Archives for category: toronto

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If you follow me on twitter or instagram you’ll already know about my social media campaign #actuallyasea

Basically, we call Lake Ontario a lake, but I think doing so is an injustice to this massive, powerful, majestic body of water. As I’ve written over at Spacing Toronto, Lake Ontario is actually a sea. The way we talk about things says a lot about our relationship to them, and calling a body of water a lake serves to domesticate it, and dominate it.

A lake is something knowable and safe. Calm waters that you dip your feet in at the cottage.

A sea is a more appropriate word for what Lake Ontario is, and by calling it a sea, we can elevate the status of the waters in our minds and understanding Toronto as “a city by the sea”. We often call the Great Lakes, collectively, “inland seas”, but rarely give them the sea treatment individually. My campaign has mostly focused on Toronto because Lake Ontario is the sea I know best, and the campaign has to start somewhere!

Since writing that post on Spacing, the campaign has really taken off. Many friends and strangers have begun to tweet and instagram using the tag, and a growing body of photos and other documentation is charting the potential of understanding Lake Ontario as the Sea of Ontario (or Ontario Sea, if that floats your boat).

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An example of Instagram posts tagged #actuallyasea. Thank you to @theholygasp, @lindsayzv, @sammytangir, @am__eh and @studiojaywall for your contributions!

I’ve also been gathering more evidence to make the case that Lake Ontario is #actuallyasea, and am excited to provide an update on the campaign:

i. Toronto’s First Nations

In the original Spacing article, I failed to acknowledge Toronto’s First Nations history and their relationship to these massive bodies of water. As a white-settler geographer, it is my responsibility to acknowledge and centre First Nations histories as much as I can, and I apologize for this oversight.

In no way can I speak for the Wendat, Haudenosaunee, or Anishinaabe cultural view points, but many online resources have compiled interpretations of the Great Lakes from a First Nations perspective.

A resource I often use is the Decolonial Atlas. The blog has an entry called The Great Lakes in Ojibwe  that shares the Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) names for the Great Lakes, as it “is the most-spoken indigenous language in the Great Lakes basin.”

The Great Lakes are known as Nayaano-nibimaang Gichigamiin, or, the Five Freshwater Seas. Lake Ontario is known in Anishinaabemowin as Niigaani-gichigami, or the Leading Sea.

I have also heard Gichigami translated as “big water”, “large sweet water”, but what matters is the languages’ distinction between bigger and smaller bodies of water.

Of course, there are many, many cultures and nations today and historically that lived in the Toronto and Great Lakes region, and Anishinaabemowin does not represent all these perspectives. I am striving to understand more about Toronto’s First Nations history and support (not co-opt) the voices of others, so please let me know if I have made any mistakes or oversights.

ii. The Caspian “Sea”

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One of the most contentious parts of the #actuallyasea campaign is that people can’t accept that there is no technical definition of a sea. As I mention in the post, the term sea is more cultural than scientific, and there is no hard and fast definition of lake vs sea. Despite that, most people are inclined to say “Lakes are freshwater, seas are salt water”, and dismiss the entire campaign as fanciful whimsy.

In the Spacing article, I cite the Sea of Galillee as the primary definition-jammer. Known as a sea, it’s technically a lake, and is a fraction of the size of Lake Ontario. Its sea-status makes this biblical body of water worthy of its myth and power.

I always knew that the Caspian Sea was also a potential definition-jammer, but I only recently confirmed that the large body of water between Europe and Asia is (according to Wikipedia) “variously classed” as the “world’s largest lake” of a “full fledged sea”. The Caspian Lake is #actuallyasea as much as the Great Lakes are! Though its salt water, it is a distinct body of water separate from the ocean, and thus could be interpreted as a lake. How confusing! Exactly! According to the fantastic instagram account, AMapADay, “the ancient inhabitants of its coast perceived the Caspian Sea as an ocean, probably because of its saltiness and large size”.

