Vancouver’s transit referendum: the world is watching!

I love Vancouver. I have been coming here regularly for over a decade, and am currently spending a two month sabbatical here. I first started visiting because, as an urban planner, it’s a good place to understand more about how to build great cities. Now I just like to visit and be in the city.

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It is such a great place. It has made the most of its spectacular setting. It has also made a lot of smart decisions along the way about how people can get around and the sorts of communities you can live and work in. The result is one of the world’s most liveable cities.

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But here’s the thing: I’m amazed that a community that has such a great track record of leading transport and planning thinking and practice could seriously be considering curtailing its transit funding and winding back its levels of service. And yet the upcoming referendum is about just that. If it doesn’t get up, funding won’t be available for a range of much needed additions to the system to cope with a million new residents in the region over the next few decades; and it is likely that existing services will be cut back.

Vancouver is a model held up by other cities around the world about how to get the balance of transport systems right, and how to match that up with land use involving density and high quality neighbourhoods. Early decisions not to build freeways through the downtown were the foundation. The systematic development of the Skytrain network, improved bus systems, and more recently bike infrastructure, are built on this foundation.
And so your region continues to set an example for others, from the West End, where you can get pretty much everywhere without a car (as I am doing on this extended stay), to intense mixed use communities springing up around transit, from False Creek to New Westminster to Richmond and Surrey. Even a small community like Port Moody has built some great places ahead of the Evergreen line arriving:

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Coquitlam is planning big changes too, responding to “Transportation investments which provide opportunities for increasing mode shift from single-occupant vehicles to walking, cycling and transit and improved overall traffic demand management”, as its Official community Plan notes.

Brisbane, where I live, has a similar regional population and growth rate to this region. At a State Government Growth Summit in 2011, Queensland’s then Premier, Anna Bligh, asked the audience about where else to look for ideas about how to handle Brisbane’s growth. The first and most popular response was Vancouver, and she and others subsequently went there to do that.

From my perspective, the referendum is not just about how you get around. Transport is an equity issue. One reason Vancouver is so admired by others is because it gives people living in many of its communities genuine choices about how to get to where they want to go. While other cities export their urban poor to their fringes, the outer Vancouver Metro urban community of Surrey has a great plan to tie that community together by light rail that would be funded via the referendum:

Vancouver is a multi modal city. Different trips can be made by a range of travel types. This means that people who can’t afford or can’t drive a car have real options available to get around. And that’s what seems to be on offer for Vancouver’s future as the population continues its strong growth, at the cost of a 0.5% increase in sales tax. Here is what’s on offer. Looks like a bargain to me.

But it seems that the legacy that has made Vancouver the envy of many other cities is under challenge by the upcoming referendum on transit funding. I get the feeling that this is being characterised as a vote of confidence in your transport agency Translink. (By the way, Queensland called its transit agency Translink too, named after Vancouver’s). Of course, government agencies like most organisations, can always do better. But from where I stand, the referendum is actually about whether Vancouver, as a regional community, wants to carry forward the wonderful recipe for great city building it has “home grown” and shown the world; or whether it wants to head down the path of many other cities around the world who envy it.

Sure, I’m an outsider and you might think it is none of my business, but Vancouver, I’m not sure you realise how good you’ve got it. I hope you don’t mess that up. If a leading region like Vancouver that has long been an inspiration for transport thinking around the world can no longer get its transit funding act together, what hope does that leave for the rest of us?

The world is watching!

Greg Vann
February 2015

Discussion:

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  1. john says:

    West End and False Creek shouldn’t even be in this discussion regarding transit. They’re the size of a nickel when you consider Greater Vancouver. Not to mention, you can walk from one to another in 20 minutes. They simply don’t belong in a discussion about public transit.

    Plus, you know, you’re not a local. You don’t know about how cities like Surrey and Delta are screwed, yet forced to pay with numerous taxes for an overabundance of transit in Vancouver proper, while the residents there have no options other than to drive everywhere. With Vancouver’s mayor trying to push through policies that make driving less and less convenient, or simply more expensive.

