Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wheelchair users on public transit: safety vs. time

Safety is always a priority when taking transit, but something that should coincide with safety is time efficiency. I try to be as time efficient as possible despite things like loading or unloading my wheelchair, but I hear a lot of things indicating that people perceive certain procedures in this process to be a bit too time-consuming when they're actually not.

For the interest of maybe debunking some of those perceptions, I'm going to propose some scenarios. Some will appear to be time-consuming but I will try to explain why they might not be. Some will appear to be time-saving but may actually consume more time in the long run. Hopefully this will clear some things up.

Scenario #1

On one of the older low-floor buses, I often see drivers get out of their seats when the ramp is lowered to help with the straps. At first glance, this appears to be a bit more time-consuming than it is. However, it saves a bit of time if the driver does things right -- basically, the strapping can begin the very second I am in position, and I can do the other side while the driver does one side. Usually by the time I get the other side done, the driver is back in his seat and we're ready to go.

Scenario #2

On the same vehicle, a driver might not offer any assistance. While I am capable of putting on the straps myself, it actually takes MORE time because of the steps involved: wheel into position, put the brakes on, put the straps on one side at a time, etc. In addition, the driver has to get confirmation that you're ready to go. In bad situations (which have happened to me), the driver might not even wait before you're strapped in before starting the bus. Not only is this obviously dangerous, but also it throws off the wheelchair user if he or she is not finished strapping in, which means even more time is wasted trying to get things set up.

Scenario #3

On some vehicles, some drivers unexplicably wrap the straps' buckles or hooks around something like the handles above the backrest of the folding seats. This is not a good thing to do. The reason why it's bad is because the straps must be completely retracted first before you can pull it out and make it longer. Sometimes the straps take a long time to retract due to the belt being twisted and whatnot. So for drivers out there, just leave the straps alone and don't do anything fancy with them when the wheelchair spaces are empty.

Scenario #4

On the SkyTrain, there is a nice little period of time called rush hour. One thing that I really appreciate is how some attendants will try to find a way to get you on board a train despite the passenger loads. This is something that I wish I can see more often because at some stations, it's badly needed because wheelchair users can't just "squeeze on" as well as everyone else.

Scenario #5

When boarding a SkyTrain, letting a wheelchair user on board first will save you time. The reason for this is because it gives the wheelchair user more space to get positioned in the wheelchair bays, which are designed to prevent aisle obstruction. With that in mind, once in position, everyone else can get on. The same with deboarding; letting wheelchair users off first means that there will be more room for everyone else to get off the train also.

Scenario #6

People blocking the path to the elevators is a pet peeve of mine. One thing I'd like to see changed is people being more aware of where the elevators are when they see a wheelchair user, and try to at least try to clear some sort of path leading to them. Broadway-Commercial Station is a particular nuisance, because the elevator near the overhead walkway is next to stairs and escalators. Everyone gravitates towards them, creating a human wall that prevents efficient elevator access. So while I look for a lane to clear, people behind me would have to dodge out of the way and stuff, creating some slight chaos.

Scenario #7

This one is a mixed bag for me -- walking people using the wheelchair ramp to board the bus. I see this as a time-saver and a time-waster, and it all depends on what ultimately happens in each particular situation. If everyone knows where they are going, has no questions for the driver, has exact change or a fare card, etc., then it is a definite time saver. However, if someone has a question for the driver, it is a time-waster because that person will likely stand next to the farebox to ask the question, preventing the ramp from retracting when everyone else has boarded. Without retracting the ramp, the bus cannot leave, hence wasting precious time.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Patience is a virtue

Last night, I was waiting on Granville Street downtown for a bus. It was really cold so when the bus came, I was a bit antsy to get on.

Apparently someone else was even antsier.

I'll call him Impatient Businessman. When the front doors opened, he stepped aside. The driver started deploying the wheelchair ramp. When the ramp was at an approximately 90 degrees' angle from the ground, Impatient Businessman somehow lost his patience and stepped forward to enter the bus, only to find that the ramp was about to lower on to him. Genius.

So the ramp finally came down and I started to get on the bus. For some reason, after I had one full push of my wheels, Impatient Businessman somehow saw it fit to push my wheelchair from behind in a rush to get on.

For the uninitiated, there are several reasons why you should never do this. Some are obvious, some are not.

