At risk of further manspreading

Thanks to a Globe and Mail article, I discovered the newly coined term “manspreading”, indicating men who sit on public transit with their legs far enough apart to occupy multiple seats. I note that by writing about this new phenomenon, I am ironically further validating its undeserved entry into popular nomenclature.

Issues of social impropriety and discourteousness on public transit are sadly not new. For years, a small number of passengers have inconvenienced or offended their fellow riders by taking up more than a single seat – using their legs, personal belongings or otherwise ( whether male or female). Manspreading is equally aggravating, but it falls under the same umbrella of disrespectful public behaviour. We should no more draw attention to it than to other issues of public discourtesy, such as eating on transit, listening to loud music, or having poor personal hygiene.

Moreover, while discourteous behaviour has always been problematic for transit riders, undue attention to manspreading distracts from much larger and more pertinent issues affecting riders (stable funding for public transit, for one).

Why all the fuss? It may be that issues of social indiscretion are smaller and perceptively easier to solve (and certainly cheaper) than more complex issues such as determining funding mechanisms for transit (i.e. “close your damn legs!” vs. “congestion pricing, vehicle levies, or carbon taxes?”).

So can we all agree to just be more courteous to our fellow passengers, and focus on the issues that really matter? I leave you with this gem:

Spread when you can
Retract when you must
Make space for others
On subway or bus

(Credit: The Grateful Auk; Globe and Mail forum)

Changing cities – brick by brick

(Warning: spoilers ahead) At first, I was a bit disappointed. Watching the opening sequences of the new Lego Movie, with the mammoth Bricksburg Freeway snaking through the city and tall Corbusier-style skyscrapers looming over the Lego-scape, it is truly an impressive creation. However, it reinforces decades-old ideas about urbanism which are proving to be automobile-centric, harmful to pedestrians, and unsustainable. Is this truly a vision of an utopian city?

There is hope however, in that our ordinary hero Emmett takes the time to greet his neighbours on his way out of his apartment, and the city appears to be bustling with activity – people of all demographics walking throughout the downtown to various shops and places of work, reminiscent of Jane Jacobs’ famous “sidewalk ballet”. The elevated rail mass transit system (all jokes about monorails aside), is bursting with people. And even the traffic on the congested roads and freeways is flowing (perhaps they have successfully implemented congestion pricing in Lego-land).

There were some points glossed over, of course. Emmett is inexplicably able to easily find a curbside parking space right near his place of work (and does not appear to pay for it), which would be a certain fantasy in such a busy city. Sprawling surface parking lots and imposing parking garages, so common in automobile-dependent cities such as Bricksburg appears to be, are conspicuously absent. And none of the Lego vehicles run on fossil fuels, or generate air pollution.

As the movie nears its conclusion, a possible explanation appears. Bricksburg exists in our human world, where a father has created it as the “perfect” city, created according to the provided instructions and not to be altered in any way. His son mixes and matches different Lego sets, develops characters, and allows creative, spontaneous interaction and exploration which is utterly at odds with the static, prescribed nature of the existing Lego sets.

It reinforces the struggle between old, conservative ideals of the city as a place for automobiles and massive buildings and infrastructure, contrasted with a progressive vision of the city as a creative space primarily intended for people. As the father eventually embraces the more progressive, creative ways of his son, there is a tacit acceptance of a more enlightened style of urbanism (albeit in just one dimension: people-centred).

And given the movie’s underlying thematic importance of “thinking for yourself”, perhaps this is an encouraging sign that regardless of our preconceptions, we can move toward exploring livelier, more progressive, and healthier cities.

The next consternation is…

As I browsed my news feed on the bus this morning, I noticed a trend emerging: there were service disruptions on Skytrain’s Expo line, this time east of Main Street station. Not again, I thought.

Whisking through the downtown tunnel from Granville, through the fog to Main, I opted to bus up to Broadway and onto the B-line enroute to the Millennium Line (headed to East Vancouver). It seemed the crush of people on the Main Street platform would not be going anywhere for some time, so movement was preferable. Total time added to my commute: 40 minutes. Far more than a typical day, but far less than what many people endured.

I planned my detour ahead of arriving at Main Street station. While there were transit staff present to assist with routing, I count myself fortunate that I was able to plan an alternate route. I could take either a 3, 8, or 19 bus to Broadway and connect to the 99-B line, the most frequent bus in the system. One of the incredible things about the Translink network (and other good public transit systems) became clear to me: the superb connectivity of the system allows for contingent travel in unforeseen circumstances just such as this.