If Lake Caspian is #actuallyasea, and has been known as such for millennia, well then, it’s about time we call Lake Ontario the Sea of Ontario.

iii. The Swedish sjö

One of the things that really jumpstarted the #actuallyasea campaign was when I was showing a friend from Sweden around Toronto, and she kept referring to Lake Ontario as a sea. As I write in the Spacing article, “In Swedish, sjö refers to both lakes and seas, so she wasn’t technically wrong”.

As you may know, I’m currently living in Malmö, Sweden for the next five months – and it was only a matter of time I confirmed this confusion of terms.

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Vänern and Vättern, the Swedish sjös, and the Baltic Sea to the east

And yes, sjö does refer to both lakes and seas. Specifically, it refers to the two large bodies of water in southern Sweden surrounded by land, but is also the term used to describe the Baltic Sea. (It also turns out that sjö is pronounced completely differently than I had initially thought. Instead of syo, it’s more like hweh – how bout that.)

For some context, Vänern, one of the Swedish sjös is 5650 square kilomtres, and Lake Ontario is 19000 square kilomtres. Lake Ontario is most definitely #ActuallyaSjö

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Those are the updates for now – in the mean time, check back on the campaign as it continues to grow on social media, and contribute your own photos of how Lake Ontario is a sea by tagging #actuallyasea!

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I’m from Toronto – Grid City. I like a good orthogonal city plan. A city where North is up, South is down, and East and West, are, you guessed it, side to side.

Well, Toronto is not exactly a perfect grid. As Dylan Reid has explored on Spacing, Toronto is in fact a series of micro grids, stitched together, with some exceptions for topography that even the imperially-decreed gridded city plan couldn’t ignore. But that’s a fine detail, a technicality. The macro grid – the one that made up of Toronto’s major streets –  is based on a series of 2km-spaced concession lines, and it defines how the city is organized.

Growing up in Toronto, City of Grids, I think, is part of why I have such a keen sense of direction. People in Toronto, they use cardinal directions to direct people where they need to go. “Go north on Bathurst, then west on Eglinton” they’ll say, and it makes perfect sense. As a result, I have North permanently etched into my mind as essential to understand where I am.

Even when a city’s grid doesn’t match the cardinal directions, a perfect grid means that people use cardinal directions anyway. In Montreal, what people call North is in fact more North-West. In Guelph too. Rather than constantly say “go north-west, then south-west”, people have collectively adjusted the meaning of north in the local context.

Other cities – where the grids aren’t so reliable – aren’t like this. In Halifax, an otherwise perfect grid bends around the Citadel and Common. The grid dissolves into spaghetti as the straight elements (the roads), navigate rounded elements (the Common). As a result, people are more inclined to say “Go up Robie”, “Go down Agricola”, instead of cardinal orientation, and it just makes more sense.

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In Newfoundland, at least, according to my friends, directions are much more story-based than cardinal- based.  St. John’s is pretty loopy city, and the small downtown grid quickly dissolves to negotiate the city’s various hills and steep slopes. Here, instead of “Going north on Prescott Street”, directions are more based on stories, and landmarks. “Go past Rosie’s Convenience, and make a left”.

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As you may know, I am currently living in Malmö, Sweden, and will be exploring the Skåne region for the next five months.

Malmö is especially disorienting to me because, as this post’s title suggests, the city is almost a grid, but, it’s not quite a grid. Two streets that I think are parallel end up veering away from each other, and intersecting at other points, as the map below highlights.

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I’ve explored how different cities present different flavours of disorientation, and as kinds of disorientation go, this might be the toughest challenge so far. I’m so sure I know where I am, using my Toronto infused griddy-knowledge, only to be constantly lost, and going in the wrong direction. In almost making sense as a grid, but then not being a grid at all,  it has been a humbling, getting lost experience (and this is a good thing).

This posts title was inspired by The Almost Nearly Perfect Peoplea less than perfect exploration of Scandinavian culture by Michael Booth. 

