I was sitting on a bus – “ one of the new cavernous tanks on the road in Metro Vancouver. I had just happily settled into one of the few seats when I noticed an elderly woman teetering down the wide centre aisle. Bags of heavy groceries dangled from one hand contorting her body into a dangerous lean. The other arm flailed about, clutching at thin air. She had a wild-eyed look on her face. There was nothing to hang on to in sight. I quickly got up to let her have my cherished seat.
“Oh thank you dear,” she said gratefully. “I just fell on one of these buses last week.”
That is something I’m hearing quite often these days since the debut of this new, much lauded $273 million dollar trolley bus fleet purchased by Translink. Fortunately I took balance beam in school and have fared quite well on these new and “improved” buses. Skateboarders, windsurfers and acrobats should find them accessible as well.
I am a regular transit user. In fact I don’t even own a car. And according to my family, that is saving a lot of lives. It took me one bus ride to observe countless problems with the design of these new buses. The first was the reduced number of seats at the front of the bus. The reasoning from the powers that be, I assume, was that if they pack us in like sardines, they don’t have to put as many buses on the route. Good fiscal management. Well, unless your lawsuits increase exponentially.
I was now standing, forced into a tree pose with my face pressed into someone’s back pack. I had nothing to grab on to but their hair in an emergency. And emergencies happened every time the bus stopped. I should say jerked violently to a stop. The New Flyers, as the buses are appropriately named, regularly send riders flying through the air like a flock of trapeze artists. Sometimes it feels like a scene from that hilarious Vancouver-produced play The Number 14, where actors in garish masks are swinging around in a careening bus. What makes it even more Cirque du Soleil-ish, is when the bus driver pretends he’s a race car driver, zipping in and out of traffic, screeching up to curbs, all while talking on his cell phone. Breath-taking, death defying performances!
The new buses are especially challenging for the elderly, ironic, because the entire first third of the bus is dedicated to seniors and the physically challenged. There are no center poles to grab on to when you get up (or to pole dance on if you are so inclined). The straps that hang above the seats are so high that elderly people, who are often hunched over, cannot reach them. The side arms on the front row seats are so low, you can’t even use them to steady yourself anymore. Complicated all the more if you are carrying groceries or pushing a stroller or a little shopping cart.
A most entertaining scene was now unfolding. It happens pretty well every time I ride the bus. Riders (again, often the elderly, but even the weak like me) try to get the side seats unlocked by pulling up the yellow bolt thingy. Then a good Samaritan Hulk Hogan type steps in and begins to wrestle with the bolt. It usually takes several people to get it unlocked and then to hold the seat down while the person leaps onto it. Then there are the seats that don’t lock but just flip back up. Jack must be very nimble to get into his chair fast enough before his butt gets smacked. And speaking of sore butts.
“Didn’t they talk to you guys about the buses?” I asked a bus driver one day.
“They don’t listen to us,” he said. “These are the most uncomfortable seats to sit in all day too.”
Yeah, why would you consult the folks who drive the buses all day long? Why bother listening to customers? I wondered who exactly had evaluated the prototype (they only tested one by the way). It could not have been anyone who actually rides a bus. Not the elderly. Not bus drivers. Perhaps circus performers. But not bike enthusiasts. Last night I saw a bus driver refuse to let a somewhat derelict man with his bike come on board. He was rather rudely told “not after dark”. Apparently the exterior bike racks mess with the headlights! Wouldn’t you be more inclined to want to get home faster at night?
Granted these buses are probably greener and maybe quieter. Translink’s Buzzer newsletter praises some of their other stellar features: 4-wheel disc brakes, 6-speed automatic transmission, the engine located in the left rear corner (bonus!), door chime (wow!) and articulated joint (groovy man) made by a German company. I don’t know about you, but that is certainly why I ride transit.
But here’s the feature that really has me sold. THE ENTIRE BUS CAN KNEEL DOWN TO CURB LEVEL. Presumably to pray with you before you board that you won’t be permanently maimed while riding on it.