Torontonians woke up to a fortified city Friday, as thousands of police officers enforce a tight security grip in the downtown core and residents brace for the weekend G20 summit.
Despite the international gathering, however, there were few signs that the world has started to descend on the city's doorstep. The morning commute has been largely unaffected as tens of thousands of people either took the day off or are working from home to avoid the hassles of moving around in the downtown.
The heart of the city is under a virtual security lockdown, though vehicles moved through the security area surrounding the summit site and wider traffic restriction zone. Street corners are guarded by knots of police officers while security guards stand outside local business.
The first security scare of the day turned out to be a false alarm. One of the summit buildings was evacuated and the international media centre was put under an early-morning lockdown after a bag was left unattended. The situation was resolved when a journalist claimed the bag.
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The Globe and Mail is providing extensive coverage of the first summit day, from highways and public transit to protests and the meeting itself. Several reporters fanned out across the city to provide updates on the morning commute.
Today may be the most relaxing rush hour in Toronto history.
Traffic on highways surrounding Toronto was lighter than usual. There were, however, delays caused by collisions, congestion and roadblocks for delegates' motorcades. At one point in the morning, Ontario Provincial Police reported a hazard caused by several geese walking by Highway 401 near Victoria Park Avenue.
The TTC system operated normally, with lighter than usual volumes. By the heart of the the regular morning peak, which lasts from 8 a.m. to 8:45 a.m., seats on some trains were slightly harder to come by than earlier in the morning and some passengers had to stand. But that was a far cry from the cattle-car conditions of a normal rush hour, with much lighter loads than even a typically lighter summer Friday.
"Anecdotally, ridership is lighter today," TTC chairman Adam Giambrone said in an e-mail. "We won't have counts for another week, but it is safe to say that fewer people are on the system than would normally be the case for a Friday rush hour."
Bank employee Roman Manastyrski, 47, said he didn' t think those opting to stay home were doing so out fear of violent protests - just fear of inconvenience.
"I think they don't want to bother with the hassle," he said. "Too much hype from you media guys."
"It's empty, extraordinarily empty," said Dina Kovalenko, 38, on her way to her job at a downtown bank, at an alternate office outside the security zone.
"If it weren't for the G20, this place would be jammed," said a man who declined to give his name.
At Union Station, GO trains were running on time and daily commuters said the volume was much lighter than usual.
"Pretty empty, pretty fast," commuter Susan Mussakowski said of her commute. Ms. Mussakowski, who lives east of Oshawa, arrived at Union Station on a GO train at about 6:20 a.m. She estimated there were only about 10 people on her train, instead of the usual 50.
In anticipation of delays, Nathan Restivo arrived at Union 40 minutes early for his train. Mr. Restivo, who was headed out of the city for the weekend, had with him a large plastic bag filled with personal items for his trip and was surprised he hadn't been stopped or questioned by police because of the bag.
"Not even a blink," he said, pointing to a group of about eight officers congregating nearby. "They're just shooting the breeze, they're not even pretending," he laughed.
For Jeff Schrader, who works at St. Joseph's Health Centre near Queen Street West and Roncesvales Avenue, today's commute was like any other. Mr. Schrader, who lives in Ajax, said his 5:21 a.m. GO train was "early enough" to avoid problems. He arrived at Union Station on time.
Police officers walked in pairs through the GO train waiting area, chatting with one another and surveying the station. Peter Knyszynski, a construction worker waiting at the station for a friend, glanced up at the officers and muttered under his breath, "I feel like I'm in a communist country."
GO commuters reported arriving at Union Station earlier than normal. One bus had just three riders, instead of the normal full load. And a Mississauga GO station parking lot that is usually full was instead half empty.
Andrei Denga, a busker who plays the violin at Union station most Fridays, said all of his concerts Friday morning had been for police. "At least they like my music," he grinned. He wasn't planning on staying at Union for the weekend, he said, because there were "no passengers, just police."
On the upper level of Union Station, a confused Alan and Claire Rubenstein wandered around the VIA train departures area, suitcases in tow, around 7 a.m.. The Florida couple had just finished a three-day vacation in Toronto and had tickets to travel on Friday's 8:30 a.m. train to Rochester, NY. They booked their tickets months ago, Ms. Rubenstein said, and nobody had told them that VIA would not be operating out of Union this weekend.