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Ever since I moved to the island in the winter of 2014, I’ve been fascinated with its shifting and changing, a symbol of the instability of even human geographer. Originally a sand bar created from deposits of sediment at the Scarborough Bluffs and Don River, it initially changed shape with every season and storm, until it was infilled in the 1930s to its currently fixed form.

But Gibraltar Point, as I’ve explored on this blog and in my first post on Spacing Toronto, is the last bit of wild, shifting island. And it is eroding fast. The above GIF is a thirty year period, and if you look closely at the Island’s southwest, you can see the land slowly receding.

I wrote about the current situation in the Globe and Mail, and had the chance to speak with several island characters including Jimmy Jones who grew up on the Island when it was fully inhabited, Warren Hoselton, the head of Parks and Recreation for the Island, long-time visitor artist Shoshanah McKay, and Ethan Griesbach, a project manager with Toronto Region Conservation Authority. Read it here.

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In late October, Glo’erm and I put up a fake development proposal sign on the lawn of Old City Hall in Toronto. The proposal included a 90-storey residential tower, while the heritage building would be converted into a parking garage. At the bottom of the sign was a link to a website that featured several other, increasingly absurd, parody proposals.

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I guess pranking is still in style, because the stunt was covered by every local news outlet in Toronto, with many thinking it was real. The project struck a chord with a city anxious about how fast it is changing.

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Some of the comments on CityTV’s coverage of the story, ranging from outrage to… outrage

After articles in blogTO, the Toronto Star, Metro Toronto, and Canadian Art, and some hilarious TV news coverage where they created animations of the proposed buildings actually coming out of the existing structures,  I wrote about our motivations in the Globe and Mail. (We were initially anonymous, but decided to reveal ourselves to explain the ideas behind the project and keep the conversation going, not to mention some good press).

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The signs in the print edition of the Globe and Mail, October 29, 2016

As soon as the article was published, there was a vast amount of criticism regarding my position. One critic called it “NIMBYism dressed up as art”, despite my very clear stance that development is needed, but that doesn’t mean it has to be so extreme and uncontrolled. I do agree with most of the critiques, and my knowledge about the state of development in Toronto has expanded greatly from this experience.

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Basically, the reason we’re getting so much “hyper-density” in Toronto, is because of what is known as the Yellow Belt – huge swaths of Toronto zoned as Neighbourhoods, and protected from development that doesn’t meet the character of the area. This means that people can use the official plan to reject even gentle, mid-rise density from these neighbourhoods. With a rapidly growing population in Toronto, that density has to go somewhere – and its landing in neighbourhoods where there weren’t many previous residents to defend them, like along lower Yonge Street and Liberty Village. One planner described it as a stress ball: if you squeeze the ball, all the pressure has to go somewhere, and it’s popping up as a extremely high density in certain parts of the city.

I was able to express a more nuanced view in an interview with NOW magazine.

Inclusivity is important: Toronto has an affordable housing crisis, and its important to increase the supply of housing so that the city remains accessible to all. The development proposals we are critiquing are not the answer: they are not affordable, and their extreme heights do not contribute to a higher quality of life.

I stand by our initial critique of an opaque proposal process that leaves most Torontonians out of the decision making process. When you go to a public meeting regarding a development proposal, that meeting is only accessible to a certain segment of the population, who have the time and knowledge to be able to respond to a fully formed proposal that will probably be built. At those meetings, as critical urbanist Jay Pitter has said more than once, the most important question is who is not at those meetings, and why aren’t they there?

This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto

Plan of York Surveyed and Drawn by Lieut. Phillpotts, Royal Engineers. Map courtesy Library and Archives Canada and accessed from http://oldtorontomaps.blogspot.ca/

While gazing over old maps of Toronto, I often long to experience the city before its landscape was so significantly altered. What was it like when the water went right up to Front Street, before infill extended the shoreline by almost a kilometre? How did the Lower Don River feel when it meandered into a vast marshland at its mouth, before it was straightened and channelized?

