Written by: Gene Cole, Opinions Editor
This summer, Visa cancelled a deal they had with TransLink to temporarily swap prerecorded transit voices with audio clips from Morgan Freeman, who had news of sexual harassment allegations very close to the announcement. Once this fell through, comedy actor Seth Rogen ended up agreeing over Twitter to voice the various transit etiquette tips that play regularly in trains and stations. You can also apparently ask a bus driver to play it on the bus, if you feel brave enough to make such a request.
Opinions on TransLink definitely vary with students, with stances in just The Peak ranging from frustration with its goals to finding it underappreciated. But regardless of your judgement of how well it performs, its necessity is the key factor that people need to recognize.
This becomes harder and harder, though, as TransLink often works hard to mask the tremendous weight they carry. While this publicity move with Seth Rogen is meant to make Translink look fun, Vancouver’s transit system is inherently unable to take on a fun persona.
Right out the gate, it’s important to have context about just how large Translink’s weight is. Back in 2001, around 3,400 workers for Greater Vancouver public transit company Translink completed a 123-day strike. Stopping transit in most places and rendering vehicles unable to have maintenance done, it resulted in the company pursuing financial aid from the provincial government to increase its employees’ wages.
This strike had an intense impact. Many people had to quit their jobs or were laid off, simply because the city was crippled by its lack of transportation for workers and customers. If you ride transit daily and see the crowds who rely on it today, you understand how likely this outcome would be. This has become even more predictable since 2001, as the system has greatly expanded over the years, and can thus lead to even more immense tragedy when it fails.
With those sorts of risks in mind, Seth Rogen coming in to talk about how people should keep their feet off the seats feels hard to appreciate. There’s nothing wrong with a more creative way to inform riders of transit etiquette. But the use of a movie star famous for weed-based comedy is a move that feels very oriented towards giving the company a better public image, rather than towards improving the environment of a train car.
This focus on public image rather than utility is the ongoing problem with TransLink. Even its social media has slurries of fun posts where they parody song lyrics, while their mentions and replies are entirely made up of dry corporate responses to serious urgent questions. It keeps a huge divide between Translink’s characterization and the experience people have utilizing it.
So, is there a solution? The best suggestion I could think of would be for moves like this to entwine utility with the fun. With a memorable character like Seth Rogen’s, there’s potential to use these voice clips to advertise a better PA system, since it’s impossible to hear things on a train most of the time anyway. Alternately, it could be used as a starter to introduce clearer voice clips for announcing stations. Bringing in a friendly, popular movie star shouldn’t be the full benefit in and of itself — at least, not with a service that’s responsible for so much of the city’s ability to function.
Rogen and improved train etiquette aren’t the problem. The problem is that the publicity movements need to be more than just TransLink trying to look pretty. We don’t need it to be bland or to act like an ambulance, but it’s frustrating to look at how Translink behaves when it’s so dissociated from its necessity. Transit’s personality is incapable of being more than a utility in this city, and so these publicity moves just feel like a full mistake.