I took the bus for a month in Regina…

6.30am and CBC Radio Saskatchewan awakens me with the ‘news’ (at this point, it’s not new -) that there is yet another Extreme Cold Warning and the temperature outside is in the -30s with windchills in the -40s. Joy! Just what I needed. This morning feels more brutal than most because we are abruptly forced back into our unpleasant routines after a week off for the school holiday and Family Day. No one wants to get up today.

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The next piece on the radio is the good news that Regina Transit are finally considering running a bus route to the airport. FINALLY! Thank you Councillor Stevens… And then, the ‘In Your Shoes’ segment, where they apparently sent an intrepid journalist to travel by bus for a day to, and I quote, ‘find out why more people don’t’.

I’m sorry, Mr. Bryan Eneas, but you are not in my shoes.

Predictably, he’s late for work, misses bus connections and discovers that taking the bus takes more than twice the time that driving does. Then, halfway through the day, he gives up because he doesn’t want his kid freezing to death waiting half an hour for a bus in the extreme cold. I am certainly not going to condemn him for that – no one should be out for that length of time when it is so dangerously cold, particularly not a child when you have other options. But, and this is a big BUT: he had other options. He got his wife to come pick them up. In a car.

It’s now 7.30 and we are all up and dressed and all somewhere near fully conscious. Breakfast has been forced into small mouths, and we are about to start the battle of getting one beastling in one direction to school, the other in the opposite direction to daycare, husband downtown to work by 8am, and myself 5km away to work by 8.30am, and all of us kitted out in enough clothing to survive the journeys without frostbite.

Beastling-the-younger’s latest phobia (always Serious and Dramatic, never lasting more than a couple of weeks) is her utter disgust and discomfort of having her socks wrinkle up around her toes. Apparently, this morning’s sock endeavour was Unacceptable For Happiness, and she screeches in horror when I try to get her snow boot on. For the next three and a half minutes, she is inconsolable, pathetically tugging at the offending sock and sobbing her heart out. I remove the sock, replace it straighter, and immediately peace returns.

7.36am: Husband and beastling the younger leave the house. If another Sock Incident can be avoided when she has to remove all the snow gear two blocks later at daycare, husband should make it to work on time on foot.

This leaves me with Beastling-the-Elder, who has decided that her snow pants are far too Uncool and she would rather get cold than wear them over her favourite leggings. I am a great believer in picking my battles, and this is not a battle I choose to get into. She can get cold. The school is two blocks away. Still, signing school agendas, finding a lost mitt, and trying to get a brush through her hair all take time, and I start getting into Manic Mum Mode to get her out the door. 7.47am.

Together we power walk to the end of the block and I kiss her goodbye, leaving her to walk another block and cross Elphinstone on her own to get to school. Just as we part, I see my bus, the number 7 pass the end of our block. It stops opposite me and I frantically jaywalk to get to it before it pulls away from the bus stop. I don’t quite make it. As it pulls out, I run and manage to knock on the back window. Fortunately it stops and I jump on. “Try not to bang on the bus, eh?” says the driver. I apologise, and she smiles. Hardly the first time anyone has done that, I imagine. I glance at my phone. 7.49am. The bus should have passed at 7.51am.

The driver is the same woman who runs that route most mornings. She is one of the mighty few who are genuinely chipper and cheery in the very early morning. She tells everyone to have a good day! And ‘make good choices!’ as they leave the bus, along with ‘see you tomorrow!’ She knows we are all regular commuters. She knows some of us by name, particularly the kids. As we near the Cornwall Centre, she yells “We’re about 5 minutes early, so plenty of time for coffee!”.

Sadly, 5 minutes early translates into a fifteen minute wait for me, as my connection is still running to schedule. Fortunately, the downtown bus stops are heated. Slightly. There is a tall lanky teenager at the bus shelter with me. Thin runners instead of boots, no gloves and only a hoodie on over a t-shirt. He is shaking with cold. Unlike Beastling-the-Elder, I don’t think that outfit is a fashion choice. That might be all he has. He’s only there for a few more minutes though, until his bus arrives.  My number 15 bus pulls in, and I am transported right to the door of my workplace. 8.20am. My colleagues eventually park their cars and troop in, 15, 20 minutes late. “The snow’s too bad” and “My car wouldn’t start!” they say.