  1. It is dangerous. When I push my wheelchair, I am in control. Because most non-temporary wheelchair users have custom-built wheelchairs, they can predict exactly how their chairs will behave in certain situations. If someone suddenly exerts force on the chair unexpectedly, the wheelchair becomes unpredictable and the wheelchair user may get hurt; for example, the unexpected change in speed may get his/her fingers caught in the rear wheels' push rims. In some cases, the center of gravity may be affected and the wheelchair may tip.
  2. It is degrading. Assuming we need assistance without asking is degrading and rude. It is similar to other prejudiced assumptions in other situations, like assuming Asians don't speak English. It is okay when the situation clearly calls for it, but the general golden rule is if we need help, we will ask for it.
  3. Touching someone's wheelchair is like touching someone's body. While it is true that the wheelchair isn't part of our bodies, it should be treated as such when it comes to touching and proximity. Impatient Businessman's behavior is basically the equivalent of someone shoving you from behind. Unless authorized, touching someone else's wheelchair is a big no-no.

The general allowances that are made are for drivers, who sometimes help wheelchair users. In this case, it can be seen as them doing their job since ensuring safety is one of their responsibilities, and it's hard to blame them for making sure things are done properly before starting the bus. But note that drivers generally don't push anyone's wheelchairs. There's a reason for that. Too bad Impatient Businessman didn't realize it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Snow and buses

So Metro Vancouver got its first full snow blanketing of the season. I can't say I missed the snow too much, but this is Canada and there's a rumor out there about this country being a bit cold.

I had the misfortune of heading out to Burnaby Mountain yesterday when the snow was almost limited to north Burnaby. It always fascinates me to see the snow slowly appear over there as you rise in elevation. It's like you left the Lower Mainland and have arrived in some remote place in the interior.

SFU has a cool setup when it comes to bus exchanges, in the way that there's a main bus exchange and a secondary one at the Transportation Center; that way, you get your pick of not only which one's closer, but which one is covered or uncovered. Unfortunately, I'm a bit of an idiot and used the uncovered one both times even though on sunny summer days, I use the covered one. (In another act of idiocy, I installed snow tires on my wheelchair but not my car. Priorities, right?)

As I was getting set to board the bus leaving campus, the ramp lowered and sank right into the snow bank on the edge of the sidewalk. That reminds me of something I've always wondered about: when the bus exchanges and bus stops are cleared, why is the area around the bus stop pole always unshoveled at the edge? I've seen countless able-bodied people have to nearly (and sometimes actually) jump over the snowbank at the edge of the sidewalks at bus stops in order to board.

I was able to pop a wheelie in my wheelchair, float my front caster wheels over the ramp and slam down with the casters onto the ramp to flatten the snow and make the whole thing work, but it was only because the snow was new and not icy. During the freak snowstorm a few years ago, I wasn't so lucky and had to battle away chunks of ice in order for the ramp or lift to even work.

So the question remains: when clearing the bus stops, why isn't more attention being paid to the area around the bus stop pole on the edge of the sidewalk, where most people have to get through in order to board the bus? I'm not asking for a spotless cleanup, but at least try to get rid of the snow/ice accumulation in that particular spot.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Telling left from right is difficult!

Today, the good folks over at Tales of TransLink posted an interesting piece about bus drivers and how drivers are supposed to yield to them, but sometimes the bus drivers themselves don't follow the rules.

The majority of the bus drivers I've come across are okay for the most part, but that post reminds me of a glaringly dangerous situation I came across a few weeks ago.

I was driving to Richmond from West Vancouver with a friend. We crossed the Lions Gate Bridge and were heading eastbound on Georgia Street. A bus from West Vancouver was in the curb lane, letting out some passengers. Traffic was a bit heavy at the time, so we weren't going that fast.

The bus driver stopped signalling right, so I got ready to yield to the bus if needed. But then it started signalling right again. By the looks of it, it could've been one of those "Sorry, back door please!" situations on the bus. So I inched forward. Suddenly the bus lurched out to my lane, still signalling right. I braked just in time; it was lucky that we were in slow moving traffic, but when you have a 40-foot bus making a move like that, it makes for a scary situation.

