Kenyan grad student Ruth Agnes Omollo found getting around by bus in Abbotsford to be very different from navigating Nairobi, for better and worse. Submitted

In need of ‘harambee’: A Kenyan architect thinks Abbotsford’s transit system has room to grow

Grad student Ruth Agnes Omollo found getting around by bus in Abbotsford to be a challenge

Ruth Agnes Omollo is a graduate architect from Kenya currently completing a master of arts degree in environmental planning and management at the University of Nairobi. As part of the Queen Elizabeth II Scholarships and the University of the Fraser Valley-East Africa Internship program, Omollo studied at the Abbotsford campus of University of the Fraser Valley. Some of her work in the exchange program involved studying the transit systems of the Fraser Valley and the Lower Mainland.

The matatus (public transit vehicles) are rowdy, chaotic and disorganized. These have always been my thoughts about the public transit vehicles in Kenyan cities.

I never thought I’d miss the chaos that penetrates deep into the residential areas with the city centre as the focal point. Holding a new transit schedule, confused and overwhelmed, my mind is stuck at the thought of a transit system that is so well-organized on paper, yet inaccessible in so many ways. This is a highlight of the challenges of the urban carless in Abbotsford from a Kenyan’s experience.

Two key aspects of accessibility are vital in transit planning: physical access to transit services and the geographic space that is reachable from a particular location within a given travel time budget.

Don’t get me wrong: I really love the buses in Abbotsford. I do! I mean, who wouldn’t want to be in a well-designed bus? The buses offer comfortable seats, stroller and wheelchair access has been well thought of, and there’s a ramp that takes care of business.

The seniors have not been left out either: the buses can lower themselves to ground level. Four months ago, I could have used these kneeling buses in Nairobi when I hiked Mount Longonot and limped a whole week after.

The stop buttons and strings are conveniently placed throughout the bus. The bus drivers are nice; one doesn’t have to bear the burden of not knowing their stop.

Then there are the bus stops. Imagine being at a random bus stop with no idea which bus you’re supposed to take, only to look around to find a well-designed guide with bus numbers, the routes they take, and the times they are scheduled for each and every stop! Magical! The bus stop signposts have more information on their buses and their various routes as well. This is a reading nation, and you can tell by the number of printed transit guides. Every stop is well thought out; if they’re going to have you waiting, they at least think of you being seated.

Oh, and there’s someone called Google! If you are a lazy reader with a little technology, this guy comes in handy by having details of all the stops and buses to given routes.

But let’s hop back on the bus for a minute. One time it was so rainy, so cold, I was in several layers of clothing but I was still cold at the bus stop. You cannot imagine my joy when I finally got into the bus: no leaks, heater on, seats warm and nicely dry. I thought I’d never get off.

Another time, the sun was out. It was like it had just arrived from a boring vacation in the Arctic! Thirty-one degrees in the Fraser Valley is burning. I hopped onto one of the buses (heaven knows where it was heading) but I needed some air conditioning.

That was one of those days I was grateful for the prestigious student U-pass. The University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), in partnership with the municipality, has come up with a way in which the student ID is swiped in the bus.

This is possible because UFV remits certain amounts of money towards the city for fares. The students pay this amount as part of the fees. The big question, however, would be, “How many students drive to campus, and why?”

Students say they need more buses. The city says the students should use the existing buses first. The campus connector is a gem when you want to travel to Chilliwack or Langley. I wouldn’t want to think of transit along those lines.

Being able to have a day pass, month pass, and year pass enables one to plan transit costs in advance. There’s also another beauty in these passes: they allow you to connect from one bus to another.

If someone brought that system to Kenya, I’d save a fortune!

Having arrived in Abbotsford on a Friday night, my colleague, Veronicah, and I did not have the luxury of nursing jet lag or settling in for the weekend. On Saturday midday, we were out setting up Canadian bank accounts – the thought of money has a way of keeping you awake.

We had money for groceries. And we had our local colleagues, Priyanka and Maegan, to drive us around, so we did not have to worry about figuring out transit until Monday.

We don’t deserve any awards, but someone better give us applause for getting home on our own. We hadn’t the slightest idea where home was, what bay A and B meant, why number one had two routes, and – most importantly – we didn’t know each of us needed to be at bays on opposite sides of the downtown Abbotsford bus exchange.

