Down with the thickness?

Amid the bustle and excitement over the consumerist orgy known as Black Friday (which is now extended through the American Thanksgiving weekend to Cyber Monday), I’ve been browsing deals on laptops.

I don’t particularly need one at the moment, but I suppose it doesn’t hurt to look. My 5 year old desktop computer has been a venerable workhorse, and continues to work well for almost everything I need – for now. However, it’s stationary. I can’t use it anywhere but at home.

I’ve never owned a laptop before (though I have used friends’ laptops at times), but the thought is appealing. I would be able to live out my hipster fantasy: sit at one of the numerous neighbourhood coffee shops and espouse on random subjects, or just browse the web more comfortably than on my phone. All while sipping a cappucino and smiling at the strangers around me.¬†Or recline on a train speeding through the verdant countryside, as I write emails and listen to a streaming podcast through my headphones. (I missed not having a computer on my recent travels, though I made do without one.)

Then there’s the question of what type of laptop. While any mainstream laptop would suffice and really isn’t all that heavy to carry around, the advertising for sleek new ultrabooks (thin laptops) is hard to ignore. I blame Intel for proselytizing to me the same qualities in a computer that magazines, music and movies have done for years in regards to women: thin, light, attractive, and fast. They’re also expensive (the ultrabooks).

I imagine in a few years, all laptops will be as thin and lightweight as ultrabooks are currently; the debate over thin and light versus durable and powerful will be rendered moot faster than you can turn on an ultrabook.

For now though, something a bit thicker (or just “normal”) may be best. It might be just as sexy. Saving the extra money certainly is.

Hold the jacket

I recently traveled east to Toronto and Montreal to visit friends. Expecting much colder weather than the balmy west coast, I packed my heaviest jacket. Surprisingly mild temperatures left me holding my jacket as I walked around Toronto for the first few days. Later on, the temperature dropped, my jacket went back on, and the phrase became a metaphorical coat rack on which to hang my brief observations of English and French in Montreal.

My knowledge of French is very limited. I should have paid more attention in high school French classes, but I have at least retained adequate pronunciation to fool baristas into initially thinking I might be French when I order a coffee (at least, until they ask if I would like it “avec creme, sucre, ou noir”. “Sorry? Uh, noir, black, thanks. Merde.”) Growing up reading bilingual packaging has also helped. However, it was still fun to order food en Francais and try to tease apart strangers’ conversations as they effortlessly flitted from French to English, midstream. Curses and other points of emphasis were often in English, which is a jarring juxtaposition to the fluidity of the spoken French which dominated conversations. I could understand some of the salient points from headlines in the free newspapers, although my grasp of grammar is lacking. I even helped a recently arrived French man navigate the Metro, using only a couple of words and some gestures.

It gave me a sense of hope, that with enough study, and practice in a French-speaking city such as Montreal, I could one day be somewhat competent in the language. Looking back over my bucket list from years ago, I see that learning French is indeed one of my items.

A particularly amusing anecdote comes from the night my friends and I ate at a vegan restaurant, Aux Vivres, to balance out the succulent smoked meat from the night before. While waiting to be seated, we browsed the desserts in the adjoining cafe. The vegan cheesecake looked particularly sumptuous, even though it contained no real cheese. The name was even more impressive: fauxmage.

I pointed out to my friends this particularly clever portmanteau (faux and fromage = fauxmage, or false cheese). They agreed it sounded cool, but apparently hadn’t heard of the concept of a portmanteau, despite its French origins!. After some discussion, I learned that the phrase translates to “hold the jacket”, or coat rack, since manteau means jacket.

I discovered another one on my last night in Montreal. At a bar on St. Denis, I ordered a maple syrup infused beer: L’erabiere. Erable is maple, and biere is, well, beer. Delicieux.

Hold the jacket. What does a coat rack have to do with combining two dissimilar words into a single one, instantly tightening and enhancing the meaning of a thing or situation? I’m not sure, but if nothing else, it provides a place to hang the intriguing portmanteaus and discoveries of another language.

Rapidly moved to be more in-line

I read on the Vancouver Sun website today that the new luxury outlet mall slated to be built on YVR property will now be located near Templeton Canada Line station, where previously it would be constructed on the vacant lot adjacent to Russ Baker Way. The City of Richmond and local residents had cited concerns about needing to locate the new mall near rapid transit service.

This is a good decision.

While the land adjacent to Russ Baker Way along the Fraser River will undoubtedly be developed in the near future, the necessary transit service does not exist on that corridor currently. The area is served by a community bus, the C92, which runs only 6 days per week, at limited frequency and span.

