Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for June 26th, 2007

Transit sucks

with 5 comments

I have always preferred public transport over private – for my own use and the community’s benefit. I always commuted by public transport in London, Toronto and Victoria – so count me as a transit fan for 50 years. As a visitor I have used many transit systems in many countries – but that is not the same as daily commuting.

Coming to Vancouver was a bit of a shock. For the first time I actually worked for the transit system and got a free pass. People from other cities in North America comment favourably on Vancouver’s system – but then if you are used to transit in say, Oklahoma City, that is, perhaps, not surprising. What took my breath away was the boosterism of the Transit staff. They even managed to award themselves “APTA Transit System of the Year” and put stickers on all the buses and SkyTrain cars – I still see them sometimes. I say “award theselves” becuase it is based on self nomination and that year there really wasn’t much competition. Anyway number one in a field that has few really densely populated cities with excellent systems is not really much of an achievement.

I wondered if my views were especially jaundiced, but it did seem to me that the Vancouver system was willfully blind to the quality of service that was actually being delivered. And of course, BC Transit then and now Translink has only very crude methods of measuring performance, and when I arrived, not even reliable ridership statistics.

Following the links to referring sites that people get to this blog from lead me to Jak’s View from Vancouver. And he has this to say about the new trolleybuses.

I do have to object to the awful new cattle-truck type buses that have been introduced on some routes. Riding a bus should be a pleasure, an oasis from the rest of the city. One should be warm and comfortably seated. That’s not an option on these trucks, where the few seats seem designed for discomfort and are separated by wide open standing spaces. These buses are more cavernous than a SkyTrain compartment.

Interior of new Vancouver trolleybus

Photo by Bucky C Arnold

I don’t know. Since I had to turn in my pass, I have had less and less reason to use transit. So I have not had a ride on a new trolleybus, not even out of curiosity. But I am prepared to take his word for it. I had a spell of working downtown, and used the “express buses” (491, 492, 488) – and found that though they had as many seats as possible, I could not sit in most of the seats comfortably – and I am only 5′ 9″. Not that getting a seat was usually the issue – finding space to stand comfortably was the usual mode. Trolleybuses were usually 1 + 2 anyway – suburban buses are 2 + 2 (seats each side of the centre aisle). And as I had to get around downtown a lot, I walked. It was quicker then the bus – even if there was one waiting at the stop for me.

Trolley Bus

Interior of old E902 trolleybus for comparison

photo by Markus on flickr  used with permission

I found that the corporate culture of Translink meant that criticism was not welcomed. We lacked the capacity for self examination. I do not know how a system can improve if everyone who works for it has to be brainwashed into thinking that they work for the best possible system. And that nothing should be changed except under the direst of external pressure – or the whim of one or two senior executives, who seemed to be remarkably ill informed. And when things went wrong, there was no responsibility taken. For example, the spectacular disaster of one schedule change which lead to open revolt in White Rock of all places. Or the inevitable overcrowding that followed the ill judged introduction of UPass. Or, very close to home, the effect of allowing Vancouver passengers onto Richmond buses (98 B Line) which was forecast, but ignored, and had to be put right at the next sheet change with those express services.

Many people have said to me that I need to be more positive about transit, but frankly I cannot be dishonest and tell people that they will enjoy the ride. I admire Jak who is willing to spend over two hours a day commuting from Vancouver to Richmond – something which would take about an hour by car, even when the Marpole end of Granville Street is plugged as it always is between 3 and 6 in the afternoon. Since he comes from Commercial he must be making one or two transfers, which means much of his commute time is actually spent at the bus stops, wondering when his connection will arrive, and if he can get on it when it does.

I actually do not like driving. It is expensive and highly stressful. Parking is horrendous. I have had a series of collisions since I came to Vancouver (with a blemish free driving record) only one of which was remotely my fault. Driving is not good for me. I need to walk or bike more, and a ride on a bus or a train that gave me the opportunity to catch up on my reading would actually be welcome. I used to arrive at my office in Central London having read the Guardian and had two brisk 15 minute walks. On the way home I usually had a book to read. Have you tried reading on a Translink bus? Back then I owned a car but I did not drive it except at weekends and one or two evenings. We certainly never thought of being a two car family. After several years of trying as many routes as possible, one of my colleagues persuaded me to car pool with him. Another one convinced me to ride my bike to work sometimes. Going back to the bus just got harder and harder even if it was free.

And Jak gets added to the blogroll.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 26, 2007 at 10:25 am

Posted in transit