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Sky High or Down Underground?

Nov 03, 2009

y Christine Szeto, VIA Architecture’s Vancouver Office

Part 1: Growing Up Riding the Sky
On a Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1992, I rode the SkyTrain for the very first time. My family usually spent Saturdays in Chinatown but we lived in Surrey. My parents were working late that day and my two older sisters thought that they could ride the train home to work on their “homework”. Of course, much to the dismay of my parents, as well as my sisters, I insisted on tagging along. Our ride would take us from Main Street Station to Scott Road. (King George would have been the closer station but it hadn’t been built yet.) I had just turned 10, and my sisters were 12 and 16.

Like all parents who are learning to trust their children, my parents were a bit worried about dropping off three girls near skid row and then having them ride the train all alone for an hour. Anything could happen — we could get lost, or could lose a sister, especially the little sister. We could have missed our stop at Scott Road Station, or we could get off too early. Cell phones were still sort of new and expensive so there wasn’t a way of contacting us until we reached our destination. Besides, we could have lost the precious gigantic brick of a phone. “But, c’mon, get real – mom, dad, are you serious?” We only had one train line to ride, how could we possibly get lost? All we had to do was stay on the train until the end; until it couldn’t go any further.

I remember my sisters picking the last car to ride on so that I could look out the tiny back window as we rode home. It gave them a moment of peace because they knew that the view would keep me quiet – and they were right. Nothing was better to me than seeing the entire city from above as I traveled home. Time passed quickly because there was always something interesting to look at.

After several more rides, I got so used to the landscape that I began to look for specific objects or structures to judge how far along I was in between stations. It never became boring; not for me anyway. Even after years of riding the same line, there was always something to look at. Things looked different each time we rode the SkyTrain. Maybe because it wasn’t raining this trip, or the sun was setting or perhaps a building was torn down. Whatever it was, it was always worth a look.

From then until my mid twenties, SkyTrain was basically my only experience with rapid transit. It was what I knew and it was easy. Just one line and 40 minutes later I’m in the city or back at home. Of course, at times, the train wasn’t the most convenient because the stations can be quite far from my departure or destination points, but I’ve always enjoyed the ride.

So, because I was so used to seeing sunlight and landscapes while commuting, I was a bit closed to the idea of riding a subway system. Expo Line does go underground for some stations, but the train eventually resurfaces to an elevated railway. To ride constantly underground sounded somewhat bleak and depressing, if not slightly claustrophobic. I also wasn’t the most attentive commuter – I guess I was too busy looking out the window – so changing trains did not seem favorable either.

Just last September, my husband Stanley and I vacationed in Paris and we thought it would be a much better (and cheaper!) experience to visit the city as pedestrians. Besides, we had heard that driving in Paris was extremely aggravating. Obviously, then, the subway would be our main method of touring the city.

At first I got really ambitious and thought “why spend all that time underground when we can see the city on bicycles? It’s so Parisian!” But Stan wasn’t thrilled with that idea, especially when the forecast predicted rain. So, onto the subway we went and well, honestly, it was a lot of fun! I suppose since I was born and raised in the Greater Vancouver area, there’s a natural inclination to the city’s transit infrastructure – you just know what to expect – but I was wrong to be so biased. As beautiful as the city of Paris is, the transit infrastructure was also a real eye-opener for me.

Of course, understanding how the system works in a practical sense – point A to point B – and in French, is a slightly different story….

(tune in next week for Part 2 of Sky High or Down Underground?)

Here’s a video clip of the original test track from the mid-1980’s 

Images: cell phone, Vancouver skybridge, expo line map

One Comment

  1. This was so enjoyable to read. I think that the SkyTrain played an important role in the upbringing of most Vancouver children. I know I always looked forward to my time hovering above the city…that and the Seabus!