I’ve been home in Canada for a little more than a week, and am already beginning to rub up against the things that run different from my laowai life in China.

And while we’ve covered this topic a few times on the blog, I felt like using this post as an opportunity to reach out to other laowai who are heading home for the holidays and seeing what you all feel are the biggest differences as well as the best and worst parts of your homecoming.

For me, by far, the thing I’m having the hardest time getting used to is transportation. I only head home every two years or so, and have long ago allowed my driver’s license to lapse. Between this and having sold my car before originally moving to China, I must rely on friends and family to cart my ass from place to place.

Though I’m from Ontario (that’s near Buffalo for all our American readers, and near America for everyone else), I wanted to give my wife an opportunity to see a bit more of Canada this, her second, visit to the Truth North Strong and Free™. As such we flew in to Vancouver last week armed with some rough directions from the city transit’s Web site.

In two months Vancouver will host the Winter Olympics (I’ve learned recently that apart from the athletes, apparently Canada, Russia and Sweden are the only countries aware of this international event), and having lived in China during the build up to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, I had expected the Western Canadian city to be a bit more prepared.

As an English-speaking Canadian in an English-speaking Canadian city, let me be one of the first to say that the city is in for a LOT of trouble. I travel a fair bit, and when visiting a new city, I have come to assume and expect that mass transportation will take me where ever I need to go. When it comes to my homeland, it’s left me terribly dissappointed.

Before departing, I did a quick search for information on Vancouver’s mass transit system, and sort of assumed I’d find some awesome sites like the Explore(Shanghai/Beijing/Guangzhou/HK) sites. I mean, China’s just “developing” right? Canada’s pretty-well developed. Or so I thought.

What I found was the cluttered and deadended site of Translink (the Vancouver transit provider), which is about as interactive as a coma victim. The information I needed was on there, but involved a lot of digging around. Whats more, the SkyTrain (Vancouver’s subway equivalent) has only three lines — two of which that run virtually the exact same route. The third line just opened a couple months ago (presumably to help with Olympic visitors coming from the airport).

The city, like much of Canada seems to presume everyone will be driving around — a rather hefty assumption when you have one of the country’s largest immigrant populations, never mind international visitors.

The lack of coverage from the SkyTrain forced us to hike it around the city quite a bit. We were graced with good weather, but I can’t imagine what it would have been like had it been the usual cold December rains. We’re also fortunate that Canadians, by and large, are damn helpful people, as trying to take the bus at one point further my disillusionment with the city’s transit system.

Unlike China, the Vancouver bus stops feature no route information. The single point of information is a sign that gives you the bus numbers that stop there, and their final destination. As someone unfamiliar with the city (as virtually all tourists would be), this proved extremely hard to navigate.

When finally leaving the city, we opted not to walk 25 minutes to the nearest SkyTrain with all our luggage, and dared not bother trying to sort out which bus to take. Instead we paid the $15 CAD for a 4km taxi ride to the Vancouver bus/train station.

It is a rare moment in China that I miss the expense masked as “freedom” of having my own car. I long ago gave up on the Chinese deathtraps city busses, but rely heavily on using taxis to get where I need to go. I suppose it’s because I went from having a car in Canada to taking the bus in China to taking taxis in China that I had always thought of taxis as a slightly expensive form of travel. This trip has refreshed my perspective on the matter:

Bus in China: 1RMB/$0.16 CAD
Subway/Lightrail in China: 4-6RMB/less than $1 CAD
Taxi in China (4km distance): 10-15RMB/$1.50-2.00 CAD
Bus/SkyTrain Canada: 16-30RMB/$2.50-$5 CAD
Taxi in Canada (4km distance): 85-100RMB/$13-15

Taxis in China are cheaper than the cheapest form of inconvenient mass transit in Canada.

It saddens me that a city that in the minds of most Canadians is the most progressive in Canada, handles mass transit so pathetically. However, it is by no means just a Vancouver thing. We had similar challenges getting around Toronto on our previous visit.

What’s even more evident is the disparity between China and Canada’s costs for taking trains. In China if you’re lucky you can find a cheap domestic flight that rivals or at least competes with the country’s extensive rail system. In checking what it would cost to take the train from Toronto to Vancouver, hoping for a cheaper alternative than flying, we were a bit surprised to find that train tickets would run roughly double the cost of the flight. If anyone at Via Rail is scratching their heads and wondering why train passenger numbers are down, I suggest they check out WestJet.com or AirCanada.ca and figure out a new strategy — who is going to pay twice the price to take a 3-day train over a 5-hour plane?

I had always thought that Canadians chose to be some of the most car-dependent people on the planet — I realize now they just don’t have an effective (cost or otherwise) alternative.


  1. “I had always thought that Canadians chose to be some of the most car-dependent people on the planet — I realize now they just don’t have an effective (cost or otherwise) alternative.”

    It is also true that since high proportions of Canadians have cars (and therefore rarely, if ever, take public transit), public transit just cannot pay for itself.

    Who’s on first: chicken or egg.

  2. A city that wants to put on the olympics SHOULD have better public transportation, but it pretty much is a waste of money. Once the olympics come and go, how many vancouverans would actually use it?

    It’s been my impression that public transportation in north america is always pretty bad, but what’s the problem there? If people can afford cars, why on earth would anyone in their right mind want to either use public transport or pay taxes to pay for such? So I say the egg came first. Public transport doesn’t get used because people would rather drive, wouldn’t you?

