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Riding Whistler's sub culture

Take a ride on the wild side… jump aboard the Love Bus SWF seeks good looking Emerald Estates male commuter for romance travel, sightseeing etc. Genuine replies only please.

Take a ride on the wild side… jump aboard the Love Bus

SWF seeks good looking Emerald Estates male commuter for romance travel, sightseeing etc. Genuine replies only please.

If you’re looking for love, forget the bars or slopes and hit the bus loop instead. With an average of 15,500 single bus journeys occurring each day in Whistler during winter, you are sure to make a connection (excuse the pun). Or at the very least, make a new acquaintance.

It may require a stretch of the imagination but take a moment to contemplate the "Love Bus" theory. Whistler currently boasts one of the busiest public transit systems for the size of its population in Canada. Given the law of averages, chances are you might just spot your perfect girl/guy upon boarding and make a lasting impression during your journey.

Shorter routes just heighten the challenge. The three-minute village loop for example could be considered the double black diamond of bus pick-up routes in terms of time pressure, limited spatial access and number of competitors. No room for error on that course. Social commuters can take heart, however, in a key factor that is on their side – attitude. Whistler commuters are generally happy, just ask the drivers.

"In Whistler people get on the bus and say hello, and get off saying, thank you for the ride," explains Scott Pass, the manager of public transit in the Sea to Sky Corridor from Squamish to Mount Currie. "Everyone is here because they want to be and for pretty much the same reason – the skiing or the outdoors – so they’re in a much better mood."

Whistlerites are apparently consistently in a better frame of mind than their neighbours down the road in Squamish. Squamish Transit runs a local bus service there but the drivers usually prefer the Whistler resort crowd. Driver Ross Kirkwood says the two towns have a different bus culture.

"Up here everyone’s in a happy mood generally and are a lot more friendly. Down in Squamish they seem to be depressed and overall the rider-ship is very light."

Demographics also play a role. Pass says Whistler commuters are generally young and car-less, have lower incomes and are here for fun.

"One of our surveys shows that 30 per cent of Whistler bus passengers are going to work and 30 per cent are going to the ski hill."

Presumably the remaining 40 per cent are going shopping – or then again, could they simply be cruising Whistler’s most popular social interface?

Whistler Transit’s most senior driver, Garry Martin, believes public buses are a social hub. In a world over-run by people who moan about their work, Martin is a rare breed, he genuinely loves his job.

"Maybe working for a charter bus line driving across the country looking at different views could be good, but it would be hard to give up the regular riders," he explains. "They keep me up to date with what’s happening in the village or mountain and with their lives, so there’s always lots of good conversation."

That all sounds nice but what about the nightmare passengers, the ones with the wrong money, no sense and bad sense of direction? It took only two stops during my journey with Martin for one such client to emerge – a character virtually seething with resentment and bitter complaints because the previous bus didn’t pick him up. The reason for this oversight is unclear but it didn’t ruffle Martin’s feathers one bit.

"Oh it just takes a while to train people," he soothes. "Especially the ones straight from the city because they don’t think to say hello or thank you, so I make sure I get them the next time."

It all sounds a bit ominous but in the unique Whistler bus world, "getting them" means inspiring people to be polite and happy – sharing the love if you will.

It’s a theme Whistler Transit has taken onboard with its Love Your Bus campaign, now into its fourth year. Jump on the bus at Christmas and you will receive free candy canes, and come Valentine’s Day, heart-shaped chocolates are the name of the game. In fact the WAVE buses – Whistler And Valley Express is the name of the local bus system which is operated by Whistler Transit in partnership with B.C. Transit and the Resort Municipality of Whistler – carry baskets for donations to the food bank and have ski racks in winter and bicycle racks in summer, reflecting the spirit of the community.

And the punters love it. Kelly Birchfield of New Zealand says given the right conditions, a bus ride can score highly on the romance meter.

"On a nice summer’s day with a nice girl, the ride out to Emerald Estates could be pretty romantic, going past the lake and all," he grins. "Especially if you sneak a bottle of wine on as well."

A few heart-shaped chocolates down the line and Anton Nazarko jumps on. He reckons Whistler’s buses are pretty cool.

"The buses are dope, they’re where it’s at," he says. "They’re the social event of the town, especially the 2:30 a.m. bus to Emerald Estates when it’s all a big party with lots of singing, rowdiness, burping, people passing out and people doing backflips."

Fellow commuter Brian MacDonald agrees that Whistler buses are definitely a social place, although he recommends a walkman for blocking out irritating people. As for romance, "sure, why not."

Bus driver and self-confessed fan of big rigs, Susan Ridington, is less convinced. "I can think of many more romantic places than a bus, but I suppose if it’s crowded enough you could be jostled into someone special." The odds of this happening are raised on the late night routes, she adds.

"People are loud and boisterous and will swing from the bars a bit but that’s why we have buses, so people aren’t drinking and driving – welcome aboard, be pissed drunk but just don’t throw up."

So does being the sole female in charge of moving a horde of drooling drunks concern her at all? Not one bit.

"I’ve never felt unsafe," she says. "I would not want to be a public service driver in any other place, especially until 3:30 in the morning, but everyone here is just out to have a good time."

Fellow driver Ross Kirkwood says he’s seen romance blooming before on his buses, usually in the back row.

"I just hose them down," he laughs.

