Here’s a break from my Japan and Kansai travel posts. This post is inspired by Jhen over at the Buzzer Blog. In a recent post, she asked us to share our top transit moments over the past decade. Thanks to Jhen for a great job over the past year. The Buzzer Blog has really become a regular read for me.
I rang in the new millennium in my apartment in Wuhu, China 10 years ago and got my first new year phone call from my student, Blair. It’s hard to believe that so much time has passed since I was teaching English in China. OMG….I’m really starting to feel my age. Well here’s my list of my top transit moments of the decade (2000-2009) in chronological order.
Shanghai Metro (2000)
The Shanghai Metro was in its infancy back in 2000. I got to ride the new east-west Line 2 soon after it had opened. There were only 2 metro lines at the time and this was the brand spanking new one. It went under the busy pedestrian mall of East Nanjing Road (Nanjing Dong Lu) and under the Huangpu River to Pudong which is home to all the new towers in Shanghai. At the time, the metro was so new that the card gates and ticket machines were not working yet. You literally bought a paper ticket from a hostess monitoring the gates. The paper ticket was like the ones you get for admission into parks in China. There was no smart card or magnetic readers. Then, the train itself was really empty. Probably because it was still a lot cheaper to take the bus or ferry across the river at the time.
The Shanghai Metro has now exploded to 11 lines with more expansion on the way. Shanghai will also host the 2010 World Expo. So if you think Vancouver has developed quickly, you’ve obviously never been to Shanghai. And, hopefully by now, I’m sure they have smart cards and gates all working now.
Tuk-tuks and Red Trucks in Chiang Mai, Thailand (2000)
I had the great fortune of having a mid-year teachers conference in Thailand when I was teaching in China. It was a great getaway. Chiang Mai is a resort town in the northern hills and mountains of Thailand. I was in Chiang Mai during February and it literally felt like a Vancouver summer. The best way to get around Chiang Mai is on bicycle, but if you don’t want to break out in a sweat, there are the Tuk-tuks and Red Trucks.
The Tuk-tuks are three-wheel motorcycles with a bench in the back for up to 3 people to sit. Three will fit if you’re anorexic and only 2 good-sized Americans could fit in the back. However, I must say this is the best taxi/transit experience I have ever had. It’s exhilarating to hear the tuk-tuk sound of the vehicle as it speeds along the roads to your destination. The wind blows through your hair as you smell the sweet fragrance of northern Thailand. It was a wonderful way to get around. As I rode these Tuk-tuks, I kept wondering how I could import one of these to Vancouver.
However, if you had more people travelling together or you wanted to save some money, then there were the Red Trucks. These are literally pick-up trucks that are painted red. The bed is covered in a canopy and benches are installed along the sides. You can stuff up to 10 people into the back of these trucks. The Red Trucks run like maxi-taxis. The more people you have, the cheaper your fare. That’s why these Red Trucks were such a deal. And if you had less than enough people to fill the truck, you could share the ride with other folks who may be going in your general direction. It’s a great way to meet other tourists in Chiang Mai.
MTR, Hong Kong (2000, 2005, 2006)
MTR (Mass Transit Railway) is Hong Kong’s subway or metro system. It’s only been existence since the early 80’s, but it is my personal gold standard of what subway and metros should be like. The MTR trains are long and wide with 50-doors. All stations have glass barriers to separate passengers from the track. All stations are announced in three languages (Cantonese, Mandarin, and English). LED lights mark which door to exit and at which station you have arrived. The Octopus smart card gives a seamless experience of entering and exiting stations. You can collect MTR points on every ride you take. And all changes between MTR lines involve either walking across the platform or just going up one level (with the major exceptions of Quarry Bay and walking from Central to Hong Kong Station, which are both a pain to change lines).
The MTR is the backbone of an extensive transit system which I have had the pleasure of riding many times. I keep my Octopus card even after travelling to Hong Kong, so that the next time I’m there, I just refill it with cash at the airport and I’m good to go again. My favourite moment on the MTR would be getting off at Admiralty and seeing the whole station decorated from head to toe in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” ads. Who says ads are all bad?
Airport Express, Hong Kong (2000)
I love the Airport Express in Hong Kong. If you want to arrive in Hong Kong’s Central or Kowloon areas in style, the Airport Express is the ultimate airport to city rail experience in Hong Kong (I think the best in the world would likely be Shanghai’s Maglev train which I haven’t ridden…yet). When I took the Airport Express, I was taking it to Chek Lap Kok Airport. I’ve never taken it the other way mainly because I was either picked up by somebody or I was taking a bus into the New Territories.
When I was leaving Asia in July 2000 after a year of teaching, I was staying with a relative on Hong Kong Island. I was totally on my own that day I went to the airport. I went down to the Airport Express’ Hong Kong Station in Central. I went to the check-in counter and literally checked in for my flight. Cathay Pacific had a counter at Hong Kong Station to print my boarding pass and to take my luggage. What a godsend! I checked in my two pieces of luggage, got my boarding pass, and went back into town to do some last minute walking about. How many places in the world check your luggage in downtown and take it to the airport for you?