4.50pm, and I am fully suited and booted for the few minutes of minus-ridiculous outside on my way to the bus stop. I have to sneak out early, but hey, I also arrived ten minutes early. There is a Number 12 bus at precisely 5pm, but the stop is a ten minute walk away. If I work until 5, I have to stand around until 5.20pm and won’t be able to pick up Beastling-the-Elder from her after school club until nearly 6pm, which is a very, very long day for an eight year old. Usually, if I am lucky, I can get off this bus downtown, and transfer on to a Number 9 and get home before 5.30. Today though I am not so lucky. As I stare helplessly at the GPS powered Transit Live app, I can see the little purple digital Number 9 leave the downtown stop before the bus I am on arrives. I swear under my breath, but I know that if I stay on this same bus, it will eventually dump me somewhere at least close to the school, it will just take longer to do so. I sit tight.

The Number 12 goes along Sask Drive at rush hour. I press the bell as we get in to Cathedral and the bus halts next to a random pole on the edge of the busy road. The door opens and I am faced with a snow bank that reaches to my thighs. I make a jump for it, and my deep boot prints show that I am the first person to have used this “bus stop” perhaps in days.

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Even if there was a sidewalk here I’d struggle to climb over to it anyway.
I have decent boots, I’m tall and fairly fit and healthy. Also, I didn’t have the beastlings with me at this point. Still, getting off the road and trudging up to the end of the block through that took a lot of effort. Got a kid in a stroller? Mobility difficulties? No money for snow boots? You’re screwed, basically.

It is little wonder then that for anyone with a choice, taking the bus is not something they’d choose. To be clear, I do have some options. I don’t (can’t) drive, but my husband can. He chooses to walk, even in winter, because it seems so wasteful to drive less than a mile to work. If I ever get completely stuck on these buses, he could come and rescue me in a car. Or, more likely, I can scrounge a ride off friends from work. (Something I try to avoid because I have little intention of ever returning the favour.) However, last summer when my husband was unemployed and money was frighteningly tight, the car was the first thing to go – we ‘de-plated’ it until we could afford to run it again. I cycled to work every day instead.

The CBC article accurately concluded that taking the bus is not quick, efficient, comfortable or even that reliable, and concludes that this is why most people don’t use Regina transit. But this is missing the point: the reporter treated the experience as a special outing, and when things got tough, he quit. Because he could. He utterly failed to experience Regina transit from the point of view of people in this city who have no choice but to use it. Yes, it is very grim sometimes, but IT EXISTS. Taking the bus IS a valid option. It takes patience and planning, but it allows very low income people, teenagers, PwDs,  to get around the city safely, if not particularly quickly.

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Regina Transit – and accompanying infrastructure like the means to clear snow banks from bus stops, heated shelters and so on – needs drastic improvement. But if you improve it so that even the most vulnerable of users can get around on it, that will also make it a more attractive option for everyone else. Then, maybe, just maybe, other people will be persuaded to leave their cars behind too. There is nothing to lose!

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Feeling bizarrely homesick

For possibly the first time in seven years. Just got a few WhatsApp messages from a friend who I really miss, briefly chatted to my cousin, and we’re manically tidying the house in anticipation of the Parental Visit tomorrow night. Friends and family suddenly feel a very long way off at this time of year.

This is still one of my favourite Christmas songs:

 

All the lyrics are good, but particularly

And you, my baby girl
My jetlagged infant daughter
You’ll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school
 – pertinent on the few occasions we’ve made it back to the UK for Christmas with the girls.
And if my baby girl
When you’re twenty-one or thirty-one
And Christmas comes around
And you find yourself nine thousand miles from home
You’ll know what ever comes
Your brothers and sisters and me and your mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun
I wonder if our beastlings will emigrate when they are older? Will Canada cease to be the supposed utopian escape and become boring and mundane for them? Where will they go instead?
Australia possibly? Or they could look up the other side of the family in South Africa. But my money is on Scandinavia actually. If so, it will still be nearly impossible to imagine a sunny, hot Christmas! I don’t think Carl and I will be drinking white wine in the sun at Christmas any time soon. But in twenty years will we be the ones flying halfway round the world to see our babies at Christmas?
I’ve only ever experienced one hot Christmas, and it was the only one I’ve ever spent away from ‘home’ and family. That was in Nicaragua, exactly ten years ago. This was our view on Christmas Eve 2008. No white wine, but a few cold beers in a hammock!
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Merry Christmas everyone!!