Active transportation modes near the Russ Baker Way land are not feasible at present. The road is a fast, heavily-traveled arterial without sidewalks, and the site is beyond walking distance from residences, and “downtown” Richmond. There are cycle paths on the No. 2 Road bridge and Russ Baker Way, but given the lack of physical separation from vehicles, the route is fairly hostile for cyclists too.

So that leaves the site car-dominated. It is also a choke point, collecting traffic funneled across two bridges (the No. 2 Road and Dinsmore). A new development would undoubtedly generate additional traffic, exacerbating the problem.

The new site, adjacent to Templeton Station, of course has the major advantage of being accessible to rapid transit, from the airport, Richmond, and downtown Vancouver. Patrons can visit the mall via the Canada Line going either to or from the airport, generating economic activity without generating vehicle traffic. It is also an “infill” site – it’s within the City of Richmond boundaries, so it’s not generating sprawl.

There are still valid arguments that the luxury outlet will cater to a niche market of wealthy international travelers, rather than local residents, and that it may be an inappropriate use of land. The site is near industrial uses Рthere is a Chevron fuel station nearby, and there are log booms on the river north of Sea Island. While it will generate revenue, this is possibly a missed opportunity to feature local products and services. It is also not  applicable to increasing the efficiency or capability of the airport to move passengers and freight, which are its main focii.

I have also read suggestions for the site of a local farmers’ market, and a bike share station. The latter especially merits investigation, since the Canada Line bridge features an undercarriage for cyclists, and there are cycle paths on Sea Island, and across the No. 2 Road bridge onto Richmond’s dyke system. This would be a great way to showcase to tourists the natural beauty of Richmond and the Fraser River area.

Arguments of land use aside though, this is a great example of a development being located directly accessible to existing rapid transit, rather than built as sprawl, in an auto-centric location. It is also heartening that YVR changed the proposed location to be more in line with the City of Richmond and local residents’ focus on a sustainable location. Truly, if you build it, they will come.

Alternatives to “alternative” transit

Word choice matters. I have often heard the media or regular people refer to public transit as alternative transportation; I have rarely or never seen it referred to as such among planners or transit proponents.

The word “alternative” can mean a choice between multiple options, but it can often imply that a particular option, or alternative, is inferior to the other choices. Given a choice between two similar luxury cars, either could be seen as a reasonable
alternative. But if you introduce a twenty year old, rusty (though driveable) beater car into the mix, it’s clearly the least desirable of all of the alternatives.

How does this relate to public transit? In many car-dominated cities around the world, automobiles are seen as the default choice for transportation. Public transit, where it exists, is often less desirable than private vehicles: it may not serve the destinations
people want to travel to, when they want to travel, or the journey may take much longer than it does by car. Based on the values important to most people (convenience and travel time), the private automobile is indeed a better alternative than public transit. Proponents for public transit obviously would not want to reinforce an image of public transit as inferior and less useful, and the word “alternative” could infer such sentiments.

The much maligned public transit system is often relegated to a last-ditch alternative, to be used when driving is not an option. To quote the introduction to Taras Grescoe’s book Straphanger (an excellent read, by the way), “public transportation…is often seen as a squalid last resort for those with one too many drunk driving charges, too poor to afford insurance, or too decrepit to get behind the wheel of a car.” It’s a pretty negative image.

However, “alternative” can also connote something underground or non-mainstream. Music is a great example. Many alternative bands or groups produce artistically excellent music, done for the sake of art and expression, and untainted by corporate influence or a desire to simply produce music with a broad appeal which will generate massive profits. But while an underground, non-mainstream cool factor raises the appeal of alternative music groups, it doesn’t help to spread awareness or popularity for such music. Similarly, a cool, non-mainstream image doesn’t help to sell tickets for transit. Even the cool novelty factor by itself doesn’t help ridership if the service isn’t genuinely useful. The monorail in downtown Sydney, Australia, is a great example.

As such, public transit shouldn’t be referred to as an alternative except in a situation where it’s roughly equal in usefulness compared to the private automobile – in a reasonably dense city or inner suburb with mixed uses and amenities. In places where
people can safely and efficiently move about by walking, cycling or using public transit, as fast as (or in some cases faster) than by driving. Places where driving is still an option, but it may not be the best option.

Perhaps in an ideal world, public transit and driving (along with walking and cycling) will all be usable options, and referred to as such. Certain transportation modes may be faster than others in specific cases, but each can be advantageous for certain types of journeys. Importantly, people will have the option to use the transportation mode they prefer, without feeling that certain alternatives are simply less useful. That’s an option I’d be in favour of.