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Four Toronto universities join forces in major student transit survey

Student commutes have city-wide implications, university presidents say

President Meric Gertler with U of T students Aqsa Malik and Cyntia Kocan (photo by Johnny Guatto)

Aqsa Malik and Cyntia Kocan barely know each other but have something in common – the miserable commute they have to endure to get to U of T for classes.

Malik and Kocan joined 200 university students at a symposium on public transit in Council Chambers at Toronto City Hall on Sept. 21. The event was organized by StudentMoveTO, a joint initiative of the University of Toronto, York University, Ryerson University and OCAD University.

The two U of T students were among five asked to represent the views of their colleagues, who not only filled the seats of city councillors but took up most of the space in the public gallery. They submitted written questions to representatives of public transit agencies in the GTA.

Malik, in her first year of a master’s program in science and urban geography, told the audience it takes her an hour and a half to get to St. George campus from Markham – a span of time that does not include “the 20 minutes it takes for someone in my family to drop me off at the subway station.” Even small improvements like bicycle posts at the station would help, allowing her to cycle and leave her bike there during the day.

Kocan, in her final year in urban studies, human geography and mapping at the St. George campus, said her commute could be 45 minutes from Thorncliffe but is often two hours because of TTC service disruptions. She said improvements would include bus shelters where people could remain safe and dry.

Both women have to prepare in advance, bringing food and other supplies in case they end up spending extra hours getting to and from class.

Officials from all four Toronto universities attended the session.

Toronto City Hall

U of T President Meric Gertler explained that the presidents have been meeting for the past couple of years to discuss how to make progress on the challenges that all four institutions confront. “It didn’t take us long to converge on transportation within the city and the Greater Toronto Area as an obvious place to start,” he said.

This decision led to the formation of StudentMoveTO and to the announcement during the symposium that a major transit survey is about to be launched. Every university student in Toronto will be emailed a questionnaire on travel experiences. The data will be unprecedented and will result in concrete actions, the organizers say.

There are more than 180,000 students enrolled in the four universities, Gertler said, plus 310,000 at the various colleges in the GTA. Three-quarters of U of T students commute, often taking more an hour to get to school.

“This is a bit of a problem,” Gertler said, “a problem for them, because it’s often soul-destroying, given the kind of arduous journey that they have to endure.”

He continued: “Every minute they’re spending in transit going to or from one of our campuses is time they cannot spend on their studies or engaging in life on one of our campuses. So it has a direct impact on the student experience, something we feel acutely.”

At a time when key decisions are being made about long-term transit plans “it is vitally important for the daily travel experiences and needs of our students be properly represented in the planning process,” Gertler said. The goals of the four universities are to improve the transit needs of their students, “but also improve the quality of life in this region that we call home.”

Sara Diamond, president of OCAD University, cited affordability as another major challenge for students. More bike paths and even the ability to walk freely and safely in the city are options that make transit more affordable, she said.

“It is important to understand that student issues resonate for other low-income groups, so the kinds of approaches that we develop will have an impact far beyond the student population,” Diamond added. York President Mamdouh Shoukri and Ryerson Provost Mohamed Lachemi also spoke to the students.

Student transit is just the first of several issues the universities will be collaborating on, Diamond said. The next is affordable housing. The institutions are already working together on bringing Syrian refugees to Canada. (Read more about the Lifeline Syria Challenge collaboration)