Day 64 of 98 – However far away

21 Nov

The public transportation in Helsinki is very good. They have one subway line, about 10 tram lines and a boatload of buses.

Awesome Subway Car

Went to the pub one night and when we left at around 01:30 it was raining for the first time in about seven weeks (the weather in Lyon does not count). We waited about five minutes at a bus stop across the street and the number 93 bus took us to within a five-minute walk of our apartment.

This was a strange experience and it’s kinda hard to describe. There were many factors

  • It being 01:30
  • Walking to the nearest bus stop – only twenty metres
  • Waiting for only five minutes for the bus
  • The bus arriving exactly when the display said it would
  • The bus being full, but not packed
  • The passengers being a cross section of Finnish society – not just the late-night party-people one would expect to encounter at 01:30
  • Everyone casually talking with their travel companions – the atmosphere being like “this is how I get home” and not “this is the only way for me to get home”
  • No one yelling or screaming on the bus
  • The bus being comfortable – the temperature was right and the ride was smooth
  • Not having to change buses
  • Being dropped off a five-minute walk from home
  • The location of the outing not being chosen for its proximity to a bus line that would take us directly home
  • The pub and our apartment not being on a downtown-to-suburb bus line, they were more east-west of each other with the downtown being to the south.

It seems to me that in Ottawa the bus system is set up for people who need it during peak hours but the rest of the time it’s used by people who cannot afford cars. These are two very different types of customer. And no one really seems to be invested in the whole enterprise. Don’t get me wrong, I love OC Transpo and I think it’s great – it’s the best bus transit system I’ve used in all of Canada, IMHO. I love taking the TransitWay and passing all those cars that are stuck in traffic.

But how we engage public transportation in Ottawa (and maybe all of Canada) is more like a kind of going-through-the-motions – we’re a city of a million people (including Gatineau) so we *have* to implement a bus system or we’ll look stupid if we don’t.

I think it’s a problem of culture and this is discouraging because culture is a very hard thing to change. I’ve had some experiences that have reenforced this perception.

A few years ago I was at work and, while waiting for a meeting to start, it came up in conversation that I didn’t own a car. There were some astonished looks and some good-natured ribbing about “what do I do if I have to go on a date?” When I said take the bus everyone burst out laughing. One of my colleagues said she would never date anyone who didn’t own a car. Thanks for the vote of confidence. And (ironically?) the night before I had been on a date with a hot Swedish exchange student. And I didn’t have a car. And she didn’t seem to care.

It would surprise me if any of the big OC Transpo decision-makers were much different from my work colleagues. Do they use the system outside of commuting to and from work? My guess is no. And the system reflects this: to travel between downtown and the suburbs during the 07:00-09:00 and 15:00-18:00 rush hour periods is pretty easy. Once you move outside of rush hour or away from the TransitWay, things get more difficult – they’re still good, but not as good.

I mean, if you’re middle class with two cars and all your friends have two cars, you are going to drive everywhere all the time. Naturally, it’s going to be difficult to relate with those of us who rely on public transportation. I imagine most city counsellors fall into this category. Canada has about 563 motor vehicles per 1,000 people.

But over here in Europe, the public transit is set up so that everyone can use it. And they promote the use of it. Check this out:

  • In Berlin, if you have a monthly or yearly transit pass, you can take someone with you for free on weekends/holidays and weekdays after 20:00 / before 07:00.
  • In Helsinki if you have a baby stroller and the stroller has a live baby in it, you can both travel for free.
  • At one of the many dinner parties I attended in Helsinki was the mother of one of my gf’s friends. This woman was
    – probably in her mid fifties
    – retired from her job as an executive for one of the three largest banks in Finland where she was
    – responsible for all of her employer’s banking operations in eastern Europe
    And she took the bus to get to the dinner party. And it was easy. And we had a great meal with lots of wine and Swedish poisons… I mean liqueurs. But can you imagine anyone who fits that description taking a bus in Canada? I’m not going to list the reasons why one would want to live in a society where a woman retired bank executive is comfortable taking the city bus late at night. The reasons are obvious and you can figure them out for yourself.

Maybe I’m crazy but I see two things

  1. for a city to thrive, the people in said city need to be able to easily move around it – especially those who have low-paying jobs
  2. oil is a finite resource and the cost of fuel is going up faster than your salary is

No, the world is not going to end. Things are just slowly going to get more expensive and one day you’re going to wake up and find that 30%* of your after-tax salary is going towards your car. You’re going to want to cut that item but you will be unable to because you won’t be able to use the bus to get where you need to go.

Sorry for the rant. Needed to get that out.

* If as a single person you make $73 000 per year, you live in Quebec and your car costs $12 000 per year to own (depreciation, fuel, insurance, parking, snow removal, repairs, maintenance, finance, license and registration, mortgage on your garage/parking space), then you are paying $12 000 / $52 000 = 23% of your take-home salary for your car. Or to put it an even more depressing way, you’re working about 6 hours a week – or missing 8.5 weeks of vacation per year. BTW, contrary to what most people say, Europe is just beautiful in November.

2 Responses to “Day 64 of 98 – However far away”

  1. Mom November 22, 2011 at 13:13 #

    I couldn’t agree more….. Well written!

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