A trip to Columbia (Station, that is)

“I want to go to Columbia. Because it’s a really good place, and they have toothbrushes there.”

So said The Girl, my four-old daughter to me on the SkyTrain just yesterday. You see, on certain days, I pick her up from daycare in Surrey, and bring her back to my house, where she’s played with, fed, bathed, and Treehouse-TV’d, before she goes back to her mum’s. But, since I have no car, it’s public transit for us.

One of the advantages of the system lately is The Girl’s fascination with maps – maps of anything. But, in the stations, there are all kinds of maps for her to look at. She’s fascinated by the correlation between images and real life locations, and the idea that she is inside of those images in a representational sort of way.

She hasn’t explained it to me this way, of course. Instead, she fingerpainted me a map, and showed me where my house, her house, Nana’s house, Gram’s house, and her daycare are. Amazing.

But, needless to say, if she sees a map, she wants to find out where we are on it. And at some juncture, she focused on Columbia Street Station as the be all and end all on the SkyTrain map on our journey back into New West. One day, we got off there because I needed to buy her a toothbrush (hence the toothbrush reference). And for the last few trips, we’ve been getting off the train there at her insistence, even though the station closest to me is New West proper.

As if that means anything to a kid.

I explain to her that Columbia Street Station is further away from my house, and that getting off at Columbia means extra walking. There are times when, without a car as I am, the Girl complains about how much we walk. Opinions about car ownership are pretty cut and dried as far as the Girl is concerned. “I wish you had a car,” she says. Fair enough. In any case, the extra walk (which is not really that much of a hardship) doesn’t deter her. She’s got it bad for Columbia Street Station and that’s that.

I do have a theory.

First, I think it’s the novelty of getting off the train one stop early. To her, Columbia Street Station has been the one we pass to get to the station we’re really going. It has an air of mystery. And mystery has a certain gravitational pull to a child, and to many adults too. Who, as they say, can resist a good mystery?

Second, to a kid that young, I believe locations are experienced differently then they are as adults. Everything is so much bigger, and generally more explorable. And there is more of a chance that a story will happen. The imagination is activated so easily by every corner, every stairwell, every concourse. It’s appeal perhaps rests on the way the light hits the station’s wall tile as the sun is sinking, or on the way a corridor twists out of sight, making one wonder what fanciful land it may lead to.

Who knows what Columbia Street station feels like for the Girl right now to make her think it’s so great. But, that’s a part of the wonder of childhood, and part of its tragedy too. Eventually, we leave those keen kid-perceptions behind. In their place, we favour of the explainable, the mundane. We stop expecting stories to happen.

But third, I think dresses may have something to do with her fascination with Columbia Street. In another post about New Westminster I wrote, I talked a bit about the wedding district and how quirky I think it is. I especially like the presence of the Paramount wedged in there. And the Tattoo parlour.

Anyway. The dresses.

There are all kinds of dresses of varying colours and cuts to be seen in shop windows along Columbia Street. As much as The Girl’s recent love of maps captures her imagination, her love of princess-stuff and glamour outdates it. One can see the appeal, the raw fantasy that those garments evoke. Who knows? Maybe this is tied back to the idea of the story, too. It’s a story people tell themselves all the time – the one that ends in a “happily ever after”. We all need that particular tale, I think. And along Columbia Street, for a little girl, those happy-ever-afters are plentiful, woven into the fabrics of dresses waiting in the windows.

To a child, any place can be extraordinary, given the right conditions. It strikes me that if we could take a fragment of that with us into adulthood, then life would be so much richer. We’d get a rush of joy just by getting off the train one stop early because one day we had so much fun searching for toothbrushes, and looking at dresses through shop windows.

When the Girl gets older, she’ll be harder to impress. She won’t find joy in the same things she does now. And she’ll temper her expectations for happily-ever-afters with a necessary wariness in an unpredictable world. That is what it is to grow up. But, I hope she retains that seed of childhood wonder. And I hope she’ll always have the adventurous spirit to get off the train early and not be afraid to explore the maps set out for her as she navigates her way into adulthood.

As a nod to the Girl’s fascination with dresses, here are …

5 songs about dresses.

New West SkyTrain safety stats challenge assumptions

Photo: Mark Bek
Photo: Mark Bek

I was raised to be a bit paranoid about personal safety. Like many kids raised in the 1980s, it was impressed upon me that the world was a dangerous and unpredictable place. I was taught to fear strangers, to look both ways (and then look again) before crossing the road, to lock the door and close the windows at night, and to be wary of walking the streets after dark. The cautions took, and I am one to triple check the locks before going to sleep,  refuse to cross when the red hand is flashing and get nervous when the sun goes down.

As a dedicated transit user and pedestrian, I have not bought into the popular belief that taking SkyTrain is unsafe, but I do carry with me a mental ranking of which stations feel more or less safe. I was surprised to discover that many of my assumptions were just plain wrong.

The latest crime statistics challenge popular belief of SkyTrain safety in New West. New Westminster SkyTrain, for example, was ranked as the second least secure in a 2008 survey of transit riders, but the actual rate of crime places it 13th on the list. I would have assumed that my home station, 22nd St. SkyTrain, would have ranked somewhere in the middle of the pack, but it’s actually the third-worst station on the line for crime after Surrey Central and Gateway. Columbia Station ranked 10th for crime activity, Braid 11th and Sapperton 19th. The gap between the rate of crime at Surrey Central and Gateway compared to 22nd St. is pretty big, however – the crime rate is almost twice as high at those Surrey stations.

