For your Friday Buzzer fix, here’s the first in a series of profiles I hope to do with transit enthusiasts from the Lower Mainland.
Poke around the web in search of Vancouver transit info, and you’re bound to come across Trans-Vancouver , an insanely comprehensive bus photo site.
Online since 2004, the site’s neatly organized galleries boast over 1,400 photos of every single bus in the Lower Mainland. That includes almost every ad wrap , heritage bus , and even one-offs like TransLink’s alternative energy test buses , or the time we tried out a double decker bus .
You can’t go through the site without wondering who’s behind it, so I got in touch and did an interview with David Lam, George Prior, and Chris Cassidy, the photographers behind the gallery. (David started the site and has taken about two-thirds of the 1,400 photos—the rest are from George and Chris, who began contributing their photos to the site a few years after its start.)
As you’ll find out, they’re all very young guys who just happen to love buses. I got to meet them in person at the send-off for the retired trolleys  in October, and managed to grab some photos of them in action. (Fun fact: at the send-off, the guys told me that they had previously located the retired buses at the Fraser-Surrey docks, sleuthing out the location from just one photo they saw on Flickr . They’d already been down to photograph the buses at the docks, albeit from outside the fences.)
My full interview with David, George, and Chris is below!
1. Tell me a bit about yourselves, and how you got involved with taking photos of buses.
I’m 17, currently attending grade 12 in high school. I was born in Hong Kong, where most people heavily rely on public transportation. Having an interest in public transit is actually quite common in Hong Kong—buses and trains are some of the things that have been built into people’s daily lives.
We moved to Vancouver in 2003. For me, there was no better way to get familiar with my new city than by sightseeing using public transit! I never thought about taking photos of buses until I was given a digital camera as a Christmas gift. I spent my Friday nights taking photos of the older trolleybuses on Granville Mall. I always liked them and expected to see them get pulled off the road soon. That’s how I started to collect photos of buses, and eventually started my first website in 2004. Part of the fun of this hobby is to get out there and talk to people who may share the same hobby, or those who have the curiosity to learn more about our unique interest.
I’m 16, and currently enrolled in grade 11 in a Langley high school. My interest in bus photography actually started out as a random search on the internet. I was going around and found an internet group on transit in Vancouver. I was curious, so I joined and started following what was going on. Then randomly, one day I picked up my camera and thought I’d take pictures of buses.
I am 21, and I am in my fourth year of a political science degree at UBC. I work part time for Perimeter Transportation and Tours  as a bus dispatcher and ticket agent.
My interest in buses goes back to early high school. I began taking the bus to school on a regular basis in about grade 9. It was an hour and a half each way, a three-hour round trip. Riding transit, the thought kept growing in my head of what kind of a bus I was on. I would always look subconsciously when riding them.
I remember being on the internet and seeing pictures of buses I’d never seen before, on websites belonging to other bus enthusiasts. I didn’t get into taking photos myself until the summer of 2005, after I graduated high school. There was talk then of an event in Stanley Park to unveil the new low floor trolley bus, so I decided to attend. This was where I met David, as well as a number of enthusiasts from other cities.
That fall, TransLink was also starting up its “Testing the Power of Tomorrow” alternate fuel program. That involved eight buses with different fuel types, all decaled in special schemes. For me, the transit hobby initially evolved around riding and photographing these buses on routes in Coquitlam. Many a Friday, after I got off school, I would ride downtown, catch a bus out to Coquitlam and ride out there for the rest of the day.
My first year at university was particularly difficult. Having the bus hobby helped keep me occupied during some tough times, and I found it fun and relaxing. It was simply something to do that I enjoyed.
2. The site is incredibly comprehensive, and it features a lot of very specific info on the types of buses out there and even their bus numbers. So how do you guys know which buses are which?
Aside from general observations obtained through our regular trips, we have several contacts in various agencies that provide us with resources like fleet rosters, a list outlining each type and model of buses with their respective fleet numbers (numbering system used by transit agencies to organize their fleet consisted of 1200 buses) and assigned division (eight bus depots serving the entire lower Mainland). We also have contacts providing information and hints of new ad-wraps and delivery of new buses. Finally, we must also take this chance to thank several transit supervisors who made our job much easier by telling us hints of where we would find the buses we were looking for!
