The weather in Vancouver has been glorious this summer, but something if not rain had to dampen the mood. Last Thursday we learned that the transit referendum had failed. Decades of regional transportation directives have, to pardon the impolitic wildfire pun, gone up in smoke.
In the immediate aftermath, Michal Rozworski criticized the Yes campaign for sticking to “severely-limited, feel-good, paternalistic liberalism”, and failing to stand on the social politics of transit. This is nowhere more apparent than downtown Vancouver, the heartland of the city’s centre-left elite, where the campaign had little to do with connecting people to their workplaces and everything to do with a continued legacy of progressive urbanism. The loss was interpreted as a repudiation of decades of technocratic planning, anchored in False Creek, by encroaching hordes of clueless suburbanites. Pete McMartin’s polemic against the No vote, soaked with despair over the implied rejection of Vancouverism, drew many puzzled comments in the Vancouver Sun. “What the hell is Vancouverism?” wrote one No voter. “I have never heard that word used to describe Vancouver”. Gordon Price went so far as to characterize the referendum as a public expression of our civic identity. Under this interpretation, the resounding message is that Metro Vancouver wants to drive, regardless of what Vancouverism has come to signify or what its proponents believe.
Don’t panic. While the Broadway subway was a key plank of the transit package, the tangible effects of the referendum loss in Lotusland — most of Vancouver proper — will be comparatively small. We retain a dense fabric of frequent trolleys, express buses that function despite limited capacity, and a growing network of bikeways to serve a rapidly shifting mode share. “What’s really going to change for us if the referendum fails?” my partner mused once the gloomy outcome grew clearer. “We already bike everywhere.” If anything, the greatest impacts fall on the suburban drivers who voted against the tax, where transit will be unable to keep up with rapid changes in land-use. Barring the end of the ALR, Metro Vancouver suburbs are all going to grow more dense. A drive around Richmond or Surrey reveals a surprising abundance of multifamily housing, and more are on the way. Residents of these sprouting south-of-Fraser townhouse developments will now have little choice about getting around: they will have to drive. To rudely paraphrase George Orwell, imagine traffic running over a human face, forever. That’s the foreseeable future of transit in Metro Vancouver where it does not currently exist.
“A Demoralizing Political Game”
Like many engaged local commentators, Paul Hillsdon views the referendum loss though the prism of political failure, a perpetual funding hot-potato that no one in office wants to own. The roots of this conflict run to the foundation of Translink as Gordon Campbell’s vehicle for sidestepping the Metro Vancouver mayors, many years before Canada Line and the 2010 Winter Olympics. Antipathy of Metro Vancouver governments to an imposed Translink management, who they were then cruelly forced to back in the referendum by a hostile Province, doomed the Yes coalition from the start. No united message could possibly emerge from this uneasy partnership, and no leadership of the Yes vote was forthcoming, least of all from the Province. Christy Clark claimed to support a Yes vote under duress of a microphone, but she could not plausibly give a different answer given her role in starting the referendum circus. (She was unavailable for comment once it failed.) The best the pro-tax coalition could do to rally the Lower Mainland vote was Mayor Robertson, the mythical personification of a self-absorbed Vancouver that surrounding municipalities make sport to ridicule.
In a sense, this clinical view of the referendum’s political pathology is still more disturbing than the purported ignorance of suburban rabble. It means not merely that a large portion of the population opposes crucial improvements to the transit network, but that the political elites themselves are unable to form a consensus and indeed are too cynically mired in cycles of retribution to make tangible progress. Blame is ultimately directed at the BC Liberals, or the provincial government in abstract, with vague hope of redemption in the 2017 election. But that’s a long way off to make Christy pay, a lifetime in politics, and offers cold comfort to those whose day jobs are to press for a unified transportation strategy to meet inevitably rising demand.
Doubting Vancouver Exceptionalism
Despite its design to fail, the referendum has forced a sober look in the mirror by those of us who think of Vancouver as someplace different. If not already clear from the content of Reflecting Vancouver, I moved here because Vancouver offered a different vision of development and city life than the sprawling suburbs of my youth. In the geographically dispersed cul-de-sacs, a bicycle was an amusing way to reach the kid’s house down the street and buses were things you might have to navigate on a tour of Europe. I saw much more of the interior of a city bus from documentary photos of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott than I ever did in reality. So the following sentiment of a Metro Vancouver voter struck me rather sharply:
The few times I have used transit I found it inconvenient, dirty and unpleasant. Even diehard greenies in this town ride their bikes to avoid it. People want cars. They want good roads. They do not want to be told to take a bus by some holier than thou types who condemn drivers’ legitimate choices. WE are Vancouver. We drive. We also vote.
There is perhaps a dose of magical thinking in the Dream City echo chamber. We have spent decades reinforcing the idea that people are willing to live in small apartments provided an urban environment that obviates the need for a car. We’ve pointed to Europe and Asia, invoking a kind of universal model that we can achieve in North America with enough foresight and will. The most strongly felt disappointment of the referendum loss is to dampen this hope, to seed worry that Vancouver is really just a North American city like any other, perhaps with a few lucky perks of landscape, climate, and history. That people here really want to drive on big, fast roads for everything, like innumerable other sprawling North American municipalities, excepting a few token walkable districts with abundant parking. Buses, sure, but not too many and only for the poor. All that theory about livable, walkable neighbourhoods? A load of elitist tripe for those who can afford it.
I strongly reject this fatalism, and I hope you do too. The population of the downtown peninsula has nearly tripled since the start of the modern Vancouver experiment, and jobs have roughly doubled, while traffic volumes into and out of the city centre have continuously declined to the lowest levels since 1965. Mode share has dramatically shifted, with over half of Vancouver’s trips made by means other than an automobile, six years ahead of the Greenest City 2020 goal. Land has spiked in value, but the inflation-adjusted cost of an apartment in Vancouver proper has barely risen in a decade. As I have voiced before, I strongly support increased density in our residential districts to ensure more, varied, and affordable housing stock for future residents of our city — see (1), (2), and (3). That surrounding municipalities do not want to emulate the successes of Vancouver does not negate the radical progress our city has made in shifting the way people inhabit the urban fabric. Communities in Metro Vancouver that most need density for rising populations are precisely those who voted against the sales tax by the widest margins. These cities didn’t negate Vancouverism — they are merely ignoring its lessons and making some mistakes that Vancouver has sought to remedy or avoid.
The Question of Translink
The last and possibly most pernicious issue is the fate of Translink. The referendum laid bare the public disdain for the agency, a result of smear campaigns, poor public relations, and provincial neglect. Vancouver has many tools at its disposal for implementing a progressive urban vision within its borders, but the governance of Translink dictates that public transportation is not currently among them. Bike lanes have gone further than many of us imagined to change the way people get around Vancouver, but it can only go so far, both physically and in abstract. Bicycles cannot connect cities in a sea of green. In the wake to the failed referendum, it is really the Livable Region Strategic Plan, and successor Regional Growth Strategy, that remain threatened.
Rebuked by the suburbs, will Translink focus resources on Vancouver, where routes are more profitable? Will the mayors simply boycott Translink until voters turn their ire on Victoria, or is this too dangerous a game against the provincial hand that feeds? Will changes in the federal government, a likely possibility in the autumn, open paths to direct investment in Vancouver and Surrey? If so, how will Translink fit into the picture? Sadly, we have not seen the end of brinksmanship over transit in Vancouver, and we have not yet witnessed a sea change in Translink. Regardless the outcome of specific battles to come, it seems like the era of a unified Metro Vancouver transportation plan may be drawing to a close.