The bus, once in front of me, then signalled left. That time, the bus driver really did what he was indicating, and turned to the lef lane. I was starting to think it might've been a brief brain fart on the part of the bus driver before, but then the bus suddenly pulled back to the right into my lane without so much as a signal; it had nearly missed a stop on the right, and had to cut across two lanes to get to it (and cutting me off in the process).

This kind of maneuver is scary for any situation, but that bus could've hit another car easily despite the slow speeds at the time. And if the bus driver managed to hit another car while going no more than 40 km/h, it would definitely be immensely embarrassing for him.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Why I am glad to see the high-floor buses go

A few weeks ago, photos started popping up on various websites and blogs of the old TransLink-owned New Flyer D40 and D60 buses being dismantled and demolished around Annacis Island. For the uninitiated, these were the high-floor buses that came to the Vancouver area in the early 1990s. Since they came into being, new technology allowed low-floor buses to exist and these new buses, like most other new gadgets, eventually got more love and popularity than the old low-floor buses; today, most of the TransLink bus fleet is of the low-floor variety.

Good riddance.

There are many reasons why I didn't like the high-floor buses. One reason is that they appear to eat up fuel much quicker than their low-floor counterparts; you can tell simply by hearing how hard the engine has to work to move the bus forward a single meter. Another reason is because one of them held me hostage at one point.

It was during my days as a student at UBC. I was on a high-floor bus going up Granville Street towards downtown Vancouver. My plan was to get off at Broadway to switch to a 99 B-Line bus (or a trolley bus if that failed). It was during rush hour, which meant a mixed blessing in Vancouver -- more buses available but also more traffic to contend with.

As most of you are aware, before the Canada Line kicked in, Granville Street at Broadway was one of the most major transit transfer points in Vancouver. So, as evil high-floor buses tend to do, it did something that I really dreaded.

It held me hostage.

What happened? Well, some background information first: high-floor buses offer wheelchair accessibility in the form of a lift, rather than a flip-out ramp like low-floor buses. The lift uses hydraulics, whereas the flip-out ramp is, well, a simple flip-out mechanism. Unlike the lift, the flip-out ramp can be manually flipped out by hand if it is malfunctioning.

So right at the busy bus stop on Granville Street at Broadway, the lift decided to quit. It would stretch out to the sidewalk and go up like it was supposed to, but it wouldn't go down. Wonderful. So on a bus full of commuters during morning rush hour, it froze up like a stage performer caught with his fly open.

The worst part was that I wasn't the only person needing to get off via the lift at that stop; the other passenger needed to get off also. But the lift wasn't moving and the bus wasn't going anywhere. The passengers on the bus were forced to get off and continue their journey on another bus (thankfully the 98 B-Line was still in existence at the time, so they didn't have to wait long) while the other passenger and I were on the bus wondering what to do next.

Another driver, who was off-duty and passing by, came along and the two drivers did everything they could. They kicked at the lift. They fiddled with it. They swore at it. The only thing that they didn't try was make an animal sacrifice to honor the sacred transit god of El Diesel McNovaBus. Eventually a transit supervisor arrived. It seemed like we might have to have the bus towed away or something when the lift suddenly worked!

Of course, it did so after I realized I was going to be massively late for class no matter what.

Did I mention the lift was a stupid pain in the [bleep] piece of [bleep]?

This is the main reason why I stopped trusting high-floor buses. The mechanism for their lifts is pretty complex and if one piece fails, the whole thing might not work. Considering how many moving piece there are, it's easy to see how something might go wrong.

The only vehicles in the TransLink system still using the same lift mechanism are the high-floor Orion V buses that operate on Highway 99 to Delta, South Surrey and White Rock. Those buses are much newer but I hope they don't run into the same problems. (Community shuttles have lifts too but it appears to be a different mechanism.)

Good bye, D40 and D60 high-floors. May your lifts actually work in the afterlife, so I can actually get around there too.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

I hope you leave enough room for my fist...

After making a post about good bus drivers, it sucks that I have to write one about a bad one.

One time, I was heading to the bus stop at UBC Loop. The 44 bus was waiting there, which was perfect since I was heading downtown. I came up to it. The driver was looking straight ahead, preoccupied with something in the distance.

"Excuse me?" I said, trying to get his attention so he can deploy the wheelchair ramp.

"The bus is full," he said, without even looking at me.