Find your spark

To say life is busy right now is an understatement. In under 3 weeks we have the big Ignite! Festival at the Science Centre. I am the festival coordinator and organising a 4 day event with 25+ external participants takes a lot of doing! Last month I celebrated my first anniversary at work, and it is odd to think I started this job just 6 weeks before last year’s Ignite – I really did walk right into the middle of things, but fortunately I inherited a great start to it and a lot of things were already in place. This year’s version is considerably bigger as a result though – I’ve been working on it for months already!

There’s everything from the ‘live blacksmithing’ (returning from last year) to Combat Robots to a 185 metre wide scale model of the solar system, eyeball dissections, “virtual geography”, a drum circle, an off-road potato race and exploding pumpkin workshops. Obviously! Before that though, we have Park(ing) day with the Warehouse District (a follow up event from their Tactical Urbanism workshop), then the Girl Guides of Canada’s Girl’s First Launch day event, and then a project at Regina’s first Nuit Blanche event to do. In the lead up to Ignite, I started a series of workshops designed to get people involved and making things and to promote the festival outside the Science Centre. Over the summer I ran a ‘science of Coffee’ workshop, made elastic band guitars at Cinema under the Stars and noisemakers at the night market, learned how to wind pickups with the aid of Sawchyn Guitars, fixed my bike with an  Arduino board so I could virtually cycle through Google Maps, learned to solder with the Neil Squire Society, convinced a gang of bikers to make chromotography butterflies, helped kids construct robots that chalk “art” all over the concrete during the Heritage Harvest Moon festival, dropped marbles into flour and cocoa to teach Grade 4s about impact craters during Science Literacy week, sewed conductive thread and LEDs into fleece to make a light-up scarf and went on a “Glow Ride” with Bike Regina.  So many things new things to try and new skills to learn that I never thought I’d ever have the opportunity to attempt. Hectic, but fantastic.

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None of this would have been possible without the fabulous team of weirdos at the Science Centre, all of whom are doing their own complex schedules of activities and events as well. And then there is the Wonderful Hubby, who supports all this mad rushing about without raising an eyebrow. After a summer spent fiddling about at home, he has finally got a new (and very lucrative) job. I am very happy about this because not only is it a huge relief financially, it also gave him a much needed confidence boost again. The only thing I am not happy about is that despite me being so busy at my work, he STILL ends up earning more than twice my salary. It’s not fair!!

Oh and in amongst all this, I think I am supposed to be promoting the fact that “It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time” is out now too. (Did I mention I have a book out??)

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YOU CAN PRE-ORDER IT HERE FOLKS!!


So, if I haven’t seen you in forever or I don’t text you back or I lose keys that are actually in my pocket (AHEM) then this is why!! Fortunately I am surrounded by awesome supportive people and I am enjoying every minute of this madness!

100 Words

I am getting worse and worse at writing this blog. Current excuses are working full time, still doing Wheelie Good Coffee as well, beastling-rearing, and preparing for my book to come out. Still, I realised I was still finding time to waste glaring at Twitter, getting very depressed about the awful state of the world and despairing of humanity. So I quit it – originally for a month, possibly forever.

But I can’t go cold-turkey. I had to replace Twitter with something less soul-sapping. So I looked up 100words.com again. This is the original microblogging site: write exactly 100 words every day, no more, no less. If you don’t complete a 100-word entry every day for a month, the site wipes your whole month. It is good writing practice, especially since I suffer from verbal diaorrhea, plus it forces you to make writing daily become a habit.

I did 100 Word batches for years – before Twitter even existed, before Facebook, when LiveJournal was still a thing instead of WordPress, and blogging was only done by angsty teens. I kept it up for years! And all my entries are still there… which is terrifying. My profile has lots of references to my Vampire thesis, and it was before we got married. There’s even a link to my MySpace profile.

