I'm not bräve, just naïve...

Friday, June 23, 2006

A rendezvous

I ascend the escalator of the métro station with an overnight bag in one hand, and a slip of paper in the other. In my bag are some fairly light odds and ends, and a cheap nylon flag found in a Dollorama. On the piece of paper is a cryptic message:

10h30 Frederic, Ford Focus grise, stationment de métro Rosemont

I walk out into the grey morning, and take in my surroundings. Like a secret agent in a thriller film, I attempt to adopt the nonchalent pose and expression of someone who is meeting someone he doesn't know, but who doesn't want anyone to guess. Maybe I am the only one who is meeting Frederic. Maybe there are others. A stocky looking man in a tracksuit is pacing up and down in front of the market by the métro. A young lady is reading a paper on a bench next to the métro entrance. She looks me up and down, and returns to her free morning newspaper.

I have not been recognised. I walk to the edge of the car park, and sit down on a bench. There is no sign of Frederic's most noticable feature - a grey Ford Focus. With that sort of description, it should be easy to find him in a small car park. I, however, am not that noticeable... maybe I should have worn a rose in my lapel? Or a hat?

"You'll know me by the expression of the dog I am walking..."

Maybe not.

I am (unfashionably for a faux-secret-agent) a little early. So I give up on the adolescent pretence and try to wait in an obviously waiting manner. I'm not here to sell contraband or to discover the truth about what happened on the Grassy Knoll, or who paid who how much prior to the 1995 referendum. Nope, I'm here for a lift.

The details scribbed on the piece of paper were given to me by Allostop, the rideshare agency that has been putting passengers in touch with drivers since 1983. The agency is unique in Canada, serving only the province of Québec. Much like the Hospitality Club, another travellers service that I love and use frequently, Allostop can sound strange and unsafe to the unitiated. But it's been working now for over sixteen years. Membership costs $6 a year, and comes in two formats: driver and passenger. If a driver is planning a trip somewhere within the province of Québec, he or she simply calls the Allostop a few days before departure to inform them of where and when he's going. Passengers then call or visit, and register an interest in a destination with a rough time of departure on a given day. The energetic employees of AlloStop then join up the dots. A one way ride from Montréal to Québec City (AlloStop's most successful and popular corridor) costs $16, compared to $35 by bus or $45 by train.

It would be great if hitchhikers could rely on the service for rides out of the province of Québec. Since the service is safe, it's also fun and a great way to meet people. But following complaints from the Voyageur, Greyhound and Trentway bus companies to the Ontario Transport Commission, the service had to be withdrawn between Québec and Ontario. Passengers heading to Toronto, Ottawa and the other cities of the densely populated southern province now have little choice but to resort to the rideshare pages on sites like Craigslist, where there is third party to record or regulate the rides that are arranged, let alone confirm the safety of the vehicle in which your ride is booked. The complaint from the bus companies was one of a legal definition: Allostop is proud to call itself a 'covoiturage' service. The bus companies said they were providing a form of 'public transit' and as such were flouting the rules applied to public transit providers. Interpret that as you will, and don't forget the former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin did then and continues to own a majority percent stake holding in Voyageur bus lines.

So while this utopian dream remans limited to the confines of Canada's largest province, it remains a successful and popular service that fills empty seats in cars that would have already been going places. Since there's no guarantee that Allostop can find passengers for a driver, it doesn't encourage extra vehicles on the road.

Just after 10h30, a Ford Focus pulls onto the car park, and the driver hops out and smiles at me. I'd say his car was more silver than grey, but that's not important. How did he manage to recognise me so quickly...? I leave by bag in the boot, and hop in the car. I'm off to Québec City for the weekend.


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