I looked at the bus. It was a 60-foot articulated bus. The seats were all taken, but there were only a few standees -- starting from the back, the standees didn't even reach the articulated joint part of the bus. The front part of the bus was devoid of standees. It was NOT full.

"There's plenty of room," I told him.

"The bus is full," he repeated. Again, he didn't even look at me.

Some other passengers were hesitating to get on, unsure of what to do. "Are you getting on?" one of them asked me.

"He said the bus is full."

"It's not full."

"That's what I told him!"

The other passengers, not wanting to miss their bus and not sure what else to do about this, boarded the bus. Some of them told him that I could easily get on. He at least looked at them, but ignored what they said. He then promptly closed the door and drove away.

I was astounded by what just happened. Thankfully there was a transit supervisor on site, at the opposite end of the bus loop. I went up to him and told him what happened. As I did, an off-duty driver came up from behind me. "I saw the whole thing," he said. "There was plenty of room on the bus. He could've easily taken him [which meant me] and a lot of other passengers too."

The supervisor said he would inform the driver when he returns. The off-duty driver's bus wasn't leaving for a while, I guess, and he ensured that I got on the next one. I'm not sure if he was afraid that this incident would make me think badly of the other bus drivers (which would not be something I'd do since it was an individual driver who was the problem), but it was nice of him to do it nonetheless.

After this incident, I was genuinely concerned -- not for me, but for others who might receive the same treatment from this driver. I eventually wrote a letter to Coast Mountain Bus Company about this. I guess they saw it as a serious matter because they had someone call me directly to have a verbal report of the incident (in addition to the written one I sent in).

It was lucky that I was at UBC Loop, where it was a sunny day, where there were many other bus connections available and that I am a capable manual wheelchair user (rather than a power wheelchair user with more limited mobility). I can't imagine if this happened to someone with severe mobility limitations on a late winter night; hopefully this type of incident never happens again.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Drivers gone wild, in a good way

With so many incidents of bus drivers' bad attitudes, it's easy to overlook the drivers who do extra things to make their passengers' days better. With the hassles of navigating through Metro Vancouver's streets with a giant 40- or 60-foot bus, it's easy to just say "screw it" and stick to driving, and letting the tension of certain incidents build up over time.

However, there are some drivers who use the passengers as fuel to make their jobs and their passengers' rides a lot more enjoyable. I haven't come across nearly enough of these drivers but it's always nice when I do. Here are a couple of them I'd like to share.

On one of the routes connecting UBC to the Kerrisdale area, there was a driver who liked to give the afternoon students a bit of a puzzle before he left the campus. As the bus would leave 16th Avenue towards the "highway" stretch of Southwest Marine Drive, he would give a trivia question on the PA and the passengers would have until 41st Avenue to answer it. The correct answer earns you a candy bar. This is especially nice during midterm times, when students need a chance to unwind after a rough day.

Another driver is one who drove a pre-Canada Line peak hour route connecting downtown Vancouver to Richmond. (I know his name but I won't post it here for privacy reasons.) His route is a tough one, because it involved doing one from downtown to Tsawwassen, then making his way back to downtown to finish the day with the Richmond route. A lot of the passengers on this run knew about it, so we usually cut him some slack whenever he was late. (This type of run was poorly planned by TransLink/Coast Mountain Bus Company to begin with.)

Because his run was one of the last ones of the day, it would get dark whenever he started making his way from Broadway towards Richmond (unless it was summer). He drove an Orion V for that route, so it was really comfortable and a lot of people would sleep during that trip; it made sense to sleep because traffic to the bridge was often nightmarish at that hour. Realizing that, he would do something neat after leaving the Broadway stop -- he would briefly give the day's headlines and then say, "I will be turning off the lights shortly so you can take a nap. The lights will turn back on once we enter Richmond." A lot of people on board that bus really appreciated this gesture.

I also liked him on another level. Because he knew that I often rode his bus, he would actually check to see if the wheelchair lift on the bus was working before accepting it (since the Orion V buses, unlike the regular buses, can't take a wheelchair user if the lift mechanism is broken). And sometimes if he's a bit early and sees me coming, he'd roll out the lift and wait for me. Very nice guy.

