As the two-car Skytrain pulls out of Vancouver City Centre station the 300-odd commuters stand close to TransLink’s congestion limit of four people per square metre, but it’s hard to find a critic.
“Everyone just looks at their phones and stays quiet,” says a woman holding onto a strap near a door. There are hundreds of people around her, but only a few muted conversations.
In the evenings most stare at their phones and write text messages, catching up on the day’s social media. Some close their eyes and rest their heads.
As the train goes under False Creek, two old men in tweed caps stand in the articulated section between cars and chat loudly, perhaps too loudly as people slowly move away.
In the morning, free newspapers are shared as often as yawns. A woman applies her mascara as the train lurches underground. Stepping on at Marine Drive station and headed north, she finishes her careful work at the Oakridge-41st Avenue station, maintaining a conversation as she does so. This is her frazzled, daily routine, she says.
Right now, trains leave about every four minutes – the transit authority doesn’t own enough wagons to run the trains closer together. The full ride end-to-end is 25-minutes, which is easy to handle for most people even during the rush-hour crush. A wide assortment of rails and hanging straps in each wagon keep physical contact to a minimum.
“It can get bad, congested,” says Matt Loney, adding that some trains between 7:45 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. can be full. A woman nearby adds that 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. is also a troublesome hour to ride the Canada Line.
Neither Mr. Loney nor any of his other riders have yet experienced a situation like the one TransLink is planning for – a more congested future on the Canada Line, as 50,000 more residents are expected in new developments along Cambie Street and the Fraser River.
The Canada Line has so far exceeded all expectations, with ridership already near the level expected by 2021.
Taking transit at rush hour in Toronto and Montreal often means being in direct physical contact with several neighbouring riders simultaneously. Cellphones and pockets aren’t accessible, with the limbs and bags of other riders blocking the way.
Torontonians share stories of packed subways rushing past, with no room for commuters to push through into the crush. Public consultations are underway to provide some relief, especially on the Yonge line, one of the system’s busiest that was deemed two years ago to be bursting. In 2012, the system exceeded the 503 million passengers it was designed to handle and the numbers have continued to climb. A blog campaign aimed at forcing municipal politicians to do something about overcrowding urged riders last month to post pictures with the hashtag #TTCsardines.
In Montreal, the local transit authority has removed seats from the Metro to make room for more standing commuters.
In Vancouver, there are challenges that TransLink and the for-profit SNC-Lavalin subsidiary that operates the transit line could handle better. The train is popular with locals and tourists alike headed to the city’s main airport, and baggage is a perennial problem during the evening rush hour as traffic heads towards the airport.
As the train accelerates and brakes, families try to herd wheeled luggage as bags bang around the trains. Without racks or ample seating to store the bags, some turn the luggage into temporary chairs.
But while some people worry about the future impact of many more passengers, riders say they aren’t overly concerned. A mother with her two children says the system is safe, even at the worst of times. Near her, a transit officer escorts a wheelchair onto the train – commuters scurry and find ample room for the new passenger, though the train seemed full only moments earlier.
It sets off again and the children make bets on which station is next. As the train enters the dark tunnels, most people just look down at their cellphones in silence.