Posts Tagged ‘skytrain’

One thing you can say about public transit: It may not be cheap or convenient, and you learn more about people’s personal hygiene than you ever wanted to know, but there’s nothing like it for people watching.

Sometimes, the people are just outlandish – and I say that as card-carrying eccentric myself. For instance, last weekend, a couple boarded the Skytrain walking very close together. He was tall, with a near beard and long hair and sun glasses. She was shabbily dressed, in kneeless jeans that only stayed up when she held a belt loop, and bobbing her head in a stoned sort of way to the tracks on her iPod. She also had an odor of at least two types of smoke and unwashed body trailing her like a shadow. Close inspection showed she was wearing a dog collar that was chained to his belt. Every now and again, he would give a little proprietary tug, not hard, but enough so that she would try to fix her eyes on him. I try to be broadminded, but if ever a couple needed to be told to rent a room, this one did. That’s not the sort of role-playing you expect to see in the middle of a Sunday afternoon.

But people on transit frequently reveal so much about themselves that they seem to be under the illusion that nobody around them can see or hear them. I remember one time when a young man got on at Metrotown looking distinctly lumpish. He was carrying a dozen coat hangers, and seemed to be wearing as many shirts and sweaters. I’d say he got on casually, if there wasn’t such a nervous edge to his casualness.

That attitude is especially common with people on cell phones. They talk as loudly as possible, until I’m tempted to clap at the end of their calls. One man even broke up with his lover in the middle of a crowded car I was riding in. “But I love you!” he keep saying, while embarrassment spread around him like a stain. After he left, I could see people relax, and several looked at each other and shook their heads.

It’s encounters like these that generated my first dictum about riding transit: Whatever you do, don’t make eye contact. The risk of having to make conversation with some of your fellow passengers is simply too high.

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I ride the buses at least as often as I do a private car, so I’m as pleased as anyone with the opening of the new Canada Line on the Skytrain system. But I do wish that when the media or casual conversation mentions the new rapid transit line, they would focus on what matters.

To start with, before anyone praises the fact that the line was opened three months early, let’s remember how that was done. It was done by ruthlessly ignoring the effects of construction on small businesses along the route. Dozens have closed as a result, and some may yet manage to get the compensation they deserve through the courts. And let’s not forget the hiring of foreign workers at sub-standard wages, or the farming of the management of the new line to private industry. If such things are the only way to finish a construction project early, then I think I might prefer delays.

For another, just as when the Millennium Line opened a few years ago, the commentators are babbling about the wonderful view on parts of the line. And it’s true that running seven meters off the ground, Vancouver’s transit lines can offer a better than usual view of the scenery. But, for those of us who will actually be using the line, the wonder of the view will last no more than a few trips. Soon, people will be reading, talking on the phone or fiddling with their music players, just as they always do on a routine trip.

The same is true of the comments made by the would-be architectural critics. What matters for daily travelers is not aesthetics, but practicalities. Are the stations well-lit? Are there enough signs so that people know where they are going? Are the stations safe? Can they accommodate the thousands of people passing through them during rush hour? The answers to all these questions seem mostly positive, although I’m willing to bet that the above ground platforms act like a wind tunnel, just as they do on the other lines. But what everyone seems to be commenting on is how the glass and metal and terra-cotta colored walls make an aesthetic experience.

To someone on transit as often as I am, the scenery and aesthetics soon fade into the background, except in unusual circumstances, such as an unusually vivid sunset. What regular riders like me want to know is something far simpler: Does the new line save us time?

I didn’t ride the line on the first day, when the fares were free. But I did ride it on the second day as I went about my business. So, I’m happy to report that, yes, the new line did save me time – some five to ten minutes compared to the bus when traveling across False Creek from Yaletown to Cambie and Broadway, and maybe twenty minutes total on my entire trip. Better yet, the connections were better than on my old route.

Obviously, how much time you save depends on where you’re going. But, for regulars, that is the real story in the new line – the time saved, and the relative convenience compared to the bus or the car. Most of the rest is background, at least for those who will actually be using the new line. I suppose the new line makes a change from the usual stories straight from the police’s media departments, but, as happens all too often nowadays, in this story the media is missing the point.

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One of the drawbacks to being raised on stories about King Arthur and Robin Hood is that seeing abuses of authority make me want to leap to the defence of their victims.

For instance, I was waiting on the Skytrain platform today when I saw a man hauling a bicycle up the escalator. As he got to the top, I saw that it was a woman’s bike, and that he had several garbage bags bulging with cans and bottles strapped to the handlebars. The man himself was dressed in threadbare clothing that was not too clean, and had a bearded face that look as though he had lived roughly. As he came closer, I smelled beer on his breath. If he wasn’t actually homeless, he was near to that state.

A Skytrain attendant at the other end of the platform saw him at once. Immediately, she started walking towards him.. As she got closer, she seemed to stand straighter and to affect a bully’s swagger – but that could just be my jaundiced eye.

Still, I was completely unsurpised when she started lecturing him about not taking a bicycle up the escalator.

Technically, she was right – not because that’s the regulation, but because handling something the length of the bicycle can block the escalator, and it can easily slip. But she hadn’t said anything to the woman who took an equally-barred baby carriage up the escalator, and she had passed someone eating – something else you’re not supposed to do – on the way to the man. Clearly, she had profiled him as someone who needed admonishing on general principles, someone she could exert her authority over.

The man responded with the assumed cheeriness of someone who has been dumped on many times, but who has told himself that he will be damned if he will let the situation get to him. “That’ll be easier than taking the stairs,” he said when the attendant pointed out the platform elevator.

His cheeriness must have bothered the attendant, because, when he walked away, she followed him. He had to be careful, she said, of not taking more than two bags on the Skytrain. He said he was only going to the next stop, to the liquor store, but that didn’t stop her from lecturing him for another three minutes about this non-existent regulation.

At this point, I was standing about a meter away from the man, and seriously debating whether I should tell the attendant to leave the man alone. After all, he hadn’t done anything. In fact, he had remained polite, despite her unwarranted bullying.

But, perhaps his politeness was what made her so intent on going after him. She stood beside him for a moment, and I imagined that she was debating asking to see his ticket. But she had no reason for doing so. Besides, about then she noticed me watching her. She frowned, and slowly walked away.

The man laughed and made a joke to me about how she didn’t say how big the two bags could be. Next time, he added, he would board with two giant ones.

I shook my head. “Man, she was really on your case.”

He did a double-take, surprised that anyone else had noticed. We exchanged a couple more sentences, then went our own ways when a Skytrain arrived.

Sitting down in a car, I regretted not intervening at this petty bit of tyranny. But maybe my interference would have made the attendant worse. At least I had treated the man the same as anyone else.

I suppose I am as much to blame for my discomfort as anyone else. After all, small abuses of authority are common enough. The only reason I don’t see more of them is that I work from home. All the same, the attendant’s behavior grated, and I resented her intrusion on to my day.

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