Those are the two drivers that really stick in my mind. I'm sure there are many others out there.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Pay attention to your surroundings

One thing I always try to do on board a bus is pay attention to my surroundings. It something every person should do. Even if you're taking a nap on board, at least make sure you're in a good position to do so or something, and not end up snoring on someone else's shoulder.

There was one person who obviously didn't know how to do that. I was on a bus between Surrey Central Station and South Surrey. It was a New Flyer D40LFR bus. I hate these buses because their newer "hook" restraints are incredibly difficult to use. They're supposed to be an improvement but require a million hands just to get strapped in. Another disadvantage to these buses is how the front seats flip up three seats at a time on one side. That's much more room than I need, and it sucks that others can't at least flip down the seat close to the wheel.

So anyways, I was getting on a bus at Surrey Central Station. I got myself strapped/hooked in and such, and we were ready to go. It was getting dark and the bus was semi-full. One guy, whom I'll call Clueless Guy, decided that he wanted to sit down. He saw that the area in front of me was wide open, and decided to flip down the seat to sit down.

Clueless Guy didn't notice that the seats flipped down all at once. He was in a huge hurry to sit down, for some reason. So he grabbed the seat closest to the front wheel, and flipped it down without even looking around. The seat closest to me slammed right down on my wheelchair and pinched a flap of skin on my thigh -- and I can feel that part. He sat down with all his might, and that flap of skin got sandwiched between my wheelchair cushion and the seat that just slammed down on me. OUCH SON OF A [BLEEP].

I tried to get his attention but he was looking out the window (at what, I don't know, since it was dark). Some other passengers who realized the situation tried to get his attention as well, but Clueless Guy seemed to be ignoring them. Eventually we did get his attention -- only to find out that he didn't speak a word of English (and probably didn't understand the "excuse me?"s and "sir?"s coming from us). He had no idea what he did wrong, until the bus arrived at a stop and the lights turned on.

He got off, and tried to lift the seat. But there was a problem. On these new buses, in order to lift the seat, it must go completely down first. The seat he sat down on went completely down, but the side that was pinching my thigh and trapping my wheelchair didn't. I was stuck.

The driver looked at the situation and then looked at his location. He was kind of in the middle of Surrey with a fairly packed bus. Eventually I freed up my thigh flap, but my wheelchair was still stuck because the seat was pinning down my wheelchair. Since my body was physically freed, the driver decided to call in a supervisor to meet us at Newton Exchange and asked us to make sure people don't sit down on those seats for the time being.

I'm not sure if it was due to the language barrier or what, but Clueless Guy didn't offer much in terms of an apology. He pretty much ignored me until his stop. I don't know, maybe he was embarrassed. I don't blame him for being embarrassed, but he should've really paid attention to what he was doing beforehand. I mean, when you pull down one seat but get three coming down at once, there's got to be a reason for that.

Finally after some huffing and puffing, we did get my wheelchair freed at Newton Exchange. Luckily my chair is a high-end one made of titanium (made by this company), so any scratches can simply be buffed up and it'd look like new again.

Let this be a lesson -- it doesn't matter how tired you are, or how dark it is. Please pay attention to what you're doing and pay attention to your surroundings on board the bus. You never know what can happen if you don't, because unexpected things like these can and do happen.

Also, thank goodness some of the newest TransLink buses have seats that can be flipped up one at a time. It's good for avoiding situations such as this one, and also good when a wheelchair user's friend can sit at eye level to chat.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cheese + Whine

One time, I was on a bus leaving UBC Loop heading towards 4th Avenue. It was a typical school day around spring, when final exams are coming in and student anxieties and tensions were high. It was only normal that some students would be going a little crazy. But I didn't expect the craziness to come out on the bus. And in this manner.

Anyways, I was on the bus at the front. It was standing room only, as usual. The bus started to pull out of the bus loop. Suddenly, a student asked to get off. The driver was ready to turn on to Student Union Boulevard (a.k.a. no-man's land when it comes to dropping people off) and said he can't. The student then threw a tantrum.

Yes. A tantrum.

She kept whining about needing to get off. Finally, as the driver was making the left turn from Student Union Boulevard on to Wesbrook Mall, she screamed in the highest pitch ever, "LET ME OFF THE BUSSSSSS!!!" and jumped up and down with both her feet stomping the floor of the bus.