"We have to be in Rochester tonight," she said. "It's his parents' 70th anniversary."
The couple eventually called VIA, where a representative told them to take a GO train to Oakville and try to catch the 8:57 a.m. train from there.
Frank Hood, who drives the 506 College St. streetcar, normally has about 45 passengers as he approaches Coxwell Street around 8 a.m. But on Friday, there were only five. "I'm going by stops that I normally stop at and there's nobody," he said. "It's a ghost town."
By 9 a.m. streetcars started to fill up but there were still seats to spare.
Because of the G20, Jane McLeod has made it to work in record time two days in a row. Instead of her usual 45-minute streetcar ride, her commute from the Beaches to Women's College Hospital took just 25 minutes.
"It's been great," the nurse said. Not counting holidays, "certainly this is the quietest."
Cyclists also had quick commutes, reporting some of their fastest times between Toronto's east end and downtown on empty streets under the watchful eyes of police. Fewer cyclists than usual headed downtown.
Along Spadina Avenue, garbage trucks made their way along the street as crews boarded up the windows of an LCBO at the corner of King Street West and Spadina Avenue in anticipation of weekend demonstrations. A McDonald's restaurant was also boarded up in the King Street West and Bathurst Street area.
The Toronto Island Ferry Terminal and boats going to and from the islands were nearly deserted this morning. On a normal early summer morning under bright skies, hundreds of people would be lining up to board the ferries to one of the city's most popular tourist destinations. However, the docks are located just behind the Harbour Castle Westin hotel, which is part of the heavily fortified security zone for the summit. At 8:45 a.m., there were only two people waiting in the terminal.
The police presence was overwhelming, with security officials milling around the double pallisaded fence along part of the hotel near the ferry terminal, along with officers aboard a high-powered speedboard offshore to guard against any approaches to the building from the harbour.
A warning to expect major delays on arterial roads and highways flashed on an LED sign above an empty Gardiner Expressway early this morning.
In a cab headed west to Pearson International Airport, Beck Taxi driver Ahmad Iqbal Choudhry said: "Most people will make Friday a holiday."
The veteran driver has been on the road for 12 years and takes passengers to the airport about three times per week. It took him 20 minutes to travel from the downtown core to Terminal Three early Friday, day one of the supposed road-clogging summit - a speedy record, Mr. Choudhry says of a trip that usually takes him at least half an hour.
Meanwhile, protests that have been under way daily for much of the week were set to continue. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty plans to march through Toronto on Friday afternoon before setting up a tent city to protest what they claim is police harassment of homless during G8 and G20 summits.
Queen's Park, which has been designated by police as the "official" protest zone, was quiet in the morning. The only sign of anything unusual was a lone media satellite truck and a pair of idling cameramen. The adjacent streets were likewise virtually traffic-free, with a few pedestrians and the occasional car trundling along College Street.
The historic provincial legislature at Queen's Park has been turned into a fortress. Plywood - tastefully painted the same pinky brown shade as the brick - covers the ground-floor windows. The wooden benches and bike racks have all been removed and barricades block vehicles from entering the grounds.
In the trendy Yorkville neighbourhood, it's business as usual. Even Starbucks - a frequent target of protesters - is open on Yorkville Avenue. The only store with its windows covered in plywood was the Legs Beautiful hosiery chain.
Police have said they plan to close the traffic fence surrounding the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the G20 site, on Friday evening, but warned they could shut the area almost immediately if there are security risks. The diversion zone extends from Spadina Avenue in the west to Yonge Street, and from King Street West south to Lake Shore Boulevard West.
Police earlier warned motorists of "significant delays" caused by road closures and restrictions in the Greater Toronto Area. They said the bulk of the shutdowns would affect Highway 427 and the Gardiner Expressway, the main routes between Pearson International Airport and downtown Toronto. Officials urged residents to take public transit or plan alternate routes.
The G8 Summit runs from Friday to Saturday in Huntsville, Ont., an idyllic resort community in the heart of Ontario cottage country, while the G20 starts in Toronto later on Saturday and wraps up on Sunday.
With reports from Terry Weber, Laura Blenkinsop, Jeff Gray, Ann Hui, Katie Hewitt, Adrian Morrow, Brodie Fenlon, Martin Mittelstaedt, Karen Howlett, Shane Dingman, Sean Stanleigh, Randy Velocci and Jacquie McNish.