Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Traffic, On and Off the Rails

Last night was a rather interesting night to be commuting by SkyTrain from Vancouver to New Westminster. Just as my train pulled into Joyce-Collingwood Station, a voice from SkyTrain control - the first of several during the course of the journey - came over the loudspeakers to let us know about a stuck switch in the New Westminster area that was causing systemwide delays, how trains would be held for longer than normal and to expect "lengthy" delays. For me, "lengthy" was about twenty-five minutes; my train was one of those that short turned at New Westminster Station, and the crush of people on the platform there made the crowds from the track reconstruction a couple of weekends ago look like nothing by comparison - thick enough that the only possible route from the first car to the stairwell was along the yellow strip at the edge of the platform, and even then it was only wide enough for one person.

Sure, it was annoying - would've been even more annoying had I ended up pulling some overtime at work that evening - but for me, ultimately inconsequential. Nothing is one hundred percent foolproof, but in more than a year of five-days-a-week SkyTrain commuting, I can count the number of times I've been affected by delays like this on one hand. It compares favorably to one of my previous arrangements, the famously erratic - some might say "unreliable" - 501 Queen streetcar line in Toronto, where you might be waiting anywhere between thirty seconds and thirty minutes with no explanation at all. For many people, "TTC" stands not for "Toronto Transit Commission," but "Take the Car."

Not everyone's so tolerant of transit problems, though. In addition to the problems I encountered around 9:20 PM, apparently there was another one just slightly before rush hour; I'm not sure when the third happened. While searching through Twitter I came across a tweet from Bruce Claggett, who'd apparently had enough:

Three #SkyTrain service problems today. Will be taking car to work tomorrow. #noconfidence

But it got me on to thinking why.

Two Mark II SkyTrains delayed at 22nd Street Station by track reconstruction, October 15, 2011.

Traffic jams have been the bane of motorized society for decades now, famously inescapable and seemingly always there when you need to go down the highway in a hurry. They're certainly familiar to drivers in Vancouver - while the 1960s freeway revolt stood in the way of superslabs punching through the West End and other neighborhoods, it meant that the city's capacity to absorb traffic is significantly less than other cities that didn't go Vancouver's way. Not that it might have made a difference - there's a reason downtown Toronto's main north-south freeway artery is popularly known as the Don Valley Parking Lot.

My point, though, is that thanks to both memetic reinforcement and the personal experiences of motorists, most people think of traffic jams and traffic slowdowns as fairly common, common enough that they only find traction outside the News 1130 traffic updates if they're really remarkable. Something to grouse at, sure, but nothing that would really come out of nowhere.

One of the big differences I noticed when first coming to Metro Vancouver is that the conversation - on Twitter, at least - about the SkyTrain and TransLink was vastly different from that in Toronto. Over there, back in 2010 searches under the #TTC hashtag tended to pull up complaint after complaint of overcrowded subways, delayed streetcars, absent buses, and so on. I haven't seen TransLink criticized nearly as much for service issues. Is it because of the SkyTrain's general reliability that events such as these hit so much harder? That riders are used to the SkyTrain not breaking down every day, and when it does it's that much more galling?

Or is it the control aspect? When you're in a car, if you're in a traffic jam at least you're there because out of all the routes you could have taken, you chose that one - for me, my only choice other than the SkyTrain to get between downtown Vancouver and New West is two buses with a transfer at Metrotown, which would probably take a good hour at least. If you're going from downtown Vancouver to someplace in Surrey, the lack of alternative choices is even more pronounced - and that's a big issue that I think TransLink really needs to work on in the years ahead, reducing the number of bottlenecks in the transit system.

Perhaps for some, they just need to put themselves back in control again for a while, and that's why they go back to the car. Reasons vary from person to person. For my part, though, a delay every once in a while is a small price to pay for not having to worry about the stress of traffic jams, gas prices, and everything else that comes with car ownership in this modern world.

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