Brendan took the fire escape steps two at a time. The elevators were all occupied, and anyway, he needed all the exercise he could get. The train had spent five minutes stopped at a signal on the approach to Boxelder Park, and he was probably going to be late, although that was the least of his worries.
He pushed the door for the tenth floor and exited the claustrophobic concrete confines of the fire escape, into a marble-floored corridor lined with floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing for brief glimpses into wood-paneled offices that populated the sides. His destination was at the end.
The Corviston Intelligent Neighbourhood Co-Operative occupied a prime corner of the top floor of the Department of Transport building, with commanding views of the roof garden and the city beyond. Floriana had used her connections to leverage it from the outgoing director a decade ago when she had decided to wind up her consultancy. The city council had nearly taken the matter to court, but on the strength of the retiring director's resolve, the decision had stood.
It had not been Brendan's first choice of internship. But then one of the classmates in his Structural Analysis class had let slip, during a tutorial where they were grouped together, that they were known for having a relatively open hiring policy. He had sent in his resume half-jokingly and was accepted.
Brendan slipped through the door into the meeting room in the nick of time, just as the presentation was going to begin, as seemed to be the norm these days. Once upon a time he had always been unreasonably early to everything. Then there was a short period where he was always late, which he would rather forget about. Now it was always down to the wire, sometimes comically so.
The motley crew of struggling students, trust fund kids who needed an internship job for resume-padding purposes, cast-offs from the education sector reskilling for a new career path, exchange students from abroad, all handpicked by Floriana, barely stirred at Brendan's arrival. Floriana, sitting as usual near the front, acknowledged him with a smile and gestured for him to sit down. Brendan nodded, grateful.
Way back in the late '70s, Floriana van der Hoven had been the lead vocalist for the Corviston Transport band, the B-59s. They had been promptly renamed the B-10s when Corviston Transport replaced its bus fleet in the 1980s. Not long after, the band had been disbanded as part of systemwide budget cuts (and because CT had ditched Volvo and decided on a all-Mercedes fleet), and she was temporarily without a job. The transport bug had bit, though, and after retraining as a bus driver she rose through the ranks of the busworkers' union over the next decade and a half to become its first ever chairwoman. When she resigned under a cloud following a graft scandal she'd used her connections to spin a new career as a consultant, which had eventually led to this.
Brendan slipped into the last available seat, near the back. The guy on the podium was getting ready, going through the slides on his laptop, testing out the laser pointer. Brendan had seen dozens of such guys on the podium, usually with the same gym-toned vitality, the same brilliantly shining skin, as if they'd spent a good amount of time standing in front of the mirror polishing their face with olive oil and one of those angle grinder detailing pads. The type who had never took a pill on full moon because they thought it lowered their testosterone. He read the logo on the guy's blindingly white polo shirt. Lytrans Group. He'd heard of them before. They had done the first refurbishment of the PCC fleet in the early 2000s.
"Are we ready to begin?" He said, his hand on the projector remote. Floriana nodded in the affirmative. Not a speck of dust moved in this place without her approval.
He flipped to the first slide. A photo of a main road passing the front gates of a school. Bumper to bumper traffic. Kids spilling out of cars, some of which were double and even triple parked. The picture had been taken in winter, so streams of white exhaust filled the air, accentuating the effect.
Brendan recognised the road. And he recognised the school. Bentford. Carleton had played against them many times, although they were not their main rivals in the private school arms race. He felt his gut tighten slightly.
"We are at a crisis point in history." The guy's voice was clear, concise. This was shaping up to be one of the more bearable pitches Brendan had listened to. "Child obesity levels have risen rapidly in the past decade. More kids are being driven to school than any other time in history. We have to take action, and fast."
At the back of the room, Brendan could see Floriana nodding vigorously in agreement. This was usually a good indication that she liked a project. Everyone else in the room was surreptitiously taking cues from her expression as well, trying to gauge what reaction would be appropriate for them to be making.
"Although this can be attributed to changing attitudes in parenting, often this is because there are no good transit options. What we need to bridge this gap is something that is firmly targeted towards the 13-24 age bracket." He looked around the room. "We need something that is low cost, high frequency, medium to high capacity transit solution, which takes into account contemporary trends in youth culture. And we at Lytrans Group believe we have the solution."
He pulled up a long rectangular object from inside a large carry case he had by his side. An ordinary skateboard with a motor bolted to the second truck, guide wheels at every corner, and a long-armed power pickup bolted on. Turning it belly-up, he pointed at the motor assembly around the rear axle. "And this is it. It's the latest technology. Permanent magnet motor. Completely enclosed drive with a 3D-printed gearbox. Self-lubricating gears. And the beauty of this is, any ordinary deck can be easily modified to run on our system."
There were stares from all around the room, ranging from admiration to abject confusion. Floriana was almost beaming.
He flipped to the next slide. There was a video embedded. He clicked on the video. A simulation of an elevated guideway with two guide channels, with what appeared to be a skateboard running in it. The guideway widened into a station. There were hundreds of people on skateboards, hopping on and off the guideway, one after the other.
