The more I examine the barrage of claims and counterclaims about local transit, the less the upcoming plebiscite seems a yes/no option than a lose/lose proposition.
Eric Chris is an Australian-born chemical engineer living near UBC. In one of his heavily hyperlinked emails to local media, Chris recalled how smoothly traffic flowed in Vancouver during the four-month long transit strike in 2001.
This runs counter to claims about expanded bus service reducing road congestion. Chris cites a 2009 paper by Gilles Duranton and Matthew A. Turner from the University of Toronto department of economics. “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from U.S. Cities” concluded that “the provision of public transportation has no impact on vehicle kilometres travelled.”
The transit advantages were offset “by an increase in driving by current residents; an increase in transportation intensive production activity; and an inflow of new residents.”
In other words, automobile drivers eventually max out any newly available road space, particularly when new transit infrastructure is accompanied by increased urban residential development.
“Transit moving people who don’t drive and who really depend upon transit to go about their daily lives in their immediate community provides a valuable public service, and I truly do support it,” writes Chris.
What he and many others reject is Vision Vancouver’s template of developer-led urban growth, pegged to the shoddy performance of an unelected body tasked with megaproject-friendly transit expansion. (The cost of the farcically buggy Compass Card program has swelled from $100 million to $191 million, and we still haven’t seen the bottom of that particular sinkhole.)
When urban growth models are slanted toward the desires of wealthy offshore investors and local developers, transit tends to follow civic function. The long-term costs to the taxpayer balloon along with property values.
According to a 2014 property tax report on new homes, 2,243 detached homes in the West Side met the wrecking ball in a three-year period. Meanwhile, local dwelling options for younger middle-class residents are literally shrinking down to laneway houses, cramped stacking units in the sky, and much-ballyhooed “tiny homes.”
Still, the worker bees have to get into and around Metro Vancouver’s buzzing urban hives somehow, no?
“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,” insists Chris.
This argument is echoed by Charles Menzies, a UBC professor of anthropology. A passage from his blog deserves to be quoted at length:
“Fundamentally 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. This is not a new plan, it’s one used by developers historically and the world over: use the mechanisms of the state to take money from the majority to fund the profit making ventures of the minority.”
Menzies continues: “UBC, for example, wants a subway so that they can realize the highest rate of return off the land they have. The same goes for each of the town centres created by the regional plan and the expansion of public transit. The push for transit in Metro isn’t about ecology, sustainability, or making our communities nicer: it’s about using public means to facilitate the accumulation of profit by a minority of developers. It’s a form of social theft. So when I get my paper mail in ballot I’ll vote No to social theft, No to the developer tax.”
Voting Yes won’t result in ideal light rail transit (think European-style electric trams), a civically more attractive option than additional pollution from non-electric buses, revenue-gobbling SkyTrain expansion and bored tunnel infrastructure courtesy SNC Lavalin or some other bidding behemoth. (SNC Lavalin is reeling from criminal investigations and a 2013 World Bank decision to debar it after allegations of bribery in a Bangladesh bridge development).
Given the binary option of a tax for transit infrastructure attached to out-of-control urban development in Metro Vancouver, this plebiscite begs for public rejection. The next best thing is to hold your nose and vote No.