February 11, 2015

Referendum Editorial: Blather and Doubt

Pete McMartin again:


Without the projects the tax will fund, Metro will have many more cars and an increase in greenhouse gases

Cars create the hell that is commuting, but — and this is their self-perpetuating irony — what better way to escape that hell than to wrap oneself in a quiet cocoon of steel and glass while listening to the radio and sipping your morning coffee. What self-indulgence. What unthinking ease. Outside it’s hell, but brother, inside it’s heaven.

Call a commuter on that selfindulgence and you’ll hear all the excuses — I need my car during the day, public transit is too slow or nonexistent, I have to get home to pick up the kids from school.

For some, that may be true. But for the majority, it’s just blather. It’s the blithe self-justification for the fact that, at heart, they just don’t care to get out of their car.

None of this has entered the conversation in the debate over the upcoming transit plebiscite. According to the No side, the fault lies, not with human nature, but with the operation of our public transit system. To hear them, Metro Vancouver’s transit is on par with Baghdad’s, and so badly run that instituting a small tax to fund future projects would be throwing money down the drain.

This is, again, blather. Those rare times, for example, when the Expo line has malfunctioned have been blown way out of proportion, as if it were proof the whole system has to be abandoned and remade. It doesn’t. A transit line malfunction is not a disaster. It’s a glitch.

But human nature? That’s way harder to fix. …

Yet so far, the debate over the upcoming transit plebiscite has been all about money and the cost to taxpayers.

What you do not hear about is the cost of the havoc that cars wreak.

Aside from the enormous government subsidies that motorists enjoy, aside from the space they take up, their societal cost is primarily environmental. It is that enormous and imminently catastrophic cost the No side ignores. But a 0.5 per cent rise in the sales tax? Horror.

Projections have a million more people coming to Metro in the next 25 years. In the absence of the proposed transit plan, projections also call for 600,000 additional cars.

With the transit plan fully realized, Metro’s engineers estimate that in that time frame, the increased transit system will be able to effect an annual reduction of about 550,000 tonnes in greenhouse gases, or enough to keep it to present levels. Even with the transit plan, we’ll just be treading water.

All those car commuters strung along the highway? They might cocoon themselves from their daily hell but not the unnerving thought that, incrementally, with every mile, they’re hurtling themselves and their loved ones toward some greater disaster. I bet they wonder, as I do, if their car addiction isn’t jeopardizing the future of their children and grandchildren.

They should put their money where their doubt is.


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  1. The only thing that was factually true is “human nature (is) way harder to fix.” Each driver has a different tolerance for congestion, and it is unique not only to themselves, but is quite dynamic within; what time of day, what season, is the trip pleasure or work commute, which route is it, etc. When congestion (e.g. on SW Marine) rises enough to cause those with lower tolerances to seel alternative routes (or modes), that frees capacity for the remainder. At a higher level, people will physically move residence (near school, workplace, medical facility), to alleviate congestion, but that’s not a significant number.

    Anything (such as a minor transit improvement), which subtly reduces congestion so that it is perceived, as more availability of existing roads, will reinforce driving. What’s the test for this? Imagine everyone took transit, and now picture the 250 km (equivalent to Whistler & back) of all roads in Vancouver completely barren of personal vehicles. Almost everyone would be motivated to drive.

    “If riding a grimy bus doesn’t incentivize a human to improve their station in life, nothing will.”

  2. How to make a misleading claim? example here:

    ” In the absence of the proposed transit plan, projections also call for 600,000 additional cars.”

    … but with or without the plan, projection call for roughly the same numbers of cars (see annex C of the said plan) 😉

  3. Something I don’t get is the belief that the transit system here is badly managed. They should try some other systems in the continent. That’s one of the things that I noticed when I moved here is just how good the transit was.
    And a half percent sales tax is negligible and worth it. I griped when they raised my rent by $10/month but it went to a new roof and better windows so it’s not like I’m not getting something for my money. I’ve certainly lived in places where the rent went up but I didn’t get anything for it.
    I guess it all comes down to what we want our future to be like.

