from downtown Delaware to the Ohio Statehouse.)
Folks from the States will want to avoid Toronto’s one major toll road (Hwy 407) which does offer a quicker way to get east-west across the GTA (versus the main thoroughfare (Hwy 401) and roads like the Gardiner Expy and Lakeshore Blvd) but charges high rates, especially for vehicles without transponders.
Our experience with traffic along the main east-west highway, 401 was that it often slowed down to sludgy, but was rarely stop-and-go save for an emergency situation. Personally, I’ve experienced worse traffic in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Austin, TX. Other non-toll freeways like 403, 410, and 427 proved generally better congestion-wise, becoming more free-flowing the farther you got from the downtown core.
Each side of Hwy 401 is divided up between express and collector sections, not too much different to Cleveland’s I-271 between I-90 and I-480, or certain sections of Columbus’s I-270. One noticeable difference was that not all signs have mileage notations – those are generally reserved for major freeway junctions and on the collector section signs.
Generally, all roads in the GTA (save those closer to the downtown cores) tend to be wider, and merge lanes longer in length. One noticeable habit of some local drivers: speeding well over the 100 km/hr (roughly 63 mph) and merging at the last minute. This seemed accepted by the locals – honking seemed restricted to cars that were to be doing something they shouldn’t (e.g. turning left at an intersection where you weren’t allowed to turn left.)
A theme that proved consistent throughout our trip – parking ain’t free. Every city seems to have its own parking app, and it’s pretty much something you can’t do without unless you’re hellbent on walking and using transit. Parking spaces using coin meters varied depending on the town or city, with some of the older models unable to take the Toonie (the nickname for Canada’s two-dollar coin, introduced in 1996.)
Parking in residential areas in Toronto is fairly restricted – if you don’t have a residential permit, you stand a chance of getting your vehicle towed. A few select paid spaces can be found closer to commercial stretches on various residential streets, but your best bet is finding a spot in public lots or along the major streets (such as Bloor Street In Koreatown, for example.)
TORONTO – TRANSIT
We dedicated one day to using Toronto’s transit system (TTC) and, even with a slowdown due to track maintenance and a security incident at Union Station, found it to be a much more preferable than driving a car into downtown.
We took advantage of two things on our particular trip – TTC offers unlimited use day passes for a reasonable fee ($13.50 CAD) and free parking for some of its more remote subway stations. The day pass allows you onto all of TTC’s subways, street cars, and buses until the expiration time, save for any express lines.
Compared to San Francisco’s BART train (the system I used for a decade to go to work), the TTC cost is much cheaper – BART doesn’t offer day passes for tourists, and is a separate system from the city’s MUNI buses and streetcars. Since TTC covers pretty much all of Toronto, the value of a day pass adds up the more you use it compared to a system like San Francisco’s.
Also the trains are far more comfortable due to their width. Sitting in a TTC subway train feels a lot like being inside a mechanical anaconda, as no walls exist between different passenger cars.
Of course, transit is subject to circumstances beyond your control, and some track work and a security incident at the subway’s main station (Union) caused passengers on the inbound leg of our subway train to disembark a little earlier than expected. It turned out to be not such a bad thing for us though, as we got to explore some parts of Toronto we hadn’t expected to see.
Similar to Columbus’s CoGo, Toronto has its own service called Bike Share Toronto, including one- and three-day passes that offer unlimited 30-minute rides to users. The city itself seemed relatively bike-friendly, and the downtown core isn’t laced with hills like a place like San Francisco is.
TORONTO – ODDS AND ENDS
Not unlike other Canadian towns and cities, Toronto is incredibly clean; in fact, something like a Big Mac cardboard container on the sidewalk really stood out. Unlike many other cities we’ve visited, panhandlers and graffiti were much less present than one might expect.
Tapping, as in having a credit card with tapping ability, is a handy thing to have when buying food, goods, etc. Most all the vendors we encountered had the mini credit-card platforms you see occasionally at various state-side restaurants.
If you’re staying in a hotel, downtown rooms are far higher compared to their suburb counterparts. And if you drove in like we did, the difference is exacerbated with parking fees – for example, a Residence Inn in the downtown area is thrice as much per night as one in West Mississauga, and you have a $45/night parking charge to boot. Of course, the equation is slightly different if you fly into Toronto – do your research if budget is a factor.
Finally, the lesser-used border crossings are a godsend if you don’t feel like spending a ton of time waiting in lines. We have no true comparison with what we figure are fairly high-volume points of entry like the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit and Niagara Falls, but we can say our transit time in and out of Canada was relatively quick using the Port Huron/Sarnia and Rouses Point/Lacolle crossings.
ArriveCAN is an app where you can put all your relevant information prior to visiting Canada, no earlier than 72 hours prior to your entry. Information at the border inspection is pulled based on the passports you present, and as of the time of our trip, COVID-19 testing wasn’t mandatory provided you were fully vaccinated at least 14 days prior to entering Canada.
(Next blog post: all the fun and yums that GTA had to offer)