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Vancouver Courier - 17 April 2005

Feature article

commuters gone green

By Mike Howell-staff writer

Wayne Bowes' new year got off to a bad start.

Returning home Jan. 5 from his job as a security guard at the Evelyne Saller drop-in centre in the Downtown Eastside, he was rear ended in his Chevy Corsica.

"You've seen the dummies in those car crash commercials on TV getting thrown back and forth in their seats? Well, that was me."

The accident happened about 6 p.m. in Surrey at 108th Street and King George Highway. A Honda plowed into the back of his Corsica, slamming him into the car in front of him.

Paramedics took him to hospital to be treated for a sore neck and a banged-up knee. His Corsica was a write-off, leaving the longtime motorist without a vehicle.

"I've always driven a car ever since I can remember," says the 53-year-old Surrey resident. "I have to admit that I was the type of guy who would drive two blocks to the store. I never thought about walking or taking the bus. That wasn't me."

Meet the new Wayne Bowes.

Since the accident, he has become a hard-core transit rider. It began with one trip on the SkyTrain, which led to another and another. He's hooked, and in no hurry to replace his car.

"I let somebody else do the driving now," he says, laughing. "I should have been doing this a long time ago."

Bowes is one of thousands of commuters from the suburbs who take transit to Vancouver.

With gas prices reaching $1.06 a litre at some local stations, and traffic congestion increasing, more addicted drivers will likely be joining Bowes.

Others will look to cycle, walk, run and carpool.

Over the last two weeks, the Courier commuted with Bowes from Surrey to the Downtown Eastside, cycled with Ian Torgerson from Coquitlam to West Pender Street and rode as a passenger in Linda Muir's Smart car on her trip from Westwood Plateau to Burrard Street.

Torgerson, 38, and Muir, 53, also use the West Coast Express train, which allows them another option to their commute-a necessity when it snows or if an injury keeps Torgerson off his bike.

All three commuters have various reasons for choosing their modes of transportation, including doing their part for the environment, saving money and getting fit.

The alternative, as Bowes tells it, is not healthy.

"There were days when I was in the car and I'd get frustrated, and want to jump out and start screaming at someone. I was never worried about my driving, just the other guy. Transit is a little more relaxing."

It's 6 a.m. on Tuesday when Bowes emerges from his suite at the back of a house in the Bolivar Heights neighbourhood of Surrey, near the Port Mann Bridge.

Dressed in jeans, runners, a blue fleece jacket and a black ski vest, the heavy-set man looks at the steep hill ahead and psyches himself for the climb.

It's four blocks to the bus stop.

For most people, the climb wouldn't be a problem. But Bowes has asthma and bronchitis, ailments he likely picked up from his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit.

He gave up the weed almost three years ago, ending a 35-year binge that hasn't left him in the best of shape. That's what happens, he says, when you combine smoking with an addiction to a vehicle.

"There was a time that I liked to have a coffee and a cigarette in the morning," he says, breathing heavily halfway through his ascent. "But one morning, I got up and I just didn't enjoy the cigarette anymore. I threw the pack on the table and never smoked again."

Then came his accident, which not only converted him to a transit rider, but inspired him to do more than walk to the bus stop. Bowes participates in an exercise program at St. Paul's Hospital, where he lifts light weights, uses the treadmill and stretches.

It's paying off.

"When I first started coming up this hill, I'd have to stop three or four times. At my pace now, I can get right up to the bus stop without stopping. So, yeah, I feel good."

When he reaches the stop on 113th Avenue, he waits a few minutes before the C73 shuttle bus arrives at 6:15 a.m. He flashes his transit pass, which costs him $112 a month, and takes a seat near the back.

The bus, which has five other passengers on it, takes Bowes on an eight-minute ride to the Gateway SkyTrain station at 108th Street and Whalley Ring Road.

At this time of the morning, he's got his choice of seats on the train. On this trip, he's answering questions from a Courier reporter, but normally he would close his eyes and relax, or chat with "a lady friend" who is often on the same train.

"She gets off at Broadway. I'm still trying to build up the courage to find out what her name is."

As the train crosses the Fraser River into New Westminster, more passengers board. The 35-minute ride, though, never gets to the point where it's standing room only.

Bowes leaves the train at Waterfront Station and walks across Cordova Street to the food fair at Harbour Centre, where the A&W server is pulling back the metal gate to open up at 7 a.m.

"Toast and coffee for me today," says Bowes, who is a familiar face to the employees.

He takes a seat in a booth and makes a confession. He will buy a car once his ICBC settlement is finalized. But, he promises, it won't be for commuting.

