So the results are in from Metro Vancouver’s recent mail-in transit referendum. (Technically a plebiscite, but I’m fuzzy on the distinction.)
The issue on the ballot was a proposed 0.5% sales tax hike to help pay for the so-called Mayors’ Plan, a raft of regional transportation improvements. Specifically:
- A tunneled extension of the Skytrain rapid rail line through the busiest stretch of Vancouver’s Broadway corridor;
- Two new LRT lines in the fast-growing suburb of Surrey;
- A replacement for the past-its-expected-lifespan Patullo bridge between New Westminster and Surrey;
- 11 new “B-Line” high-frequency express bus routes;
- More trains for Skytrain, more sailings for the Seabus to North Vancouver, more buses, more late-night service – just more transit in general;
- Improvements to cycle and walking paths throughout the region.
To the surprise of approximately no-one, the Mayors’ Plan was roundly rejected, by majorities ranging from about 51-49% in Vancouver proper up to 75% in the more distant exurbs.
I voted Yes, as the proposal would have benefited me personally: I take transit regularly, and spend very little, so I would have enjoyed the improved service while barely feeling the pain of higher taxes. However, I sympathize with No voters who objected to that extra fraction on their sales tax on top of the already staggering cost of living in the Lower Mainland.
Since voting ended, the federal government has announced a substantial new fund to support large transit infrastructure projects, and both Surrey and Vancouver have pledged to look into this and other means of achieving their respective rail ambitions. Which means a very possible outcome is that in a decade or so we’ll end up with items 1, 2, and 3 from the list above, but none of the small-beer improvements that would actually have made getting around the region more efficient in the short term.
This is a little annoying to me, because although the Broadway subway and Surrey LRT are worthy projects, and the new bridge is probably a necessity, they’re going to suck up all the funds we could have used to make less flashy but far more useful upgrades.
Problem: Rapid transit doesn’t take you to places you want to go.
Transit serves two very different purposes, and it’s easy to forget that they are actually in conflict. The first purpose, the one riders prioritize, is to take you to places you want to go. To your home, your job, your school, a bar, a doctor.
The second purpose is to shape growth – to redirect investment and development to underdeveloped areas – to remake the city. Which is why cities are constantly building rail lines to precisely the places riders don’t want to go. Where there are no homes, no jobs, no schools, no bars, no doctors. Not yet, anyway.
Ideally there should be a balance between serving the first purpose and the second; between the short-term needs of riders, and the long-term goals of city planners. But the planners tend to win out, because they have a pretty strong argument on their side: It’s expensive to build where stuff already is. It’s cheap to build where there’s nothing.
So you wind up with a project like the Skytrain’s Millennium Line, which at the time of its opening in 2002 connected a string of down-at-heels suburban malls and light-industrial zones.
Meanwhile, over a decade later, riders wanting to go to the University of British Columbia, or Stanley Park, or Granville Island, still have to ride the bus.
The two big-ticket transit items in the Mayors’ Plan are a decent balance of short-term and long-term. The Surrey LRT would stop at many a weed-choked lot, but the communities at the extremities of its three arms – Newton, Guildford, and Langley – are already busy, built-up suburban centres. And Vancouver’s Broadway corridor is a thriving business district abutting a dense residential population heavy on renters and students.
The ultimate objective is for the Broadway subway to extend all the way to UBC. Maybe I’ll get to see that before I die, though I wouldn’t bet on it. In the meantime, the plan has the line terminating at Arbutus Street, or not quite halfway.
Which means that, barring other improvements, taking transit to school from the middle part of the corridor – say, the intersection of Broadway and Oak – will actually be slightly less convenient than it is at present. Instead of boarding an overcrowded express bus that takes you all the way to UBC, you’ll have to travel a couple subway stops and then transfer to an overcrowded express bus. Much of the time you save from having bypassed a few dozen blocks of traffic will be eaten up in transferring and waiting.
Let’s forget about the rail proposals for a second and consider only the express bus routes – the B-Lines – laid out in the Mayors’ Plan.
Absent the subway, the existing Broadway B-Line would remain in operation, but be supplemented by another one along 41st Avenue, creating a more direct route to UBC for students coming from the south and southeast, and alleviating the ridiculous congestion on Broadway.
Two new routes would head east out of downtown Vancouver, helping to relieve the overcrowded Expo/Millennium Line. Another would lead up through the West End and Stanley Park to the North Shore.
What’s missing is an all-day express route directly linking downtown and UBC via the Burrard Bridge and 4th Avenue West, to take further pressure off the Broadway B-Line. 
Simon Fraser University, Capilano University, and BCIT would all enjoy all-day express service under the plan. So would Burnaby Heights, Kerrisdale, Hastings Park, Park Royal, White Rock…all places people either already live or might actually want to go.