That’s why I was so excited to visit Long Point last week. A sandy peninsula protruding into Lake Erie, Long Point feels like going back in time to an earlier version of Toronto Island — when it was a wild, sandy and ever-changing spit still connected to the mainland.

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As Lake Erie shares Lake Ontario’s crumbly shoreline, Long Point is the result of almost the same geologic phenomenon that created Toronto Island — eroded sediment swept by the currents of the lake to create a sandy peninsula and protected bay. The most notable difference is size. While Toronto Island was originally a 9km spit, Long Point is about 40 km.

Unlike Toronto Island after 1858, Long Point is still connected to the mainland. It briefly enjoyed island status after a powerful storm in the 19th century severed a channel through its middle, but was reconnected when sediment washed back to fill the gap. The same would have probably happened in Toronto if there weren’t so much interest in maintaining the Eastern Gap, giving ships easy access to Toronto’s deep harbour and the markets beyond.

Long Point on Lake Erie. Image courtesy of canmaps.com

Beyond its tentative connection to the mainland, Long Point’s form has not been significantly altered by human activity. Whereas Toronto Island was largely fixed by depression era infill projects transforming its ever-changing fingers of sand and marsh into the archipelago of islands we know today, Long Point has maintained its fluid form as a constantly shifting (and hard to map) sand bar.

Compared to the few patches of forest along Toronto Island, Long Point is a vast wilderness. Designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, most of the peninsula is conserved explicitly by the Federal Government and Parks Ontario, and inadvertently by the Long Point Company, a private organization that has maintained the spit for hunting purposes since 1866, strictly limiting public access.

Walking along Long Point’s sandy beaches, you don’t even have to squint your eyes to imagine the feeling of Toronto before it was urbanized. An overgrown Carolinian forest hugs its sandy shore, and beyond the bay, where in Toronto a hulking skyline has emerged, there remains open water, marshland and sky. Port Rowan, tucked into the corner where Long Point meets the mainland has a population of about 1000 – the size of the similarly positioned town of York around 1812.

Long Point marshes. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Toronto Bay, 1793 by Elizabeth Simcoe

Long Point boasts its own community stretching the first few kilometres of the peninsula, offering a living image of another era of Toronto Island’s history: when it was covered in cottages and fully serviced by hotels, grocery stores, laundromats and restaurants. Like Centre Island before its town centre was demolished by Metro Toronto in the 1950s and 60s, Long Point’s year round population of 450 swells to 5,000 in the summer.

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Many of the cottages that dot the peninsula are reminiscent of the homes that used to cover the Island and those that were saved at Ward’s and Algonquin Islands. Built right up to the beach, their plain geometry bespeaks the simple pleasures of living lakeside, where all you need is a place to rest your head before heading back to the beach. A few grander cottages evoke the summer homes of the wealthy that were built along Toronto Island’s Lakeshore Avenue.

Despite never having been to Long Point before last week, the feeling of familiarity and connection to Toronto Island was uncanny. Of course, Long Point and Toronto Island are distinct places with their own histories, and comparing them requires a a stretch of geographic imagination. However, a visit to the largely preserved landscape at Long Point offers a portal into the past, its equivalent in Toronto having been changed beyond recognition long ago.

My article exploring the decline (and reinvention) of Toronto’s convenience stores appeared in the May 21 edition of the Globe and Mail.

Because there’s no link to it, here’s a copy of the article downloaded from the newspaper’s digital-print edition.

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The article also beckoned my first letter to the editor! Happy they went easy on me, and interesting to hear convenience stores experienced decline much earlier than I thought. In a city, the only constant is change.

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As my last post explored, Southern Ontario’s physical geography is often ignored, and its landscape is often derided as being flat, monotonous and boring.

Disconnected to the subtle features of the landscape by 400-series superhighways, big box plazas and its relentless grid, its understandable that the infinite beauty of the land beneath the concrete would be, for the most part, forgotten.