    • Greg Vann says:

      Thanks for the comment. Have heard these points before I wrote the blog, but think nonetheless those places are relevant to the discussion, as are the outer metro places mentioned. Also very aware of the situation in Surrey, and did mention the fact that part of the funding involved would be directed to light rail there that would give residents a real alternative to driving, both locally and, by connecting to the Skytrain, regionally.

  2. ShutUpGreg says:

    Greg, the issue here is that a sales tax is unnecessary. Translink is on record for wasting huge amounts of taxpayer money and has almost zero oversight. Have you ever heard of taxation without representation? I don’t want Translink getting another method of taxes from me… They already get money from my electric bill, property taxes, sales taxes (which they want to increase), parking taxes, and the list goes on. They can be more efficient with their existing funding and also get the cities to put forth a very small % of their growing revenue streams without coming back to the taxpayer. In BC, we have been saddled with cost of living increases from all forms of government recently. This is not necessary!

    • Greg Vann says:

      Thanks for the feedback. As I mentioned in this piece, the referendum is being seen by some as a vote on Translink’s performance. The other primary “no” case seems to be thar everyone already pays enough tax. My key point is that the measures identified by the Mayor’s council will be vital for the region to maintain its enviable position. I haven’t yet seen a plausible plan for an alternative funding approach to that put forward by the referendum, but would be interested in seeing one which is more than “just do better”.

    • Braden says:

      Where do people find it so easy to believe that TransLink is unusually wasteful? There’s a great post debunking it here: http://canspice.org/2015/01/15/referendum-myths-translink-is-wasteful/

      Also Greg is correct in his reply – there is no “Plan B” here. It’s vote either yes, or allow our wonderful transit system to become miserably congested, underfunded, and underdeveloped.

    • Burnabybob says:

      It would be nice if people could have a disagreement without telling others to “shut up.” There seems to be a lot of that on the “no” side in particular.

  3. michael says:

    Yes I am big user and booster of transit but Translink is such a body of lazy and apparently greedy, political appointees that none of us want to give it any more money for anything. No matter how supposedly good the benefit.

    Truthfully money is wasted on a subway to Arbutus/UBC. It should be light rail, a network interconnecting everyone from the Valley to the UBC.

    Politicians like to talk about doing hard work but when the hard work of implementing (selling it over local objections) light rail onto Vancouver streets to the financial and transportation benefit of everyone, they instead run to the lazy and expensive option.

    Here is an example of what convinced me to say no on referendum:
    Commercial Drive station Up escalator on South side was broken for three days. Instead of switching the right next to the escalator to take people up in one of the busiest stations in the system, they forced people up a long flight of astairs for days on end.

    This sort of hatred and contempt for the users of the system is undeniable and cannot be given any sort of thumbs up. Regretfully as you and others have written, it is not a referendum on HOW to fund transit, that would include multiple options to choose between, not a single yes or no option, but a referendum on Translink itself.

    Their contempt and hatred for the users of the system is now reaping the only outcome it could. The Mayors can be as oblivious to this as they wish but it only makes them look bad too.

    • Greg Vann says:

      Thanks for the input. Seems like a protest vote but with no “Plan B”…

    • Braden says:

      You’re going to vote to make transit worse for everyone who lives here over the coming years, because there were a few days where you had to walk up a flight of stairs at Commercial Drive??!?!? (quelle horreur!) This clearly illustrates why this should never have been put to a referendum.

      This is absolutely not a referendum on TransLink. It’s a referendum on building critical infrastructure in the region. The Province could dissolve TransLink next year and set up a new governance structure, whether or not we approve this referendum. How its run and whether or not we pay to build it are totally separate issues.

      I wish they’d added a separate vote on the ballot like “Do you want to tell TransLink to go to hell”, just so people could get the TransLink hate out of their system and make a clear-headed decision about building the infrastructure we need.

