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The end of the line

One city councillor thinks last November’s expanded night-bus service is a waste of taxpayers’ money, but plenty of Torontonians say they depend on it. A look at the riders who get on the TTC in the wee hours

Special to The Globe and Mail
April 4, 2009

It’s Saturday night, and as the clubs in the Entertainment District are emptying, the northbound Yonge Street bus is filling up. By the time it reaches Dundas, there are no seats left. The passengers, mostly young people in their 20s, laugh and joke about the night’s events.

It’s news to many riders that a city councillor has proposed rolling back late-night bus service because the vehicles, he says, are empty. “Investing in peak service is, I think, important when our buses are full,” said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) on Wednesday. “However, at late hours, I don’t want the city to be spending taxpayers’ money on empty buses driving up and down streets.”

Those who rely on late-night Toronto Transit Commission buses - the students, the cooks, the cleaners, the club-goers who flock downtown - say it is a vital service. The expanded night-bus program, introduced last November, ensures that almost all routes in the city run until the subway’s closing time. Yet, during council’s budget debate on Tuesday, Mr. Minnan-Wong proposed an end to the service, a move he says would save the city $21-million. The move was defeated, but Mr. Minnan-Wong says he will continue to push for cutbacks on the service.

For people who work 9 to 5 and are cozily tucked in bed by 10 p.m., it may be easy to believe that buses trolling the streets of Toronto late at night are empty. But those who use the service say it is a necessary part of their lives.

Well past midnight on Tuesday, Lester Campbell, a 60-year-old cleaner, is riding the Dufferin bus south to work, surrounded by about 10 passengers. He knows what would happen to his life without the bus. “I would have no job,” he says. “I’ve worked nights steady for 25 years now. I can’t afford to take a cab and I can’t afford a car.”

Cyntia Miglio, a 27-year-old immigrant from Brazil who attends night classes at an English as a Second Language school downtown five nights a week and rides the Dufferin bus north to her home near Lawrence and Keele, fears she would have to give up her studies.

“I would have to take a cab,” she said. “It’s too much. I’m just a student, so I can’t afford it.”

“It really shows that despite some of [Mr. Minnan-Wong’s] comments, people actually really do value the night-bus service,” said TTC chairman Adam Giambrone. “The concept around the expansion of the bus routes had to do with creating a grid or a network of transit lines so that you could live in Toronto and decide not to own a car and get everywhere by TTC.”

While the TTC is tracking the program, no figures are yet available, he added.

“I’ve gone to work at five in the morning and I’ve had to stand because there’s so many people on this bus,” said Gerrit Kolijn, a 26-year-old cook at the Soho Hotel as he stood near Yonge Street waiting for the Eglinton East bus on Tuesday.

“I work late nights, so I depend on it.”

Mr. Kolijn said the plan to scale back service is an insult to the people who ride the late bus, most of them blue-collar workers. “They’re bending to the will of the upper class. They don’t care about the people who clean Toronto and who feed Toronto and who help keep the city moving,” he said.

One well-dressed 46-year-old man in a black overcoat was one of about 14 people riding the Eglinton East bus late Tuesday.

He was on his way home, near Kennedy and Eglinton, after spending the night at a King Street club.

The man, who works in financial services, slurped from a McDonald’s cup and asked to be identified as Kato Picasso. “It’s my poker name,” he said, smiling. Without the bus, “I would be stuck in the middle of the city,” he said. So too would many others enjoying a night out downtown. “Putting people in that position is not in the interest of public safety,” he said.

Mr. Minnan-Wong says, however, that a rollback “[would] exclude the bus service that existed previously to the expansion. Those same individuals that were relying on the bus service to get to and from work up until the expansion would still have that same level of service,” he says.

Yet some people say Toronto needs more bus service at night, not less. “Sometimes you have to wait a very, very long time for the bus,” says Mustafa Tamer, a 39-year-old who works at a 24-hour store near Yonge and Eglinton.

As well, by making it more difficult to get in and out of downtown in the evenings, many businesses in the core could suffer, said Jamie Mars, a 19-year-old on his way home to Scarborough from a club downtown.

“It would kind of ruin a lot of things, especially clubs in the Entertainment District.”

Mr. Picasso summed up the feelings of anyone who’s ever been stranded without a ride home: “It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it,” he said.