Beyond the highways, Southern Ontario’s rich glacial soil has been sculpted into dramatic river valleys, cuestas, waterfalls and the rolling hills of drumlin fields by millennia of water movement.

My map (leading image) is an effort to re-assert the geologic features most prominent in these three very connected cities at the western end of Lake Ontario. Happy exploring!

Originally posted on Spacing Toronto

Facing each other across Spadina Avenue just north of Adelaide, the Tower and Balfour Buildings frame a striking entryway into Toronto’s Fashion District.

Previously known as the Garment District, the neighbourhood was home to many of Toronto’s textile workers, who were predominantly Jewish immigrants.

Masterpieces of Art Deco architecture, the Balfour and Tower buildings were originally built to house those garment businesses and their showrooms, raising the prominence of the industry, and the city with it.

Designed by Benjamin Brown in the late 1920s, their towering elegance was symbolic of Toronto’s transformation into a modern metropolis — a financial, cultural and transportation hub with a swelling population over 200 000.

That elegance extended to several other Brown-designed buildings nearby including The Commodore on Adelaide, The New Textile Building on Richmond (now an OCADU building) and the Hermant Building at Yonge and Dundas Square.

Despite defining the city at a critical point in its history, Benjamin Brown has remained relatively unknown.

At a time when people weren’t interested in Toronto’s architectural history, let alone the work of a single architect, Brown’s entire collection of drawings were forgotten about in the architect’s garage and left to deteriorate.

When Brown died, he left the collection to fellow architect Jim Levine, one of the only people who recognized the value of the work.

The Ontario Jewish Archives took over the collection in the 80s and has painstakingly restored it, ensuring that a valuable archive of drawings that document the emerging modernity of Toronto was not lost. Highlights of the collection are now on view in an exhibit of Benjamin Brown’s work at the Urbanspace Gallery on the ground floor of 401 Richmond, until April 23.

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The exhibit is an opportunity to get an up-close view of Benjamin Brown’s expertly executed hand-drawn plans and renderings. Brown was a master of lines. His incredibly detailed drawings even include the buildings’ ornamental windows and decorative stonework.

Brown’s drawings are also poignant portraits of Toronto in the 1920s and 30s, where the aerodynamic shapes and sleek lines of Art Deco and Art Moderne dominated architecture and fashion. In the rendering of the Tower Building, Spadina is bustling with crowds in stylish coats as streamline automobiles motor by.

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Brown was one of the first Jewish architects to build and sustain a successful practice in Toronto despite the discrimination within the city in the early 1900s. As a result, he was the architect of many spaces for the Jewish community, including Beth Jacob Synagogue (today, a Russian Orthodox Church) and the Primrose Club on Willcocks, a social club for Jewish men (today, it’s the University of Toronto’s faculty club).

As an artist and urban geographer, I was delighted to participate in the exhibit by illustrating many of Brown’s best known buildings, tracing over his lines and creating a map showing the geographic expansiveness of his life’s work. Indeed, Benjamin Brown has hundreds of commissions spread throughout the city.

CommMy illustration of the Commodore Building on Adelaide. Unlike Benjamin Brown, I didn’t use a ruler!

Looking at Toronto through the lens of a single architect is an opportunity to make connections between the city’s disparate neighbourhoods and styles. Benjamin Brown’s designs range from the Art Deco towers downtown to utilitarian garages in the west end, storefronts on Bloor and Georgian, Tudor and Colonial Revival houses in midtown.

Through the work of Benjamin Brown, an intelligible thread runs through Toronto, a city indebted to the grandeur he helped established at the turn of the twentieth century.

See the exhibit of Benjamin Brown’s work at the Urbanspace Gallery on the ground floor of 401 Richmond, now until April 23.

 

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Benjamin Brown is one of Toronto’s most important, but least well known architects.

Practicing in the 1920s and 30s, his Art Deco towers defined the Toronto’s Garment District when the city was emerging as a modern metropolis.

Beyond the downtown core, Brown’s work can be found throughout the city – store front designs, residential homes, synagogues and community centres.

