Sunday, April 8, 2007

Two minutes after boarding, the Number 4 breaks down

First the good news: The 4 POWELL electric trolley (of the ancient variety) arrives just three minutes past its scheduled arrival time (6:36 PM instead of 6:33 PM).

Now the bad: The electrical system stalls and the driver is only able to nudge the bus forward by a few feet. Two minutes after I board the driver politely tells his passengers they'll have to wait for the next bus because this one has no power. The next bus is due in fifteen minutes, he says. The store I want to visit will close in less than 30 minutes so I abandon my plans and trudge home.

Additional observation: the seat beside mine is torn. Other seats have duct tape all over them.

Recently the Vancouver Sun published an article on broken buses and Translink's failure to get repairs done. I'm inspired now to hunt that down.

About this blog

As a resident of Vancouver who does not own a car, I rely on the public transportation system called Translink. Translink includes a fleet of diesel buses and electric trolley buses, the "Seabus" which is really a mini-ferry and "Skytrain." The bus fleet has expanded to include a few that are articulated (many of these are used for express rides). The electric trolleys are mostly ancient and decrepit, but these are gradually being replaced with newer models.

My experience with public transportation in Vancouver - which spans two decades, but really, does it matter? - leaves a lot to be desired. Having just come off my umpteenth shitty experience, I feel compelled to begin documenting my daily experiences, especially now that governments are encouraging people to "go green" and ride public transit. Although in the past few years improvements have been made - for example, the advent of Skytrain and express buses; Translink is not yet a viable alternative for the average driver. It barely satisfies those of us who are forced to use the damn thing.

Though the blog title suggests a distinct bias, one borne of many painful and frustrating experiences, I intend to describe the good as well as the bad and the downright ugly as I go about my daily commutes. I swear to tell the truth and not exaggerate, though believe me, truth can often be stranger than fiction when it comes to public transit. I may even take my camera along to record some of the physical conditions.

I don't know how many other people out there ride Translink with gritted teeth, but I'm enabling comments in the event others share my grief and would like to share their experience.

My expectation of any public transit system is pretty straightforward:
  1. I want it to be timely. If the bus is on a schedule it should keep to that schedule 99% of the time.
  2. I don't want to have to wait 15, 20, or 30 minutes. I don't want to be constantly anxious, wondering if the ride will come, wondering whether I'll be late for an appointment, wondering whether I should hail a cab (even though I've bought the bloody bus pass for the month and shouldn't have to spend money on taxis).
  3. If possible, I'd like to have a seat, but if I have to stand, I'd like some breathing room.
  4. I want whatever I ride to be clean (windows, seats, floors, the cord you have to pull for the stop, the poles you have to hang on to). The last time I called customer service, the operator told me the buses are thoroughly cleaned once every two months. And Translink expects drivers to give up their cars for this?
  5. I want to feel safe when I'm riding.
The reality:
  1. Buses are often late or they don't arrive at all.
  2. At rush hour particularly, buses will zoom past the stop too full to take on any more passengers.
  3. On popular routes it's often standing room only, sometimes even late at night and passengers are packed in like sardines in a can.
  4. Buses are often filthy and smelly. The seats have all kinds of fresh and old stains on them, the floors are coated in dust, grime and sometimes garbage, and the passenger windows are opaque with dirt. According to Translink's customer service, the buses are thoroughly cleaned once every two months. Considering their daily use, this is quite horrifying.
  5. The number of unwashed, unkempt, and unstable people riding transit in Vancouver has increased. This is simply a fact. It ain't fun being squished against a person who is drunk, disorderly and/or filthy, but that's life on the Vancouver transit system right now.
When I head out to catch a bus I never know whether I will be able to rely on the system to get me where I need to go on time. I am always prepared to have to hail or call a cab. This can be nerve wracking.

According to the Richmond Review on March 31, 2007, a Translink survey shows riders are less than happy:
One-third of bus users reported having problems with overcrowded buses, while 27 per cent complained about service frequency and 21 per cent said they sometimes found service unreliable.

All three of those measurements are the highest TransLink has recorded since beginning the regular passenger surveys in 2003.

Another 39 per cent reported overcrowding on SkyTrain—also the highest measured—up from 34 per cent the previous quarter.

The October-to-December period of the survey covers the time when TransLink service was particularly stretched because buses on order had yet to arrive and because of winter storms.

The bus system’s lowest marks were 6.4 on crowding and 6.8 on service frequency.

Passengers gave TransLink the highest mark, 8.5, for feeling safe from crime aboard buses.

Bus service overall got 7.4, but bus riders in West Vancouver were much more likely to be happy with service there.

Overall passenger ratings of SkyTrain service dropped from 8.1 to 7.8 in the last quarter.

The report also shows 70 per cent of passengers south of the Fraser and 73 per cent of those in West Vancouver are considered “choice” riders in that they choose to take transit, but have other means of transportation.

Vancouver had the highest proportion of “captive” riders at 45 per cent, who have no alternative but transit.

Overall, 62 per cent are choice riders.

West Coast Express continues to be the darling of transit riders, getting an overall 8.9 score.

But even it is getting crowded—the passenger rating has dropped to 7.2 from 7.9 a year ago and crowding is now “the greatest negative impact” on perceptions of overall service.
I have no idea whether this blog will grow, whether anyone will read it. But at least it's a place I can document my experiences. Translink could learn a thing or two from its riders. Maybe this blog can help to teach them a thing or two. (God knows, they seem to care little about our needs and experiences. Maybe that's because most of the people who manage it drive cars.)