3. How much time do you spend working on the site and uploading photos?
The system we use is called Fotopic . It’s very user-friendly. You just upload the photos in the way you attach documents to email, and organize them into the right categories afterwards. The system helps us to lay out the design and makes sure things are working properly. The process takes about 15 minutes.
Generally, we try to update whenever we have new photos available for publishing. Visitors would probably want to see something new during every visit, and we do our best to satisfy our guests.
4. What response do you get to the website?
One comment we get quite often is that we have so much material, that our work is very thorough. This is important to me mainly because that is how we captivate the interests of people who may not have seen everything. After all, that was what fuelled my interest in the websites I browsed before I became involved!
In terms of taking pictures in general, people often ask us, “Why buses?” Usually my short response to that query is that people like trucks, trains, and boats, so why not buses?
5. What do your friends and family think of your hobby?
Most of my friends see my hobby as an advantage. Whenever they want to go somewhere; they know they don’t need to rely on Google maps because there’s one right beside them! I never try to hide the fact that I have an interest in public transit. Of course, I do get weird and confused looks at times; but most people respect my hobby. Pretty much everyone in school knows about David Lam and his fishy business with buses!
My parents respect my hobby, and they try their best to understand of my fascination with buses. My father probably understands the most – he went through a similar scenario himself when he was young, having a very fond interest in music which eventually became his lifelong career.
At first my parents thought I was a little crazy. My grandpa, who is a retired Coast Mountain driver, asked “Why are you interested in buses? Why weren’t you interested when I was driving?”
But my parents support me. With most of the events it’s my parents who ask first if I’m attending, and not me asking if I can go. It’s not often that your parents support you in whatever you want to do.
Many of my friends initially thought I had a very strange interest. They simply couldn’t understand why I was so interested in buses, and I don’t blame them, because I can’t satisfactorily explain it myself. That being said, I have managed to get a few of them interested.
6. What do people say when they see you out there taking photos of buses?
On a good day, I might get a chance to make a new friend, a generous transit operator who does everything he can to create the best photo opportunities. On a bad day, I might be questioned and yelled at. After four years of transit photography, I can vividly recall several extreme cases when I was threatened with arrest by one transit security officer for, and another incident when a community shuttle transit operator threatened to destroy my camera.
It is completely understandable that people may raise suspicions upon seeing someone taking photos of mass public transit, especially in an age that is threatened by terrorism. Photography can be a somewhat controversial hobby; however, it really disgusts me when the community of photographers is stereotyped and prejudiced against.
Personally, I find most transit employees in the Metro Vancouver area are generally very friendly, helpful and respectful. I usually try to talk with the transit operator before having photos of his or her bus taken. Most of the operators I have talked to in the past tend to relax when they see their rights and privacies are acknowledged and respected. I’m taking photos of the buses, and not of the person.
7. So in an average week, how much time do you spend taking bus photos?
Whenever we have time to spare after school or work, we try to get out there and try our luck. Generally, I spend approximately six to 10 hours per week travelling around and hunting for buses.
In the beginning the objective was to get photos of all of the buses. After we achieved that – I guess it took about a year and a half—we now go after specific buses that we consider special, such as a brand new bus or a repainted one still in a fresh coat of paint, or buses wrapped in vinyl for advertising, or perhaps older buses that are just about to be phased out from the system.
Spotting buses is similar to fishing. Sometimes you get a huge net of fish and sometimes you go home empty handed.
I’ve been a lot busier with schoolwork this year. I remember last year, if I knew something is happening in Vancouver, I would be there right after school and not be home till 9 p.m. But with school this year there’s a lot more work meaning less time for buses.
But for right now I’ve been going out most on weekends for six to nine hours at a time. Of course if I have a day off of school I’ll be out there for an easy 12 hours.
Much less now than I once did! Three years ago, I would go out two or three afternoons a week, but within the past year or so, I’ve cut down. Often now I only make it out a couple of times a month. In summer it’s more arbitrary, I go out whenever I want to, or whenever there is something that warrants my attention.