"It's nice to have to pick up groceries, or maybe go to a movie on the weekend or something like that. But I'll have to be disciplined [when I get a car] because it's easy to jump in it and forget about transit."

When he drove to work, he took the freeway and reached the drop-in centre in 35 minutes or so. The drive home was about an hour. Bowes had free parking, but gas cost him about $35 a week.

Add repairs, an $800 insurance tab and driving the $3,000 Corsica-equipped with a V-6 engine-took a good chunk out of Bowes' earnings.

His next car will be bigger than the compact Corsica. He wants something with "some meat on it," in case he's in another accident. A fuel-efficient car is also important, but he's ruled out a Smart or any of the hybrids.

"They're too small. I'd have some real concerns about my safety. They're not for me."

For now, he'll stick to transit. He finishes up his coffee, heads outside to Cordova Street and hops a bus to Main Street. A short walk down Gore Street to Alexander Street and he arrives at work with plenty of time to spare before his 8:30 a.m. shift begins.

It didn't take much to convince Linda Muir to buy a Smart car.

The receptionist at Lang Michener law offices in downtown Vancouver was the second person in the city to own one of the golf cart-sized vehicles.

A native of Scotland, where she drove a Mini, Muir liked the look and feel of the Smart after she took it for a test drive in September. She also liked its peppy 40-horsepower turbo-diesel engine and its low emissions.

The Smart's gas mileage was a top selling point, too-100 kilometres on the highway for every 3.7 litres of fuel. Add a four-year warranty, air-conditioning, a CD player, and Muir couldn't help herself.

"I had to have one."

She plunked down $24,000 and hasn't stopped smiling.

"It's a total attraction," she says, as she leaves her home in Coquitlam on an early Thursday morning. "I've met so many people who want to know about my car, but I don't mind telling them about it because I like to talk."

As for Bowes' safety concerns, Muir isn't worried about becoming a speed bump for a Lincoln Navigator. She points out the metal seats, the side and front airbags and the "tridion safety cell"-which acts like the hard shell of a nut to protect the driver, according to Smart's technical specifications data.

"I've already been rear-ended in this. It was minor, more of a bump, but it held up no problem."

Her two-toned blue and black "fortwo coup‚" also has a name-Reggie, after her late father. It's the only car Muir owns, and she uses it, the West Coast Express train or a combination of both to get downtown.

Her mode depends on her plans after work, which may include exercising at the YWCA or visiting with friends. The last train leaves downtown at 6:20 p.m., limiting her transportation options.

Taking the SkyTrain would only get her to Lougheed Mall in Burnaby. She would then have to transfer to a series of buses before reaching her suite near the Westwood Plateau golf course.

So, Reggie it is on those late days.

Muir, in fact, could be ditching the train altogether come June. That's when Mayor Larry Campbell's plan to give 50 per cent parking discounts for low-emission vehicles, such as the Smart, comes into effect.

Muir and drivers of Honda and Toyota hybrids will receive the discounts at any of the 38 city-owned EasyPark lots. That would cut Muir's daily parking cost to four dollars a day.

Add $30 to $50 a month for gas, and the 20-minute West Coast Express ride from Port Moody station to Waterfront loses its appeal. She currently pays $140 a month for a train pass, and another $16 a month to park Reggie at the Port Moody station.

"I'm going to seriously look at driving the car more. I know there's congestion on the roads, but my car is environmentally friendly and the drive really isn't that bad."

On this morning, Muir has left at 6:25 a.m., early enough to avoid the crush of vehicles competing for space on the roads, which are proving inadequate for the suburb's population.

Muir lives in an area that has grown from being home to wildlife, a racing car track and gravel pit to the equivalent of a major suburb. The Heritage Mountain-Westwood Plateau developments have brought thousands of people to the mountain side, many of them owners of SUVs, mini-vans and BMWs.

"It's not too bad right now, but it does get busy around here in a hurry," she says, passing by a townhouse development under construction near the Port Moody recreation centre. "When that finishes, it'll be even worse for traffic, and people wanting to catch the train."

Her route takes her along the Barnet Highway, which runs alongside Burrard Inlet to East Hastings. The Barnet has a high-occupancy vehicle lane, but Muir agrees not to use it so the Courier can get a true indication of her commuting time.

The Smart handles well, is quiet and receives curious looks from motorists, including one couple in a burgundy sedan who give Muir the thumbs-up as she crosses Renfrew Street.

She reaches a parkade at Burrard and Georgia just before 7 a.m., making her commute 35 minutes. That's about 15 minutes less than it will take her to drive home at 5 p.m.

