Good writings on the referendum:

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Charles Montgomery in the National Post:

The psychology of ‘no’: Vancouver transit vote is case study in why it’s so hard to do what makes us happy

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Now it’s decision time. This week, residents will begin voting in a plebiscite on whether to add half a cent to the provincial sales tax to help fund massive transit and road improvements.

To some, this seems to be great news: citizens asked to participate in a decision that will have a huge effect on their future well-being. The bad news is, according to recent insights in psychology, most people will likely get this decision dead wrong.

The sad truth is, we can be absolutely awful at making decisions that affect our long-term happiness. …

So the mayors’ plan will make most voters richer, healthier and happier. And on this, a stunning array of long-time adversaries now agree. The tree-huggers and the truck drivers, the students and the suits, the unions and the boards of trade are all on board. Even the premier has returned to the coalition of the willing. Yet a majority of voters plan to vote against their own interests. Why would reasonable people do such a thing? One factor is that our brains lay out all kinds of cognitive traps for us when considering complex decisions.

There is what psychologists call the focus illusion. We put all our attention on one glaring element and ignore details that are harder to grasp or remember. So most people remember the annual tax they’ll have to pay, and place less value on the thousands of moments where their life will become easier.

Most of us have trouble putting fair value on future benefits. If you were stuck in traffic right now and I offered to get you moving for 35¢ (the average daily cost of the new sales tax) you would probably pay up. But the plebiscite choice feels more remote: You are asked to pay a tax now for benefits that will take years to take shape, so those benefits disappear in the haze of distance. …

We are more attracted to stories than spreadsheets — the simpler and more mythical, the more compelling. We crave identifiable heroes and villains. The “No” campaign has supplied that story, painting local transit authority executives as a corrupt, wasteful band of thieves.

It doesn’t matter that their assertions are inaccurate. (Translink is arguably one of the most efficient and reliable big-city transit agencies in North America.) It doesn’t matter that the plebiscite is not actually about Translink, or that the results will affect the public much more than Translink leaders. The emotionally charged story feels truer than numbers. …

So for many voters, the plebiscite is reduced to an opportunity to express anger about their commute, or engage in a symbolic struggle against a cartoon-like enemy. But this will actually harm voters’ own interests in the long run. …

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Charles Montgomery is the author of the Charles Taylor Prize-nominated book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. Visit his website at thehappycity.com.

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Marus Gee in the Globe and Mail:

What Vancouver can teach Toronto about leading on transit

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It may be too late to rescue the Yes campaign. But the exercise has done some good all the same. By sticking their necks out and campaigning for a transit tax, the mayors have made the point that better transit does not come for free and that someone is going to have to pay for it one way or another. That is more than Toronto’s leaders have been willing to do.

 

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Frances Bula in the Globe and Mail:

TransLink’s track record derailing Yes vote on transit plebiscite

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“Did it surprise me? Yeah, it has for sure,” says Greg Moore, the Port Coquitlam mayor who has been the Yes side’s most forceful political voice.

If there is a majority No vote, which every poll seems to indicate, the distrust of TransLink will be blamed. …

… the Yes side has one potentially fatal weakness.

“All that organization and support can be thrown off kilter if there are negative perspectives about the agency,” says Peter Haas, a professor with the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose, Calif., who has co-written a book about what makes transit referendums pass or fail. Referendums in San Jose, St. Louis and Cleveland all failed in the past decade because of questions that got raised about the transit agencies’ decisions or spending.

The controversies don’t even have to be that big or meaningful, he said. In Cleveland, a relatively small and poorly organized opposition got the public riled up that buses frequently ran empty at night. “That’s not that unusual for a transit system,” Dr. Haas said, “but it was turned into a negative perception that was not warranted.”

Back here in Vancouver, the mayors’ council knew Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation had been targeting TransLink for several years and he would likely be the energetic, but not well funded, opposition that would play to the anti-tax crowd.

But no one seemed to connect the dots about how Mr. Bateman, operating mainly through free media attention and the Internet, would be able to tap into some deep reservations about TransLink. …

“From a reputation-management perspective, it’s difficult being a monopoly,” says James Tansey, the director of UBC’s Centre for Social Innovation and Impact Investing.

Government-affiliated utilities also bear the brunt of everyone’s frustration with all level of politics.

“Any time it’s a Crown agency, it’s a referendum on government,” says Dr. Tansey.

But the agency has other problems.

It was saddled from the start with a contradictory mandate that put it in the position of having to constantly beg the public for more money.

It lost its only public defenders in 2007, when the province took control from mayors and gave it to an airport-style appointed board.

And its managers developed what recently appointed CEO Doug Allen called a “bunker mentality.” That led, many say, to near paralysis when it came to developing any kind of plan to engage the public or even to respond appropriately during a short-term crisis. …

Provincial politicians, especially Premier Christy Clark, were never defenders either. That’s even though, say numerous politicians and TransLink employees, the agency’s executives and staff are on the phone to the Transportation Ministry in Victoria several times a week, getting clearance for everything from news releases to new equipment.

Finally, the executive and board hunkered down, making decisions that no normal politician sensitive to public opinion would make and declining to talk much with the public.

“The shadow lurking behind us is governance,” says Mr. Walton, who fought hard the past four years as chair of the TransLink mayors’ council to get more control for the mayors.

“It’s a headless beast and, as a result, it’s never been able to defend itself. For the people who use it every day, it’s important to have a very clear person who is accountable. When something goes wrong, people want to know who to call.”

They don’t, and the consequences of that are about to unfold.

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  1. This from Frances Bula “agency’s executives and staff are on the phone to the Transportation Ministry in Victoria several times a week, getting clearance for everything from news releases to new equipment.”

    Read it again. Apparently Premier Clark’s government is micro managing TransLink communications to the extent of reviewing media releases. So if you are wondering why TransLink communications are slow, and sometimes lame at best, there is now an explanation. Good thing I’m not cynical cause then I might think it was Clark and Stone sabotaging support for transit so they can get on with their freeway building agenda.

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