There was someone in a reflector vest. We remembered one rule of the lost: ASK. We asked how to swipe the IDs. We asked where we were supposed to get off the bus. The driver’s announcement to me was something like, “Young girl to 3 – McMillan your stop is here.”

I wondered if a 29-year-old is that young in Canada. Veronicah, on the other hand, did not get to the right stop at first. The good news is, she figured it out.

My generation expresses itself using emojis, and right now I am almost typing all kinds of smileys. It’s close to three months, and we have lived to ask. We shamelessly ask, whether we’re in Victoria or Vancouver. We are the asking duo. Although, I have to mention, that the transit in Victoria and Vancouver is easier and more reliable than in Abbotsford. Getting to those places from Abby is the task. The Swahili expression for that would be hujumaa!

Victoria and Vancouver were little heavens after the Abbotsford transit experience. We met with Christie Lombardie from the Province of British Columbia’s Environmental Audit office, and Juan Sebastian, a PhD student from the University of Victoria, until midnight.

What followed were glorious moments where we were able to board a bus back to our Airbnb using our day pass. At first, we thought the time had clocked midnight, so we needed new passes because we were in a new day. But we then realized that the days in Canada begin at sunrise.

I longed to understand the transit in Abby from within. I talked to a number of people, from students, to the working class, to kids. The message was that they could give transit a shot if it was closer to any of the neighbouring cities.

For instance, if I took a waitress job in the evening, working the last shift at the Bow and Stern restaurant, which closes at 11 p.m., I would not have any transit options, even if I got off work at 10 p.m.

I always thought Abby was asleep by 8 p.m. until I discovered the Town Hall pub and a few other places that are up late at night.

Culture is nurtured; it is dynamic and transitions over time. In a time when the majority lives out in suburbia and works in the city, the least we can think of is mobility – effective mobility within and without Abbotsford.

Nairobi is too big a city to compare to Abby. I remember my first time in Kisumu by myself as a high school student who had strayed and ended up in the city. I was able to pick another long-distance bus into Homa Bay town. Kisumu is our Abbotsford, of sorts. This city can decide to go to sleep at 9 p.m., wake up 8 a.m., and there’s nothing you can do about it! However, as long as it’s awake, you can get around with transit – you don’t have to be rained on for two hours because a bus didn’t show up an hour earlier.

Others have raised these questions, and in an executive committee meeting held in June, Abbotsford council asked its city planners and BC Transit officials to give an update on some of these issues. Many of these concerns are rooted in the budget, and the solutions offered are a gradual change that’s supposed to be a long-term plan. There’s a team on the ground that is working on the ridership survey; this is the feedback the city relies on in its attempt to provide better transit services.

A month ago, I was in a presentation in one of Professor Cherie Enns’ classes at Simon Fraser University, where one of the fourth-year students suggested having interactive planning, getting views from families. Can that help the transit in Abbotsford? Maybe someone should take it up.

The bigger plan introduces new routes and buses which aim at a higher frequency of rides between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. in the core routes (1, 2 and 3). Two new bus routes will be introduced – one of them is to the airport. Instead of eight buses, the city will receive 12 new buses by the end of 2022.

As a little girl, I was best friends with a very brilliant guy, my late brother Sam. One of the lessons I carry with me that he taught me when he visited me in my boarding school is: Use what you have to get what you don’t have. The success of transit lies with the ridership.

The city has the buses, however limited. It can work on getting the ridership. The News reported in March about a bid by city planners to cut some transit services ahead of 2020 to make the system more reliable. This translates to magnifying an already existing inaccessibility in the hopes of a better reliability resulting. It’s been a month of riding in the new schedules. I hope it doesn’t get worse after I’m gone because I may be back if it gets too hot at the equator. I really like Abbotsford. The city has its heart in the right place. But if transit is to work, the whole body needs to be in harmony.