The driver ignored her but eventually did let off her right before we hit Chancellor Boulevard. As soon as she got off, almost everyone on board burst out laughing. It was ironic how one person's exam stress can end up being a de-stressor for everyone else.

At the next stop, a passenger said to the driver, "Well, that was something, huh?" The driver laughed and said, "I have a five-year-old daughter who acts more mature than that!"

And who says people get more mature in university?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Thin Blue Line

"Please stand behind the red line."

That's a phrase that almost all transit users in Metro Vancouver can relate to. It's probably the most often-repeated phrase in this city right after "We are all Canucks" (which is a false statement; I'm not one).

However, there's one that not many people have heard of: "Please stand behind the blue line." What's the blue line? Unlike the red line, it's marked on the wall rather than the ground, and is located approximately behind the first row of front-facing priority seats. Whereas passengers must normally stay behind the red line, passengers are supposedly supposed to stand behind the blue line when a wheelchair bay is occupied.

I'm a wheelchair user and even I wasn't aware of this until recently, when drivers on my buses started to enforce this rule. And this has caused quite a raucous for those who either didn't know the rule or refuse to follow it.

When the bus is crowded, this rule can cause a lot of frustration for those waiting at the stops because the driver would refuse to let people on after a certain point, saying "the bus is full." As you can guess, a lot of people get angry. One of them even tried to throw her bag of groceries at the windshield. (This city is nothing if not a little nuts.) Other reactions include people pointing out the bus number and indicating that they'll remember it and report it.

The people who do get on are often told to move back behind the blue line. A lot of them are confused but usually relent after the driver (or other passengers at the front) point out the blue line. But once in a while, someone decides that the rule applies to everyone except for him.

One day, on the 99 B-Line, the driver decided to enforce the "blue line" rule. He made everyone board via the back doors to make it easier. One guy was angry that the front doors weren't opened, and physically pushed down or aside other passengers to stand at the front.

The driver asked him to stay back but he said, "I have a right to stand here. There's lots of space." The driver informed him that according to regulations, passengers must stand behind the blue line when the wheelchair bay was occupied (it's apparently part of the Safety Code of Canada). The guy refused to even look at the blue line being pointed out. Other passengers at the front seats pointed it out and told him to get back.

Normally there wouldn't be any other people pointing it out but he pissed off a lot of people (such as the people he pushed down earlier). The driver refused to move the bus until he either moved back or got off the bus. The guy eventually did relent, but it was tense there for a moment.

So there I was, the guy in the wheelchair and the cause of the conflict is my mere existence. I hate being caught in these awkward conflicts but once they happen, they're beyond my control. Personally, I don't give a damn if you're ahead of the blue line, as long as people move aside when I get on or off. But if the driver needs/wants to enforce a rule, it's not really in my place to suggest otherwise.

Now this begs the question: why isn't the "blue line" rule made clearer? Let's not look at how reasonable or unreasonable the rule is for a moment, and look at how the rule is so obscure that even I didn't know much about it.

The blue line in question is on the wall, and not on the floor. Everyone knows about the red line because it's on the floor, but when you point out a blue line and people look at the floor, they see nothing. And on the wall, it's a thin dotted line. For the unobservant, you can easily miss it and you can't really blame them for that.

And because of people not knowing about this rule, a lot of conflict and anger arises from this. It's just a matter of time until some well-meaning driver trying to enforce this rule gets hurt as a result of an unruly passenger such as the one on my 99 B-Line ride.

I find that usually when the rules are made clear, passengers tend to obey it without question. But this "blue line" rule definitely causes a stir every time it's enforced, and needs to be made much clearer to reduce conflict in the future. We already have a bus driver assault problem in Metro Vancouver; let's not make it worse.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Mile High Fight Club

SkyTrain cars are probably the most disabled-friendly vehicles in the TransLink system (if you don't factor in rush hour, which makes NOTHING disabled-friendly). They're easy enough to get in, and easy enough to get out, and usually it doesn't take too long to do so.

For the uninitiated (or the unobservant), each SkyTrain has blue accessible stickers at some doors to indicate where accessible seating is located. On the old MK1 trains, this points you to the side-facing flip-up seats. I can wheel in and park there next to the door without obstructing people. On the newer MK2 trains, this points you to side- or rear-facing flip-up seats. These are less obvious and fewer people know about them, and are actually more difficult for me to use as well. (This is why I actually prefer the older trains despite their age and generally gloomy looks.)