For all its pluses, the Smart is still a car and does take up space on the road-not much, mind you, at 2.5 metres long and 1.5 metres wide. Emissions are low, but it is powered by diesel fuel.

Even so, Muir believes she's doing her part for the planet, and encourages other motorists to buy smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles. In Europe, she says, it's the norm.

"I find that a lot of people try to find fault with it rather than look at the positives. It is different, and because of that, I don't think a lot of people are ready for this yet."

Further south in Coquitlam, Ian Torgerson rolls out of his driveway at 6:15 a.m. on a Wednesday dressed in his cycling gear with a bright light strapped to his helmet.

It's still dark, and the roads are slick from the previous night's heavy rainfall. He's on his mountain bike and carrying a pack on his back stuffed with a dress shirt and slacks.

Torgerson works for the Canada Revenue Agency in the GST rulings department. His office is in the 1100-block West Pender Street, about a 28-kilometre ride from his house near Coquitlam's Mundy Park.

Married with two young boys, Torgerson moved to Coquitlam from East Vancouver more than two years ago. Like many young families, he couldn't afford to buy a house in the city.

He lives in a nice four-bedroom house that backs onto a ravine, where his family often receives visits from bears. An elementary school is up the street, and his wife, a hospital administrator, has less than a 10-minute commute.

The tradeoff for this idyllic family setting is his commute.

The Torgersons own one vehicle, a small four-wheel drive Suzuki Tracker, which Torgerson's wife drives to work and uses to transport the boys to day care.

They thought about buying a second vehicle, but decided against it.

"I figured out if I was to pay the loan, pay the insurance, drive it to work every day and pay for parking, it would be about 45 bucks a day. So I said let's save the money and take a nice vacation every year."

Rising gas prices are also a concern, he says as he pedals along St. John's Street in Port Moody and points out the $103.1-a-litre sign at the Petro-Can gas station.

"I've never seen it that high."

Riding a bike to work, however, isn't something new for Torgerson. When he lived in East Vancouver, near Adanac and Boundary, he cycled every day, but that was a 16-kilometre round trip.

He rarely makes the 56-kilometre round trip from Coquitlam, and usually cycles one way and catches the West Coast Express train going the other. The train costs six dollars one way.

On this morning, he's chosen to cycle along the Barnet Highway, which has a wide shoulder for bicycles. It's the same stretch that Muir takes in her Smart.

Though the highway is noisy with traffic, Torgerson enjoys the view of Burrard Inlet. He spots two kayakers.

"That would be an awesome way to start your day. Actually, my neighbour kayaked from Port Moody to

work downtown one day. It took him about two-and-a-half hours-and then he kayaked back."

Adds Torgerson: "But he got stopped by the Coast Guard about three times. I think they were worried about terrorism and stuff like that."

As he reaches the end of the Barnet, Torgerson crosses East Hastings to the Union-Adanac bike route. Along the way, he talks about the importance of fitness, and how he's training to run the Vancouver Marathon next month.

Pushing 40, he jokes that 40 is the new 30.

"My dad wasn't doing this when he was 38, I'll tell you that much. He was looking for cheap deals on smokes."

The bike route runs parallel to Hastings. It's peaceful, with the odd car driving by, and takes the rider all the way to Union and Main streets in Chinatown.

For all his years of riding, Torgerson has been hit once. He collided with a car in Port Moody after the driver failed to see him. Torgerson took out the car's turn signal light with his pedal, but stayed on the bike.

"She was pretty shaken, and crying. She was totally apologetic, so it was pretty hard to stay mad at somebody like that."

Adds Torgerson: "People always ask me, 'Aren't you scared?' I have a theory. I just expect the person to do the stupidest thing possible, so there's no surprises. You have to anticipate the worst."

He's also been the target of angry motorists, who shout and throw pop cans. As he crosses Main Street from Union, where there is a designated bike box for cyclists, a driver in a Jetta lays on the horn, before speeding around him and the Courier reporter.

"That's what I'm talking about, right. It cost him about three seconds, maybe. People can always get around me no problem, but there's always some jerk who's going to take it out on the cyclist."

Before he gets to work, he stops at a local fitness centre to take a shower. His office has yet to install one, but Torgerson says he's urged the company to put one in.

He is the only cyclist in his department of 25 people. They joke with him about his closet full of clothes, his four pairs of shoes, but he believes they're missing out.

"I never preach to people, I never berate them or say they're damaging the planet or they're selfish. You won't get people interested that way. They'll just tune out. I always tell them how much fun it is."

One hour and 17 minutes of fun, to be exact.

posted on 04/18/2005





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