  4. Really, Pete and the advocates are not winning friends with statements like it’s self-indulgent to have to pick up kids from school and get to work to earn a living.

    Newsflash – some of us actually do work for a living, and we have kids that we have to transport to and from school and other events, and we live and work in parts of Vancouver and the region that are poorly served by transit. And the mayor’s plan is making no attempt to fix that, because it’s focused on moving people into and around downtown Vancouver.

    I’m fine with improving transit; I know the govt is going to make me pay more to drive; and I know it’s just a case of having to find extra money in my personal budget for that, because I don’t fit the profile that the mayor’s plan is aimed at. Don’t condescend to me, don’t be all high and mighty, and don’t pretend it’s not going to be painful.

    1. I agree that condescension is seldom a winning strategy. And, like all elections and referenda, this one will be won or lost on emotion and not facts.

      I do wonder about one thing you said, though. How will the proposed changes be painful for you?

      1. The plan is based on making it more difficult and expensive to get around by car. But the transit expansion only serves a few targeted areas. So, for anyone who doesn’t live and work in the targeted areas, it’s going to get more expensive and time-consuming to get around. Such is life, some people benefit, some people don’t.

        And to be more clear, the success of the overall strategy is highly dependent on the mobility pricing not yet introduced. While we hear about the $250m/year raised from the sales tax increase, there hasn’t been much said about the fact that the plan actually calls for $400m/year extra in order to implement the promises. (Apart from the extra funds needed for the Patullo and Broadway Skytunneltrain).

        Like I said, I’m not opposed to spending on transit, but the promises being made about costs, services provided, and transparency are laughable.

      2. Agustin,

        I would say that emotion and facts play into almost all decision-making, whether rightly or wrongly. Having said that, it is a FACT that Translink’s
        CEO has been fired for mismanagement. The mismanagement of Translink is a fact that should weigh heavily in the referendum vote: why would anyone want to contribute more tax dollars to a, now, openly acknowledged failed system of transportation?

        1. Susan, I’ll make you a deal. You answer my question from before and I’ll answer yours.

          Until then, here are some more facts: if you want Metro Vancouver to be a place where people have a range of viable options for getting around, the way to vote is Yes. If you want Metro Vancouver to be a place without meaningful investment in public transit for the next generation, the way to vote is No.

  5. “And the mayor’s plan is making no attempt to fix that, because it’s focused on moving people into and around downtown Vancouver.”

    Could you expand on this please? The main tenets of the plan in my understanding are the Broadway extension, Surrey/Langley LRT and multiple new B-lines across the region.

    “Newsflash – some of us actually do work for a living, and we have kids that we have to transport to and from school and other events, and we live and work in parts of Vancouver and the region that are poorly served by transit.”

    Now imagine if all this applied to you *and* you couldn’t afford a car.

    1. Ok, I’ll grant that the Broadway extension serves the “Metro Core” as the planners like to call, not just downtown. But that’s still the sliver of the region around downtown. Half the B-lines are not planned for the next 5 years. Surrey/Langley LRT is not planned to commence in less than 10 years, and it’s not funded anyway. Most of the capital expenditure is planned for Skytrain initially, and most operational funding is for improved frequency of service on routes yet to be decided. But mostly in Vancouver.

      And for your last bit of snark, I work in industry where the majority of workers can only afford an ancient banger, and because their homes and jobs are not in Vancouver, transit is not an option, because service is so poor. So they make sacrifices to have the car. They’re not Pete McMartin’s “self-indulgent commuters”, they’re the people who generate income for the region, and/or ensure that your coffee/groceries/online purchases get to you. Those people will just pay more and sit in traffic longer. But they’re not the trendy downtown Vancouver cycling set, so who cares?

      1. Ah, I see. You’re one of those “since buses don’t currently serve everyone perfectly, we shouldn’t try to increase the availability of transit”. Thanks for your response.

