The Artist’s Shoulders #3: The terrible weight of the GTA rushhour

This is the third post in my series about my shoulder problems and how it ties into problems with our health system, some public & private problems of being an artist in Canada, perceptions that promote poverty  and thus ultimately the economy … seriously, they are all related and this post outlines a second example of this. 

Life in the GTA can be nasty, brutish & Commute.*

Sometimes you have to go where the work is, and work through any issues involved in getting there.

My first job when I moved to Toronto involved commuting from Parkdale Village to North York. Not stressful but long and unreliable time wise. Trains would always “short turn” as I was travelling opposite rushhour traffic. I was working in some guy’s basement office in the middle of suburbia and he demanded I arrive at 9am sharp. That’s why he was paying me the barely living wage bucks for, so I felt duty-bound to oblige.

To do this I left the apartment at 7:10 am and took the street car and then the subway to Wilson Station. From there I could walk or wait for the bus. Either way, I would usually arrive about 30-20 minutes early and wait outside the house. If I left the apartment any later than 7:10 am, I would be late by about 20 minutes to half hour. It was a goddamn time-space singularity tear in the fabric of North York I tell you.

Going home again took about the same amount of time, but going against rushhour was a real luxury. This was actually a cakewalk compared to what came next … commuting from Hamilton to Toronto everyday.

GTA rush hour is a monster movie twice a day.

Seriously. You have to plan around it or you risk being in the belly of the beast for many hours. The stinking toxic angry oozing innards of the man-made creature called “Toronto Traffic”.

This sucks where ever you live in the GTA, but if you are living in Hamilton and commuting to Toronto is especially heinous. One friend who made the trip only a few times described it as follows: “It’s hellish and will suck your soul out through your eye balls.” – that seems extreme but it is reflecting a real situation that has Toronto ranked in the top 5 for worst traffic in North America and worse than New York, Berlin or London (which seems surprising as those are really big cities and the last two are much older, so I imagine with narrow streets in many parts).

The morning rush hour starts at 7am and lets up about 9:30-10am. The evening rush hour starts at 3:30pm and ends usually around 7:30pm. If you go into and back from Toronto outside of those times then you are very fortunate – otherwise it takes about two hours to get into Toronto and between two and four hours to get home.  The worst part is how exhausting it is – you can’t take your eyes off the road. You have to be constantly inching forward and stopping every few feet, and then gunning whenever you can to – usually for a few seconds then slamming on the breaks. It’s a real battle to get through, and especially to keep an eye out for erratic and angry drivers who start cutting people off suddenly in their induced congestion stupor.  Like me, these people are frustrated that it *should* take under 40 minutes from downtown Hamilton to downtown Toronto and vice-versa. On paper, it looks like Hamilton is close to Toronto – but it’s not. It’s really not.

Why not take public transit and save some time and money?

Good idea. Taking a bus or train will save time and money … except when commuting from Hamilton to Toronto. This is where things get into into the realm of bad planning and thus bad economics.

Believe or not, a one way fare costs more than $10 and so going back and forth costs over $20. You can buy a monthly pass for nearly $350. If you are living on typical cultural worker wages, minimum wage or near the poverty line this amount is prohibitive. When I would drive, I could park for $8 near my work, and factoring in gas that’s actually still less than taking taking the bus or train. The real spit in the eye is that it’s not as expensive the closer you take the bus or train to Toronto. What this means is if you live in the affluent suburbs of Mississauga or Oakville, you are paying only three or four dollars. Those living in depressed Hamilton are paying the most, are the least able to afford it and are in the most need of affordable transportation to find work. Oh, and there’s no wireless on GO Transit, which is no small inconvenience as I explained in a previous post.

Another bit of salt in the wound is Hamilton’s last train leaves at 7:15am and makes most stops along the way, resulting in an almost two hour trip anyways in a *very* crowded train. A train by the way you are not allowed to bring your bicycle onto to so you’ll have to pay more again if you don’t work within walking distance of the Toronto station.  You can take the bus, and even load your bike onto it, but you’ll probably be late if you take it later than … 7:15am.

Oh, and there’s no park’n’go in Hamilton. I would have to pay extra here to take a bus to the station or walk 40 minutes.

You can take a bus to Aldershot station in Burlington, just before Hamilton, that does have all day trains and lots of parking. Aldershot is remarkable for having a Walmart, an empty field and a giant pile of dirt. Hamilton has more people, but apparently the problem is freight trains have more priority than passenger trains. That should help paint a clear picture of the priorities at work here.

They are increasing train times and opening a new station in Hamilton, in time for the PanAm 2014 games. This is a separate boondoggle and we’ll see what actually becomes of it, but I’ve learned to take good news in Hamilton with a grain of salt.

The solution is obvious, and so is the problem: There should be free public transit and there are too many cars on the road (especially with single drivers. Grrrr).

