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So you Want to Commute to Toronto!

author: Orland French  illustrator: Carl Wiens  

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Moving out of the big smoke has a certain caché but the question is, just how do you manage it

OKAY, YOU’VE SPENT A WEEKEND ON A BRIEF VACATION east of Toronto and you have experienced a weird welling-up of discovery inside you. You’ve found Shangri-la, a place of permanent peace and happiness seemingly sheltered from the outside world. It’s all there. Beautiful rolling hills with magnificent vistas overlooking one of the world’s greatest lakes. Miles of gorgeous golden beaches stretching to infinity under the blazing sun in an azure sky. Heritage houses galore, waiting for the loving touch of your hammer and paint brush. A place where you can sit on the verandah bench of a village store, savour a two-scoop ice cream cone and let your mind wander into dreams of rural living. The brown town dog saunters over, drools on your shoe and curls up to sleep at your feet.

What a place to raise the kids. What a place for retirement. What a place to spend the rest of your days.

And the prices, my gosh, the prices. You could sell your mini-cube condo in downtown TO and live like royalty amid the birds and the bees on your own personal estate in the Eden of Ontario.

But wait. There was a snake in the Garden of Eden, remember? Later on, during the drive back to the city, as traffic piles up and you’re crawling along the 401, you begin to have doubts. Then Mr. Serpent will come slithering into your consciousness and tempt you with the apple of foolish pride: “Sure, you can do it. Thousands of others do. Why not you?

And he’s right. They do. They do it by rail or by car for up to two hours or more each way and they are, for the most part, happy with the trade-offs. Some stay at home, commuting through the Internet, getting to work as quickly as it takes to walk from the bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen coffee maker to the office.

Here’s how Don Roger describes his commuting day. He’s a lawyer who has trundled the rails from his home north of Cobourg to his office in downtown Toronto for the last 22 years:

“In the morning I drive 10-12 minutes from north of Cobourg to the VIA train departing at 6:59 am, spend 75-85 minutes on the train, and walk 10 minutes to my office (stopping for a Starbucks on the way). In the evening I usually leave my office at 5:30 pm to catch the 5:40 VIA train arriving in Cobourg at 6:50 pm and get home about 7:05-7:10 pm. Total commuting time (per day) is about 3.5 hours.” This is a typical description of a rail commute. Brigitte Hogarth is a Tuesday-to-Thursday commuter, spending her Monday and Friday working hours at home. She is employed at Butterfield & Robinson, the vacation travel people, at their office on Bond Street near the Eaton Centre. On pleasant days she can walk to Union Station in 15 minutes or so, or maybe a little longer on rainy days through the subterranean malls of downtown Toronto’s underground city. Her estimated commute costs are about $30 a day, or $360-$400 a month.

Her commute from her home on the outskirts of Cobourg is approximately 90 minutes, about the limit of her tolerance level. “Two hours a day would be too much,” she says.

Various studies show that the average commuting time in the world, in major cities, is roughly 70-75 minutes. By those standards, Cobourg and North - umber land are near the outer limits of patience for people commuting to downtown Toronto. Still, there are people who spend much more time travelling to work in Toronto. Every weekday morning, a hardy group of anywhere from 20 to 50 commuters gathers on the platform of the Belleville station at 6:14 am to greet VIA train 651 as it glides in from Kingston. It’s a two-and-a-quarter hour run to Toronto, plus travel time at both ends of the trip. Probably three hours or more altogether. The last train home leaves TO at 6:40, meaning they will get home about 10 pm, maybe have a late meal, fall into bed to catch some sleep before arising again at 5 am.

For this kind of demanding routine, there has to be a trade-off. Here’s how Don Roger describes his: “I get the benefit of working in a rewarding professional environment with access to the city life during the day, and still enjoy a more bucolic, comfortable, less hurried existence in a smaller community with plenty of interaction with friends. We eat very well and enjoy good cooking as part of our daily life – for the most part it is better food than you get in most Toronto restaurants.”

Moving to the country is a big decision. It’s more than a tallying of dollars and cents. Sometimes it is precipitated by a soul-shaking personal event. For Don Roger, it was a divorce. “My new partner was not enamoured with Toronto. We fell in love with a heritage home in Port Hope built in 1829, so we moved.”

Brigitte Hogarth is well aware of the benefits of country living. Houses are cheaper and you get more house for your dollar, the air is cleaner, there is never a rush hour, there’s no hustle and bustle, there’s lots of space on the road, and if you want to work at home you can do it. The only difference is the length of the wire from your computer to your employer’s mainframe.

