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Olson and the transit plebiscite

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bc-090528-coast-mountian-busesLots has been written about the coming transit plebiscite, one of my favourite piece a post by Gordon Price showing that the deficit of the Port Mann Bridge, promoted by anti-transit Jordan Bateman, represents nearly half of the cost of the proposed new transit plan.  Who’s incompetent with public money, really?

But the one that caught my eye recently is Geoff Olson’s.  The Vancouver Courier columnist is urging folks to vote no.  Here’s what he says, in a nutshell, and why I disagree.

(But first, here’s who’s talking: I’m an older white guy who commutes to work by car, Vancouver to Langley, and I will vote yes. I have many reasons, but here’s a key one: I don’t like the stress of driving. Sometimes after long days (and night classes), I’m tired, and I’m afraid of falling asleep at the wheel. I dearly hope it never happens, but it’s a worry. Asleep in a train, miss a station; asleep at the wheel, kill someone.  I’d like a realistic transit option.)

Olson starts his piece by quoting Eric Chris, who lives near UBC, who blogged that “traffic flowed just fine during the 2001 transit strike”.

Where to start with that one. Based on what evidence? That of a west-sider driving against rush-hour flow? This contemporary 2001 CBC article (and my own recollections) put a lie to this; traffic was worse. That said, it is true that buses (which stop frequently) and cars don’t mesh that well in traffic. And it’s certainly true that putting buses on the street increases traffic if these buses run empty. But they certainly aren’t; if the B-line buses disappeared, and all its riders turned to cars, I hate to think of what the Broadway traffic would be like. What the strike did is actually make life miserable for countless people; I knew students who had to abandon their summer job for lack of a means of transport. Nonetheless, there is some truth to the claim that transit does not, of itself, ease congestion: that’s because roads fill up with drivers until congestion occurs, leading some drivers to switch to a more efficient mode of transport. What transit does is precisely provide such alternatives. If Chris’s assertion were true, then the logical conclusion is that transit is unnecessary; but transit, in fact, increases overall system capacity.  But the relevance of this to the debate baffles me: more transit is needed, by whatever measure you use.

But where Olson goes over the top is in seeing a development conspiracy behind all this. He quotes Chris as saying

there is plenty of proof over the last two decades that hub to hub transport by TransLink is merely a ploy for businesses to make money from building the concrete intensive SkyTrain lines and concrete intensive condos along the SkyTrain lines.

This view is also echoed by UBC’s Charles Menzies, who blogs that

the transit referendum is about subsidizing the real estate development industry of the Lower Mainland. It is a wealth transfer from the majority to the elite minority who are raking in big dollars by revalorizing land through the development of public transit… UBC, for example, wants a subway so that they can realize the highest rate of return off the land they have.

Huh? Let’s parse this a bit. According to these two, the expansion of Skytrain is merely a ploy by real estate speculators (I would like to see the claimed proof, by the way). Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the main part of the proposal has little to do with Skytrain; rather, it is about increasing the number of buses, bringing light rail in Surrey, expanding bike paths, etc. Still, let’s look at Skytrain, for which an expansion is planned  from VCC-Clark to Arbutus under Broadway. This happens to run under an area heavily built up, including a large number of recently built towers, to say nothing of VGH. Sure, there are still opportunities for development along the corridor, but they are few and far between. Where one could benefit from development is further west along the Broadway -10th avenue corridor, and there is no Skytrain in the works for that area. Talk about setting up a strawman.

But look at it another way: would development along hubs (aka, stations) be necessarily disastrous? Chris seems to imply so. But development along the old inter-urban railway lines gave us what developed into Aldergrove, Cloverdale, Langley City, Steveston, and many others. People got cheaper accommodation with commuting options, centres developed, and, yes, developers made money. The same is true, for that matter, of North Surrey when the Patullo Bridge first opened and then the Port Mann Bridge. As a city grows, new means to get from A to B are needed. Without them, job mobility and housing options would be severely limited, which would produce a crisis in housing affordability, dwarfing our already bad situation. Sure, the development industry – whatever is meant by that – stands to make money. But that’s true whether or not we get better transit; it has to do with growth, period.

Which makes me think that the Chris, Menzies, and other Olsons would rather see growth just not happen. It’s a west-side phenomenon, it seems, with older UBC types longing for the old days when Kits was synonymous with hippiedom with Greenpeace housed in a crumbling house on 4th. Yes, these days were cool; but they are long gone, guys. I think these folks are merely dressing up very selfish NIMBY arguments into self-serving specious concern about “transfer of wealth” and “regressive taxes” just to protect their nice neighbourhoods from development. This would preserve the neighbourhood character, yes, but also prevent any kind of development that could help with housing prices, such as increased density in the form of townhouses and appartment blocks. Egad, developers may make a profit, they say; what they really mean, if you probe a bit, is that they don’t want to make it possible for more people to live in their neighbourhood. Concern for the poor? Give me a break. And the worse is that none of this has anything to do with transit.

In a recent opinion piece in the Straight, Charlie Smith wrote

Stopping future funding of public transportation and leaving young people, students, and low-income workers waiting for longer periods at night to get home is far more regressive than a 0.5 percent hike in the sales tax. This, according to him, “runs counter to claims about expanded bus service reducing road congestion.”

Right on. But I want to leave the last word to facebook buddy Justin Berger:

This is really infuriating. Sure Olson, Chris, and Menzies are right that transit serves the interest of developers and military contractors such as SNC Lavalin etc as much if not more than it serves the likes of thee and me, but the implication that we can somehow thwart the evil capitalists by voting no is ridiculous…the powers that be will see that the mega projects go ahead no matter how people vote. Meanwhile a “no” note vote guarantees that the humble night buses that serve shift workers and handy dart which are already falling behind will be cut even closer to the bone.

Congestion didn’t worsen during the 2001 strike because, surprise surprise, people who need transit don’t have cars– people walked for hours and hours to get to work and school or else they had to quit or drop out. If we vote “yes” we have more authority to demand service for the people who need it most. If we vote “no” we can be smug in the knowledge that once again we didn’t compromise our pure politics and dutifully slew the good on the altar of the perfect, meanwhile billions go to road expansion for single occupant cars, no referendum needed.

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Written by enviropaul

March 16, 2015 at 4:30 pm

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