I would like to be a little petty now. Can someone issue fines to the teens who put their legs on the seats?! Then there are other passengers who would rather stand than share seats. Some are not comfortable sharing their seats at all. They either put their bags on the seat next to them, or their feet! I mean, it is supposed to be a bus, a public transit vehicle, not a rented limousine! I won’t brag about being Kenyan at this point, but the bus conductors at home have made it a rule that if anyone is taking up space for two, they pay for both. It is not negotiable. There are a few mean stickers to scare anyone thinking of stepping on the chairs, like “Your body is blessed with ‘bottoms,’ why use your legs?” Some are too mean to write about it, but the whole point is inflicting responsibility on passengers.

Several things are wrong with Kenyan public transport, including, but not limited to, safety. However, unreliability is not one of them.

Life has taught me to be appreciative, to find positivity even in the most negative of situations. I have learned the art of survival among the living. Over the past three months, I have mastered my way around Abbotsford. At times, I’ve walked two hours because of bus schedules that were unfavourable to me. Walking is a good workout. Cycling would also burn calories, but I have yet to find a bicycle rental place in Abbotsford.

While talking to Dr. Karena Shaw, the outgoing director of UVic’s School of Environmental Studies, she told us her university has a bicycle rental program, a bike donation program (one year for eligible students), and restrooms equipped with changing areas for cyclists in every building – including in the Bicycle Centre.

All that UFV has is paid parking. And no, I am not trying to be funny here; the University of Nairobi doesn’t even offer parking. UoN assumes we’re all part of a walking nation. We were proud of having walked to the UVic campus from our Airbnb in Victoria. At the University of British Columbia (UBC), we used transit, but there were cyclists everywhere. We wished we could have been able to cycle from the bus stop to our meetings. The UBC campus is massive! Enormous! Voluminous! It took us 30 minutes to gain our bearing! But how could we have cycled in dresses? The modest African in us balked at the idea.

I have learned so much in my studies and internship at UFV. I have read books I never thought I’d peruse. I mean, I am just a graduate architect, a passionate urban environmentalist, an adventurous geographer, a low-key dancer, a fashion lover, and – above all – a brilliant global scholar; what do I know about the secret life of bees? That’s one of the opportunities I have had while immersing myself in the reading culture of Canada. The bees thrive because of collectivism.

Is the process of transit planning in Abbotsford collective? I cannot tell. I have been to the Telus World of Science in Vancouver and learned that optimistic Canadians such as Dr. Paul Richard from the Environmental Protection/Policy Studies department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University are talking about de-carbonizing Canada, designing roads for pedestrians, cyclists and transit.

I believe the Fraser Valley region is as vital a part of B.C. as Vancouver and Victoria. Why then is it that the journey from Victoria seems to terminate at Tsawwassen? There are so many Canadian minds with brilliant ideas. What about student engagement?

We met someone from Telus. He is happy to have left Vancouver for Kelowna. But he is not happy about having to depend on his car whenever he has conferences in Vancouver. Parking is expensive in downtown Vancouver. It is also inadequate. So then, does it make sense to drive to the Vancouver Convention Centre for a two-day conference? Is it economically viable to drive and take the ferry to Victoria for a day’s visit?

I am reminded to introduce another Swahili word: Harambee. This word is complex in the fact that it doesn’t have a direct translation into any other languages. The sense of what harambee means can only be explained in the context of the sentence “Everyone, pull together.” That is a command, an instruction. As students, we do better in the spirit of harambee, pulling various academic and research resources together and, most importantly, sharing among ourselves.

I have made friends like Juan, who tried to go from Victoria to Abbotsford using transit. I have just received his text. He is exhausted. What was supposed to have been a three-hour journey has ended up being eight hours! I will be conducting another interview about waterfronts and public parks, analyzing and comparing notes that Juan has in such a short notice. That is a story for another day, transit or not.

Keeping my thoughts together and in sequence is hujumaa (the task) too. I have to put a hold and ask myself if I have communicated too little, or enough. Again, I am just a graduate architect. I write like I think. I design buildings for a living and fight for the environment as a hobby. What do I know about writing?

My supervisor, Professor Sam Owuor, would ask what language I’ll use to communicate my research project. Again, I will fall back on my design background. All I am saying, in so many words, is that I have loved the concept of the transit system in Abbotsford. It is well-defined on paper. But with just a guide and inconsistencies, it sometimes results in inaccessibility. It is time to bring the transit users on board. For now, I have a meeting to get to and a number of buses to catch on a hot day. Air conditioning! Fun!

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