8. Do you have any favourite photos on the site, or favourite buses to photograph?
I am a big fan of night-photography, and I also make sure I am out there when it snows in the winter! My favourite photos on the site are probably those taken in harsh weather conditions and nighttime, and photos that have became “historical documentation” that I would tell myself “wow, I’m glad I got this photo because I can’t get anything similar to this anymore!”
As for favourite buses to photograph, I am most interested in buses that we commonly refer to as “full-wraps” or “ad-wraps.” Those are the buses covered in vinyl to maximize the efficiency of advertising. I like to photograph these “ad-wrap” buses because they help to add a bit of color, artistry and design to the entire fleet of 1200 buses – instead of seeing the identical-looking buses everywhere in the city, we get something different.
I like the older buses which have a bit more character. The stuff that’s all parked inside of Oakridge Transit Centre is my favourite. From the modern fleet it’s the new highway coaches, the yellow ones with a silver background. Those are quite nice.
I am preferential to older buses, specifically the MCI Classic and GMC Fishbowl series.
The fleet that’s currently retiring, the New Flyer D40 buses, have special significance: those were my first transit rides. I moved here in 1993 and when I was attending daycamps, we would often take public transit to get to our destinations. I remember riding those D40s when they were a year or two years old. They are not really favoured by that many transit fans.
9. Are some buses easier to catch than others? Are there any buses that like holy grails, that are very hard to track down?
The easiest buses to track are definitely the trolleybuses; since they are all based out of Vancouver Transit Centre and operate only on 12 routes due to the network of trolley wires that power them.
It has always been a challenge to track down the buses based out of Burnaby garage, because of the vast service area covered by that particular division. Burnaby depot serves too many routes and trippers covering a large variety of areas. The bus I want to find can be running on a route that goes to UBC, downtown, North Vancouver, SFU, Burnaby North, Vancouver east, New Westminster. It is very difficult to predict, and my game of “hit or miss” for tracking buses usually ends with a miss when I’m out on the hunt for a specific bus!
There’s actually one particular bus that’s very hard to find. It’s a highway coach, a silver one. They were first running in service earlier this year. I managed to go out to Burrard Station one time, and I shot every single one except one of them. The whole summer I tried to find it, with no success. After having those buses in service for eight months I still haven’t caught that one.
About 2.5 years ago there was a bus in Victoria that was in fact the oldest running transit bus in North America. It was 40 years old, built in 1966. David and I and another fellow from Edmonton visited Victoria on St. Patrick’s Day 2006, and we were lucky enough to get a nice ride on that old bus all the way to Brentwood Bay.
Sometimes we look for buses that have just been repainted; these tend to be very photogenic. Sometimes, locating them is like looking for a needle in a haystack!
10. So, you’ve come to ride public transit in several cities. How does Vancouver’s system rate against all the others you’ve seen?
I have been on transit systems in Toronto, Edmonton, Hong Kong, Beijing and Bangkok. Those in North America are more comparable to Vancouver’s system due to geographical similarities, and the rate of ridership is probably not as high as Asian cities, where public transportation is the one and only mode of travelling for the majority of the population.
Toronto’s transit system is quite easy to navigate because of the way the system is designed. Bus routes serve the major arteries of the city in a grid pattern, and most routes connect with the subway system. You can easily navigate by locating yourself with respect to the closest subway station! However, transit systems serving the outskirt areas bordering with the actual city of Toronto are totally different stories, nowhere comparable to what we see in our suburbs such as the Tri-Cities, Surrey and Langley.
Transit systems in Asia are tremendously different from what we have in North America. As I mentioned, the majority of people rely on public transit. Therefore, a much larger amount of buses and human resources are needed to meet the demand from the public.
For instance, the total metropolitan area of Hong Kong is half of that of Greater Vancouver; yet, there are over 8000 transit buses running on the streets, compared to the 1200 buses we have. Moreover, due to the British influence in Hong Kong, the majority of these buses are double-deckers imported from European manufacturers such as MAN and Mercedes-Benz of Germany, Alexander-Dennis of Great Britain, Scania and Volvo of Sweden and many more – the buses are a lot more varied than what we see in Vancouver, which are mainly from North American bus manufacturers such as New Flyer, Orion, and recently Novabus.
