Let me begin by saying I love this city. I moved here several years ago to begin graduate studies at the University of British Columbia. Prior to my arrival, I’d lived in four other provinces and on two other continents. In all those moves, I can honestly say I’ve never been anywhere I’d rather live.
What’s more, Vancouverites seem to get how good they have it here. Many will talk your ear off about just how lovely the city is, given half a chance to do so. That civic pride is for the most part well justified, too. Every city has its problems, and Vancouver is certainly no exception — issues like homelessness and affordability constitute significant and ongoing challenges — but this city gets a lot of things right.
On the subject of transportation however, the region teeters on the verge of a historic mistake, one that will haunt the region for years, and possibly decades, to come.
Polls now suggest a majority in the region is planning to vote No in the transit plebiscite currently underway. Some appear to be acting out of frustration with perceived administrative shortcomings of TransLink, the provincial government-created local transit monopoly. Others argue that the funding mechanism of a 0.5 per cent sales tax is less than ideal.
Such thinking and argumentation is astonishingly short-sighted for a moment of such importance to the future of the region. “Take that, nose!” people seem to be saying. “I bet the face never saw it coming! Hahaha! Ow.”
Cities are defined in part by how, and how well, they move people. A growing city of any size, let alone one with global aspirations, must work tireless to meet transportation challenges. Once a city falls behind on infrastructure expansion, it can be very difficult to catch up. In some cases it may prove impossible.
Vancouver, with its overloaded buses and rage-inducing traffic jams, needs such improvements more than most places. Indeed, in many ways this city succeeds despite its transportation system, rather than because of it. One 2013 study ranked it as having the worst traffic in North America. Another in 2014 placed Vancouver fifth worst in the entire Americas. “World leaders in gridlock” is a civic slogan that leaves much to be desired.
Transit suffers by other measures as well. A 2014 study by the Pembina Institute found that, despite laying more new rapid transit track in the last 20 years than the other four major Canadian cities surveyed, Vancouver still ranked last in terms of certain measures of access. Less than one in five residents live within a kilometre of existing rapid transit for instance, behind even sprawling Calgary.
A Yes vote opens the door to a greener, more liveable city and region. It even stands to be a slightly more affordable one. The Mayors’ Council recently released a study showing that, in the long run, the average Vancouver family will end up saving money thanks to reductions in fuel use, fare prices, and so on. That’s even after the new sales tax is taken into account. Quite simply, a Yes vote will lead to a cleaner, more prosperous, and more efficient Vancouver.
Conversely, a No vote rejects the best chance the region has to address one of its biggest problems. It is a vote for more traffic, more pollution, and continuing uncertainty around transportation in the city for the foreseeable future. It will not force TransLink to fix things itself. It won’t result in another referendum right away on the same proposal using a different funding mechanism. There’s no way to know how long it will take for a new proposal to emerge should this one be defeated, and until it does the problem will simply worsen as the region’s population continues to grow.
None of this is to say that TransLink itself is above reproach. On the contrary, it’s clear that the corporation is in need of significant reform. Another report commissioned by the Mayors’ Council — the same council behind the transit proposal — found that transit governance in the Vancouver region suffers from “deficiencies in accountability, effectiveness and efficiency in decision-making” not found in other comparable regions. Vancouverites can and should take that up such problems with TransLink’s board and with the provincial government.
That’s a separate issue from investments in infrastructure however, and ought to be treated that way. The question of the referendum is exactly what it appears to be: are Vancouverites willing to pay for badly needed improvements to the city’s transportation system, or not?
I like living in a world-class city. I think my fellow Vancouverites do, too. Let’s hope they vote with a view to keep it that way.
Stewart Prest is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia. He’s originally from Alberta, but took the scenic route to get to Vancouver.