      2. I also love this idea that a Skytrain line along Broadway only serves people in Vancouver. It’s there so people who live in Burnaby, Surrey, and (soon) Coquitlam can access the Broadway area easily.

        I live steps from Broadway and personally I could take or leave a Broadway subway, but it’s clearly beneficial to the whole region.

        1. Even if they don’t travel further west than Commercial, it benefits Skytrain users to the east due to the increased frequency of trains.

      3. “they’re the people who generate income for the region, and/or ensure that your coffee/groceries/online purchases get to you.”

        Who exactly do you think rides the bus to work?

    1. That would be the unelected board appointed by the provincial government, wouldn’t it? I wonder what Christy would say about the remuneration levels? One would think there would be some kind of government oversight on the staff they appoint.

      If it was a private company, like in Singapore, the board would not only have high remuneration levels but hundreds of thousands of preferred shares AND directorships in companies that do direct business with the parent transport corp., therein offering up conflict of interest issues.

      1. The Translink board is appointed by the Mayors’ council.
        There is also 2 seats on the board for the mayors: Robertson and Hepner.

        Translink Executive compensations are approved by the Mayors council.

        1. Ok. My bad on this important distinction.

          But TransLink remains the creature of the province which has manipulated it at will since the 90s. The Mayor’s Council by design now has no direct power, certainly not to raise funds and be accountable to local residents. Kevin Falcon and Gordon Campbell saw to that. The only reason the current party in power has never eliminated TransLink outright is because they need a straw man to beat up on a regular basis to hide their lack of support for transit in the face of wildly exorbitant spending on over-designed bridges and freeways.

          Do you support this anti-democratic structure? Do you prefer no local control? Some of us prefer reform, but not abolition of the entire TransLink organization based on overblown headlines about mismanagement emanating from the top. The vast majority of staff is doing an honest day’s work.

          The NDP under Mike Harcourt created TransLink on the honourable principle of local control, but the same party turned on its progeny under Ujjal Dosanjh and killed a proposed $75/year vehicle levy. If that levy was still in place, we’d have a truly great, sustainably-funded transit system.

          The province and only the province stands in the way of a democratic metropolitan, locally accountable and efficient transportation system. Innocent TransLink personnel below the management level are made to look like fools only because of the strictures the province places on the organization. Maybe it’s time for the feds to tie increases in overall funding contributions for transportation to creating an elected regional government. Put billions on the line. For too long federal powers have been devolved to the provinces, including the responsibility for cities. Canada’s six largest cities generate half the nation’s GDP. Metro Vancouver generates half the province’s GDP ($100+ billion a year). Every city has federal ridings. Unlike roads, transit is a great investment with measureable returns. The math supports it.

        2. do I support the Translink structure?

          Yes I do, and here is why:

          You mentioned SIngapore, Hong Kong model is not far away, MTRC is a public company listed on the stock exchange. here is how the Hong Kong Legislative committe treats the MTRC CEO:

          I am not asking for the mayors’ council to go that far (well on the Compass fiasco, why not 😉 but they mayors’ council can certainly make their meetings public, and ask difficult question on project/compensation/appointment they have themselves approved, and they need to approve virtually everything, including new funding…

        1. Let’s put up a billboard Jeff, explaining that there are only around 500 and something, people making over a hundred thousand a year at TransLink.

          — VOTE YES for TransLink Cash —
          Only the two CEOs make $800,000 year.
          Only 500 people make over $100,000 a year at TransLink.
          VOTE YES for more of Your Money for TransLink.

          1. I thought it was one CEO, and one ex-CEO getting paid severance. Not a winning billboard in any case, but does the hate for Translink employees extend to all public sector jobs?

            1. Jeff,

              We are currently now being offered a referendum vote on “all public sector jobs”; the question of the moment is the referendum on transportation services only and whether or not we should throw more money down the drain on transportation public sector jobs. No is the answer.

          2. I asked Eric about his position, not for a plebiscite on it.

            Disagree with your characterization of building transit as throwing money down the drain. You do realize that to build all the things on the list will require investments in people to manage both the construction and the operation?

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