– Public transit debate can get messy, murky

Vancouver Courier

Matthew Claxton

Last week I wrote about how we need to stop looking at transit as a way of getting from city to city in the Lower Mainland. If you looked down at Metro Vancouver and counted heads per square kilometre, you wouldn’t see municipal boundaries, you’d see a patchwork of high-density urban zones broken up by low-density rural areas.

There are blobs and there are blanks on the map. We need service within the blobs, and service between them.

Serving those variable areas leads to two problems: financial ones, and political ones.

I’ll bet that transit-using Vancouverites could list dozens of problems with their bus and SkyTrain service. Overcrowding, routes that don’t run late enough, inconvenient transfers.

But at least they have transit to complain about. Come to the southern and eastern suburbs if you want to hear some pro-league griping.

A cursory glance at the list of bus routes shows Surrey gets about half as many as Vancouver, maybe less. Surrey’s population is three-quarters that of Vancouver, and rising like the federal deficit.

If TransLink had money to throw at Surrey’s dense urban core, it could solve the problems there fairly easily.

The Lower Mainland’s three main high-density areas (West Richmond, Northwest Surrey, and the Kingsway Worm from Vancouver to New West) are already linked by SkyTrain, and buses, trams or at-grade light rail could help fill in the gaps.

Unfortunately, professional poker players have a more reliable revenue stream than TransLink. Its current plan, endorsed recently by the mayors, is to keep treading water until the economy improves. That means cancelled and delayed projects and no improvements to the transit system for the foreseeable future.

Worse than the financial problems are the political ones.

Surrey, Langley, and Richmond residents have known for years about the disconnect between their population–and the amount they pay in taxes–and the transit services they receive. It makes them cranky.

It even bothers people who would never dream of using transit. Buses are for teenagers and recent immigrants and the poor and little old ladies. You know. Other people.

But darn it, the resident south of the Fraser who has never set foot on a bus (and never will) still wants to see those buses on the road. They pay enough in taxes, right?

So suburbanites often oscillate back and forth between demanding better service and wishing TransLink would just die, already. Those south of the river who do rely on transit (who are in fact often teenagers, recent immigrants, the working poor and the elderly) are also those with the least political clout.

As for Vancouverites, well… a quick story will illustrate things.

My girlfriend, born and raised in Langley, took driving instruction in Vancouver in the 1990s. Her instructor asked her how many cows her family owned. He assumed everyone in Langley owned cows and lived on a farm. This is what people south of the Fraser are up against.

Many Vancouverites (and those in Burnaby and New West) don’t have much of an idea what sort of transit challenges are faced by the region because they have a very unclear picture of what the region actually looks like.

Everything east of a certain point, say Boundary Road, is just a blurry fog to dedicated urbanites. And while Surrey is big and getting bigger, it can still be outvoted by its neighbours to the north of the river.

So Vancouver/Burnaby/New West politicians have no incentive to share transit cash, and politicians south of the river are caught between the contradictory impulses to grab as much as they can, and to put a stake in TransLink’s black heart.

I hate to suggest yet another overhaul of TransLink, but these challenges could persist for decades if municipally elected officials are allowed to play a zero-sum game. A system of directly elected TransLink board members, with ridings that ignored municipal boundaries, might be a start.

It would be less expensive than a mile of SkyTrain track, at least.

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