November 17 2006:
One of the remarkable things about life in Canada is the extent to which we allow our behaviour to be programmed. Concurrent with this phenomenon is an inability to recognize the controls even when they are obvious. Take for example, mass transit.
It is an incontrovertible act of faith that mass transit can only be delivered to Canadians via public corporations. This is so obvious a fact that the alternatives are not even considered for serious discussion – to do so would undermine a very successful programming of the Canadian public. Most Canadians, with very little exposure to any alternative, find it hard to conceive of such a beast as private for profit mass transit.
Stand on any metropolitan street corner in Canada and you will see three types of motorized transport (I will exclude light rail/subways from the discussion as this is about street traffic), privately owned automobiles of which there are arguably too many in most cities, privately owned taxis of which there are, depending on your requirements, too few. And finally there is the city operated bus.Buses are largely clean, mostly new and driven by well paid drivers financed by taxes and grants. Unfortunately while they may be efficient at moving the people fortunate enough to have a route near them, they are under used precisely because the follow fixed routes on fixed and inconvenient schedules.
Enter the fourth type of mass transit, the private bus. Oops, can’t have that, it might actually attract customers! It might even undermine one of the cornerstones of Canadian culture – the monopoly of mass transit by the public purse – despite its expense. Any civic politician who promises better mass transit is lying because the only way it can be accomplished is to remove privately operated vehicles from the roads (congestion taxes anyone?) and replace them with more expensive and inconvenient buses. Except….
There I was standing at the street corner in Yerevan and I noticed an unusual phenomenon. At regular intervals – say every 30 – 40 seconds a smallish van would pull up to the curb and disgorge passengers while others clambered in. Without exception the vans are Ford Transit vans (or their locally produced knockoffs), each outfitted with seats for about 15 passengers, (although many were loaded down with crouching room only). They arrive and depart along all roads with a regularity I know I will never witness in Canada. Each is numbered, fully licenced and a portion of their expense is clearly offset by the advertising covering every flat surface. In any line of traffic that I observed, these private buses nearly equalled the number of private cars, and certainly arrived more frequently than any city bus.
Do the math yourself – any 40ft city bus carries approximately 60-80 people once every 15 minutes at best. It follows a fixed route, stops several times and takes time to arrive at its destination. By contrast the private Van seats 15, picks up a delivers at fewer points, and is free to seek any route to get there – flowing with the fastest or least congested route. They depart every 5 minutes or so and cover much more territory. Don’t like the service – sign up with the competitor (horrors!).
Imagine you are in downtown Toronto or Montreal. You can pay an exorbitant fee to a taxi driver, assuming you can get one to pull over, and be deposited directly at your destination, or you can wait for the number 301 bus which groans along stopping every 20 feet to pickup more hapless commuters and which at best deposits you several blocks from your destination. or you could sign up with a private bus company and be picked up from your place of work and be deposited at home with few intervening stops – oh sorry, this is Canada – not allowed.
There are plenty of arguments trotted out by the regulators, drivers unions and taxi companies, but all of them boil down to job protection, high wages and status quo – sprinkled liberally with fear mongering (think of the safety of the children!) and yet none of their arguments addresses the issue of efficient mass transit. Quite frankly I am stumped as to why the environmentalist crowd hasn’t jumped all over this. It is far more efficient, it moves people faster, consumes less energy – all round beneficial – Except it’s private. Thus exposing the degree to which we have been thoroughly indoctrinated to view with suspicion any attempt by the private sector to deliver services in the untouchable realms of historic public endeavour.
And then there is the Horn. A very useful, and in my opinion an underrated feature of all vehicles. Its use is at best frowned upon by polite society in Canada, and all sorts of reactions occur when the dreaded horn is actually unleashed. From the tut-tut of the well healed, to the spontaneous ‘road rage’ so feared by the rest of us, the use of the horn has become a social faux pas both for what it may reveal about ourselves (who does he think he is? why in such a rush? and of course f**k off!) and the unreasonable fear of negative reactions inculcated by an irresponsible press.
The horn of course was meant to be used as a warning – it being much more efficient than the earliest warning systems required of the first motorcars – a man walking ahead displaying a flag. The horn is quite useful in alerting the daydreamer to the fact that you are about to back out of a parking spot (hence the Army’s use of the old ‘double tap’ prior to reversing). It is also quite useful to alert pedestrians that you are entering a crossing.
Around here the horn is used as a sort of extra gear – it both energises the lethargic in front of the horn blower and alerts those around you that you are about to overtake. At first I will admit I found the sheer quantity of horn blowing mildly annoying, then puzzling, and finally it faded as an irritant.
Horn blowing flies in the face of social control. It is a very personal expression, it says I am an individual and I am going about my business, and I am being aware enough of you to let you know that I am here (so please don’t change lanes into me). In fact horn blowing is complimentary with a general disregard of traffic lanes and signal lights. (Shivers of repressed desire coursing through the veins of Canadians!) Thus the horn becomes the last line of defence for both driver and pedestrian – each accommodates his movements to the other, pedestrians thread their way through moving traffic, horns are deployed to alert and avoid impending collisions and strangely enough I have yet to see either a traffic accident or a dented car or ambulance carting off bodies.
Contrast that with the vehicular carnage which occurs daily in our supposedly efficient and programmed society and you might begin to wonder if accidents and irresponsible driving behaviour on our streets and highways aren’t just natural and negative response to the fact that our behaviour is programmed and many of us resent it. Only last week a woman who is dear to me was hit through no fault of her own while driving our car by another driver who changed lanes into her. Imagine if our society allowed the use of horns without social opprobrium – would this accident have happened at all?
Oops, not allowed to think that way – back in your box junior…