Friday, April 12, 2024

TTC: A bad ex

Beautifully awful design

For Laili,

Art is in everything and often the best design choices are ones that the end user would never even think about. Other times they slap you in the face, hard.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) chose the latter. I’m sure there are some excellent design aspects that I am missing and some clever designer is cackling with glee somewhere that their work has gone unnoticed. 

I romanticize the hell out of the TTC, it’s the lifeblood of Toronto. It was how I explored the city, it’s the reason I never wanted a car and it was a rite of passage to be allowed to ride on it alone. 

When I hopped back on the subway trains while visiting family over the holidays, all those lovely memories went out the window. A voice came on over the intercom asking passengers not to walk on the tracks as there was a fine and it was dangerous. 

I began to notice other unpleasant things. The posters that had always been interesting eye candy when I was little were now scribbled over, ripped and faded. The magic had disappeared in a way that was rather heartbreaking.

It was all rather Gotham-esque.

I was not so nostalgic during my visit as to forget the crackheads, stabbings and suspicious stains on the seats. But that was all part of the grunge, the reason why people are from the GTA, Toronto or torono. It’s a rite of passage for Torontonians to use the TTC without clutching pearls. Nonetheless, I was overcome with a sense of the decrepit. 

It was a similar feeling to reading“the TTC cares” on one poster and something like “My daddy drives the TTC, please don’t stab him,” with a picture of a smiling little girl on the one next to it.

Hard realities are hard to design over. I have yet to hear of a subway system that doesn’t have an ugly underbelly, and I wonder if, perhaps, that’s OK. Would it really be such an awful thing to ride on a subway system that reflects the challenges its riders face every day?

That edge was always part of the fun of the TTC, why it was special. There’s more character in those tunnels than in most parts of the city. 

The magic of a proper urban dystopia is hidden in the nooks and crannies. Urban planners call it the “urban periphery,” the bits that aren’t in the tourist brochures or the main streets, but are where the cool grunge kids hang out. 

In any major city, there’s a “wrong side of the tracks,” which is looked down on by the wealthier citizens of the area. These neighbourhoods tend to be home to marginalized communities, with factors like redlining, the violence perpetuated during the War on Drugs and just generally fewer opportunities creating systematically disadvantaged communities. 


An author I enjoy tremendously, Cory Doctorow once wrote: “Never underestimate the determination of a kid who is time-rich and cash-poor.” Yeah, maybe they become nefarious but that seems so pessimistic to me. Instead, I think they find the nooks and crannies. 

These nooks and crannies are down alleys, in basements and hiding in shared apartments. They look like jazz jams, art school kids doing whippets around a bonfire or a tattoo/music studio hidden down an alley where you worry about having your esophagus stolen. To the cool kids this will all sound extremely pedestrian, but, for us mere mortals, it’s a bizarre and fascinating experience. 

Like the rest of the city, the TTC has its nooks and crannies

On the one hand, there’s a cheery woman’s voice on the intercom gently reminding you not to brutally turn yourself into pink mist, a dude lighting up his pipe beside the entrance and a different dude getting a handjob at the back of the train at 1 a.m. 

On the other hand, the stations have different design aesthetics based on their names (Museum, St. Patrick’s and Union come to mind), musicians are playing some of the most haunting tunes I’ve ever encountered and there are the Sketching The Line art pieces. 

The TTC won’t hit you (unless you get lost on the tracks). She might mock and belittle you, but the odds are extremely low that she will physically hurt you. I find myself coming back to her, each time initially repulsed by how badly put together she is but then seeing the delicate underside. 

I know it’s just the TTC, but she’s mine and I can’t get over her no matter how hard I try. 


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