Understandably, this change has occupied much of my mind and presented a range of feelings. Gratitude for the opportunities I had to grow over the last 21 years with BC Transit and all the fantastic people I worked with over that time. Excitement to be joining the lovely folks I’ve met so far at Watt and the opportunity to keep learning there. More on that, below.
However, when I was thinking about this change over the past few weeks, it put me in the space of looking back on where I started in transit. And THAT got me thinking about where transit starts each and every day. That start is something that hundreds of millions of people benefit from each day but very few have ever experienced or ever thought about.
When I considered writing a post about my changing employment, I found that the piece I most wanted to write about is this hidden yet vital part of transit systems everywhere. A part that I feel privileged to have witnessed first hand over the past two decades.
While You Are Sleeping
If you rode transit to work or school this past week, there’s a good chance that you never considered how much earlier the person operating your bus, train or streetcar had to get up.
The transit day start is an early one. While some transit service may run around the clock, a bus on the road to get you where you are going for 8:00am likely left the transit yard sometime between 4:00am and 6:00am.
For the past couple decades, I’ve been in a position to witness these early starts (and late finishes) first hand. To the transit operators who do this day in and day out, I’m not sure if a bleary-eyed arrival at the yard has any deep significance anymore. It’s just something that’s a regular part of the workday and no longer something that merits notice. After a few months and years, the novelty has worn thin and it’s now just the basic rhythm of life and the reason why their kids see mom or dad going to bed by 9pm.
But for me, heading to the depot that early–and of my own choosing–has been infrequent enough that it has always been something that I’ve noticed and appreciated. Here’s what it’s like.
Out of the Quiet
Since the buses aren’t running yet, the options for getting to the depot early in the morning are limited. For me heading to the transit centre closest to where I live, some of those main choices were a long-ish walk, a car trip or a taxi ride. But by far my favorite method that early in the morning has been by bike. Come with me and let’s experience it together.
Rolling on our bikes, we ride through quiet, dark neighbourhood streets where most are still sleeping. There’s nothing to hear but the hiss of our wheels on wet pavement and virtually no cars around. Because we can and because it’s fun, we take big swoops down the centre of the road and relish the opportunity to ride fast and free.
The cold, damp hits our faces and is shaking off some of the sleepiness. The travel mugs of coffee rattling in our water bottle cages promise help of another kind.
We pass the closed store fronts and the dark windows with nothing much to see or hear. And then, just like that, we get near the bus yard and there is a sudden and abrupt change. Coming to it from the sleepy neighbourhood streets, the contrast is profound and striking.
The big yard lights are on and the lights of dozens of buses are coming into action. There is sound and lots of it. Engines are coming to life and there’s a steady beep of vehicles backing up. From all over the yard come quick “honk honk” sounds as each driver goes through the steps of checking his or her bus for the day.
Parking our bikes and entering the doors in the depot building, there’s a crowd of people. Some operators are chatting and ribbing each other loudly. Some are just quietly grabbing their transfers for the day and looking for the piece of paper–their “paddle”–that lists the routes and trips they will drive during their shift.
Some are impressively and reliably cheerful at this hour. Some are not, and there can be many reasons for this: whatever’s going on at home, larger forces at play at work, being stuck with a different type of vehicle than promised due to mechanical issues. And then every so often you see the down right panicky ones, who come flying through the door minutes away from being declared late and therefore absent, a “sleeper.”
As someone who’s never worked as a transit operator, I’ve always been somewhat of an outsider to this scene. But I’ve always felt honoured to witness it and fascinated by watching a transit day unfold.
Even more so, every time I’ve ridden my bike up to the yard and experienced that sensory crash of noise and light emerging out of the quiet I’ve been blown away by the connection I felt to being part of something so big. The knowledge that as these vehicles were springing to life and fanning out across the region, they represented a tremendous coordinated effort. That all these people and investment were in turn going to help make their city move and get many, many other citizens to where they needed to go over the day.
Gratitude and Change
Now, my reasons for getting up this early and being able to see all this have been varied. In the beginning, it was because one of my first jobs at transit was riding buses all day to record ridership and scheduling details. I was the human version of the job now more usually performed by Automated Passenger Counters. In later years, my pre-dawn depot arrivals would often be just because I like to get up early and this meant I could take advantage of the office being so quiet.
Most often through the years, though, my early starts have been because I’ve been trying to see first hand what is happening in systems by riding buses right from the beginning of the commuter period. Or because I wanted to speak with drivers at the depot to get their thoughts on how to improve service.
I feel lucky that I got to experience these discussions and transit day early starts (and late ends) not just at Victoria’s two yards but at an extraordinary range of places.
One occasion that sticks in my mind is walking through the softly falling October snow to the yard in Terrace, B.C. to be on the first #5 Thornhill of the day. I got to listen to the driver and regulars on the way back into town talk about not only what they wanted to see different in their system but whether this was going to be the first snow of the year to stay.
A decade and a half later and at the other end of the province, I was walking in the July pre-dawn quiet beside Kootenay Lake. I was dropping off muffins for the City of Nelson’s transit staff to wish them well on the start of their big service change in 2013. I got to have experiences like this replicated all over the province: Kelowna, Abbotsford, Nanaimo, Williams Lake, Comox Valley and on and on.
And every time, what this underscored for me is the undeniable importance of being present in transit systems if you want to make them better. That if you want to know what’s really going on in a system, you need to experience it first hand and speak with the staff and passengers who are closest to the action. And speaking with them means going to where they are, not the reverse.
If I leave one legacy with the planning staff I’ve worked with over the years, I hope that point is it.
Like I said, I’m transitioning to a new job with Watt Consulting that starts tomorrow and I couldn’t be more excited. In my new role as Senior Transportation Planner & Project Lead, it means that I not only get to be a part of transit projects but the full spectrum of mobility. Cycling and pedestrian plans, overall transportation master plans, urban realm redesign, work with developers and more.
Having the ability to work on that breadth of projects–and keep challenging myself–will be amazing and means that I’m even more able to be part of the holistic transportation change I speak to so often here.
Even more so, since Watt has offices across Western Canada, I’m also hoping to now get to work with transit systems and communities outside of BC. To learn from them and also be able to pass on what I’ve learned through working with so many systems and projects in this province. To keep pushing myself in my knowledge of transit planning, scheduling, operations, governance and infrastructure to help make good transit systems even better.
I’m hoping to keep writing about these new adventures and learning here.
And in the meantime, my heartfelt thanks to all those I’ve worked with at BC Transit and its many systems. The world of transportation and planning is small and I’m sure we’ll continue to work with each other in new ways.
And most of all, to the transit operators and operations staff who got up very early this morning or will by driving late tonight and all the split shifts and straight eights in between, huge respect and gratitude to you for doing what you do and doing it well. You move whole cities and the rest of us thank you for it.