It wouldn’t really be free of course, but already paid for through our taxes. Unfortunately, we live in knee-jerk conservative simpleton times. I’ve gotten into a few disputes about this and sometimes with people who I initially credited with having more reasoning skills. Their argument always boils down to a) they don’t take transit as they have a car so why should they pay for it? and b) it’s too expensive without people paying fares.

Their argument does not make much sense to me. First of all, the service is already publicly funded so how exactly much are we paying for ticket collectors, ticker checkers, cashiers, gates, consultants, services, payment systems, lawyers, training and everything single other thing that goes with having a fare system? Quite a bit I suspect.  Secondly, these people railing against taxes paying for public transit seem to have absolutely no qualms about taxes paying for their roads. What if we slapped a $10 toll on every road into and out of Toronto? Then I suspect we would have a large outcry that roads should remain “free” to drive on. Yep, most people in the GTA aren’t terribly self-reflective.

Another obvious boon would be the boost to the local economy as more people traveled to different areas – buying a coffee, shopping, get a haircut and a job, or whatever. More than this, it would decrease car traffic significantly. Then we wouldn’t have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in expanding roads to accommodate more traffic.  We would save on extra police, ambulances, road maintenance, insurance and even health care costs as the stress levels drop. I bet you dollars to donuts that “free” transit saves more money than having fares.

But what do I know? I’m only an artist and not one of the corporations who are profiting greatly from this current state of affairs and enabled by terrible political leadership. In Canada, we have a very “silo” way of thinking about things, and column A in the spreadsheet is not considered when looking at column B, even if we could save much more tax money overall, and ergo we are left with a disastrous mess that is costing the region billions.

Really hard to imagine that a fare-less transit system is worse than this.

There are improvements they could make immediately like allowing bicycles onto the train. The argument against this is that there is not enough room during rush hour. My argument is that it’s a train – you can add more cars. Their counter-argument is that Union Station can’t handle a larger train or bicycles. My counter-argument is that there are stations on the way and close by, like Exhibition Place, that would accommodate this – the great thing about bicycles is that you can travel to places on them. Obviously, my pleas for reason have been in vain – at least to the transit cop I was arguing with who was busting a kid for bringing his ten speed on the train. When I last saw him, they had pulled him off the train and there were about eight of these “special constables” surrounding this scared teenager. It really broke my heart and opened my eyes that there are interests out there that don’t want things to improve and be more efficient because they are making a living off of the way things are now.

Another immediate improvement would be to equalize the payment on GO Transit so it’s the same all over the system, just like any other public transportation system such as the TTC or the HSR. This would help make it more affordable for Hamiltonians and people in Oakville can pay their fair share. This argument usually ends with the other person giving me a look like I’ve got a tentacle growing out of my forehead.

What has this got to do with my shoulder condition?

So I would commute every work day. It was during this time of living barely paycheque-to-paycheque (but with a very nice job title) that my right shoulder started to hurt. I am a big guy, about 6’4″, so fitting into these little seats built for a shorter brand of human meant I would always be “hunched up”, especially with the masses of people who crowd onto the train along the way and back from Toronto.  I didn’t know about my shoulder condition at that time, so decided to tough it out. My job meant long hours hunched over a computer at work and then long hours at the computer at home (usually when I got back at 8pm) trying to keep up with my own work. Eventually, my back gave out a couple of times and I tried going to physio (quickly ate through my meager health insurance) and exercising but honestly I was so tired all the time. I could hardly function most times.

At the end I could feel my whole arm starting to go. If I reached behind me, or up, a lightening bolt of pain would shoot up from my shoulder and my arm would tingle, go numb, and swell a little bit. I thought this was normal, as I had been experiencing less sever pain in my arms and shoulders throughout my life. It’s kinda funny – I’m experiencing pain doing a certain range of movements so everyone must experience the same thing right? I remember thinking everytime I would have to reach back in the car or up to get something, or even paint or draw on an easel, about the Princess Bride movie where Wesley says “Life is Pain“.

After almost two years I just couldn’t do it anymore. I just couldn’t physically handle the demand, and was too financially impoverished to be able to move closer to downtown Toronto. Without another job lined up closer to where I live, or any other work lined up, I quit. I remember reaching up from my chair to hug a co-worker goodbye and almost cried out from the pain in my arm and shoulder. I couldn’t bear the pain of people bumping into me during the morning commute and the agony of holding onto something because of heavy footed bus and streetcar drivers.

I figured rest would heal my back and shoulders. Lord knows I couldn’t afford massage or physiotherapy, and didn’t have a doctor to go see, but I was sure I would get better sooner than later and be back to painting and drawing. I was wrong.

More to come… in the meantime, please enjoy the below stills from a video of one of my commutes (January 13th, 2012 I believe). This is the shared landscape we have in common, and in turn informs each one of us of the world we live in and the priorities of our communities. Any of this look familiar?

*Adaptation in subtitle is from “Life is … nasty, brutish and short” via Thomas Hobbs but you probably knew that already. But at least you scrolled through the commute pictures – thank you!

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