Interestingly, in the 2008 survey, Waterfront was the station where people were most likely to feel safe – but it actually has the fourth highest rate of crime, just behind 22nd St.  Columbia and Braid are about as safe as Scott Rd. New Westminster Station has almost the same rate of crime as Main St. Sapperton is safer than Gilmore, but has a slightly higher rate of crime than Metrotown.

The rate of person crime incidents in or near stations, per 100,000 passengers for New West’s SkyTrain stations are:

  • 1.38 at 22nd St.
  • 0.80 at Columbia
  • 0.79 at Braid
  • 0.71 at New Westminster
  • 0.55 at Sapperton

I do think it’s important to measure the drop in crime as well, however. Some stations have seen huge safety gains in the past year. Biggest improvements:

  • King George & Brentwood (tied) – 78% decline in crime
  • Rupert – 66%
  • Edmonds – 64%
  • Waterfront – 50%
  • New Westminster – 47%

And the stations that saw an increase in crime:

  • Braid – 980% increase
  • 29th Ave – 73%
  • Main St. – 27%
  • Granville – 11%
  • Gilmore – 3%

I’m no statistician, but I do find it interesting to compare the rate of crime to other life risks to get a bit of context in terms of just how “dangerous” it is to commute by SkyTrain.

First of all, B.C.’s overall crime rate in 2008 (notably excluding motor vehicle offences) was 9,600 per 100,000 people – which was an 8% decline from 2007, and the lowest recorded crime rate in 30 years. The average rate of crime on SkyTrain across the system was 0.71. SkyTrain’s overall crime rate dropped by 33% year over year.

I am often frustrated at the perception that taking transit – and in particular, SkyTrain, is less safe than driving. Yet the risk of death related to driving is 16.8 per 100,000 for B.C. males (8.4 for females). That’s about six times higher than the risk of being a victim of any sort of crime in or around the least safe station on the line.

Another big takeaway from reading all these reports on SkyTrain crime is how the safety of the surrounding neighbourhood impacts the rate of crime at any given station. This is something all of us have the power to impact. Whether you’re passing through a station or living nearby, if you see crime, report it. Those of us who live near SkyTrains can paint over graffiti, pick up trash, and take action to correct other minor property damage – research shows that people are more likely to litter when they see litter on the ground, and that leaving graffiti encourages hoodlums to return and add more.

So, do your part to improve the safety of your neighbourhood. And let’s all just get over misplaced fear of SkyTrain.

Observations on Sixth St. sleepers

This is a guest post from Waferboard. You can find him on Twitter @waferboard or on Friendfeed.


A makeshift windbreak at the Anglican church on Carnarvon
A makeshift windbreak at the Anglican church on Carnarvon


For the second year now I’ve noticed there are more people sleeping on Sixth Street in the winter than in the summer. The cold and the wetness of the season are probably contributing factors.

Following my commute route down Sixth Street from Sixth Avenue down to the Columbia Skytrain station, here are a few of the spots that have attracted overnight visitors. Obviously this is not exhaustive and perhaps not even representative of the city.

Shop doorways

Sixth & Sixth

In some ways I’m surprised not too see more of these types of sleepers. They’re fairly common in Gastown and Downtown Vancouver. However, a closer examination of the architectural peculiarities of New Westminster show that there are fewer recessed (and hence sheltered) doorways here. I have a suspicion that Gastown may have fewer alternatives to doorways than New Westminster as well. The disadvantage of the doorway is if someone wants to use the door, you have to move. Popularity: low

A peculiar recess by a window

Sixth & Fourth; Sixth & Blackford
If I was homeless this would be one of the first places I’d check out. I’d like to know what the original purpose of this recessed window was, with its own little privacy wall. During the summer its home to a bed of lava rock, and in winter it can hold two, or maybe three (if you’re close friends) people. The wall and the fact that it’s recessed means almost total privacy and shelter from the elements. It’s also conveniently close to the 7-11 across the street. I’ve been surpised more than once by a friendly “Good morning!” by an occupant, that’s how out-of-sight this location is. Popularity: high

The well-lit covered business entrance

(See #3 on the map above)

It’s a peculiar and counter-intuitive fact: many homeless prefer to sleep in well-lit, very public areas. It’s safer, presumably. The Re/Max building entrance has a few low walls to bed against and lots of light. The covered area is quite large and is suitable for parking shopping carts or for people with lots of stuff to lug around, or for groups of people. However, it is exposed on two sides, despite the low walls and I suspect it must get quite windy. Popularity: low

The Anglican church on Carnarvon

Anglican Church on Carnarvon

It’s not on Sixth, but it’s pretty close, and it’s also a really popular spot, both in winter and summer. It’s not hard to see why: there are two covered areas, a nice lawn, a door-step round the back with a fair view and a soup kitchen. The covered areas are large enough for several people, carts and lots of baggage, and it’s location on a steep slope facing south helps protect the otherwise open area. Popularity: high

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