Undergrad commuter chronicles — a University of Toronto student’s movement through the city

It’s crunch time for thousands of Toronto’s students. A good proportion of these students are also commuters — students who wander through campus and city in search of space. Thousands of students in Toronto commute, whether it’s to Centennial, George Brown, Humber, OCADU, Ryerson, Seneca, U of T or York (or any other ones I’ve forgotten). A commuter is an urban wanderer, and a master of schedules, whether they want that education or not.

Based on an old undergrad schedule I found, I reconstructed a particularly stressful November day to capture the movements and experiences of the stressed commuter student travelling from Etobicoke to U of T.

— — —

Class is at 10:10am-12:00pm, 2:10pm-3:00pm, and 6:10pm-9:00pm. Today’s my crappy day. Only a few hours between classes, not enough time to go all the way back home since each way is an hour. Time is my currency.

I wake up at 8:00am (if I’m lucky), leave home at 9:00am, after washing up, eating something (a cookie), shoving my notes in my bag, grabbing my laptop, keys, wallet, metropass, debit card. I can’t forget anything, because there’s no way to go back. I’ll buy lunch downtown, maybe dinner too.

I leave my place at 9:15am. As I walk down to my stop, I blame myself for wasting those extra 15 minutes. How could that have happened? I miss my bus and get on the next one. I’m going to be late.

On the bus towards Kipling, I try to read some of my chemistry notes, but it’s no use. The bus rattles and I’m tired because I went to sleep at 1:00am last night. I don’t know why I did that.

The bus turns the corner and enters Kipling station. I scramble, unzipping my bag to stuff my notes in. The bus stops and everyone exits and enters. I walk fast through the station but I see someone I know. It’s that guy who always wants to talk on the subway. Our eyes catch, but I pretend that I don’t see him. It’ll be us sitting on the subway, in the tense silence of the train, straining to make conversation and everyone will hear us. Everyone will be uncomfortable. It’s my duty, for the public good, to avoid him. I run down the stairs and the subway chimes. I wait right till the end and jump in as the doors are closing. Success.

In my seat by the window, I ask myself if it was really necessary to run from him. A pang of embarrassment is washed out by a moment of daylight through the window. I pull out a notebook and start working on my assignment due tomorrow.

Christie Station. Now I have a decision to make. Do I get off at St George, or Spadina? At this time of the day, it’s questionable whether walking from St. George is really faster than taking the streetcar from Spadina. My class is at St. George and Willcocks, and the streetcar seems like a faster solution. Even though the lines are long, the cars come often.

I get on the second streetcar, and at this point it’s 10:00am. I walk into class just in time.

Class is boring. I didn’t have coffee, and the prof doesn’t understand why we did so badly on the midterm. “It’s just organic chemistry,” says the professor of organic chemistry.

12:00pm, and lunch time. I feel anxious about looking at my marks on the midterm, so I decide to look at them after I finish my assignment, which I’ll do after lunch. Lunch options: Sammy’s at Hart House, Sid Smith, Robarts, Subway, those grubby pizza places on Spadina, or Second Cup’s over-priced sandwiches. I need coffee, so I choose Second Cup. My OSAP reserve cries a little.

I buy a sandwich and a coffee and walk around looking for a spot. It’s already 12:20pm and my next class is at Bahen at College and St. George at 2:10pm. I wander through the study rooms in Sid Smith. One smells like food, no space. The other one is loud, no space. Sometimes I want to just sit beside someone, at their table, but I am too shy. I have a lot of respect for people that can just sit wherever.

I go out the back to see if there is any space at New College. Nothing. 12:30pm. I go back to Lash Miller, and I find a seat, but there’s no outlet and no desk. 12:35pm. I walk towards University College – what was I thinking, this place is a maze. Somehow I make it to Hart House, nothing. I walk down to Med Sci, there’s an outlet and a seat. No desk, but that’s fine.

I finished my coffee so I’m eating my sandwich dry. Internet’s not working, but that’s ok. I’ll draft part of my assignment and then fill in the references when I have access to articles. It’s 1:00pm already. I eat my sandwich and type with one hand, 30 words, that’s at least something. I can’t seem to think so I get up and walk towards Bahen at 1:30pm. I might be able to get something done in the lecture hall before class.

I sit down in class and open my laptop to work on the assignment, and someone I know sits beside me, “Hey.”

“Hey. What’s up?”

“How’s the assignment going?”

“Working on it. I hardly started.” I laugh (it’s really not that funny).

“Yeah me neither. What did you get for question 1?”

We exchange notes, I realize I did question 1 completely wrong and wish that he had not told me. I can see the disappointment on his face when he finds out we have different answers. I guess I should thank him, but that might add insult to injury. Thankfully class starts before I can say anything.

I spend class wondering if I am in the right major.

“See ya.” And we depart.