Brigitte and her husband Dennis lived in Toronto until they were posted to the Netherlands. Dennis was a partner in KPMG and went overseas in 1994 to oversee the establishment of his firm’s first global technology group. His specialty is risk management. When the couple returned to Canada in 1999, they decided the big city no longer held any charms for them.

If you’re a community-minded kind of person, you might wonder how you can become involved in your neighbourhood if you spend three hours a day on the road. Well, it hasn’t discouraged Dennis Hogarth. He’s treasurer of the Port Hope Branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, trustee of the Capitol Theatre Endowment Trust Foundation and is a member of risk and audit committees of the Port Hope Community Health Centre.

For some commuters, the dream job in Toronto balances the dream retreat in the country, and they will spend a lifetime bridging the gulf between the two. Gary Pattison loves the country store he and his wife Lillian Oakley-Pattison operate in northern Hastings County, but he also loves his jobs in Toronto, where he is principal horn for the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra and second horn for the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra.

Skilled musicians do not give up those kinds of jobs easily. From home to Toronto it’s a three-hour drive, longer if there’s snow, but he’s been doing it for 31 years two or three times a week. He has an apartment in Toronto to give him shelter in the big city.

The practicality of a daily commute to Toronto peters out somewhere east of Cobourg. It’s possible, but it eats up a great deal of your life. Municipalities just beyond easy commuting distance to Toronto play up their attractiveness as an alternative place to live – always mindful of the fact that you’re living “two hours from Toronto” (a bit of a stretch). The trick is to reverse your thinking. Instead of wondering how you can keep your TO job and live in paradise, you simply decide you ARE going to live in paradise and find ways to make it work. Your lifestyle defines your work, not the other way around.

So it was for Richard Johnston – he thought. Currently he and his wife Vida operate a winery called By Chadsey’s Cairns near Wellington, Prince Edward County, but followers of Ontario politics may remember him as the MPP for Scarborough West and a contender for the leadership of the provincial New Democratic Party in the 1980s. When a heart attack knocked him down in 1984, he decided he had had enough of politics.

Raised on a farm near Peterborough, he had always wanted to return to rural living. After politics, the road to the country wove its way through academia and led to the presidency of the First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI) on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory east of Belleville. Here was his opportunity. He and Vida bought a 250-acre farm near the south shore of Prince Edward County. Grapes and vines and wines were nowhere in his head until the FNTI relationship dissolved. Now he was faced with the classic professional’s dilemma: stranded in a beautiful house in the country with no means to support it.

“There was not much possibility of finding a way to make a living here,” he says. Then Centennial College in Scarborough offered him the presidency. He accepted on condition that the post would be temporary and he did not need to move from the County. The same year he accepted the presidency, he planted 20 acres of grapevines.

The winery is now up for sale and Richard, 71, is more than ready to retire. He knows exactly where he’s going: to a little stone cottage in the village of Lonsdale, northeast of Belleville, miles away from the Ontario Legislature, academia and grapevines. Usually new entrepreneurs are younger. Check out the website for the County of Hastings and you’ll find a section titled “I Left the City”. It’s a collection of filmed interviews with 30-ish entrepreneurs who have started an odd collection of enterprises in the small towns and rural communities of eastern Ontario. Alysha Dominico and her partner operate a company called Tangible Words. It’s a marketing consulting company, similar to one they had owned in Melbourne, Australia. But the two Canadians decided to return to their native land and open a new business here. Unable to choose between locating in Toronto or in Ottawa, they chose a lakeside cottage north of Belleville. To their delight, the company works quite well from the lakeside. Through the Internet their clients can be anywhere – and they have no plans to move elsewhere.

Kasey Rogerson, tourism development co-ordinator for the County of Hastings, says the county gears its entrepreneurial appeal to people who have perhaps grown up in the area and gone to the city to gain experience. Now in their 40s or 50s, they want to return to their roots and spend their lives in a quieter rural neighbourhood. “Early retirees are among them, looking for easier work to do and maybe opportunities to do volunteer work.”

Hastings is still relatively unknown to Metro dwellers because it has not enjoyed as much media publicity as has been bestowed on Prince Edward County. The vineyards and sunny beaches of the County have sparked numerous Toronto media stories, and the County in return is trying to build on them to attract “small-scale entrepreneurs and creative economy-based businesses.”