Not surprisingly, some of the top accolades for local buses come from Pemberton residents who are enjoying the fruits of the new commuter service linking Mount Currie and Pemberton with Whistler. At a subsidized rate of $2 each way, the service is nothing to sneeze at. Construction worker and well-known bus "catnapper" Elston Doss says the bus sure beats his former transport option of hitchhiking from Mount Currie.

"A lot of people used to hitch but with a couple of dollars they can get to Whistler and back which helps out a lot."

Pemberton-based ski instructor Jason Campbell Smith says it’s cheaper than using a car and more environmentally friendly. He says it’s also a good way to meet others living in his community.

"Everyone has the seats they like and there’s quite a Pemberton bus community forming as you start recognizing the same people riding every day."

Of course the passengers renowned for having the most fun on buses are those on road trips, rather than municipal bus routes. Whistler Transit driver Doug Mills says he’s taken a few famous bods around on long haul trips, such as Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Air Supply.

"I remember all the bus charter companies bidding hard and fast for the Rolling Stones when they came to Toronto in ’88 and the lucky driver’s tip was left for him in the work car park – a brand new silver Jag."

Unfortunately for the paparazzi-minded among us, drivers of the rich and famous tend to be closemouthed about their passengers’ antics – a "what goes on tour, stays on tour" mentality. Scott Pass says his famous charges include Nana Mouskouri, the Moody Blues, Abba and The Village People.

"Some of them are jerks but most are really, really nice," he says. "Roger Whittaker was the nicest of all – just sat up the front and talked for ages."

Some tidbits were let slip however: Nana Mouskouri’s favourite touring beer is Molson Canadian, and Air Supply can’t get enough carrot cake. Remember, you read it here first.

Back on "Planet Whistler," the bus system here seems to reinforce the belief that this town is a bit different from others. For starters, the buses here seem to run on time. Of course, this is a subjective yardstick. Recent visitors to South America or South East Asia will count anything under a two-hour wait as being right on the money. It is also common knowledge that buying a bus ticket in some countries is no guarantee of passage.

"I am sorry madam but road is blocked/ bus broken/ stopped for funeral/ bus stuck in mud/ no gas/ driver on strike," says the smiling ticket seller. "No problem, my cousin has hotel not far from here – very cheap."

In these countries it seems Mother Nature and the government are in cahoots over delaying public transit through a system of spontaneous national holidays and Monsoons. You must wait days or weeks before having the right to complain.

On the rare occasion the bus does arrive, you almost start wishing it hadn’t, as the cocaine-fuelled drivers whisk their hapless crew along hell’s white-knuckle roller-coaster ride. Or the alternative trip sees you jammed in beside baskets of chickens, sweating locals and millions of bright-eyed, light fingered kids. How many times have those travellers said "never, ever again?"

For those living in the western world’s fast-food age however, anything pushing the five to 15 minutes late barrier is unacceptable. For starters, in Whistler it’s often cold or wet or both, and too many bus stops don’t have those nifty little things called shelters. Take Joel MacLeod and Mark Turner, two late night Function Junction workers all too used to the Alpine commute.

They say freezing their butts off at Function waiting for the 11:30 p.m. bus has turned them into avid clock-watchers.

"We just wait in the cold and complain about the bus until it gets here. There’s nothing worse than waiting 15 minutes when it’s minus 10, 12 outside and you just want to get home," says Turner.

Yep, waiting for the bus is a theme that burns close to the heart of commuters world-wide. Take a story that was circulating throughout the English press a few years ago. The exposé revealed why London buses travelling the same route were not only consistently late, but also arrive in groups of three or four at the same time. The investigation was instigated by a politician who, for reasons electoral, decided to bond with voters by using public transport for two weeks. Several late buses later, the outraged man put his staff on the case to solve the mystery. It transpired that the reason the buses all arrived together was because they all left the depot at the same time – apparently it was just easier that way.

Dig further into the "strange but true file" and you will find a new breed of enthusiasts in the public transport world – bus spotters. Now most people have heard about the art of train spotting and its accompanying image of nerdy locomotive stalkers scribbling down engine codes as the train rumbles past. The first time I encountered their spotting brethren was once again, in London. During a journey atop a double-decker bus I noticed a fellow passenger pointing his digital video recorder out the window at the traffic while muttering, "There’s a number seven. You don’t often see them running this late in the day." Don’t even try to imagine the home showings of these movies.

When you take the many variables into account such as driver capability, road conditions and fellow passengers, Whistler’s bus commuters have got it pretty good. After all, how often do Whistlerites have to endure a bus ride with a salivating Freddy Krueger look-alike roaming the aisles. Leave that experience for the subway travellers. Some could say Whistler’s buses are paradise on wheels. Others suggest the system could be better.

"More frequent stops," declares Chantal, a daily traveller of the Alpine-Function route. "And I need to solve my invisibility problem because so many times the buses have driven straight past me at the bus stop."

"A better attitude from some drivers," says Owen Zahara. "We once got chucked off the bus because this guy next to us was drinking a beer and we didn’t even know him."

"Music, reclining seats and snowboarder videos on the bus!" say the boys from Function. "I get on and want to read the Pique but it’s always gone, so we need more copies," adds MacLeod.

My personal vote however goes to the Australian sisterhood of Karen and Melanie Irvine for their vision of a perfect bus journey from the village out to their house in Alpine.

"Complimentary beer or wine après drinks upon boarding, good music pumping through the bus and black guys dancing – yeah, that would be great."

Food for thought indeed for those Love Your Bus strategists.