One day, I was at Surrey Central Station on an unusually busy off-peak day. I had to wait for the next train because the crowding simply didn't allow me to get on the train. So I moved far away from where the stairs and elevators are, so I can avoid the crush of people coming into the station from the bus loop. This meant that I would get on the front car.

The train arrived. Some people were waiting at the same spot as me, and got ready to enter the MK1 train. The doors opened. And there was a huge mountain bike in the way, with some guy sitting in the accessible flip-up seat, with his earphones blasting away. Nobody could get on because the bike was blocking the entire entrance (not to mention people gave me boarding priority because I am in a wheelchair).

"Excuse me!" I said. No response. "Sir?" No response. I love heavy rock music as much as the next person, but this was a bit much. He wasn't paying attention to anything going on around him.

Faced with the prospect of NOBODY getting on and the doors closing soon, I had no choice but to reach out and move the bike's wheels so we could at least get on. Everyone squeezed on just as the doors closed. He remained in the priority seat, his legs splayed out in a V-shape as if to take up as much floor space as humanly possible.

As the train started moving, I felt a tug on my sweater. "Guy!" the Mountain Bike Guy barked at me. "If there's a bike on the train, you should just get on another one. Now you're just blocking the way."

I thought he was joking. But apparently not. "Well, you're in the accessible seating area. How am I supposed to get out of the way when you're in the spot?"

"I can't just move. I have a bike with me. You're not supposed to get on if I have a bike and need this space."

I was astounded. Ignoring how he seems to be clueless that my mobility is even more restricted than his, I calmly pointed to the sign on the wall. It read, Priority seating for people with disabilities and seniors. "What about that sign, then?"

"It doesn't matter," he insisted. "I'm following the rules. I have a bike, and I'm supposed to be in this space. You need to get off and get on another train." He pointed to some other guys at the other end of the train with bikes. "Those guys over there, they're not following the rules. They're not supposed to bring bikes through that door."

He was right about the other guys; I'll give him that. But at the same time, he claims to "know the rules" when he actually doesn't. According to the official TransLink website on the page about bikes on SkyTrain:

Give priority to wheelchairs, scooters, baby carriages and passengers with service animals such as guide dogs.

I was about to blow a gasket on the Mountain Bike Guy. I was tempted to start cursing him out and such, but from past lessons I know that's not a good idea. Usually, when someone with a disability starts acting out, he/she can easily end up looking like an entitled princess (regardless of whether he/she has the right of way to start with). I was sure if I kept on going, I would've completely lost it anyhow, so I silently endured while imagining the oh-so-many ways to torture him, Guantanamo Bay style.

Another passenger who saw the whole thing caught my eye. His eyes and body gesture read, "What the hell is up with that guy?" I replied with a body gesture reading, "Hell if I know." What I didn't see was another passenger who also saw the whole thing, and wasn't ready to let this slide. I'll call him the Angry Passenger.

As the SkyTrain left Scott Road Station and started crawling towards the SkyBridge, that Angry Passenger spoke. "Hey, you," he said to the mountain bike person. "Take a look at the other guys with the bikes. At least they're standing. They're not taking up a seat. You could at least stand up with your bike and give your seat to him."

Mountain Bike Guy said, "Why should I? I'm supposed to be in this area. I know the rules. This is my seat."

Angry Passenger then got angry. Or angrier, rather. "WRONG," he said. "Look at the sign on the wall. Wheelchair users are entitled to that seat. You're not."

Mountain Bike Guy didn't back down. "But I have a bike with me."

I decided to get in the fray a bit. "Can you read that sign on the wall?" I asked calmly.

"Yeah," Mountain Bike Guy said.

"Then work on your reading comprehension," I replied. "Because obviously you have no idea what it says."

"Shut up," he shot back.

Angry Passenger stood up. "If you're going to talk to him that way, you need to get off the train RIGHT NOW. You're acting so 'tough' hiding behind your sunglasses while telling someone in a wheelchair to shut up and get off the train. We don't need people like you on board."

"You'd better sit your ass back down," Mountain Bike Guy warned as he stood up as well. "I have a can of mace and if you don't sit your ass back down, you're going to be sorry."

