While I don't perhaps fit the stereotype of the British Columbia hemp-wearing, tree-hugging environmentalist, I have always been very passionate about the environment. In elementary school I helped launch a green schools initiative that saw the school nationally recognized as a "Green School" a year after I left. At Pearson College I was one of the school's "recyclers," who dragged a red wagon from house to house and building to building once a week, picking up recyclable materials to be sorted. As part of the Environmental Law Centre at UVic's Faculty of Law, I participated in a number of pro-bono environmental cases.
Sure, I make bad decisions along the way. I love shoes, like, alot, and books, and consumerism in general. But I try to buy my clothes from local designers and valiantly attempt to eat seasonally as well as locally. London knocked alot of the shopaholic out of me, as 1) I was too busy working to shop and 2) I had no money to shop, and I've since made a conscious decision to be a bit more, well, conscientious about when and how I consume: India Knight of the Times has written a great little book called "The Thrift Book: Live Well and Spend Less" which offered some great ideas on how to reduce my urges to buy, buy, buy, and as it becomes, well, trendy, to care about these things, it becomes easier. Most importantly, I think, I have always made a big effort to live a car-free life, to live and work in one area, so that I can walk everywhere and hopefully reduce my carbon footprint a little bit more.
Living car free certainly wasn't easy growing up in Victoria. Transit was (and presumably still is) infrequent and unreliable, and while I made attempts to bike ride, rollerblade and walk, it wasn't always a feasible option and in 2001 I bought my first (and only) car, an orange 1986 Hyundai Excel that was affectionately referred to by family and friends as "The Drama Queen" (Note: my brother drove the Drama Queen in 2002 and 2003 when I was living in Montreal and was understandably mocked for it). I sadly sold the DQ in 2004 before I left for England, for $50 more than I had paid for her, and to this day, she has still been seen put-putting around town.
In Montreal I got my first taste of urban life and was hooked. I loved having every sort of shop within walking distance of my front door. I loved taking the Metro. I loved urban greenspaces. I loved living "downtown." I traded in my high heels for flats and walked everywhere. I was a converted City Girl and that has never changed. In London, while I took busses, boats and Tubes, more often I walked. I visited local markets on Saturdays and Sundays. It felt healthier somehow, although admittedly less convenient than driving down to my local Thrifty's and stocking up. When I moved to Vancouver for the first time in September 2005, I thought my City Girl ways would be able to continue without a hitch. There's Skytrain, I thought. And busses. I'd be fine.
Wrong. I stuck it out a year without a car, living in the West End, and walking to work downtown, but it wasn't easy. I could never go to IKEA for cheap kitchen goodies, or even Wal-Mart to pick up reasonably priced necessities like toilet paper and shampoo. I was relegated to downtown grocery stores like Urban Fare and IGA, which weren't always cheap. And I got drenched, every day, for 100 days or more, walking to and from work in the pouring rain, umbrella being wrenched inside-out by the wind. I sang with a choir that required me to travel the entire Millennium line every Monday night to get to rehearsals, which often meant I spent the return trip home, around 10:00 pm, avoiding scarily aggressive panhandlers and, sadly, mentally ill people, on Skytrain. It felt so unsafe that I began to dread it and I dropped out of the choir.
When I got called to the bar, as a present to myself I joined Cooperative Auto Network, a non-profit carshare, and life became infinitely easier. I had a car when I wanted it, for going out to the suburbs to visit family (as visiting me downtown often appeared to be too inconvenient), and for the all-important IKEA runs. I could easily get to rehearsals without leaving two hours ahead of schedule (two hours which I didn't often have, due to work). I wasn't exactly living a car-free life, though. So, when I moved home this time, I thought, "Let's give it a go again." I am living an 8 minute walk from my office, which even in the rain I thought I'd be able to tolerate. I'd heard great things about the Canada Line, so maybe transit was a viable option in Vancouver again? I decided November would be my "test month." Could I get by just on a monthly buss pass?
The first experiment went well. I got myself to Main Street to meet friends taking the Canada Line to King Ed, then bussing down King Ed to Main. The new Canada Line was clean, I liked the perky "attendants" in Green gor-tex jackets who checked my tickets. It was certainly speedy. Alright, so the bus doesn't come every 2 minutes as in London, it took 12 minutes to arrive, but that was alright, it wasn't raining too badly. Waterfront station is within spitting distance of my front door, so I was home lickety-split. I thought it was great.
I'm not so sure after today. I had to return a piece of computer equipment to a shop on Broadway and Burrard. It's been bugging me all week that I need to return it, so I checked Translink's website to see how long it would take me to get there by bus from my office at Waterfront Centre. 20 minutes: I could either take a 17 bus, or take the Canada Line to Broadway-City Hall, and then a 99 B-Line down Broadway.