I have three hours to spare, and this time I can go to a library since I’m not eating. But I need to choose one. Robarts still makes me feel depressed and is probably packed. I imagine some guy whispering loudly on his phone in the study corners. Gerstein is probably full at time of the semester, and the only other library I know is the secret chemistry library. I decide to go there, walking north on St. George from Bahen. I find a spot by the window at 3:20pm. This is convenient because I have class downstairs at 6:10pm.

I set my stuff down, open my books and get to work. An hour of glorious productivity, but my bladder interrupts me at 4:30pm. Now I have to make a decision. I don’t know where the bathrooms are on this floor, so I’ll probably have to go downstairs (I don’t really want to ask where they are), but I don’t want to leave my stuff here. I heard horror stories of people getting their stuff stolen and I never got that anti-theft sticker I was meaning to get for my laptop. I decide to pack up and go to the washroom downstairs. I know that my spot will be taken when I leave, but maybe something’s opened up at New College. I go to the washroom, and walk towards New. Even though the road is pedestrian-only, I still walk on the sidewalk. I’m not feeling defiant today. How is it already 5:00pm?

I find a space at New and sit down. 30 minutes of Facebook. I see my email pop up, an email from a professor. It’s full of typos, nothing’s capitalized, but I need to be careful about my response. Typically, a response to a prof takes about 30 minutes to compose, and another 30 minutes to push the ‘send’ button. I will just respond tomorrow. She’s probably leaving her office now anyway.

6:00pm, I head to class. I sit down in my usual spot which is something I rely on being free for me. I think everyone appreciates the regularity of a sitting place in class. It’s the one thing we know we can rely on in a day full of searching. At least I know I rely on it. Class is interesting, but it’s late and I’m tired.

9:00pm rolls around, and I pack my stuff. I am worried about this assignment. I head to St. George because I won’t find any seats at Spadina westbound. Everyone gets on at St. George and at Yonge/Bloor. I miraculously find a seat at 9:20pm.

The subway starts moving and I feel anxious. I need to finish this assignment. I decide to do the unthinkable: I take my laptop out and start working on the subway. I utter a quiet prayer, hoping that no one sees me and that no one decides that my laptop is worth giving me a hard time. I hope no one asks me what I’m doing. 30 minutes of work, and we reach Kipling. I get on the bus which is waiting at the bay and I stuff my laptop in my bag. There’s nowhere to sit.

I walk home from the bus stop and I’m home at 10:30pm. My mom is home and made some food and my dad’s working the night shift. She asks me how my day was and I have a short snap inside: what am I supposed to say? “It was good.” is the default response.

“Here’s some food, I’m going to sleep.”

“Thanks.” My quiet tone belies a mountain of appreciation – she didn’t have to make me dinner, or deal with my curt responses. I open my laptop at my desk, turn my lamp on, my room’s a mess. Dinner sits on my lap because my desk is crowded. I’ll clean it up at the end of semester (probably). I set myself in for more work.

I finish the assignment at 2:00am. It’s not my best work, and the TA will probably complain about how I should have started this assignment earlier. I hate that word. Should. I look at myself in the mirror as I brush my teeth. I’ll shower tomorrow.

I lie in bed, my mind racing. Class is tomorrow at 11:10 am. I’ll set my alarm for 8:00am, and then at 8:30am just in case. Bus stop at 10:00am, hand in my assignment at 12:00pm, buy a latte at 12:20pm. Start working on the next assignment at 1:00pm. 40 minutes seems luxurious, but it’s a luxury I will take. 30 minutes later, I fall asleep.


  1. It’s underestimated how much more stressful seat-shortages make being a student. A lot of valuable time gets wasted just trying to find somewhere to work.

  2. Each way is an hour? Luxury! I spent two semesters commuting from Long Branch to Seneca at Finch/404 by transit. The first class of the day was generally 8:00AM, so I had to start plodding up the street towards Lake Shore Boulevard no later than 6:04AM, since the 110, 123, and 501 came in a cluster around 6:10AM and then nothing for quite a while.

    It was a real pleasure in January to be more than an hour into my commute, going through the open track by Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, and it was still pitch black outside.

    While it was less than two hours in the morning, in the afternoon, with construction on Finch Ave., it could be two and a half hours or more to get home.

    I did do a lot of reading, and occasionally writing, on the bus/streetcar/subway. It was 40 km each way, so I was logging 400 km weekly on the TTC.

    Note for subway fans, I actually preferred to take the Queen car to Yonge, instead of a bus up to Kipling or Islington and the Bloor-Danforth subway. For one thing, getting on at Queen northbound at 7AM meant I got a seat. And it avoided the madness of Bloor-Yonge.

  3. As far as that is, it’s not even corner to Metro Toronto corner. Man this place is big – 400 km a week.

  4. How far you can legitimately go on a one-way trip on a single fare is pretty amazing. I have done a “One Lap of Toronto” a couple of times using a pass. Starting from Long Branch loop, trying to follow as best as possible the south edge of Toronto to Rouge Hill GO, then north to Malvern, west along Steeles, and then south on the Highway 27 express and back to Long Branch from Kipling station.

    Takes the entire day!

Comments are closed.