VANCOUVER, B.C. — It’s a sign familiar to many transit commuters who have watched a bus sardine-packed full of people whiz by without even stopping. It’s demoralizing, depressing and a flat-out bummer.
“SORRY, BUS FULL.”
It’s a message that leads to missed meetings and extra time standing in the rain. It inspires grumbling about transit infrastructure and frustration at having to squeeze onto the next, inevitably very full, bus. But one Vancouver cyclist is using it to to raise awareness of transit woes in the city.
“It obviously has been fun for me to not only get exercise but also to make a statement about cycling and buses because there’s just so much congestion,” University of British Columbia student Ashcon Partovi told HuffPost. “We have to do something about this.”
Partovi is sparking conversations across the city thanks to a light-up sign he wears on his back while cycling alongside some of the city’s busiest bus routes. What started as a light-hearted joke has elevated Partovi to cult-figure status in the city, and sparked conversation around congestion and the ongoing transit strike.
The third-year business and computer science student started cycling a year ago as a way to speed up his commute to school and get some exercise. He says that relying on the perpetually crowded 99 B-Line, which goes to UBC, was difficult. The idea to display transit-related messages on his back started when a friend challenged him to race the 99 bus, which made him realize there’s a needed conversation around the role of both cyclists and buses in the city.
Since that first race with the 99, Partovi has used his light-up backpack to draw attention to congestion on the city’s busiest transit lines, as well as other issues like the ongoing strike. Partovi says he goes out of his way to ride several times a week, changing up the routes — thought the 99 is the most popular.
The irony of a cyclist wearing a “99 BUS FULL” sign cruising past an actually full 99 B-Line bus has not been lost on people, and Partovi has become a bit of a cult figure in the city.
Last month, a reddit user shared a video of Partovi with the caption “guy biking along west broadway thinks he’s the 99.”
And on Twitter, people were delighted by his ingenuity.
While Vancouver has a dedicated cycle track network off of main thoroughfares frequented by buses, Partovi says he wants people to see him and start talking.
“I really hope that when people see my ‘bus full’ sign, that the takeaway is that our politicians and government really need to look at congestion and actually put their money where their mouth is and actually fund these projects,” he said. “Because commuters are suffering and it’s only getting worse.”
The 99 B-Line, where I first saw Partovi, runs from Commercial-Broadway station in east Vancouver to the University of British Columbia campus on the city’s far western tip. It’s also the busiest bus line in North America. The bus line had over 17 million boardings in 2018, with an average of 55,000 people boarding every weekday.
That’s a lot of people. During a morning commute, it’s not unexpected to see rows of buses go shooting past, leaving commuters stranded in the rain.
The 99 has become the subject of a number of memes in the city. In 2015, it even inspired a song and music video from driver Amrit Bains, who says it’s his favourite to drive in the city.
The track — which for the record, is a certified bop — contains such relatable lyrics as “Some find a seat, some stand on the floor. But everyone is happy to just get on board.”
Overall, transit use in Vancouver continues to grow, and with it, congestion. From 2017 to 2018, annual boardings across Metro Vancouver transit systems increased 7.1 per cent to a record 437.4 million. The 99 B-Line comes every two to three minutes during peak periods, and still faces huge issues with congestion. Many commuters who board at the start of the line ride its entire hour-long length without being able to get a seat.
Partovi says he thinks his gimmick strikes a chord with bus commuters because that “bus full” message and the congestion associated with it is something everyone is familiar with. He’s been stopped by bus drivers, other cyclists and pedestrians to talk about the sign and transit issues in the city in general.
“People do a double-take on the road when they see a flashing sign,” he said. “I was stopped at a red light once and the bus driver opened his door and said ‘oh that’s so cool.’”
Go Team Go!
Partovi says congestion isn’t the only issue he’s trying to raise awareness about. Since Nov. 1, Metro Vancouver bus drivers and Seabus operators have been involved in escalating labour action against Coast Mountain Bus Company, the organization that oversees them.
Partovi says last week he switched his sign to say “GO TEAM GO!” in solidarity with the striking drivers. It’s a phrase also adopted by the striking bus drivers on the bus route displays.
“They’re really going through a lot, and I’ve seen first-hand that their working conditions are really tough,” he said. “Drivers during the past week or so have been pulling over and telling me that I’m part of the team.”
Over 5,000 Metro Vancouver bus drivers, Seabus operators and maintenance workers represented by Unifor Local 111 and 2200 are involved in the ongoing strike. The union is asking for improvements to driver benefits, salaries and working conditions. Drivers argue that their pay is not competitive with similar jobs in the private sector.
Partovi says more support from all levels of government is needed to improve transit conditions in Vancouver for commuters and workers.
“We have to do something about this,” he said.
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It’s work that’s extended outside of Partovi’s cycling habit. Earlier this month, he and a group of other UBC students participated in a “hackathon” with the City of Vancouver to examine strategies to limit transit congestion.
“The Decode Congestion Hackathon engaged Vancouver residents to use data and new technologies to create solutions that optimize street use for an efficient, safe and reliable transportation network,” the event’s website reads.
Partovi’s group took second-place and developed a tool that uses machine learning to review photos from City of Vancouver intersection cameras to provide alerts about high-congestion periods.
“We met with the director of information technology at the City of Vancouver and hopefully this project will actually become a thing,” he said.
Partovi says he’ll continue to ride his bike and raise awareness until governments start to seriously fund transit upgrades.
“I’m either going to be biking on the road or working on programming projects that could help solve congestion or reduce it,” he said. “We need to do something.”