It all started out fine. The Canada Line really is great. I had no wait for the train, it was exceptionally clean, and I had somewhere to sit down. When I arrived at the station, I crossed the street and hopped on a passing B-Line. Unfortunately, Translink had steered me wrong: as my bus sped past my destination, across Burrard, I approached the female bus driver. "Excuse me," I asked. "Are you going to be stopping anytime soon, as I've just overshot my stop." "Nope," she barked at me. "Next stop is Macdonald" (translation: really really far out of my way). "Oh," I said, a bit confused. "Translink told me I should take this bus." "Well then you should have got off at Granville," she said (translation 2: walk the 8 blocks to the store). No customer service here. No hope that she would take pity on me and facilitate a "red light exit" for me (where the driver flashes open the doors as a red light so you can flee before the night stop. Forbidden, but nice when it happens). I got off at Macdonald, sighed, crossed the road, and waited for another bus to take me back to my location. After 10 minutes or so, a 17 bus came, so I hopped on it (after checking with this driver that I could get where I needed to go). All in all, including the 10 minutes that I spent in the store making my return, my trip, from office chair to office chair, was 96 minutes. This included walking to and from Waterfront Centre (6 minutes), waiting time for Canada Line trains to arrive (0 minutes), travelling time on Canada Line (14 minutes) waiting time for busses to arrive (36 minutes), time actually spent on busses (30 minutes). Not good enough. It's a distance of 3.7 kilometres. Google Maps says I could have walked one way in 48 minutes, ie, I could have walked there and back in the 96 minutes it took me to take transit.
This had me muttering all kinds of things under my breath. Vancouver is apparently the most "livable" city in the world, according to a number of surveys, but if transit, and other kinds of green transportation were included in this study, and if people who can't afford (or like me, choose not) to have a car were surveyed, I find it very hard to believe. Every tourist coming for the Olympics would need a rental car, I thought. There is no way this transit system, which in BAU (that's lawyer-speak for "business as usual," sorry, I couldn't help myself) cannot get me, a person who *kind of* knows where she's going 3.7 kilometres in under an hour, there was no way it was going to be user-friendly for people with no working knowledge of the city's streets. On my return bus ride, I found myself calculating monthly car payments. I was prepared to throw out my green principles for the sake of convenience: it seemed ridiculous that I not be able to use transit on my lunch breaks to run errands and, uh, live my life. I don't get to take hour and a half long lunches, I get the normal hour. I don't have time to leave at 5 pm to meet someone for 7. Vancouver is a world-class, cosmopolitan city, I thought to myself. Why is its transit system still in the dark ages?
In attempting to answer that question, I thought about my fellow passengers: on the first bus I took, there were two people in wheelchairs, several very very very elderly people with varying degrees of mobility, two people who had some kind of mental disability, a gaggle of students, and more than one person (not identifiable) with a personal hygiene issue. This is a marked difference from London, where a) people with disabilities are hardly ever seen, and b) the average cross-section of riders yields much more of a variety of people, in terms of demographics. In London, transit really is for everyone (only the really ridiculously super wealthy don't take it; even super wealthy people I knew in London got everywhere by Oyster card). On this bus today, I was reminded that transit here really does seem to be used, generally speaking, by people in the lower economic classes (Note: I'm not making a judgment here, I'm just observing). I can't speak for commuter transit, as I don't take it, but even on my return bus through the core of Vancouver, it was just old people, sick people, and poor people: more wheelchairs, more people with disabilities, and more old people barely able to climb onto the bus.
So why aren't more people like me, who can afford cars but live in the city, not taking transit? Sure, it was lunch hour, so my rough ethnography may be skewed, but I've taken the bus in the past on weekday mornings and it's the same type of people. Nary a yuppie in sight. The norm seems to be, if you can afford a car, you drive. You drive to avoid the inconvenience and hassle of taking transit in Vancouver, like I experienced today. As a result, the people who are left to use transit and who should be demanding more user-friendly trip-planning interfaces, more frequent stops, and more busses on the road (not to mention another Skytrain line or two) are those who don't really have the resources (and in some cases, the capacity) to make their voices heard.
What's the solution? I think it's to force people onto transit. I know it's been hugely unpopular, but the congestion charge in London got people out of their cars and onto transit. Make it cost to drive in the city. We've already got the Westcoast Express and express commuter buses from Tsawassen and Delta for the people who would have to drive *really* far, but the focus shouldn't just be on long-haul commuters. You need to get people from Marpole and Kerrisdale and Commercial Drive and other parts of East Van taking transit, and not just into the downtown core for work. Anywhere. Anything north of Broadway, anything west of Main, to, say, Macdonald, there should be a congestion charge. Public parking should be prohibitively expensive. Throw in more of a tax incentive for transit passes (there is already a rebate available, but it's not much). Get more workplaces offering transit passes as benefits. Get more people taking transit and Translink will have to throw more resources at it. In short, they'll have to build a system worthy of Vancouver's reputation.