March 17, 2015

Referendum: Terence Corcoran and the Next Meme

Luis Bernhardt:

It’s worth seeing what the other side has to say, especially if it’s someone with the clout of Terence Corcoran, Financial Post’s editor. He’s basically saying that the Transit Tax (he thankfully doesn’t fall for the Bateman red herring and pull Translink into it) is the thin edge of the wedge. It’s a good idea to think about how to refute a reasoned argument (although I think this will just go right over the heads of most Vancouver voters, except for the “just say no” part):


Terence Corcoran: Hey, Vancouver: Just say ‘No’ to transit tax


The campaign for the transit tax—a Vancouver-region increase of 0.5% in the provincial sales tax to raise $250-million a year—has the backing of a council of local mayors, a multi-million dollar marketing budget, plus the usual round-up of local business leaders, green activists and assorted economic theorists flaunting big dollar stats and grand claims that the tax will trigger major long-term economic and congestion benefits for all Vancouver. Be happy, vote for higher taxes. …

Only 6% of the $7.5-billion will go for road/bike lane improvements, with another 13% to replace the Patullo Bridge. The bulk of the money, more than 80%, will be sunk into assorted public transit schemes, the biggest item being $4-billion in new rapid  rail transit investment, including a new line to the Vancouver suburb of Langley to give a fresh boost to urban sprawl. …

Nothing in any of the material on the Mayors’ Council’s glitzy get-out-and-vote Web site explains how any of this onslaught of taxes and spending will reduce actual congestion and/or improve the lives of Vancouverites. It’s a dream that has never really materialized anywhere, even in cities that have tried all the options: Spend billions on public transit, raise taxes on carbon and cars, and everybody will be happier, riding their bikes, hopping on trains and cruising over traffic-free roads. …

There may be good policies around to tackle congestion, including deregulation and allowing commuters to devise their own congestion-fighting behaviors. How about privatizing transit? But the idea that traffic can be controlled and reduced with massive new taxation schemes to fund zillion-dollar sprawl-inducing public transit created by central planning bureaucracies and politicians has become part of our modern urban mythology. Vote “No.”


 PT: “How about privatizing transit?”   Assuming a No vote, expect that to be the next meme.


Todd Litman responds:

Corcoran uses standard anti-tax and anti-transit. He fails to address the key issues:

  • High quality public transit provides a variety of savings and benefits to users and non-users.
  • Vancouver’s transit performance is actually good compared with peer cities.
  • There is increasing demand for public transit travel. Providing more service responds to consumer needs and preferences.

See data here.

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    1. They did just that in Calgary by building tens of thousands of park and ride stalls at almost every light rail station outside the ring of Sixties suburbs. Decent LRT ridership stats in a city with more per capita km driven in cars than most.

  1. Let’s not confuse a “no” to more taxes with a “no” to more transit !

    Here is the assignment to the MetroVan mayors and provincial leaders: build more transit, especially rapid transit, and reduce congestion, but keep taxes flat.

  2. Perhaps without knowing it, Mr. Corcoran has been programmed into anti-tax mode; certainly his free-market ‘deregulation’ pitch suggests it. He would have been wise to examine what the last major expansion of Metro Vancouver’s transit system accomplished – let me save you the trouble – it was a lot, in terms of increased ridership and decreased congestion. For example, if you could beam yourself out to a distant planet and listen to the traffic reports from ten years ago, one of the standard bottlenecks was the Oak Street Bridge. I don’t hear nearly as much about that since the Canada Line launched.

    While I might get the factoid a bit wrong, it was pointed out a few years ago that buses make up about three per cent of Lions Gate Bridge peak hour traffic, but they carry about 28 per cent of the people crossing the bridge. Public transit extends the life of existing road infrastructure.

    Mr. Corcoran, and lots of others in the ‘NO’ camp, should consider that public transit is one piece of a larger ‘macro’ plan to improve livability in our communities. A great example is the new developments in Port Moody’s Newport Village area, where, on a promise of rapid transit (the Evergreen Line), the city promoted higher density growth near future stations. With some justification, then Mayor Joe Trasolini complained long and loudly that he had kept his part of the bargain as delay after delay kept the line from being built.

    One last item. We should remember the gone-but-not-forgotten Vehicle Levy proposed in 2000. For $75 a year starting back then, we would have had the Evergreen Line in service eight years ago at approximately 60 per cent of its cost today. That $75 looks pretty good next to the increases in property tax and gas tax that have been implemented since then.

    But the NO-birds squawked then and now they don’t want to remember. Much worse, they want to give us the same result 15 years later.

  3. Well to some extent he is right. Absent some sort of restraint on traffic at peak periods, just expanding transit by itself does not get you most of the benefits. But until the transit (and other realistic attractive alternatives, like safer cycling and walking without lots of cars competing for the same space) is in place, car traffic expands to fill the space available. This is why the long term plan calls for road user pricing.

