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Head south when you need breathing room on the subway


What follows is a hot tip for subway commuters looking to avoid the crush of overcrowding. Skeptical at first of this bit of intelligence, which was acquired from a source at the TTC, Dr. Gridlock has been carefully testing it on the way home from work. And it works.

Looking for a bit more room on the Yonge-University-Spadina line during rush hour? At any station, going northbound or southbound, simply head for the southernmost end of the platform. The cars at the south end of the train are, according to TTC numbers, as much as 20-per-cent less crowded than the rest of the train.

The reason is simple: Many of the TTC’s key subway stations on the Yonge-University-Spadina line have their entrances and exits at the north end of the train platform. (Think Bloor, for starters, along with the terminal stations.) As a result, passengers are either squeezed into the north end of trains unwittingly, or on purpose, looking to minimize their walking time on the platform.

The trains hit Union, and the pattern continues up the other side of the line. This often leaves breathing room, even at the peak of rush hour, for the rest of us in the train’s southernmost cars.

This pattern, explains TTC project manager Chris Heald, is part of the reason that the TTC, in its next subway purchase, is looking for new vehicles that allow passengers to move between cars. That way, riders can seek out the less crowded south end once they are on the train.

The TTC believes the new cars will increase by 8 per cent the capacity on its six-car subway trains, which now hold an average of 1,000 people at peak times.

But Toronto subway riders really shouldn’t complain too much about overcrowding. The Yonge line hits its maximum capacity — when no more trains can be added, even if the TTC wanted to — for only about 45 minutes to an hour on weekday mornings, usually between 8 and 9 o’clock. (Evening rush hour is spread over a longer period.)

“People say it’s crowded, and I always say, if you go in those 45 minutes, that’s your problem because I can’t help you,” said Rick Ducharme, the TTC’s chief general manager.

At any other time, even on the fringes of rush hour, this city’s subway is pretty spacious, especially compared to subways in London or New York. Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported in 2002 that conditions on the crowded tube — in summer, with no air conditioning — would violate European Union rules for transporting livestock, and even offered commuters free rides in a cattle truck as a stunt to prove the point.

On Toronto’s buses, on the other hand, one does feel sometimes like a cow headed for the slaughterhouse. It is on the TTC’s “surface routes,” its streetcars and buses, where the overcrowding problem becomes real.

Many routes are jam-packed, and increasing traffic congestion makes the problem worse as vehicles bunch up. On some routes, the TTC operates at peak capacity for as long as 3� hours, with buses gummed up in traffic subject to “surge loading” where crowds of near-frantic riders cram themselves into the vehicle. Switching to low-floor buses, which are accessible to the disabled but carry slightly fewer riders, has only made the problem worse.

Mr. Ducharme acknowledges the TTC has serious crowding problems on its buses and streetcars that it is trying to address. He points to the 100 new buses it will have by the end of this year, and plans to increase service on suburban routes, as evidence that it is doing its best to keep up with demand.

But in the end, TTC riders are going to have to get used to the fact that a busy public transit system is just part of living in a rapidly growing city.

Driving has gotten more difficult, too, Mr. Ducharme points out.

“Twenty-five years ago, you could have taken a car from Oakville to downtown Toronto in maybe 45 minutes or so,” he said. “Now it takes an hour and a half. Live with it. We’re a bigger city.”