Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why Blocking Bunny Rides the SkyTrain

I don't have much cause to complain about the SkyTrain. That was one of the biggest things I had to get used to on moving here from Toronto, where complaining about the failings of public transit is something akin to a sport. For more than a year now, the SkyTrain has got me where I needed to go and back again with only a couple of hiccups along the way.

Nevertheless, it's not perfect. I noticed one aspect of this immediately upon moving here - specifically, the way people waiting on the platform deal with the doors. There is a strange but consistent tendency among Vancouver transit riders to crowd around the doors of a train before they even open, as if they don't expect anyone already riding to alight at that station. Sometimes it feels like a contest of wills; the doors clunk open and people on the platform have already started closing in, and there's nothing to it but for you to move forward and make them make a space for you to pass through by force of presence. It's something that doesn't happen nearly as often on the Toronto subway; there, in my experience, people on the platform will allow passengers to alight before boarding themselves.

Recently TransLink ran the Transit Pet Peeve Battle, a voting contest to determine which of a number of options was the biggest breach of transit etiquette. Ultimately the voting came down to two - Funky Ferret, "known for wearing one splash of perfume or cologne too many or exuding excessive body odour (especially during the summer months)," and Blocking Bunny, who "likes to stand as close to the SkyTrain doors as possible while standing on the platform." Ultimately Funky Ferret won, but Blocking Bunny isn't going to go away very soon either.

I've been trying to figure this out for a while, and I've come to the conclusion that there's about twenty-five years worth of reasons why.

Not the biggest doors in the world on a Mark I train, for starters.

Not many cities run transit systems like Vancouver does. The SkyTrain uses what was originally called ICTS or Intermediate Capacity Transit System, something that should be blindingly obvious to anyone attempting to board an Expo Line train at Stadium-Chinatown after a game. Vancouver was effectively the launch customer for this technology - the Scarborough RT in Toronto, which uses the same equipment, is so short that it's basically a proof-of-concept shuttle between the subway and a mall - but it didn't spread much beyond that; the only other city that uses ICTS, as contrasted to the updated Advanced Rapid Transit available now, is Detroit.

Since the SkyTrain is an intermediate capacity system, some tradeoffs were necessary. Compared to the subway trains of Montreal, Toronto, or Los Angeles, the cars themselves aren't very big. This is a particular issue on the Mark I cars, the boxy rolling stock that came with the SkyTrain back in 1985. There just isn't all that much room on them... particularly not when you're standing rather than sitting. The new Mark II trains are a lot better in this regard; they're roomier in general, and the articulated points in the middle of the cars are great places for standers to hang out with minimal impact to passenger flow. It's too bad that sometimes Mark II trains seem to be rarer than hen's teeth.

Here's how it goes, the way I see it - the SkyTrain starts up in 1985 with the original Mark I trains. It doesn't take long for people to figure out the best places to stand in these trains: the doors. You can brace yourself against one of the dividers and have a smooth ride. When I find myself on a Mark I with room to maneuver this is generally my tactic, switching between sets of doors as the train passes from center-platform to side-platform stations - of course, not everyone does this. For seventeen years, this was all there was; the first Mark II trains didn't arrive until the opening of the Millennium Line in 2002. What this long dominance of the system resulted in, I think, was the inculcation of the idea that just because someone is standing next to the doors, it doesn't mean they're getting off at the next station. In Toronto, this isn't really an issue; the doors are big enough that people can be leaning against both dividers and still leave enough room for alighting and boarding.

Blocking Bunny's actions can also be explained by the nature of the system as a whole - namely, the fact that it's automated. Stations are simple matters for SkyTrains; they arrive, hold their doors open for thirty seconds, then close them and depart, so long as no one tries to hold closing doors open for too long. They stay open for thirty seconds regardless of whether the platform is empty or busier than a Beatles concert in 1964. This can be a definite problem sometimes - on one particularly packed Expo Line train heading east after a game had just let out, the doors started trying to close before people had finished alighting, let alone boarding. Toronto trains don't have this trouble - the crew of each includes a guard, who sits in the middle car and manually opens and closes the doors. I've heard of Toronto trains taking upwards of two minutes to load and unload in busy stations at busy times.

So that, I think, is why Blocking Bunny rides the SkyTrain; because the nature of the system itself magnifies the perceived need for some riders to exhibit those traits. We may not like it, but we're stuck with it for the indefinite future.

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