    Just to cite London as an example of a place where this has worked, when the congestion charge went in there was no time or money to expand the rail system, which was already nearing capacity. But there was plenty of room on the streets for more buses – if they had exclusive bus lanes, properly policed. There was also room, it turns out, for bike lanes. That is road space that was taken away from cars – both moving and parked. And the revenue from the congestion tax is paying for all of it and now helping to pay for the new Crossrail lines too.

    Paris similarly has launched an all out assault on the space allocated to cars in favour of bus lanes, exclusive tram rights of way (even where there was a disused, grade separated railway available on a nearby parallel route) and so on. No congestion charge has proved necessary there as taxation is paying for it. Some national, some levied on the employers who directly benefit from being located in a well served area.

    Corcoran is wrong about privatisation and deregulation of course. Everywhere that has been tried with public transport has deeply regretted it.

    1. Stephen – good points as always.

      WRT restraint on peak period traffic, the simplest and cheapest option is to not strip parking during those times, while ensuring that rat-running is not easy. Cambie Village did this as a result of the Canada Lane. Second cheapest is to introduce parklets here and there on arteries, as on Robson Street. The next level in terms of costs but also best in terms of pedestrian-friendliness include corner and bus curb extensions. Removing one or two lanes of travel by any or all of these means on arterials during peak periods will certainly result in a constraint.

      The other option is Bus Only lanes as on Hastings in the Heights in Burnaby. Personally I’m not a fan due to pedestrian-unfriendliness (remember or supposed motto: “Pedestrains First”) and livability impacts (noise, etc.).

      Your thoughts?

      1. Horses for courses, of course. There is no doubt that red lanes in London have worked to improve bus speeds and reliability. Boris is now talking about cycle “super highways”.

        The 99 B Line moves quite remarkable numbers of people with very little in the way of traffic priority measures now mostly within the City of Vancouver. The exclusive bus lanes on Highway #99 seem to me to work well – and probably better than 2+ HOV. Two people in a car is not high occupancy: it’s a date. There are many kilometres of arterial road in the region that aren’t freeways but need optimising for people rather than vehicles.

        I think that taking lanes away from cars is probably a good place to start – and if the parking is replaced by parklets, bike corrals, tables and chairs (or bus stop bulges come to that) you get a much nicer urban place, and higher retail sales per square foot too.

        But also very important that transit is part of the broader consideration of what the street’s function is supposed to be. A stroad with bus lanes is still a stroad.

        The 555 bus is a good example of what can be done in terms of people movement with buses on freeways. It could have been done without the new Port Mann Bridge, or the doubling of freeway lanes. See Highway #99 for example

    2. Frank

      a couple of remarks:

      all what you say, could reduce the amount of traffic but not the level of congestion, and could have negative economic outcome, whether people have no efficeint alternative transportation mode able to avoid the congestion. However.

      1/ you shouldn’t take the pedestrian policy too literally. below is an example of pedestrain first police (notice also the dismount sign).

      2/ a stroad with a bus lane is better than a stroad without.

      3/ you shouldn’t associate efficient transit (using bus lane) as pedestrian unfriendly. the truth couldn’t be farther appart. transit is a pedestrian’s fountain: a requirement for succesful place. BTW, Allan Jacobs consider Bd St Michel (same width as Broadway) as a great street in his eponymous book, and he is about right: It looks like it

      Notce that the lane on the right is a bike+bus lane. with such a lane, transit is 25% faster than without. It reduces also the transit operating cost in same proportion (while increasing ist reliability): or in other words, allow increasing the transit offer by 25% without operating and capital cost increase (beyond the painting, and some divider on the street)

      Stephen Rees on his blog link to a Seattle study showing bus in Vancouver are particularly slow: lack of bus lanes is a reason for that.

      Unfortunatly, increasing transit efficiency (by increasing bus speed) to enable to provide more per service hour, has been largely missing of the Referendum conversation so far. However this low cost solution could be the funding stone of a plan B whether the plan A fail to pass…

  4. As long as the “price” of mobility is practically zero, people will continue taking trips with practically zero marginal benefit. This creates congestion – when there is no market price mechanism, scarce resources are often allocated through queuing. We want people with “high value trips” travelling, instead we have people with a “low value of their time” travelling.

    Now, we can continue to build pricey, subsidized LRT lines deep into sprawl-burbia ad infinitum until we have the infrastructure capable of accommodating every low-value trip, or we can place a reasonable price on mobility, one that reflects the true cost of mobility, such that people choose to take the trips that actually generate value greater than their cost.

    The market for mobility in our system functions about as well as the market for anything in a centrally planned economy. Lines dictate distribution.

  5. Corcoran errs in saying that the sales tax will increase by 0.5%. In fact, it will increase by half a point (from 7% to 7.5%), or 7.14%.

    Of course, the correction helps to make his case, depicting the increase as larger.

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