When I came back to the station, I just made sure I had HKD$75 on my Octopus smart card. I “doot” my card on the gate’s card reader and I was in. The train itself was very comfortable with a place to stow your carry-ons and TV screens to watch. The ride was very quick and very smooth. Plus, it takes me directly into the terminal so that I just go straight into security with my boarding pass. I tell you. No other city does transit like Hong Kong. Nobody.
Beijing Subway (2002)
On a return visit to China in 2002, I started off in Beijing. At the time, Beijing was only starting to build its many subway lines for the 2008 Summer Olympics. When I arrived in 2002, there was only two Beijing Subway lines – the original east-west line and the Circle Line. Getting onto the subway in Beijing was cheap beyond belief. For 2 RMB (~20 cents Canadian), you could ride for as far and as long as you wanted. The architecture of the stations was a distinct Soviet style which was repeated in every single station in the system. So you had to read the signs carefully to see when to get off. Changing lines was also an adventure of going up a series of stairs and crossing over the tracks with hundreds of Beijing commuters. Now in 2009, there 8 lines and an airport express in Beijing. Thanks to the Olympics, Beijing has leapfrogged to forefront of rapid transit systems in Asia.
Toronto Transit Commission (2003)
For the first time in my life, I visited the “centre of the universe”. Heck. I wasn’t just visiting; I was moving there. What did Canada’s largest city have in store for me transit-wise? Downtown was easy to get around on the TTC subway or streetcar. The trademark red streetcars were easily recognizable, but a little on the slow side. I got to ride the new Sheppard Line up in North York. That was extremely important to me when I went to get furniture from Ikea. Plus, I started taking most of my transit photos with the TTC.
The breadth of the TTC is indeed impressive, but you could easily see the aging system was struggling. Even from a surface perspective, you could see stations were on the brink of disrepair. As I read articles about the TTC since 2003, I keep reading about lack of funding. If you think Vancouver has been hitting transit roadblocks, then Toronto has been running into a giant brick wall.
New Territories to Kowloon KMB ride in Hong Kong (2005)
Hong Kong is well known by transit-philes for its top-class MTR metro system with its easy transfers and world-class trains. However, the buses in Hong Kong are no slouch. In 2005, I stayed further out of town in the New Territories and would have to take the 20-30 minute ride on a Kowloon Motor Bus (KMB) into busy Kowloon. Taking the train into Kowloon was quick, but would cost more and involve a couple of transfers. The ride on the bus was a little slower, but more direct and involved no transfers.
This bus ride was one of the most comfortable transit rides in my experience. I would board the bus in the New Territories and immediately ascend to the second-floor of the double-decker bus. The seats all had high head rests. You could basically close your eyes and easily fall asleep with the high head rests. The ride was a great nap for a weary jet-lagged traveller like myself. If I wasn’t napping on the ride, then I could enjoy the view of the Tolo Harbour on the way in and out of the New Territories.
Yurikamome Line in Tokyo (2006)
This small and indirect line doesn’t seem all that interesting at first. The fare is even a little on the pricey side. However, the Yurikamome Line connects the man-made island of Odaiba and it’s many popular waterfront destinations to Shinbashi in Tokyo. One of the most interesting tidbits about the Yurikamome Line is that it is one of the few rubber tired transit systems in the world. The ride is definitely very quiet. You can barely tell when the train is approaching the platform too. The train is also worth the cost for the ride on the lower deck of the Rainbow Bridge across Tokyo Bay. On the Tokyo side of the water, it felt like a surreal Blade Runner experience where buildings towered on either side of the track as the train snaked its way from the Rainbow Bridge to Shinbashi Station. The ride is definitely circuitous, but if you have time and you plan to visit Odaiba, it is a nice way to get across the harbour.
Portland Streetcar (2009)
Portland is often labeled as the most progressive city in the USA for its cycling and its transit. I didn’t take advantage of renting a bike in Portland, but I took both the MAX and the Portland Streetcar. Even though the MAX LRT is the more extensive rail line, I must say I was most impressed with the Portland Streetcar. Visually, the streetcars are stand out of the crowd. The Skoda cars are painted in bold bright colours of green, orange, purple, and blue. They might not the fastest form of transit, but the ride was really enjoyable and it took you to different destinations like Nob Hill, the Pearl District, Downtown, Portland State University, and the very Vancouver-ist neigbourhoods of the South Waterfront. Add the ride with Portland’s Fareless Square downtown, and you can’t go wrong. Now I just wish that the Aerial Tram at the southern terminus of the streetcar was running the day I went.
Canada Line, Vancouver (2009)
I must have followed the entire planning, construction, and now operation phases of the Canada Line over the years. So it was with great anticipation that I rode the Canada Line on Day 1. For all its shortcomings (short platforms and small stations), the Canada Line fills in a big gap in the rapid transit picture in Vancouver. When the RAV line was originally announced, I remember hearing people on the bus saying that “no one would ever use the train” and “I’m so glad they didn’t put the train down Arbutus”. Now the Canada Line is one of the most popular lines in the region. The numbers are already showing that there are 80,000 passengers a day. The “experts” were targeting for 100,000 passengers a day years down the road. As a transit fan, I feel a bit of vindication that the Canada Line has thumbed its nose at the experts and naysayers.