Inside PATH, the 30km network of walkways, tunnels and malls beneath Toronto

Oooh, shiny: a map of the PATH network. Image: Samuel Horti.

Since moving to Toronto nine months ago, I’ve found serendipity hard to come by. I’m only here for two years, so if I’m going out to eat, or grab a coffee, or meet a friend, I’ll look up endless lists of the ten best restaurants or pubs in the area, trying to make sure no trip is wasted. I plan my journey door-to-door using local transport app My TTC, leave my flat so that I’ll arrive at the bus stop just as it pulls up, and, when I hop off again, I walk the route I’ve memorised, head down.

But Toronto’s PATH system – a network of tunnels and walkways beneath the city’s Downtown – remains an enigma. It stretches for 30km in total, and each section is like a mini shopping centre, with restaurants and shops piling in from all sides. I never fail to get lost when I dip in, losing all sense of direction in its many food courts and courtyards, most of which look the same.

An extract from the official PATH map. Click to expand.

The hundreds of thousands of dollars the city spent this year on a new “wayfinding system” – basically signs and maps – haven’t helped me much, but that’s probably because I’m happy to ignore any guidance and just wander. The independent hole-in-the-wall coffee shop or the one-man tailor’s you can find in some of its passages would be unremarkable above ground, but there’s something pleasing about coming across them in this confined space, not knowing they’re there until you turn the corner.

I know that can’t last. Learning how to navigate it will be useful in summer, when its air-conditioning calls people down from the streets above, and after a wrong turn made me late to meet a friend last month, I decided it was time to get my bearings. I set aside a day to plod its tunnels and get a feel for what sort of place it really is.

Two minutes in, I’m lost. I start at Union Station, to the south of Downtown, with the aim of swinging past the Hockey Hall of Fame to the east on the way to Commerce Court. On the map it’s a straight-line path that shoots directly from the station, but I can’t find it after 10 minutes of searching. (It later turns out that it’s unhelpfully through a door marked ‘Exit’.)

Instead I walk up the PATH’s centre, towards the Toronto-Dominion Centre. To the left is a passage to the Fairmont Royal York hotel, one of the fanciest in the city. The Royal Family stay there when they visit. It’s one of the oldest parts of the PATH system, built in 1927 after the hotel sprung up, and at that time there were just a handful of tunnels under the city, the first built in 1900. The downtown grid wasn’t filled out until the 1970s and 1980s, and it’s still expanding today: in 2011 local government revealed plans that would see the PATH’s footprint double in size long-term.

Not two minutes from the hotel, a long escalator runs down to a food court, adjoining a doctor’s and dentist’s surgery. The network, I find as I walk around, is full of offshoots that don’t tell you where they’re leading, presumably untouched by the new “wayfinding system”. The only way to find out is to explore, and I’m rewarded by, on separate occasions, an art studio, a chaplaincy, and a shoe-shine stand.

The presence of a doctor’s surgery, one of many in the PATH, might seem surprising, but it makes sense when you consider the hundreds of thousands of people that pass through here every day. Most of the city’s largest office buildings link into the PATH, as do the subway stops in the downtown core. That means that, in the cold winters (and it was a real whiteout this year), a lot of people don’t even venture outside. They drive to a station, get on the subway or train, and don’t get off public transport until they’re in the PATH. They walk undercover to their building lobbies, go straight up to their office, and only appear again for lunch, which they buy in one of the many food courts below.

Because those people never leave, they attract foot clinics and gyms, opticians and pharmacies, dry cleaners and newsagents. Nobody can say that the PATH has a neighbourhood feel, but the presence of businesses you might expect on high streets makes it at least more interesting than most shopping centres I’ve been to. And it has a few more major points of interest along the way, too: I walk to the western extreme and take a long escalator up to the CBC broadcast studios, where Will and Kate are smiling on a big screen with their new baby, and a few people watch from the comfy chairs in the lofty atrium.

 

And then there’s the food, which you can’t get away from. Smoothie shops, upmarket wine bars, dine-in pubs, donut stalls, Scandinavian bakeries, bubble tea counters – they’re all here. Most of the places are forgettable chains like Jimmy the Greek or Tim Hortons, but there are enough quality shops to make coming down here for lunch a worthwhile trip on its own.

A lot of it is down to the active management of landlord Oxford Properties: in 2015, for example, it tempted one of the top patisseries in the city, Nadège, to open a branch here, despite PATH not having previously been on the retailer’s radar. Gourmet grocer McEwan, which is packed when I visit, opened in the same year as the second branch of the store from celebrity chef Mark McEwan. The PATH also links into Assembly Chef’s Hall, a new venture that houses smaller versions of some of the city’s most celebrated restaurants like Khao San Road (Thai, and delicious) and Cherry Street Barbeque. In other words, you can get much better food here than you can in a regular shopping centre.

For the most part, the PATH is a sterile place of polished white marble and bright lights, but it’s just about makeshift enough to avoid being completely dull. There are sections where you have to ride an escalator down to a walkway with wooden boards on either side, only to ride another up again thirty seconds later. Later on, I have to cross the bottom floor of a multi-storey car park to stay in the network, and at another junction I’m forced to pop my head above ground to circumvent a closed section.

I work my way from the west to the north, under the Eaton Centre, the largest mall in Toronto. It feels like an extension of what’s above, with luggage shops adjoining tourist traps selling bottles of maple syrup. My legs ache, and the prospect of getting stuck behind a group of slow shoppers makes me turn back south, and head for home. I get lost again when I try to find the Bay Adelaide Centre – but this time the “wayfinding system” saves me with an interactive map that tells me where I need to go, and even directs me to a coffee shop I’ve been meaning to try.


At the end of my walk, I’m staring at another map, trying to figure out how to get back to Union Station. “Do you want some help there, sir?” a security guard asks. Very helpful, but I really don’t. I’m sure the PATH will lose some of its charm as I spend more time here, and for the thousands of people that pad under the streets of Toronto every day it probably seems as familiar as their front room.

I know I should take the time to learn the best routes before summer sets in, but for now it remains an indecipherable rabbit warren. And that’s just the way I like it.

All images author provided by the author.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.