But of course, precisely because it was a million years ago, I no longer have the email that allows me to log in to the site, let alone any recollection of the password. So I have had to start afresh. My username is now Bel (Older not Wiser), and here is my first batch in at least ten years:

http://100words.com/batchReadBatchMember.php?batch=237&member=14701

 

30 days of biking – and another 500km

It’s April, which brings me to 6 years in Regina, 5 years of doing #30daysofbiking. Well actually, I think I’m now up to 80 days of biking in 2018 now. But anyway, you get the general idea!

Here’s this year’s adventures in photo form:

Dramatic change from one end of the month to the other! I’ve certainly been snowed on during April’s biking adventures before, but I don’t think it’s ever been this cold before.

Today I pedalled into work on the longer route around the lake – a luxury I can now afford because I didn’t have to drop Theia off then rush through traffic just to get in on time. Because… Carl is home!!! WOOHOOOO!!!!

Despite asking repeatedly to be allowed to work from home, the response from the Prince Albert job was always “we don’t have a work-from-home-policy”. Erm, well, you could make one? It’s 2018 and even Prince Albert has the Interwebs now. There is nothing he was doing up there that couldn’t be done remotely, sitting in his underpants on the computer at home. But no… so, finally, he decided the 800km drive on remote highways at 4am, the unfurnished apartment and the whole week away from the kids wasn’t worth it and he quit. Their loss, our gain!

He’s got some GIS freelance work lined up which will keep us going, and hopefully one job will lead to the next etc. Check out eclipsegeospatial.com – now accepting new clients!

It’s sunny and he’s home, and all is cheerful. And he’s decided he wants to get his bike out again too!  So, we found a good way to get us both out pedalling again.

30th April was Rohan Day – that is, the day my brother Rohan died, 20 years ago now. He had a very rare form of cancer that was only diagnosed when it was too late. He was 12.
This year Carl and I are riding the the The Great Cycle Challenge Canada in Rohan’s memory, to raise money for kids’ cancer research and support. We’re aiming for 500km in 30 days. Please sponsor us if you can! Thank you.

https://greatcyclechallenge.ca/Teams/TeamTownsend

Tactical Urbanism

Full of ideas….this is a loooong post!

Last week I attended a workshop on Tactical Urbanism, held by the Warehouse District and Downtown Business Improvement Districts. I was there partly for work and partly for personal interest, and it was a fascinating session from both angles!

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Trying not to shout about Bike Lanes too much….

Very briefly, the whole ethos of Tactical Urbanism is creating vibrancy in urban areas and treating city spaces as places where you actually enjoy spending time in their own right, rather than just as areas you pass through on route to somewhere more interesting. There’s a difference between a street and a road: roads are for transport, streets are for people. It’s simple but also something that doesn’t seem to occur to many people – especially town planners!

Tactical urbanism can be installing small, cheap and temporary initiatives (constructed by anyone with an idea, all very grass-roots and ‘citizen-led’) that are publicly accessible and very visual, and if successful, creates a momentum that leads to permanent change. This can be anything from just putting up planters and getting flowers along the streets, chalk art on the sidewalks, to pop up art displays in empty buildings, painting alleys between buildings,  to food trucks and pop-up outdoor shops and markets, or roping off a section and creating temporary bike lanes and holding a group ride or a walking tour of the area etc. (Guess which bit I was most keen on?). Anything that gets people out of ‘the commuter mindset’ and gets them walking/biking/hanging out on the streets.

We discussed Park(in) Days as a good example of this type of event. The Downtown BID tried this back in 2016 – they plugged the parking meters outside some businesses on 11th avenue downtown (my café being one of them) and got the business owners and interested groups to decorate their parking spot. We turned our cafe inside out: put some squashy armchairs on a rug on the road, a bookshelf, coffee table and made a comfy reading room outdoors,and then filled the front of the cafe with flowers and pot plants and a bike rack indoors. It was a pretty simple set up, and we even gave out free coffee, but even with the freebies it was by far the most lucrative day we ever had at the cafe. People attract people. Getting people to sit outside your business instead of just driving past can only ever be a good thing.

