The lines painted on the sidewalk just outside Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain station probably made sense at one point, but subsequent repavings and scattershot bubblegum markings have turned them into a mosaic that might have been created by a disturbed mind. Surprisingly, though, their original intent is still clear, as what remain of the white squiggles herd commuters into three separate queues to board Vancouver’s ubiquitous 99 B-Line bus.
It was a necessary move to bring order to the scrums that used to occur among those waiting to board what, according to the City of Vancouver, is the busiest bus route in North America, traversing the city from the indie streets of East Vancouver all the way to its bastion of higher learning, the University of British Columbia (and inspiring its fair share of YouTube tributes and Reddit threads along the way). It’s a claim that becomes apparent soon after I join the queue for the front door, which is policed by Transit Security staff at busy times.
The 99 carried almost 17.3 million passengers in 2016, according to a recent TransLink Service Performance Review. Packed into this bendy can, it kind of feels like all 17.3 million are right here.
Yet, at a shade after 8 a.m., it’s surprisingly quiet. Almost funereal. I guess everyone’s mourning their sleep.
Gauging commuters’ opinions about this route is clearly going to be tricky. As another batch of passengers squeeze on at Main, I finally manage to catch they eye of a woman with pink hair standing beside me.
“Is it always this busy?”
Well, she’s not wrong. That said, the bus empties a little at Cambie, and that holiest of 99 grails is offered up: a free seat! Cue the awkward, very Canadian few seconds of everyone being too polite to take it.
The stops are strategic, covering the city’s principal cross streets. In fact, the bus route holds its place in the Vancouver lexicon thanks, in large part, to the fact that almost every resident will need to ride it at some point (and, feeling emboldened by the dense crowd, eventually attempt to ride it for free).
You already know there are dozens of interesting stores and places to eat around Main, Fraser, Cambie and Granville, while stops at MacDonald, Heather and Alma put you within walking distance of Kitsilano and its beaches.
UBC, of course, offers a huge range of attractions: the Museum of Anthropology, Pacific Spirit Regional Park and the, er, sights at Wreck Beach, to name just three. Seriously, when was the last time you were out here?
I disembark at Point Grey Village, a curious part of the city that’s always intrigued me. This short stretch of West 10th is ostensibly here to serve the richest of Vancouver’s uber-rich, but it doesn’t quite come across that way. It’s a mix of the curiously dated and high end, with slightly shabby pharmacy storefronts nestled beside luxury interior design and jewelry outlets.
The Safeway here looks like it hasn’t had an external redesign since the 1960s, right down to its retro roadside sign. The Diner, a greasy spoon that also looks a bit faded, offers a tantalizing full English breakfast for $10. A few doors down, I peek inside The Mix and glimpse stacks of freshly baked goods.
It’s a relatively peaceful part of the city. And it’s here, waiting to board the 99 again (you never have to wait long, with service every three minutes at peak times) that I finally get passengers to offer up some opinions about the line.
A student freshly arrived from New Jersey loves the frequency of the service and the fact he can load his bike on the front. Another student is, understandably, not so keen about being pressed so closely against his fellow humans.
There’s also a bus driver waiting for the bus to take him to work to drive a bus. (Bonus points for not taking the car.) He says he’s driven the 99 in the past and thinks it’s a fairly fuss-free route for drivers and commuters.
“People get irritated if there's a delay or if they've waited for three buses and they still can't get on,” he adds. “But that's not such an issue with the 99 because it's so frequent.”
His hairiest moment on the 99 was almost hitting a guy who was “out of it” when he stepped into traffic.
Our chat turns to the proposed SkyTrain extension along Broadway. With it, the 99’s days appear numbered, at least as far as Arbutus – the location of the first planned terminus of the new rapid-transit line that’s currently set to be in place by 2025, before further expansion west.
“SkyTrain will put me out of some work, but it's a good idea,” the driver says. “The buses used to be almost empty west of Arbutus, but that's no longer the case.”
It’s probably a stretch to say regular commuters will miss the crush, let alone the scintillating conversation.
• Bus Lines is a twice-monthly series featuring stories from Vancouver’s most interesting bus routes. Stay tuned for the next installment: the 20.
TRANSIT TALK: The 99
Start-finish: Commercial-Broadway SkyTrain station to UBC Exchange
Length of route: 12.4 km
Estimated route time: 47 minutes
Max passengers: 120
Number of Starbucks en route: 12