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Among swaths of similarity exist differences in detail — Corbett Scholar Ellie Chew

Three young women ride the Link light rail in Seattle
Two friends from Vancouver I brought on the LINK in Seattle! Photo credit: Ellie Chew.

December 15, 2023

As many fellow scholars, friends, and residents of the Pacific Northwest have recognized, there is a lot that Vancouver and Seattle have in common, from the evergreen coastal landscape, half-rain-half-sunny weather, nonstop construction, to our shared language of English, our large immigrant populations, our liberal political tendencies.

Downtown Vancouver, BC on a sunny day

Downtown Vancouver- distinct from Seattle’s hilly, often shadowed roads. Photo credit: Ellie Chew

However, among all that we share, there remain many small details that separate our lived experiences. Here, I hope to share some that I have noticed as a Seattleite residing temporarily in Vancouver, particularly in my favorite domain, public transportation.

A bus in Vancouver displays the word “Sorry”

A bus in Vancouver saying “Sorry” for not being in service- imagine that! Photo credit: Luke Dutta.

As a UBC student, I take the 99, 84, and R4 bus lines quite often towards downtown Vancouver. Over the course of these trips, I have formed an amazement and gratitude towards one particular feature- the ability for passengers to get on in the back of the bus. Translink rapid buses, including these lines, allow people in and out at 3 different points of entry, with card scanners near all doors to allow people to tap as they get on.

While riding them, I often recall similar buses in Seattle, such as the RapidRide E-line, a local line running similarly in and out of downtown towards North Seattle. However, these lines have card scanners at the bus stops themselves, rather than at the bus doors.

While these systems run similarly, the degree of success is visibly different. The times I have ridden the 99, I have seen most, if not all people, scan on– even without enforcement present. In contrast, when I rode the E-line stop near my high school in North Seattle, I remember the whole crowd of students, as well as other riders, avoiding the front door and just letting themselves into the bus, because it’s impossible for the driver to tell who had or hadn’t scanned already at the stop.  Even as someone with a subsidized bus card, I myself have admittedly hopped onto the back of the bus before, especially when I’m running to catch it from behind. 

A bus driving away in heavy fog

The R4 in its usual green, driving confidently despite morning fog. Photo credit: Ellie Chew.

Possibly in correlation with the loophole for a “free ride” being normalized, I noticed that the E-line’s usage was dominated by heavier demographics of homeless people than other bus lines, raising concerns about safety among some. In response, I have witnessed King County try a variety of measures, from implementing enforcement officers to changing the bus designs to only allow passengers to enter from the front. Even beyond just buses, Vancouver’s Skytrain utilizes automated gates, whereas Seattle has been employing more frequent ticket checks by fare enforcement officials across the LINK rail, to earn their rider revenue.

A Vancouver transit car pulls into the station

The Canada Line pulling in, driverless in the front! Photo credit: Ellie Chew.

As Seattle grapples with finding a balanced solution to its revenue system, I continue to wonder- why did Vancouver and Seattle choose their differing payment systems in the first place? If we implemented Vancouver’s system in Seattle or vice versa, would the results be the same?

In parallel with differences in payment to get on the bus, I began to think extensively about the processes that go into how people even learn to ride a bus to begin with. There isn’t really a guidebook- I myself just had to watch others and use trial and error. Sure, it might not be all that complex, but weren’t most people nervous that first time? My first ride, I was confused by the door-pushing feature Vancouver buses had. Was I supposed to shove it? Or press softly? Was it the warmth of my hand it needed to detect, or the force outwards? I was scared to even try, what with a crowd of riders ready to watch my humiliating attempt. I thought- why isn’t there a way for me to learn, in a less stressful place than the middle of everyone and their clockwork hubbub?

Although I was able to learn how to shove open the door on my own, (and now do so without a second thought), I was surprised one day to find something like that which I had thought of. 