  4. why not some leadership says:

    What’s curious, is that the provincial government has shown a lack of leadership when regarding transit and infrastructure in the lower mainland. Shirking responsibilities of transit, roads, bridges and the ferry system, only to create a buffer between them and the people who vote them into power. High priced boards and C.O.O.’s deflect the criticisms of the public, and the government gets to say “we didn’t suggest that tax”, or “talk to the corporation head instead of us”! If responsibility was taken, and a choice made, we’ve had saved the time, trouble and expense of this referendum, which is non-binding, and had a tough choice made. Then, voters could have made a choice on whether they agreed with the direction taken by the leader and party. Now, pitting neighbours against neighbours to fight it out, and the area with the most people will likely win. (look at the mayors council, Gregor had the most delegates…. guess who wins) The government needs to step up and say, “here’s what we’re going to do. Don’t like it, tell us in four years by not voting for us. Like it, you’ll tell us too, letting the world see how it should, or shouldn’t have been done. The choice that the province did make, to not offer a plan B is a recipe for failure.

    • why not some leadership says:

      What’s curious, is that the provincial government has shown a lack of leadership regarding transit and infrastructure in the lower mainland. Shirking responsibilities of transit, roads, bridges and the ferry system, only to create a buffer between them and the people who vote them into power. High priced boards and C.O.O.’s deflect the criticisms of the public, and the government gets to say “we didn’t suggest that tax”, or “talk to the corporation head instead of us”! If responsibility was taken, and a choice made, we’ve had saved the time, trouble and expense of this referendum, which is non-binding, and had a tough choice made. Then, voters could have made a choice on whether they agreed with the direction taken by the leader and party. Now, pitting neighbours against neighbours to fight it out, and the area with the most people will likely win. (look at the mayors council, Gregor had the most delegates…. guess who wins) The government needs to step up and say, “here’s what we’re going to do. Don’t like it, tell us in four years by not voting for us. Like it, you’ll tell us too, letting the world see how it should, or shouldn’t have been done. The choice that the province did make, to not offer a plan B is a recipe for failure.

  5. why not some leadership says:

    It finally came to me, that the groups pushing so hard for Translink funding…. is just another special interest group. Special interest groups don’t go away, they just keep asking for more after they get turned down. Then they realize that they have to work harder to secure funds for what they want to do. Fund healthcare, I’m for that.

    • Greg Vann says:

      Hmm…,if every group pushing for more funding is a special interest group & the solution is to turn them down, presumably that includes healthcare too… I’d see it more as communities deciding their priorities & funding those accordingly. Pushing for better use of funding is fair enough. Also there are also decisions about what to fund. More funding for travel modes other than the car makes sense in fast growing city regions.

  6. Burnabybob says:

    Jordan Bateman and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation have managed to seize the initiative and reframe the issue, basically making the referendum about Translink and its supposed inefficiency and overpaid management, rather than the plan put forward by the Mayors’ Council. The CTF’s is an emotional appeal that can be summed up as “these overpaid fat cats want more of your hard-earned money. They wouldn’t need it if they just spent their money more wisely and cracked down on fare cheats.”

    The idea that Translink can find $250 million a year in savings doesn’t bare scrutiny, and Jordan Bateman couldn’t find anywhere near that much his list of supposed waste in Translink. But the message is resonating with the public.

    And it doesn’t help that the “Yes” side has been relatively slow out of the gates in promoting its message. I suspect that their own polling, which showed the “Yes” side with a comfortable margin back in the fall, led them into a feeling of complacency.

    It would still be surprising if the Yes side lost, given the broad coalition giving it support, including business, labor, environmental, medical, and civic government groups. But Jarvis’s resignation yesterday is not a good sign, suggesting that Translink’s own poll numbers are not good. Neither are the comments on social media on referendum-related stories, even in left-leaning publications like the Tyee and Georgia Straight.

    It will be a shame if the referendum fails, though. This is a rare opportunity for the people of Vancouver to finally put transit on solid footing. Hopefully cooler heads prevail.

    • Greg Vann says:

      Agree on all counts Burnanybob. The “no” campaign has similarities to campaigns run against transit votes in some US cities. Would be interesting to know who is really funding it…

      • Burnabybob says:

        I do, too. Stephen Hume wrote a good article about them last week asking similar questions. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re backed by oil companies. They’re based in Alberta, after all. Sad how easily some people are duped.

      • Greg Vann says:

        Indeed!