When visiting Toronto, should you be using public transportation, including the subway rather than a rental car? After all, it’s among the most congested cities not only in North America but across the globe. While it’s certainly convenient to get a car rental at the airport, you might have a better experience by using mass transit, like the subway and streetcars. If that’s not enough to convince you, do you know how much you might have to pay at parking garages and your hotel? In case you want to save money while leaving a smaller carbon footprint, learn how you use Toronto’s public transportation.
TTC: Toronto’s Main Public Transportation System
In operation for over 100 years, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is the main public agency that oversees the mass transportation in Canada’s largest city. Today, the TTC is among the busiest public transportation systems in North America, with an annual ridership of nearly 580 million. In comparison, that figure is more than double that of Chicago’s CTA. Despite this, the TTC operates just four subway lines compared to Chicago’s eight lines and 36 in New York. However, the TTC also maintains 11 streetcar lines and nearly 200 bus routes. With this in mind, you should be capable of seeing everything you want to see with the subway and streetcars. It’s also important to note that Toronto’s public transportation is among the safest in the world.
Toronto has not one but two major public transportation systems operating in the city. However, GO Transit covers a much broader area while linking other cities in what’s called the Golden Horseshoe region. For instance, you can take a regional train from Toronto’s Union Station to Canadian cities like Hamilton and Niagara Falls. While GO Transit is an option to visit other cities within the Greater Toronto area, you probably won’t have to use this system. That is, of course unless you need transportation from the airport. On the other hand, it’s a nice and affordable option if you wish to visit Niagara Falls. GO Transit is operated by the government of Ontario while the TTC is operated by the city.
Union Pearson Express (UP Express/UPX)
In order to reach the heart of downtown Toronto, you can forget a rental car and take the UP Express. This train service is operated by Metrolinx, the public transportation agency that also oversees GO Transit. Metrolinx is also responsible for the PRESTO card, with information available in the Fare section. As for the, UP Express, you can pay for a single ride or roundtrip (return) online, making it easy to catch a ride into the city.
Fares for TTC
While public transit is an excellent option to a car rental, the fares are among the world’s most expensive. What’s more, locals say the service is often unreliable, even though the subway is ranked in a tie with New York as North America’s most efficient. Despite all this, getting around Toronto with public transportation, particularly the subway, is your best option.
There are different fares for different age groups and types of tickets. The basic fare for a single ride for those paying with cash is $3.35 for adults, $2.40 and $2.30 for travelers 65 and over. Please note that these rates are in Canadian dollars, therefore your fare is lower if you use U.S. dollars. For example, it would be $2.50, $1.79 and $1.71 in American dollars. The other types of fares to understand is with a PRESTO card, which is 5 cents Canadian less for each type of fare. As for day passes, you can only purchase a $13.50 day pass with a PRESO card and unfortunately, there is no discount for youths or those 65 and over. Fortunately, if you convert to U.S. dollars, $10.06 is a bit more affordable.
If you have to be a connection, say from a subway to a streetcar, you can use a transfer without having to pay an extra fare. If you pay by case, you can ask for a paper transfer. Similarly, you can get a transfer using the recommended PRESTO card, which automatically issues you a transfer should you need it. You can transfer multiple times within a two hour period.
Instead of paying cash each time you board a TTC bus, subway or streetcar, use the PRESTO card. This is a card that you can add fare and tap through turnstiles or as you board. This type of contactless payment system is similar to what you might find in New York, London or other major cities. However, you can’t purchase a PRESTO card or add fare online unless you live in Canada. Instead, you obtain one at a fare/ticket vending machine, retail stores like Shoppers Drug Mart or customer service outlets. One last note, as of August 8, the cost of a PRESTO card is $4 down from $6. Incidentally, the PRESTO card is valid on all 11 public transportation agencies in the Greater Toronto Area, as well as the Hamilton Area and Ottawa.
Accessibility on Toronto Public Transportation
According to the latest information from the TTC, all buses and streetcars are fully accessible for wheelchairs and scooters. On the other hand, more than half of the subway stations are accessible. For example, the Line 1 route, the King and College stations are not accessible. As for the Line 2 route, the Christie station is not accessible. You can determine which subway stations are accessible by visiting TTC’s routes and schedules link. Once you access this link, you can visit a particular subway line with accessible stations indicated with the International Symbol of Access. Above all, you should visit the TTC link on accessibility for the most complete and up to date information.
GO Transit Accessibility
Like TTC and all other public transportation systems operating in the Greater Toronto Area, GO Transit has a commitment to provide accessible service to all of its customers. Because GO Transit trains serve destinations beyond downtown, you might not have to use this service. However, Go Transit at Union Station is fully accessible. Please visit the GO Transit page on accessible services for complete details.
Understanding the Subway System
In order to better help you to get around Toronto, you’ll just need to understand the subway and streetcar systems. That’s because in most cases, you shouldn’t have to use a bus unless you have a specific spot that’s not served by either the subway or streetcar. In the first place, you shouldn’t have to use all four of TTC’s subway lines. Instead, you’ll only have to remember the 1 line (yellow) and possibly the 2 line (green). That’s because the other two (3 and 4) serve outlying areas of the city. As such, the purpose of this guide is to focus on the main part of the city. The next step is to look and understand how to read a subway map.