Waiting my due time for a bus to arrive, my gaze happened to land upon a folding plastic bar attached to an unused section of wall at the UBC bus loop. Upon closer inspection, a sign indicated that this was a bike rack, screwed exactly onto the wall just like the ones in front of buses. Translink said they put it there so that people could practice properly strapping in their bikes. 

It’s possible that such a mechanism exists at UW, but if it does I have never seen it. In Seattle, I did like riding my bike, but I was always too nervous to try and strap it in the front of the bus, while cars and people were waiting for the bus to move and needed me to be practiced and prepared on day 1. Wouldn’t it have been nice to happen upon this detail back at home?

Another time, one of my friends from Vancouver pointed out a difference I hadn’t thought of when she came with me for a brief trip to Seattle. We hopped into a metro bus on a route I had traveled hundreds of mornings before.

Three young women ride the Link light rail in Seattle

Two friends from Vancouver I brought on the LINK in Seattle! Photo credit: Ellie Chew.

My friend was looking out the window at a dark North Seattle College, backlit by the low sun, when I pulled the cord for our stop. Moments later, she saw Northgate station and turned to me, a bit alarmed, asking, wasn’t this our stop? Why hadn’t I pulled the cord yet? 

I, confused, told her I had- couldn’t she see the words “Stop Requested” blinking on the front display? She squinted at the sign, then turned back to me, shrugging. 

“I don’t have my glasses on, so it doesn’t look any different. In Vancouver, they use a red light so I can usually tell easily.”

I was shocked- I had never noticed it before, but it was true- some Seattle metro bus displays only indicate that a stop was requested by flashing “Stop Requested” in intervals with the stop name, all in yellow lettering. 

I recalled times in which an elderly person had pulled the cord over and over, agitated that the bus was not sounding the chime it does when first requesting a stop. I had always been a bit annoyed at those people: couldn’t they pick up the fact that the bus was already going to stop there? And yet I had never considered the perhaps obvious fact- they couldn’t tell, because the display was all the same color, one blur of yellow.

At the end of the day, these details are small. Sure, people who don’t ride bikes will never need to practice using the bike rack. Most people don’t care if they get on at the front or the back of the bus, or if the cord triggers a red light or not. But the sum of all these details, I think, impresses upon me the different roles our public transportation, and more generally, our organizations, corporations, and governments, have been playing into our lives. 

Science world and the skyline of Vancouver on a sunny day

Science world and the skyline of Vancouver. Photo credit: Ellie Chew.

There is a lot that I have come to love about Vancouver: the black squirrels, the quaint neighborhoods, the flat landscape and gorgeous views of the sea, even the larger variety of naan I can find in grocery stores. But more meaningfully, perhaps, is that being in Vancouver, I find a sense of comfort in these details. They remind me that large groups of people can create complex systems that still care for a wide variety of users and their individual needs- and even more powerfully, they pay attention not just to needs, but even to smaller, simpler desires. 

There is also a lot I realize I take for granted in Seattle, like being able to use a grocery cart without coins, having explicit crosswalk signals with every traffic light, and how close UW is to everything else in the city. Living in Seattle, I have always felt a sense of confidence in the way Seattleites can continue to build towards evermore cost- and time- efficient ways to do things. From the implementation of real-time update boards at U-District station to the steady construction of the LINK line up north past Shoreline, I see promise in our transit system’s ability to improve as we find its faults. 

As these are only just reflections on personal experiences I’ve had, it’s difficult to conclude anything that would be fair, or even useful. The problems and solutions of our cities are much more nuanced than I can capture. But I have come to recognize that comparison is a powerful tool, allowing us to learn from one another’s successes and failures, identify what our cities can provide each other, and search for a deeper understanding as to what joins us, what separates us, and what that means for bettering our residents’ lives.

The Corbett British Columbia-Washington International Exchange Program Fund provides an opportunity for undergraduate students at the University of Washington to spend two semesters at the University of British Columbia or University of Victoria; and for students from the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria to spend three quarters at the University of Washington.