Because several bus routes connect to each station, there are always alternate routes for travel, even if they’re not as fast as the Skytrain. Far from being trapped on a bus behind a collision or stall on a bridge (as I encountered on several occasions on the old 98 B-Line travelling into Richmond), or worse in a car on a gridlocked freeway, I had options for movement. It felt liberating.

Returning to the incident: the cause of the disruption turned out to be an incorrectly replaced power rail – an unfortunate but entirely possible result of the necessary upgrades the ageing Skytrain system is currently undergoing. It’s not the first such track-related incident since the project began, and it may not be the last.

However, what seems to be lost amidst the fray of frazzled commuters is that power rail replacement is a temporary project which is necessary to extend the life of what is otherwise an excellent, reliable system (on-time percentage is over 95%). The few disruptive incidents over the past few months have been well-publicized, and are perhaps to be expected in a project of this magnitude. However, they should not be taken as indicative of an overall lack of reliability for Skytrain.

Credit where it is due to Translink for supplying shuttle buses and single-tracked trains to relieve the congestion where possible, and for relaying information about the disruption and alternate options.

And let’s remember how fortunate we are to have such a well-connected system – particularly for disruptions such as today’s.

(Great) Leap Ahead: a 7 year plan for transit improvements in Metro Vancouver

With great enthusiasm, I read Gordon Price’s synopsis of a new proposed plan for transit in Metro Vancouver, and more crucially, the funding methodology required to achieve it. Paul Hillsdon and Nathan Pachal recommend a 0.5% sales tax devoted to funding the region’s share of the $21.5 billion required to implement the transit improvements over the next seven years. (Almost) everyone pays; everyone benefits.


There are clear benefits to an improved public transit network, with frequent routes throughout the region. The authors cite reduced congestion and productivity losses, improved housing and transportation affordability, and social, health, and environmental benefits as examples.

Funding options

Hillsdon and Pachal have clearly demonstrated why a sales tax is the most prudent solution. It is linked to the movement of goods and services through reducing congestion, and has been a demonstrably successful solution for funding transit in other regions, such as Seattle, Denver, and LA. It is acceptable given that the GST has been reduced by two percentage points in recent years.

The sales tax is also the most equitable, as it is applicable to everyone over the age of 15 who purchases goods and services in Metro Vancouver (about 84% of the population, according to the document). Stephen Rees rightly asks “why an ever more regressive tax system is supposed to be a good idea”. However, the negative impact of the tax on the poorest residents could be ameliorated with a tax rebate, similar to the current GST/HST rebate. It could be made even more palatable by removing less effective taxes, such as the gas tax (see below).

Other funding sources are unworkable at present. The gas tax is showing diminishing returns because of increased fuel efficiency and reduced driving. Regional mayors are rightly unwilling to increase the property tax burden on homeowners. Transit fares cannot be increased – many lower-income riders would not be able to afford the increases, and some riders would abandon transit; this is the opposite of what the plan is trying to achieve. A vehicle levy was previously rejected by residents in 2001, and is unlikely to be popular now.

Road pricing as a funding solution?

The report’s authors reject road pricing at present, arguing that it only applies to drivers, rather than all residents – despite drivers constituting a majority transportation share. However, in a comment on one of his recent posts, Hillsdon notes:

Once the tax is introduced and the transit system is “completed”, I think passing road pricing is realistic. But people need alternatives available first and the funding for those alternatives need to be stable and sustainable, not based on the mode we are trying to discourage.

I agree. While I am in favour of road pricing for encouraging a shift to more sustainable, less costly modes (transit, cycling, walking), and away from driving, the scheme would be more acceptable when the alternatives are essentially already built. It would be unfair to punish drivers with an additional cost when they do not have viable alternatives to driving in many regions of Metro Vancouver – specifically South of Fraser. We can reexamine road pricing/congestion pricing as a longer term funding solution, once the core frequent transit network, as envisioned in the plan, is built.

The time is now to Leap Ahead

Deftly dismissing the specious arguments about improving fiscal prudence within Translink (already achieved), and paying for transit through eliminating fare evasion (a comparatively miniscule amount, outstripped even by the cost of the new Skytrain faregates), Hillsdon and Pachal argue that the funding solution, and subsequent projects, must be implemented soon.

The provincial government, architects of a problematic structure within Translink (it is responsible for the conflicting needs of both roads and transit, with limited funding) and a disingenuous upcoming referendum on transit, are not taking the lead on implementing solutions. A modest sales tax to fund the transit improvements Metro Vancouver desperately needs is as affordable and straightforward a solution as we’ve seen yet.

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.