To illustrate the expansiveness and character of his work, the Ontario Jewish Archives commissioned me to illustrate 15 of Benjamin Brown’s buildings, along with a giant map featuring  a selection of his commissions.

The illustrations and map are up at the Benjamin Brown exhibit at the Urbanspace Gallery on the ground floor of 4o1 Richmond until April 23.

Enjoy digital versions above and samples of the map below, and be sure to check out the exhibit to see the mastery of Brown’s plans and renderings in person!

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Heritage Toronto commissioned me to illustrate their award nomination forms.

The commission was an opportunity to ruminate on what “heritage” means. Though Yonge & Dundas Square and the Don Valley Parkway aren’t directly the subjects of Heritage Toronto awards, their inclusion on the nomination forms hints toward how we may consider them in the future. Indeed, a decade after Yonge & Dundas Square opened to “consternation”, architectural critics are praising its role in the city.

Don Valley Parkway

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The Hermant Building’s recently restored entranceway

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Community Heritage
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Yonge & Dundas Square
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Short Publication 
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No, this isn’t a post about the Toronto Dreams Project (though I highly recommend visiting Adam Bunch’s fantastic blog about the lesser known histories embedded in Toronto’s geography).

This is about how Toronto – my home town, the city of my youth, the place that I’ve left and returned to over and over again –  often feels like a dream.

Let me explain –

Every night, I have vivid dreams.

I dream in places. But not fantastical places. Real places, where I’ve visited and lived. When I wake up from the dream, I know where I was, on the surface of the earth, where north was, where the sun set and rose.

I also dream of people – real people, who I’ve met throughout the years. And not just significant people in my life. Those who have played the most minor roles in my past appear as major players in my dreams.

When I sleep, all these place and people mix together so that my dream sequence involves elementary school, high school, summer camp, university dorm rooms and cafeterias, student apartments and street corners, lakes I’ve swam in and cities I’ve visited, all populated with a random assortment of people I’ve known and met and talked to.

When I’m awake and wandering around Toronto, there’s a high chance that I could run into anyone I’ve ever met in on the streets of the city. Someone from every stage of my life, and every place I’ve lived lives in Toronto. (That’s what happens when there are only three major cities in Canada to make a life and one speaks mostly French.)

So, like in my dreams, there’s a possibility in Toronto that anyone I’ve ever met might be on the bus, at the cafe, waiting for the streetcar or subway, biking down the street.

It’s because of this – among other reasons – that for me, Toronto has a dreamy quality.

 

Guelph_Transit_237Guelph is a small city with a small bus system.

Unlike in larger cities where many buses ply the same routes all day with 5-10 minute headways, Guelph can’t afford to do that – there are too few people.

What I initially felt was a bummer — buses every 20-30 minutes at peak times and every hour at other times of day — turned one of the system’s greatest strengths: reliability.

This seems like a major paradox – how can you build a robust transit system by providing less?

Transit planners have a maxim that people won’t adopt public transportation unless its frequent and reliable. In Toronto, it often feels like it’s frequent but not reliable. In Guelph, however, the service may not be frequent, but it is very reliable.

Because the bus comes so infrequently, users are forced to use the schedule to see when their bus is coming. The bus system becomes more like a train system in this way – fixed times when the bus will be coming that you can plan your routine around.

While the buses sometimes detract from their schedule, key points in their routes, like the University Centre and Guelph Central Station, put them back on schedule. At these transfer points, the bus will wait until their scheduled departure time to depart.

I think Guelph’s bus system would be much more frustrating if it didn’t follow a schedule and used the same amount of service at more random intervals. The degree of reliability would tire out the most dedicated transit user.

But as it stands, it works great. As Guelph grows, it will require a larger fleet of buses with more frequency – but until then, and in other small cities in Ontario and beyond, the reliability of a less is more approach to transit, while at first seeming like a contradictory approach to establishing a robust transit system, is a good way to go.