I don’t own a car. I have that rare luxury of being able to walk to my workplace from home. But other than the daily commute, I rely on public transit almost every day. In fact, I depend on transit as though it were a public service as I do public power and water – only, in Vancouver, public transit isn’t truly a public service, and this is where its troubles begin.
Transit as a Public Service
The Tyee ran a great series in 2007 called “No Fares!” around the issue of whether transit fees should be eliminated. In addition to generating interesting debate around the value of providing free public transit, the series highlighted the touchy subject of providing common and public goods, and its proverbial thorn: the free rider problem.
The term “free rider” – one apt for the issue of public transportation – is someone who consumes more than their share, or without paying. Within public transit debate in Canada, riding for free is considered a problem. There is a strong-ish view that you should only pay for what you use. As taxpayers, we subsidize public transportation, but of course we don’t all use that service (to avoid the inconveniences of an underfunded, overburdened transit, among other reasons too numerous to list here).
But it is a fact that public transit requires subsidization, as does other subsidized services like power, gas and water. We cannot support these services through user fees, because we need tax money to pay for the infrastructure and operations.
There are indeed varying degrees of subsidy by local and national governments, and in Vancouver, public transit is chronically underfunded. Regional fiscal plans limit needed bus and train services every year. The Metro Vancouver transit authority TransLink released its 2010 10-Year Transportation and Financial Plan in the fall of 2009. The report outlines a plan of drastic cuts to services, including a 40% reduction in bus service over the next ten years in the Lower Mainland to “reduce investments and cut services in order to match expenditures with revenues.” This is required by the SCBCTA Act, which “requires TransLink to annually prepare a Base Plan that uses only established funding resources within the current borrowing limit.” And far from becoming a “fare-free” transit zone, fares will be going up in April.
What makes these cuts especially irksome, in my opinion, are their proximity to the budgetary and service exceptions made during the recent Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. Under normal conditions, it takes a few bus trips on Vancouver’s more busy routes to see this city suffers from an obvious bus shortage (for instance, the persistently infrequent and crammed bus service of the Broadway transit corridor). This suddenly changed during the two-week period of the recent Winter Games. Extra buses seemed to flood the streets during these days, and reduced wait times from 15-20 minutes to 3-5 minutes on these same routes. There were so many buses, in fact, the city had to find unusual places to park them while they weren’t in service. During the two weeks of the Olympics, the transit authority boasted the highest ridership ever with over 1.6 million trips made daily. Since the Olympics ended, transit service has reverted to the old schedule, and now faces a 40% service cut.
Transit’s vicious circle
In a “saner” world, I believe there would be a seismic shift of the immense research and development investment away from personal cars and individual consumer needs towards public transportation ingenuity and expansion – i.e. the public good. Instead, we support an agenda that sidelines good public transportation infrastructure and makes enormous efforts to accommodate the uncooperative car commuter.
Many agree, we need better transit to help us get out of the plethora of problems associated with our car culture. And yet, it is fairly normal for cities in North America – and particularly Vancouver – to go without well-funded and adequate (and much needed) public transit systems. It’s interesting how projects such as the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge that spans the Fraser River (see the Gateway) would amount to the current government’s solution to lessen traffic congestion from suburban commuters. This goes against an enormous amount of evidence showing public transit is a far more viable and effective means to combat this problem (see the Downs–Thomson paradox and the SPEC). Programs such as the Gateway only seem to take us further away from better urban transit, and further diminish our collective quality of life.
But it is there is a vicious circle at work: It appears that so long as the public prefers to use private cars over public buses and trains, transit will will continue to be underfunded and overburdened, and transit authorities will continue to cut transit funding and raise fares, while urban planners will continue to prioritize car use. But if transit never gets the needed improvements and expansions, the public will never see transit as a preferable alternative to private travel. Seen in another light: we all stand to benefit from improved public transit – since it will arguably improve our quality of life – but it will only improve if we choose to use it.
The only apparent way to begin to address these problems and generate the necessary political will to do so, is for people to stop relying on their cars and start taking public transit. But this isn’t going to happen so long as we base our public transit policies on the decisions of individual consumers. It is time to consider looking for other reasons to fund public transit.
Public Transit as a Human Right?
It’s instructive to look at who happens to be a transit user. More than likely he or she will be someone who belongs to the relatively underpowered class that includes: seniors, the disabled, students, and low-wage workers. There seems to be very little anecdotal evidence of solidarity among the transit riders in this city. But there are, apparently, some major efforts to improve public transportation. Lately, these efforts have been amplified by a recent wave of protests against the B.C. government’s tragically-flawed Gateway Program, for instance, the “Society for Promoting Environmental Conservation” or SPEC.
A little known organization called the “Vancouver Bus Riders Union” (or BRU) is also fighting to make public transit a human right. The website claims the organization “represents the mass transit and public health needs of the transit dependent.” A multi-lingual, multi-cultural union, the BRU sees itself as a public advocate for the underclass of transit-dependent users who are ” overwhelmingly working class, and disproportionately people of colour.” One objective they claim is that “affordable, reliable and environmentally sound mass transit” should be considered a human right. Why not start the discussion with this principle? Isn’t accessible and adequate public transportation to facilitate mass mobility, as with water, food and a place to live, a necessity of urban life?