  3. I can only speak from my experience on the bus and SkyTrain in December (in a mix of peak and off-peak times), and both were decently full (the bus was actually packed tighter than many of its Chinese counterparts).

    But Chip, to answer your question, no. If I had cheaper and convenient alternatives I would definitely prefer public transport. Maintanance, gas, insurance… these are expenses I would happily give up if I had something that would do the same job. I think that the need-a-car mentality is something that’s bred into us, but isn’t very sustainable (just check out any street in China and think what it’s going to be like when the country has a “real” middle class).

    @Bill, I agree — however, if the government is waiting for average Canadian’s to make the change and demand it, they will likely be waiting a long time. Someone needs to jump first, and they’re the ones being paid to look out for the best interests of Canadians. I think giving Canadians a more environmentally and economically viable transport solution is definitely in our best interests. Never mind the millions of tourists that also visit the country’s major cities.

  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention Laowai homecoming — mass-transit misery | Lost Laowai China Blog -- Topsy.com

  5. @Ryan,

    Sure, it’s unsustainable….in China. But Canada? I mean, kudos to you for actually enjoying public transport, but I personally can’t stand the fact that taking a bus or train always takes atleast 30 minutes more to where you want to go than a car. The reason why public transport works in China is because they need it. For most of North America, other than the occasional “global event” such as an olympic games, public transport is unlikely to be nothing more than a waste of tax dollars and incredibly slow. Now if one were to throw a High speed tokyo-style bullet train in the mix for a dollar a ticket, then sure, I’d go for it.

  6. “public transportation in north america is always pretty bad,… Public transport doesn’t get used because people would rather drive, wouldn’t you?”

    And then you have New York City.

  7. Here in Toronto, Canada we clearly have a need for public transit. It is often faster that a car, there are no parking fees, and there is less wear and tear on public roads. Unfortunately, unlike China, there is no political will to subsidize public transit, so transit users bear most of the cost of the system. If more people drive the roads are more crowded with cars and everything slows down. Toronto has over 1.2M people ride the TTC daily. When there is a transit blockage or strike the city goes into spasms.

  8. Per silojet’s comments, my experience is that public transit works only in very densely-populated areas. The simple issue is that you need to have a steady stream of commuters that want to go in the same direction at the same time. Otherwise its a choice between running the buses and trains nearly empty, or making people wait 20-30 minutes for the bus or train to show up. In the eastern half of the US, major cities like New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington DC have transit systems that while perhaps not up to European standards, at least make it possible to get around without a car. They even have commuter trains that allow workers to quickly reach downtown areas from outer suburbs. But try going between suburbs and you are out of luck.

    In terms of comparing prices, I think the key issue is what people can afford to pay. Sure it sounds better to pay 1-2RMB to ride a bus in Suzhou than to pay 14RMB to ride one in Chicago, but minimum wage in Suzhou is about 700RMB/month, versus 55RMB/hour (9900RMB/month assuming a 40 hour work week) in Chicago.

    But you do have my sympathy. I find the cheap taxis in Suzhou to be addictive – I only take the bus when I can’t find a taxi.

  9. I’ve experienced very similar culture shock when returning from China to the U.S. (St Louis, Missouri to be precise). Public transportation is a joke and not particularly cheap. It’s actually cheaper to drive downtown and rent a monthly parking space than it is to take public transit. And St Louis is considered a cheap city in terms of transportation costs.

    And the trains are comparable to Canada as well. To visit my family in CA I can spend about $1200 for a family of five to fly there in 5 hours, or about $1800 to take a four day train trip *without* a sleeper.

    Plenty of arguments can be made about the cost of transportation relative to local average annual income which may minimize some of the price disparities but there it seems illogical for train travel to be so drastically more expensive than flight. It’s not like comparing CA/US to Europe where things are relatively close together and population density is fairly high and evenly spaced out along the lines. China is much much larger and yet train travel is affordable compared to flight.

  10. I can relate well to the lack of public transportation in Canada after being in Asia for a while (16yrs Japan, 2 in China). When home in Canada, my relatives all live in your typical residential subdivisions, well removed from the city centers. The bus routes are not convenient for visitors. Rail transit is limited. Taxies are rare and expensive. Plus tip. Not easy to get around without a car. Heck, once in Calgary I needed a car just to cross MacLeod Trail; no cross walks around.

    Canada, or most North American cities do not have the density to support the intricate subways Shanghai, Tokyo, HK, or other Asian cities have, which of course is the benefit of having more living and green space in NA cities, though I have come to like the ability to walk/cycle almost anywhere you need to get to in Asian cities.

    It’s interesting to note that a fair bit of the rail/subway technology in Shanghai and around China is Canadian, via Bombardier – too bad it couldn’t be more widely used back home.

  11. if all of us would scrap our cars in north america and chip in on decent public transport, the cost of getting around would be halved. this would also enable us to stop polluting the atmosphere. china pollutes because it actually manufactures stuff, we pollute because we’re too stupid to have decent public transport. public transportation systems also prompt more walking from hub to hub, which would be a health benefit for most north americans. having just gotten back from taipei for two weeks I can vouch that if i lived there I would be dropping weight rather quickly, and I would not have the financial burden of having a vehicle.

  12. Funny how this read almost exactly like my last trip to Canada. It’s eerie. I almost feel like I wrote it.

Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