There’s a slew of them in the County, trying to cash in on the area’s new-found popularity with tourists. One of them, for example, is Pyramid Ferments. “Go with your gut!” is the slogan of this home-brewed business that makes fermented foods and beverages such as sauerkrauts, kimchis and kombuchas. The unusual line is produced by Jenna Empey and Alex Currie, a couple of musicians who got tired of trying to make a buck on music in Nova Scotia. Empey discovered she had a knack for producing fermented foods, probably inherited from her Ukrainian relatives. They opened their store at Northport, and this year were deeply involved in the inaugural Ontario Fermentation Festival in Picton in August. The company seems a natural fit for a county whose economic base has always relied on agriculture. The word “pyramid” in the name is a reference to the legendary power of the pyramid, although Jenna Empey was entirely unfamiliar with coach Red Kelly’s attempt to use pyramid power to push the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup in 1976. That’s a Toronto story for another day.

Eventually you may tire of the Toronto connection and make the break. You’ll need some professional help and realtors have learned to gauge the interests of newcomers. Port Hope realtor Lee Caswell is knowledgeable about what he calls “historic classic homes.” His interest stretches beyond the commissions paid on expensive houses: he has restored a number of historic homes in Port Hope, served on the board of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and has been deeply involved with the Canadian Antique Dealers Association.

He sees two types of clients: one consists of those who are looking for modern suburban-style houses who have jobs in Bowmanville and other points between Port Hope and Toronto, and want to take advantage of cheaper prices in Northumberland. The others are older, more mature, affluent Torontonians who are retired, or nearing retirement, and are looking for a more leisurely life in an older historic or heritage building. They used to be fixer-uppers, people who would invest in an older property that needed tender loving care. “Now they say, ‘we don’t mind doing one or two projects but we don’t want to do a total renovation’,” says Caswell.

If you are not quite ready to sever your link to the Toronto world, you may be able to work at home. Who needs a car, or a train, when you can commute through the Internet? Many companies are already expecting this from senior employees or partners. In fact, some work-at-home staffers don’t even have a regular slot at “the office”. They get a shared space that is available to them only on Tuesday, say, or Thursday.

If working at home is part of your plan, be careful of where you are locating. Towns and villages are well served by the Internet, but there are pockets of rural land here and there where the internet has not yet replaced the carrier pigeon. In some rural areas, the capacity is so slow you might think you were back in the days of modems. We are not yet a completely wired world.

If you want to appear professional while working from home, look after the little details. A caller may not be able to see the stacks of dishes in the sink and the pizza crusts on your office desk/kitchen table, but he sure can hear the hollers of a little kid who falls on his face during mommy’s critical sales pitch (as happened when the author was preparing this article).

Keep in mind that the idyllic nature of your new neighbourhood is not static. Be prepared for change. If you are, say, 50 years old, you will likely see major changes over the next 20 years as the economic forecast for Northumberland predicts a population growth rate of as much as 40 percent in that time. This could mean that the quiet little country village where you bought the lovely heritage home in the hills could become another sprawling rural suburb with an historic heart.

It has already happened in the rural areas west and north of Toronto.

Dan Borowec, Director of Economic Development and Tourism for Northumberland, describes his county as “frontier country”. This means it is just beginning to be affected by the shadow of the Greater Toronto Area expanding across central Ontario. And little towns are being affected. A 300- home suburb has just been confirmed for Colborne, for instance. That’s not much in Toronto terms but for Colborne (pop. 6,073), that could represent another 1,200 people, a 20 percent growth. The same thing is happening in Picton, (pop. 4,487), in Prince Edward County, where shovels are set to break ground for a 300-home development next spring.

West of Metro this has already happened. The Niagara Peninsula, south and central Ontario and the Lake Simcoe area are filled with once-upon-a-time quaint small towns that have become bedroom suburbs of Toronto. If Cobourg were west of Toronto, it would probably be a Milton or a Guelph, its historic core surrounded by modern suburbs.

Year by year, the shadow of the GTA creeps ever closer. This year another seven-kilometre section of the 401 at Cobourg has expanded from four to six lanes, easing traffic slightly and bringing Toronto a minute or two closer to home. Within three years, Highway 407 will be linked to Highway 115, with connections (412 and 418) to Highway 401, enticing more people who work in the northern part of the GTA to move to Durham and Northumberland.

Here’s some quick advice before you decide: Do some trial runs on the train and on the highway. Do it for a week to see if you really want this for a permanent lifestyle. Visit the municipal planning office to see what housing developments are planned. Check out the Internet service in your area.

If everything’s a go, the decision is up to you. Yes, commuting is possible. Thousands of people prove it every day, and claim they are happy with the trade-off. But you’ll only know if you try it, as the serpent said to Eve.

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carl wiens

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meghan sheffield

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Meghan is a Cobourg writer, web producer and social media manager....

norm wagenaar

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