In terms of the operation and structure of transit systems in Asia, I personally find them more confusing than the way ours are designed. Instead of running bus routes along particular streets between east and west, or north to south, the majority of the routes twist and wind all over the city, serving several streets and/or neighborhoods.
Frequency of transit service is a lot better in Asia; buses usually come ever 3-5 minutes during peak hours and 8-12 minutes during mid-day and nights! Assaults of transit operators and fare evasions are two problematic issues in Vancouver; yet, such concerns are almost unheard of in Hong Kong, and probably not in Beijing where police officers are visible everywhere on the streets and even on subway station platforms.
Transit agencies often design measures to prevent bus drivers from chatting with passengers when driving unless it is absolutely necessary or important. It is very difficult to compare a North American transit system with an Asian transit system; essentially they are completely different as it is also true for the planning of cities and demand from the people.
Although, I like the fare system in Vancouver. It’s a lot more straightforward and easy to use and understand. With one ticket, you can go anywhere in 90 minutes. In Toronto, you can only get a transfer if you go in one direction.
I haven’t experienced a lot of other systems, but I think there are two big benefits about our system. First of all, there’s the large area we cover. A lot of other systems have just one small area, but here you can go all the way from Aldergrove to Lion’s Bay. How many systems can you cover that much distance?
The other one is the SkyTrain line. It’s one of the biggest benefits we have. It’s so frequent, and connects a lot of various areas. If you just think about not having SkyTrain our entire system would be vastly different.
I have pursued the transit hobby in six major North American cities: Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Seattle. Aspects of those transit systems vary quite a bit depending on what you focus on.
In Edmonton, the system is laid out very differently from Vancouver. The routes meander a lot more. In Vancouver, there’s a lot of east-west-north-south, other than in the outlying suburbs, so the bus routes have adapted more to the city. In cities like Edmonton and Calgary, there are buses that follow winding routes through communities, and don’t feel like they’re going anywhere. The other thing I found in Edmonton is that the politics of transit are much more intense and much more polarized.
To expand on what David says about Toronto, Toronto has a much more expensive system than what we do – it seems like they have better service but more finicky customers. Labour relations in that system are a lot more incendiary than they are here. The last time we had a transit strike was in 2001, and there they seem to have a strike every six months.
Comparatively speaking, Vancouver is actually pretty good, not even just in the densest part of the city. It is in the suburbs where there is the most room for improvement.
Generally, we do well for the service area that we have to cover. In regions like Toronto, there are different transit agencies in outlying suburbs which in Vancouver would all be covered by the same system. When I went to Toronto in 2006, I stayed with relatives in Mississauga, a suburb with its own transit system. I recall a couple of horror stories involving Sunday service not starting until 9 a.m.! In Vancouver, there are no such overlap problems. From that perspective, the system here is also easier to use.
11. What are your plans for the future? Will the site keep going as you all graduate school?
I look forward to attending university after graduation from high school, and hopefully end up with an administrative position related to the field of transit after graduation from university. Although I would also like to fulfill my dream since childhood of driving an articulated bus at some point in my life. I guess I will somehow manage to attain both as life goes on!
As for the website, we will definitely keep it running whenever we have time to maintain and update. In fact, we are still in the process of expanding! Hopefully all three of us will get to experience more foreign transit systems in the future and bring back goodies to share with everyone.
After high school, I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it. But I do know I want to keep the site up and running as long as possible, even if it’s not updated as often as it currently is it would still serve as a great historical reference for transit in Vancouver.
Now as for future careers, I think all three of us in the site will end up working for transit one day. Even if I have to start sweeping out the buses at the end of the night, I still will work in transit.
At this point my goal in school is to finish and to finish respectably. I don’t intend to carry on with any more schooling immediately after I graduate. My intention is to stay at my current job until then, then travel for a while rather than rush into a full-time career job.
I would like to work for transit at some point, though there’s no rush about that. Even if I am initially just a driver, there are opportunities beyond that.
I intend to carry on with the site for however long I’m dealing with buses. It’s a passion that I want to make a career out of. We’re expanding the site, it doesn’t just cover Vancouver anymore. I recently published photos from Edmonton and Calgary, and David has posted photos from Beijing, Bangkok, and Shanghai. We’ll go globetrotting to take photos—the sky’s the limit!