How to Read Toronto’s Subway Map
Because there are only four subway lines, reading a subway map is far easier in Toronto than other systems like New York, Paris or London. Therefore, the first recommendation for you is to familiarize yourself with the color-coded routes and its beginning and ending points. Then decide what attractions or destinations you wish to visit. For example, if you’re at Union Station and you want to go to the Royal Ontario Museum, how would you get there? By comparing the subway map to Google Maps, you can see that the yellow Line 1 makes a direction connection. However, to take Line 1 in the correct direction, you must know the ending point. In this case it would Vaughn. But you would just leave the subway at the Museum station, rather than go to Vaughn at the end of the line.
If you’re at Casa Loma castle and you now want to visit CF Toronto Eaton Centre? First you would compare the subway map to a GPS map such as Google Maps. Then you can see that you can walk 700 meters to the Dupont station to take Line 1. From the Dupont station you would take Line 1 in the direction of Finch but get off at the Queen station.
Note: If you’re still having trouble understanding your route directions, there are many mobile apps available. This includes Google or Apple Maps, Moovit, Rome2Rio and Transit app. Of course, there are local apps to consider like TTC Watch and Safe TTC.
Sample Attractions Along Toronto Subway Lines
CF Eaton Centre, Toronto Metropolitan University, Yonge-Dundas Square,
CF Eaton Centre, Massey Hall, Nathan Philips Square, New City Hall, Old City Hall, St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica, Toronto Metropolitan University, Yonge-Dundas Square
Queens Park Station
Toronto Police Museum, Queens Park, University of Toronto
St. Andrew Station
David Pecaut Square, Roy Thomson Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music, Royal Ontario Museum, University of Toronto
Air Canada Centre, CN Tower, Distillery District, Hockey Hall of Fame, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, Rogers Centre, Scotiabank Area, St. Lawrence Market
Understanding the Streetcar (Tram) System
Streetcars have been around Toronto much longer than the subway system. In fact, it’s been operating in the city since the late 19th century while the subway opened in 1954. While you might be able to get by with just taking the Line 1 subway line, you might find the streetcars useful as well. Of the 11 streetcar lines, you might find routes 501, 504, 505 and 510 useful.
Reading the Streetcar Map
When you look at the streetcar map, you’ll notice that all lines are color-coded in red. Moreover, all but one route lies south of the 2 Green Line, in the heart of downtown Toronto.
Extending 24.6 km or over 15 miles, Route 501 Queen is the longest streetcar operating in North America. It’s also been mentioned among the world’s top 10 trolley routes by National Geographic. However, the focus will be the east-west portion that serves only the downtown section. Traveling along Queen Street, Route 501 connects with the Line 1 subway at Dundas, Osgoode. Queen and St. Patric stations. In addition, the tram makes stops near attractions like Osgoode Hall, City Hall and Yonge-Dundas Square.
Route 504 is another streetcar line that runs east-west along King Street, south of Route 501. This second streetcar line serves the King and St. Andrew stations, as well as notable attractions. For instance, the Hockey Hall of Fame is just two blocks away as is the Metro Toronto Convention Center. Also close to a tram stop are St. Lawrence Market and Gooderham Building, also known as the flatiron building.
Yet another route that travels east-west or vice versa is Route 505. This streetcar line stands out because it serves two very popular downtown neighborhoods. Most importantly, it passes through Chinatown and the Kensington Market neighborhoods. What’s more, the tram also travels past the Art Gallery of Ontario and near Little Italy. Of course, because it runs along Dundas Street, it makes stops in bustling Yonge-Dundas Square.
This route travels in a north-south direction and runs primarily west of the Route 1 subway line. On the lower end, 510 makes a convenient stop at the Rogers Centre, the home ballpark of the Toronto Blue Jays. As it travels northward, it passes near Kensington Market and the University of Toronto. In addition, this tram makes a connection at the Spadina subway station, on the Line 2. From there, you can connect to Line 1 on the next stop eastbound at the St. George Station.
Attractions Not Served by Subway or Streetcar
Of the many attractions in Toronto, two are not served by either the subway or streetcar. These two are the Ontario Science Center and Toronto Zoo, which are both outside of the downtown area. However, if you want to visit either, it’s still possible with a TTC or GO bus and likely a transfer from a GO train, TTC streetcar or subway. For example, you can take TTC route 72 from Union Station and transfer to 25B to the Science Center. As for the Zoo, you can take the GO Lakeshore East train and transfer at Rouge Hill to TTC route 200. While the intent of this guide is to focus primarily in the downtown area, you might want to see these attractions.
Bonus Attraction: Niagara Falls
If this is your first visit to Toronto, you also might be interested in taking a trip to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Sure, it’t not downtown, but it’s one of the most famous landmarks in North America and its largest by width and volume. While there are many full day tours available, you can save time and money with public transportation. Among the transportation services operating to and from Toronto to Niagara Falls are FlixBus, GO Transit, Megabus and VIA Rail Canada. The bus operators offer the cheapest rates and surprisingly is the fastest. However GO Trains from Union Station is another great option. However, you might have to transfer to another train before you arrive at the Niagara Falls bus and train station. On the other hand, you can combine a roundtrip ticket with the WEGO bus service in Niagara Falls. Of course, you can also walk about 30 minutes to the Falls and additional local attractions.
About the Author
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer who served as the National Travel Writer for CBS from 2012-2019. More than 900 stories still appear in syndication across over 20 CBS websites, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. During his peak years with CBS, Randy had a digital audience reach of 489 million and 5.5 million monthly visitors. Additionally, his stories have appeared in the Daily Meal, CBS News, CBS Radio, Engadget, NBC.com, NJ.com and Radio.com. He earned a Media Fellowship from Stanford University in 2012. Randy has nearly 25 years of experience in the transportation industry.