"And this is what this baby runs on," the guy proclaimed. Brendan internally cringed at the word baby. "This is our patented skateboard guideway system, which we have christened Skateboard Rapid Transit," he said, gesturing at the presentation slide behind him. "We can achieve headways of over 30 per minute, and over 1800 an hour. Excellent capacity at extremely dense headways. It's an absolute game changer."
He flipped to the next slide, a section of the aformentioned guideway. "As you can see, it's got a underhand third rail, with our patented low voltage AC system, so it's quite safe to use. And last but not least, my personal favourite feature of this system is this is completely rideable-" he demonstrated by putting the board on the floor and rolling it forward with his foot- "straight off the track, which solves the last-mile problem. You don't have to retrieve your bike or find your parked car in the carpark or anything. You get straight off the track and you just continue riding on the same board, straight home. How cool is that?"
For a moment, the room fell completely silent. Nobody dared to move. Then Floriana clapped, and a light smattering of applause followed. Brendan briefly put his hands together, then stopped it.
"So what do we think?" Floriana asked. There were nods and mumbled affirmations all round, some with more conviction than the others.
"Any questions?" The guy put his hands behind his back.
"So what if someone loses their balance and flies off? On a bend or something?" The voice came from the back of the room. Selwyn was an art teacher who had been retrenched two years prior. One of the senior members of the group. "Is it safe? Have you tested it?"
"Good question. As you can see here-" He flipped back a few slides to the cross-section of the dual guideway again- "-we've incorporated safety nets on either side of the track. We've done hundreds of tests to perfect the design of these nets, and we're very proud of them. Also, because everyone is connected to the same power supply-" he touched the carbon shoe at the end of the power pickup on the board- "we can easily control everyone's speed from a central control room, which minimises the chances of an accident."
Selwyn nodded and leaned back in his chair.
"So, the motors, the wheels, the other stuff, that's going to cost quite a bit of money," This next question came from right next to Brendan. Wilbur, an exchange student from Singapore. "How are kids going to afford all of that?"
"Well, what we're proposing is a subsidy scheme for children under the age of 18," the guy replied. "You apply to us, and we send you a free kit in the mail."
"So how would that be funded?"
"Well, that's what we were hoping you could help us with," the guy said. "We've seen and heard about your work with the Route 60 bus and the Northern Foothills Light Rail project, and we want your help to bring our concept into reality."
"Mm-hmm," Floriana said, nodding. "I think it's a brilliant project. It's just what we need to get people moving," She leaned in towards the projection screen. She was gripping the pen and notepad she always kept at arm's length with extra ferocity. "So how far have you got-" she gestured with her free hand- "with the, uh, nitty-gritty?"
The guy moved on. "We've already identified an ideal pilot corridor." He flipped to the next slide. A map, showing clusters of residential streets around a linear park. Brendan immediately recognised where it was. It was not far from where the first photo had been taken. A small mass formed in the pit of his stomach. "We understand you were already proposing an active transport corridor of some sort in that vincinity..."
"Yes," Floriana replied. "We have, in the past, identified it as a site with great potential for new transport links. It's the ideal catchment area for your, er, proposal. There's many major schools in the area." Brendan flinched slightly at that.
"Hang on, so that viaduct is going to pass right through the skate park." This came from a girl who Brendan barely knew the name of. She was doing a master's in urban planning at the U of C.
Yes, unfortunately. It will have to be demolished." The guy actually managed to look apologetic. Brendan was impressed. "We're going to build a new one, though. A larger one. And plant over three hundred new trees. That's all part of our proposal." He clicked onto the next slide. "As you can see here, this is the new arrangement after our pilot Skateboard Rapid Transit line is built."
Greenwashing. Here we fucking go again.
She squinted at the screen. "That looks smaller than the one they replaced."
"It's the standard Corviston City Council design," the guy said. "We actually enlarged it, because we thought it could be improved." She still seemed unconvinced, but she nodded anyway.
"This is going to be an incredible project," Floriana said. "Incredible. It's a game changer." Brendan could tell already that she was determined to get this through. And nothing would stop her. At least none of the people in this room would. "Obviously we can't build it right away, although that would be awesome," she said. "But if we want this to be built we'll need to start straight away."
She looked to the back of the room. "Brendan and Wilbur, I want you to head to Gray Park and talk to the people who use it. Convince them. We need to get them on board with this. That's the most crucial part of this whole project. We need community support."
Brendan and Wilbur looked at each other in horror.
"We should get going," Wilbur mumbled, after a while, as Floriana barked out more orders to the others in the room.
Brendan Quan is trying to put his past behind him where it belongs, working part-time at a bookstore while interning at an urban planning thinktank, the Corviston Intelligent Neighbourhood Co-operative.
When Adrian Chang bursts unexpectedly into his life in a chance encounter, he finds himself smitten. But this new presence in his life brings new allegiances and challenges, and the past once again threatens to consume his life...