Sunday, 26 May 2013

The New Totalitarians

I was at one of Vancouver’s Canada Line train stations today, and the loudspeakers were blaring:  “TransLink [that’s our beloved transit company] reminds you that only one bicycle is allowed on trains during peak hours.”

Now, the odd thing about this announcement is that it was made on a Sunday.  There are no peak hours on Sunday.  Just some transit company foolishness, I thought at first, but now I’m thinking TransLink is playing a deeper game.  Announcements are rife on the Canada Line, telling passengers not to intrude on the tracks, not to let their backpacks impede other passengers, and so on.

It occurs to me that the point of these announcements is less their subject matter than their existence.  Marshall McLuhan would be impressed.  It’s the medium that matters much more than the message.  There is never really an intrusion onto the tracks, it doesn’t matter about bicycles on Sunday, and so on.  What matters is that TransLink is conditioning, or trying to condition, its passengers to listen and obey these faceless pronouncements from the transit deity.

Winston Smith would also be impressed.  It’s like the orders for a Three Minute Hate.  Or like the announcements I read about at the Beijing Olympics, where spectators were reproached for I forget what.  Big Brother is watching, or at least exhorting.

This is coupled with TransLink’s latest campaign, which targets noisy passengers, sloppy passengers (eating and leaving debris on buses and trains), selfish passengers (hogging seats), and so on.  This was a quite clever campaign from TransLink, diverting attention from its own failings and getting passengers to say what bothered them about OTHER PASSENGERS.  Not what bothered them about the transit company, of course.

I at first thought of this simply as a clever example of divide and conquer.  It is that, but it is also more of this TransLink paternalism, treating the passengers like children who have to be told to clean up after themselves, play nice, and so on.

Now, there are some passengers who hog seats and block aisles with backpacks, or play noisy music.  It can be annoying.  But to have the authorities broadcast exhortations about behaviour is, frankly, a little disconcerting.

And woe betide anyone seeking to object to the announcements.  The buses now blare out each and every stop they’re making.  On non-express buses you can be bombarded with street names every few seconds.  I wrote in to complain, and was put in my place: TransLink wants to serve all its users, I was told.

(By this they mean they want their service accessible to the visually impaired.  I get that.  But the effect is that those of us with sensitive hearing and those of us who would like a quiet bus ride during which they can read or think, well, we’re out of luck.  I wrote back to say if you’re serving all your users, how about users like me?  This time they wrote a pseudo-apology, but were quite clear that their wonderful new system was here to stay.)

I realized that I was in the presence of True Believers.  TransLink most likely thinks it is Doing Good and that those who object are benighted dinosaurs.  It’s a dangerous combination: True Belief and Power.  There are other True Believers at the Canada Line stations: Mormons, for instance, standing there forlornly, hoping someone will stop to talk or pick up their literature.  But they have no power; they’re no danger.

But TransLink has the power to enforce its will on us, the public, with the aim, it would seem, of making us feel like erring children.  It is a dangerous path to go down.


  1. only one bicycle is allowed on trains?

    does that mean whoever takes a bike on first is the only one who can? or they are looking for people trying to carry three bikes onto a train??

  2. I should have said they allow only one bike per car on trains during peak hours. But that did make me think of your question: how do cyclists negotiate this with one another? But I suppose they can just look for another car on the train if one's already there. Or wait for the next train (they come every three minutes).