Uh oh. The last thing I wanted was an altercation while we're on a train whizzing over the Fraser River. "All right, stop!" I yelled. "You [to Angry Passenger]! Sit down. And you [to Mountain Bike Guy]! Sit down!"

They continued to bark at each other, with some really colorful language (and that's saying something, coming from me, since I'm usually known for my colorful language as well). Some other passengers also chimed in against Mountain Bike Guy.

Mountain Bike Guy's position got weaker and weaker. He accused Angry Passenger of threatening him, to which Angry Passenger replied, "YOU were the one talking about using mace!" Eventually, he realized the battle was lost. He finally said, "I'll get off the train, but next time, y'all better know the damn rules."

After he left, I gave a small thank you to Angry Passenger and explained to him that when I told both of them to back off and sit down, it wasn't because I didn't appreciate his help, but rather I wanted to avoid a fistfight over the Fraser River.

Afterwards, I had mixed feelings about the whole incident. I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable, but also a little proud.

I was embarrassed because it was a confrontation over me. I felt like the kid in the middle of a parental dispute right before a divorce. The confrontation would never have happened if I wasn't there. I guess you can say there's a little bit of guilt in there as well.

I felt uncomfortable because all the other passengers on board had to witness the whole incident. The train's doors were closed as it went over the river; they couldn't escape the situation even if they wanted to. Any time there's some sort of dispute or confrontation, I really hate to see other people being forced to see it.

But at the same time, I felt proud of Angry Passenger. There are so many times on the bus or SkyTrain when there'll be someone who needs one of the priority seats (such as a senior citizen or someone with a disability) and nobody would give up a seat -- and nobody would say anything about it. It's quite rare that someone would actually stand up to someone like that. Angry Passenger basically personifies all the pent-up feelings a lot of people have about this issue.

Whenever I'm on a bus in my wheelchair, I'm obviously in the wheelchair bay. But I stay alert. If someone comes on board who needs the priority seat, I would look at the seats and see who can give up the seat. If that person is unaware of the situation, I'd get that person's attention and a seat would be freed up. Thankfully most people aren't like Mountain Bike Guy and usually oblige.

Oh, and I don't think mace is allowed on SkyTrain.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The wheels on the bus go something something...

It's not often a drunk guy can come on a bus and make everyone happy.

But a while back, I was on a bus between Surrey Central Station and South Surrey. Around Surrey Memorial Hospital, a guy came on board smelling strongly of alcohol and lumbering around disoriented. The driver reluctantly let him on. (What was he going to do? The guy was drunk. Better on a bus than behind the wheel.) Everyone on board prepared for the worst.

Instead, he started singing. What he was singing, I had no clue. But whatever it was, he finished one tune and started another. And then he started encouraging people at the front to start singing. Amused, some people actually did (to my surprise). And then more and more joined in. By the time I got off in South Surrey, the whole bus was singing along to whatever song the guy chose. It was oddly nice to see a "nice drunk guy" instead of a "violent drunk guy" for a change.

At my stop, as I was waiting for the wheelchair ramp to deploy, I said to the driver, "That's got to be a first, right?"

The driver shrugged and said, "Nothing surprises me anymore."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Trafficking in traffic

For anyone who knows anything about Vancouver, one thing is blatantly obvious -- this city loves its marijuana. In fact, when Vancouver native Ross Rebagliati won the first-ever gold medal in snowboarding at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, he was almost disqualified because there were traces of marijuana in his system. Also, whenever you mention "Vancouver Art Gallery" and "marijuana" in the same sentence, you're sure to come up with some sort of joke.

Anyways, a while ago I was on a bus from White Rock to Surrey. It was one of those long and dreadful rides that seem to last forever. Shortly after entering Surrey, two guys came on board. They looked normal enough -- they paid their fare, they got on and they sat down.

And then one of them sold some marijuana joints to the other guy.

Normally, nobody would bat an eye. But that day, another person noticed and came forward.

"Hey, are you selling weed? How much per hit?"

So a second transaction was made.

But we weren't finished.

Soon, a FOURTH guy came forward and asked for weed. And then a fifth. And a sixth. Eventually, I think almost a third to half of the passengers bought weed from the guy by the time the bus pulled into Surrey Central Station.

Welcome to Vancouver. Come for the scenery, stay for the pot.