The initial capital cost for all eleven proposed B-Lines would be a shade under $100 million. On top of that the plan proposes $193 million in “transit priority” upgrades – things like queue-jumper lanes and traffic signal priority for buses. That’s $300 million, total – or about 1/6th of the cost of the Broadway subway.
And unlike the subway, we could be enjoying at least some of these improvements immediately.
Problem: Buses are the worst.
It’s strange, but some folks out in the suburbs aren’t too keen on getting around by bus. Why could this be?
- Waiting like a schmuck in the rain or in the sun.
- Time listed in the schedule is only an approximation. Did I miss it? Should I just start walking?
- Inscrutable notice tacked to bus stop seems to be saying on certain days I have to wait at a different stop two blocks away.
- Not sure how to use unfamiliar payment system, driver vaguely hostile when I make a mistake.
- Nowhere to sit. Packed shoulder to shoulder with the plebes, swinging from a strap, broiling in summer heat.
- Bus stuck in rush hour traffic along with all the idiots in their cars. At least those idiots have air conditioning.
- Never been on this route before, not sure when to pull the cord.
- Shouldn’t we be turning here? Am I even on the right bus? 
Some of these drawbacks are shared by trains. You’re as likely taking a train to be confused at first by the payment system. You’re as likely to be wedged in between a wheelchair and a sweaty hiker’s backpack (although at least on a train the aisle is wider and the ride smoother). There’s still a chance of getting on the wrong train, though the maps conveniently placed above the doors, and the big signs on the wall when you pull into a station, make it easier to recognize when you’ve made a mistake.
It seems to me the main advantages of taking the train are that your waiting area is sheltered from the elements, your route will be clearly mapped and easy to follow, and – of course – the speed and frequency of service.
City planners, with their emphasis on long-term goals over short-term needs, will say: People hate to take the bus. Let’s build new rail lines and attract those people.
Whereas an emphasis on currently existing riders would say: People hate to take the bus. Let’s make the bus-taking experience better.
Let’s build clearly-marked, well-lit, fully-covered platforms instead of rinkydink shelters. Let’s have an electronic timer counting down the minutes till the next departure. Let’s put the payment system at the entrance to the platform so passengers can board the bus itself more smoothly. Let’s have dedicated bus lanes so those who elect to leave their cars at home actually enjoy a time advantage over drivers of single occupant vehicles. Most importantly, let’s have more and more frequent buses.
The best thing about this strategy is that the cost-savings advantage swings from planners to riders.
If we tripled the $300 million B-Line investments described in the Mayor’s Plan, we could make getting around by bus almost as attractive as taking the train. And it would still cost only half as much as a new rail line. 
Specific suggestions for Metro Vancouver in the wake of the plebiscite’s defeat.
I’m not saying let’s not build rail lines. I love rail lines. They’re fast, they move a lot of people, and yes – they attract a lot of new riders to the system. Rail is worth building – when you can afford it.
But if we have to pick and choose which improvements we can afford to make right now, maybe let’s put a little more emphasis on the needs of existing transit riders than the needs of the possible future riders of 2040.
If there are federal infrastructure funds available, instead of blowing them on a couple big rail projects, use them to build platforms and dedicated lanes for express buses.  They’re not very glamourous but they’ll get people moving.
Start with the B-Lines proposed in the Mayors’ Plan. Maybe we don’t do all of them right away – I’m not sure we need two separate express buses trundling along Marine Drive in North Vancouver, as the plan proposes. Maybe for now we focus on the most congested corridors.
If there’s a little money left over, get to work on extending the Millennium Line as far as the new Emily Carr University campus scheduled to open in 2017. Then, stop.
Pause to think about whether it’s worthwhile to continue tunneling on down Broadway. Maybe it would make more sense, and be less expensive, to close the gap between the Millennium and Canada Lines by building along 1st Avenue, the old rail corridor, to Olympic Village Station.
Maybe a system of east-west express buses down, say, 4th, Broadway, and 41st could do the job of keeping students flowing to and from UBC while relieving congestion on Broadway.
If we choose trains over express buses, I can live with that too. I’m sure I’ll enjoy riding the Broadway subway in 2025 or so. On my not-too-frequent trips out to Guildford, I’ll happily take the LRT.
But when I go to Stanley Park? I’ll drive.
2. Recent technological improvements have made the bus-taking experience significantly better. TransLink has a website that will tell you based on GPS tracking data when your next bus is due to arrive. Smartphones allow you to follow your progress on a map to make sure you’re going where you think you’re going. And the little digital display at the front of the bus showing the next stop makes riding an unfamiliar route much less stressful.
3. To be fair, the ongoing operating costs for the B-Lines would be quite a bit higher. Operating the 11 new proposed routes would cost about $50 million a year, twice as much as the completed Broadway subway.