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I Love Transit Week 2011: why Gordon Price loves transit

It’s I Love Transit Week July 11-15. All this week, I’m devoting the blog to why we love transit! This week is also special because of I Love Transit Night on Thursday July 14!

If you’ve ever read Price Tags, you’d know blogger (and oh so much more) Gordon Price as an intelligent and engaging writer. Having worn many hats in the past, Gordon knows a lot about civic politics, architecture, business and pretty much any topic that relates to the livability of cities and regions. Here, Gordon writes why he loves transit and a whole lot more!

Why do I love transit?

Quality time.

Just a chance for me and the object of my affection to spend intimate moments together, uninterrupted by the distractions of home, office and other people.

By object of affection, I mean, of course, my smart phone. Or my tablet. Or my media player. Or, yes, even my book.

My travel time is far too valuable to waste actually driving. Talk about distracting. I don’t know about you, but I find when driving that I actually have to pay attention to stuff. Like other vehicles. And stop signs. And even cyclists.

I’d much prefer to concentrate on that little glowing screen. Or plug in my ear buds to achieve a zen state of oneness that comes even when completely surrounded by other people, many of whom also have little white cords coming out of their ears.

Plugged in commuters

Plugged in commuters

I did a quick survey on the Canada Line the other day. About 30 to 40 percent were plugged in – sometimes more, depending on the time of day. (Commuters at rush hour are more likely to have defined their routines. My regular route includes the No. 19, Stanley Park – and people on that trolley actually look out the windows with a first-time curiosity.)

More evidence of social isolation, critics say, leading to the alienation of contemporary society, blah, blah. Not so much. Indeed, in Vancouver, transit is one place where we get a pretty good sense of who we are as a community. In the city of no visible majority, our commons is our trolley bus, our B-line, our SkyTrain. We are all passengers on the way.

When we’re in our cars, on the other hand, we don’t have the same sense of the collective. Sometimes not even of each other, given that we can’t easily engage in eye contact – the way we assess each other’s humanity.

For some, that inability to select who you want to share space with is a turn-off – and why they prefer the privacy of their cars. But for me, I like the people-watching, the serendipity of the mix, the human comedy on wheels. So long as I have the option to turn to my screen and immerse myself in a downloaded book.

Transit, I’d argue, is also how we learn the elemental social rituals so critical to the functioning of urban society. How a culture shares crowded space is a pretty good indicator of its civility. (Insert complaint here about how little we seem to have learned.)

That’s what made the Olympics work. Why we can move a quarter million people in and out of downtown for the fireworks. And why even during those rather unfortunate incidents after Game 7 it was transit that kept functioning. We knew how to get along to get away.

Not like the old days, I hear someone from the back row say, when people were more polite and the young ‘uns gave up their seats for the old and the lame. I’m not so sure about that either. A few years ago, I noticed that people, when exiting, would shout out a ‘thanks’ to the bus driver. I have no explanation for why it started, just that for some reason people decided this gesture of civility seemed appropriate.

Oh yes, I’m familiar with the stories of more drivers being assaulted, and I know everyone has a story of craziness. (Insert example here.) And how it depends on when and where and what route you take. But I have a hunch that may be offset by so many more different kinds of people using transit these days. Like the guys in the ties.

Wheeled luggage

Wheeled luggage is the 20th century's gift to transportation

Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have said (though she probably didn’t): “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.” The quote survives because the sentiment has been so generally shared by the decision-makers in our society who decide where the resources get allocated. Not surprisingly, there has been for several generations a bias to providing a lot of free road space, and a tendency to see transit as a social service.

But as transportation thinker Todd Litman noted, there’s at least one reason why that’s changed: “The only significant new mode of transportation to develop so far this century,” he said, “has been wheeled luggage.”

Yup, wheeled luggage – because of which the frequently flying CEOs are more inclined to wheel their way from home or work to the first-class lounge by taking the bus and train to get there.

Man on plane using an iPhone

Travel time can be productive time

And thanks to all those wireless devices, she or he can not only spend that time productively, but the information needed to determine the route to take, and the connection to make, and the time and the cost – all that comes with a click or two on the same little device.

Compare that with the undependability of driving due to congestion, not to mention the cost of parking, and it’s easy to see why the latest proselytizers for transit can be found in the executive suites. And why resources follow. And why once when the more affluent municipalities were determined to keep transit out of their communities, they now line up to get on the priority list.

As reliability and frequency increase, and as social acceptance of transit broadens, there are more people and more different kinds of people sharing the same space with glowing screens and white cords.

So given a choice between a faster trip driving and a slower trip on transit, I’ll take the latter, so long as (a) it’s not too much slower; and (b) I can read or listen. If I can plan the length of my commute with accuracy and dependability, then time spent moving productively is more valuable than time spent moving quickly.

And, darn it, sometimes transit is faster – too fast. I just missed my stop because I was lost in the glow of the little screen and the lure of the white cord.


5 Comments

  • By Jot Kali, July 13, 2011 @ 11:29 am

    Fantastic post. Its in these terms I wish Translink would advertise. They have captured the “I’m doing my part for the planet” segment of the population, there is zero benefit continuing to advertise to this way. Are people aware however that jumping on Canada Line will still let their connected devices work? Instead of sitting in traffic for 40 minutes they can jump on the line and still continue their game of Angry Birds or Words with Friends. Give up your car, and in October you can book that yearly flight to wherever, on your smart phone on the train, thanks to all the money you saved.

  • By David Arthur, July 13, 2011 @ 3:02 pm

    The conventions around thanking the driver can be quite interesting. In Hamilton, Ontario, they actually have signs in the buses asking you ~not~ to thank the driver: people would leave by the front door so that they could say thank you, and therefore block the boarding passengers and slow down the service.

    In that case, I suspect it’s tied to the fact that so many passengers are McMaster University students, who in many cases have either no previous experience of using public transport, or at most have used Toronto’s trains, where you never interact with the driver.

  • By Robert Willis - Buzzer Editor, July 13, 2011 @ 9:35 pm

    David: I wondering if people thank drivers in other parts of the world?

  • By Karen, July 15, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

    I remember when thanking the drivers became a really popular and common thing to do after the very long transit strike in 2001 (had to look up the date: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2001/05/21/transit010521.html). There was also a rider’s strike one day when rider’s didn’t pay their fare. I think it makes the system really cordial in ways that you don’t see in other places, as David mentions, and it tends to stick out if, as a person from Vancouver, one does it in places further afield.

  • By Eugene T.S. Wong, September 19, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

    I, too, wonder if other societies do it.

    I thanked the bus drivers, when I went to teach English in China, and a fellow teacher told me to not do it. When I explained why we should do it, she became pretty impressed.

    I just love the way that we thank our drivers, especially after a long trip on those intercity buses. It’s as if everybody just has to give thanks.

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