For the workshop, they’d printed a couple of huge banners with fake shop fronts. We marked out a rough intersection and then a bike lane along the store fronts and then designed our own Park(in) displays – loads of flowers in planters, someone got some Yoga mats out so you could do yoga on the street, deck chairs and some sand, and we made “pede-vision”- a sofa area with a huge frame where you could sit and watch the world go by (instead of sitting indoors, alone, watching TV). It totally transformed our imaginary street.20180302_152310

Inevitably, the conversations turned to cycling, and I was pleased to discover that the bike-activist contingent was not just me, Andrew (sorry, ‘Councillor Stevens’) and the guy from Bike Regina! There were a lot of people interested in making Regina more cycle-friendly, or at least, more ‘walkable’ too. Clearing the sidewalks of snow would help right now! I’ve always believed that if an area is made safer and more appealing to cycle through, then more people will cycle. This workshop actually had the stats to back that up. As Leasa from the Warehouse District BID pointed out, you can’t use today’s cyclist numbers (with no cycling infrastructure) to assume how many more people would actually use cycle paths *if they were there*.

 

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Bike rack fail.

I tried to prove a point about how unfriendly this area is to cyclists – by cycling up there. Pain points included bumping violently over the train tracks (pedestrian bridge over that would be nice!?), and drivers passing me with just inches to spare on Dewdney, despite the road being easily wide enough to accomodate a bike lane if only one could be built. To my surprise, there was actually a bike rack at the building when I arrived. But getting to it required heaving the trike up 3 steps, or trying to bend it round a too-narrow, cornered wheelchair ramp. Tactical Urbanism fail: infrastructure added thoughtlessly, with no real expectation that people will use it.

 

The workshop was held on the second floor of the enormous, empty old Sears warehouse. For the final part of the workshop, someone helped me get the trike into the freight elevator and bring it up to the workshop. So I spent my afternoon slowly pedalling around a home made street with a hand drawn bike lane, on the upper floor of a disused, slightly creepy building. Surreal experience!

The other main discussion was city design that incorporates the microclimate – as in, should Regina embrace itself as a Winter City? And how would any of these ideas work in winter? We sidestepped the shared frustrations about city hall not clearing snow off sidewalks (because of the unwavering belief that if you have a car, your journey must therefore be more important than the journeys of pedestrians). Sidewalk clearing is an activity we can all share in, even if most would prefer City Hall to do it. Most interestingly, we also talked about how a lot of building designers don’t take into account the fact that their buildings often create huge wind tunnels (the Victoria and Albert intersection springs to mind – Capital Pointe would make it a whole lot worse down there). Doesn’t matter if you are in a car, but it does if you are walking or waiting at bus stops. What could we do about that? (Wind turbines on the rooves, used to power heaters in the bus stops below, I thought!)

Tactical urbanism is about Doing, not just Talking though. So, we built things! There’s a marketing company called Sleek, and they’d designed some MDF furniture (patio tables and chairs, park benches, a bike rack etc) and cut it out using a CNC cutter, and we just had to slot it together. It was very easy and effective, and Judith pointed out how cheap it was: about 25 pieces of solid, useable and custom furniture made from MDF came to about $5000.

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The next day got more involved: we made a bar out of old wooden pallets. Jessica (from work) and I got to play with power tools! We had a guy from a construction company supervising us, but seven people most of whom had never used an electric saw before ‘recycled’ a few old pallets into a bar in an hour and a half. It was really fun!  The point of all this was just to show how easy and affordable it is to construct little, temporary things – patio seating on the plaza, large planters to go on the edge of a sidewalk, or a small bike rack etc – that make a big impact, making places more visually appealing and encouraging people to linger and actually spend time on the streets.

 

Anyway, in trying to relate this all to work and Science Centre projects, I guess my main take aways from this were:

  • There is a great community of people out there who are willing and able to embark on ‘tactical urbanist’ projects – and the residents’ associations and Business districts will support them.
  • Keep it simple and cheap to start with – it can always get more elaborate later.
  • Building things isn’t actually as difficult as it first appears.
  • People attract people – as soon as someone starts something, others will follow.

I have a ton of ideas for projects already, and I also met a load of like-minded, useful people from companies that would be excellent to collaborate with for our Ignite! science festival in October. On a personal note, I would love to keep in touch with this group of people and plan some projects together. The workshop was inspiring – and I know I wasn’t alone in discovering a new passion for making Regina a fun, safe, creative and more liveable city.

 

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Photo: Regina Warehouse District