As Vancouver faces a transit strike, we ride the 99 B-Line — the busiest bus line in North America

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As Vancouver faces a transit strike, we ride the 99 B-Line — the busiest bus line in North America


VANCOUVER — As a crowd of bleary-eyed morning commuters impatiently wait, three sets of doors on the articulated bus open in unison — mirroring the automatic movements of train cars stopped to let passengers on and off.

After some passengers make a run for the closing doors, Vicki Duong calmly watches the bus drive away and stands in line for the next one.

“There’s always another bus coming,” Duong says as a crowd of passengers forms around her. And another, and another and another — such is the routine of the busiest bus line in Canada and the United States: Metro Vancouver’s 99 B-Line.

The 99, as it’s known locally, is the frequent, clunky, and chronically overcrowded lifeline of Vancouver’s transit system, picking up more than 55,000 passengers every work day and ferrying them east to west from the city’s economic hubs to the remote reaches of the University of British Columbia.

It’s a job that could easily be accomplished by a rail line — a reality that the regional transit authority and city have acknowledged in plans to convert its busiest portions to a subway by the end of the transit authority’s 10-year-plan in 2025.

But the bus line that never relents is facing the prospect of an unexpected stop. A looming labour dispute involving drivers who say they have too little time to eat or take bathroom breaks on long shifts threatens to cut off bus transportation in some or all parts of Metro Vancouver.

For passengers such as Duong, who live near the route, the 99 is a staple of their daily routine: The reliable transit artery makes it feasible to get around a sprawling city without owning a car.

Stretching from a commercial, residential and transportation hub in Vancouver’s East End, to the University of British Columbia campus on the west of the city via the bustling Broadway Street, the 99 is a crucial piece of transportation infrastructure that gets students and professors to class and whisks workers to and from rail-free neighbourhoods such as Kitsilano and Point Grey.

But the issue of overcrowded buses has reached a breaking point, and the people who board this bus route 56,000 times a day could be left in the lurch.

Unifor, the union that represents 5,000 bus drivers and maintenance workers across Metro Vancouver, announced in early October that members had voted 99 per cent in favour of striking against their employer, Coast Mountain Bus Company. This week, the union set a strike deadline of midnight Thursday, opening the door to a shutdown of bus and SeaBus service as early as Friday morning. They have since stated job action, for now, will consist of a uniform and overtime ban rather than having employees walk off the job.

Thursday midday seemed like ideal operating conditions for the 99. It was sunny. There were no major incidents along Broadway. But while riders poured on and off the bus at UBC and Commercial/Broadway station, some thanking the driver as is typical Vancouver etiquette, talks between the union and their employer broke down.

Typical to labour disputes, wages and benefits were sticking points — with the union arguing that pay for drivers in the private sector is outstripping that of their members.

Less typical is the role working conditions play in this dispute.

According to drivers, overcrowding isn’t just uncomfortable for passengers — it’s stopping drivers from eating or taking bathroom breaks, and putting them at risk of distracted driving.

The union says public bus schedules, which passengers rely on to plan their trips, don’t give drivers enough time to drive the routes. The result is that they have to make a choice at the end of the line: Face anger from passengers over the lateness of the bus, or forgo the five-to-10 minute bathroom break they’re supposed to get to make up for the fact that they have no scheduled meal breaks.

In statements to the media, Coast Mountain Bus Company has said it’s bargaining with the union in good faith, and says it plans to hire 1,300 additional drivers in the next two years for its new bus routes, and those that need more service.

While the parties’ talks were going sour, riding on the B-Line showed signs of a route stretched to breaking point.

On an articulated bus leaving from Commercial-Broadway station Thursday morning, about 45 seats are full immediately. Forty-five faces stare at 45 phones as riders settle in for long commutes. Some get off around Main Street and Cambie, where the Canada Line runs. The rest are in it for the 45-minute trip to western Vancouver and the University of British Columbia.

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When the bus arrives at the terminal at UBC, it immediately loops around to pick up a waiting line of students and head back on the road. Three minutes later another line has already formed.

At times, three articulated 99 buses line up one behind the another letting passengers off. By the time each arrives at the pickup location, there are more passengers ready to get on.

Students in line said the campus wouldn’t be recognizable without the B-Line, or an equivalent service.

“A lot of people would have trouble getting here,” if the buses went on strike, said graduate student Donny Nguyen, adding even people who don’t use the route all the time take it for granted as a frequent, express service to the otherwise remote university.

Nia Hakim, an undergraduate sciences student, said life without the 99 would mean overrun parking garages, and students frequently missing classes.

“Right now it’s already hard to get parking if you arrive at campus for class later than 8 a.m.,” she said. “For people who don’t have a licence — they either have to get their parents to drive them or stay home and hope the professor posts the lectures online.”

Ian Wallace, a retired volunteer who goes to UBC once a week to read texts for the visually impaired, said he wouldn’t be able to volunteer without the B-Line.

“It’s a long walk,” he said, looking out the window at the large green expanse leading to the university. “I could probably bike, but it’s a big hill.”

As for the role the 99 plays at UBC, Wallace said it was essential. “I think the university would collapse without it.”

The bus carrying Wallace and Hakim drove the length of its route without problems. It filled up to the point that younger passengers stood to give elderly passengers seats, but not so much that bodies squished together for space.

The driver (who did not give his name) called the conditions more or less “ideal” for the 99. When it arrived at the end of the line, it was eight minutes late, and scheduled to leave again in two minutes.

Alex McKeen

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