Guest Post: Sabrina Lau Texier on making transportation policy in an environment of public distrust

Sabrina Lau Texier is a transportation planner who has worked in Toronto, New York City and Vancouver. She attended the University of Melbourne in 2003. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of TransLink. 

Vancouver City
Source: City of Vancouver, 31 Jan 2014

I moved from New York City to Vancouver a year and a half ago. I landed a job in a great organization that is admired from afar for its proactive approach to linking land use planning and provision of transportation, including public transit, major roads, bridges and cycling. But I’ve learned the hard way just to tell people my occupation and not name my employer. If I say the dreaded T-word (okay, it’s TransLink) I get an earful from the surprisingly strong anti-transit crowd in this town.(1) However, TransLink’s damaged brand is not just tough for me, it’s tough for making good policy.

Making policy is not quite the same as advocating for it. I’ve found it easier to advocate (or denigrate) from a distance, often with an air of righteous indignation; however, bearing the weight of public dissatisfaction has been a different beast.

We are, in the words of a former premier, the city “that mostly got it right”. In my metropolitan area, as in many others, we have reached a tipping point on traffic congestion. Millennials defer getting a driver’s license (2,3) transit access is a new requisite for commercial real estate (4) and the installation of complete streets for all modes of travel is becoming (already is?) the new normal (5,6) With growing demand for improved transportation options, agencies everywhere are struggling to come up with funds to maintain and expand services.

Vancouver rapid transit map
Source: http://www.evergreenline.gov.bc.ca/documents/Maps_Graphics/Transit_Map.jpg

Partly in response to a persistent public perception of gross mismanagement, my agency has been through two government audits in 2012 alone, and both have found that the system has the best funding formula in Canada, and that “the organization is well run and manages its costs”(7). However, implementation of all suggested efficiencies (including cutting low-performing routes) will not be enough to meet the future transit expansion needs of Metro Vancouver. The provincial government has called for a referendum on this issue by Spring 2015.

“The line between democracy by plebiscites and mob rule is very thin.” – Anne Golden(8), speaking about the upcoming transportation referendum, Jan 2014

The referendum question has yet to be set, but how do you create the message on an issue as complex, multi-faceted and far-reaching as future transportation funding? How do you reach a population that is so disillusioned with your organization, that they prefer to view the referendum as a vote on the agency itself, rather than the larger issues (9). Failure to pass this referendum has its own opportunity costs (10), but the importance of funding transportation expansion is lost as public attention is directed to how much money is spent on office coffee. The province has taken the politically-safe approach of asking taxpayers to decide if they would like further taxes to pay for transit. They have not asked taxpayers if they agree with funding recent road and bridge expansion, oil pipelines, or a coal terminal.

We are entering into this referendum woefully unequipped to succeed. At the best of times, making an argument for transit/cycling/walking is going against a 50-yr+ status quo attitude of “the car is king”. However, investments in transit infrastructure benefit more than the riders themselves. The regional economy, goods movement, personal mobility, job opportunities, and healthy communities require planning and funding of alternate transportation options. We can make many sound scholarly arguments, but it is often preaching to the converted.

“When trust is broken between the government and the governed, it’s almost impossible to generate support for public policy changes even when the proposals are right.” – Anne Golden, Jan 2014

The public has very little trust in my organization, and the media caters to this. Transit decisions, big and small, are routinely lambasted and misrepresented, with major omissions that compromise balanced reporting. There is scant awareness that the agency is also responsible for roads, bridges, goods movement, air care testing for vehicles, and pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. It is an easy news story to cater to the strong public appetite for taking potshots at the region’s punching bag. There is the sense that merely having a transit pass is the equivalent of an advanced degree in transit planning, and everyone feels they could have made a better decision.

It would be easy to put my head down, hide amongst the thousands of employees at my organization, and tell individuals in social settings that I wasn’t responsible for their particular grievance. Yet I am proud of the work that my city, my region, and my transportation authority have accomplished. I want it to succeed in the future. I worked in NYC for 5 of its most formative years in the transformation of its streets from auto-dominated through-routes to celebrations of public spaces, and I know how good news stories are borne of years of blood, sweat and tears. When one looks up from the battle, and takes a step back, it is possible to be reminded of what the fight is really for.

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Sabrina Lau Texier on making transportation policy in an environment of public distrust”

  1. Very interesting to hear a perspective from another city. TtTE I would like to see some comparative graphs regarding population and transport funding models as a follow up!

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  2. Interesting that two cities (Vancouver and Melbourne), regularly regarded as the ‘most livable’ cities in the world, both have to grapple with anti-transit/public transportation sentiments, or at least an unwillingness of their governments to invest in it. I’d have thought that clean and accessible transport options would be a key indicator for livability.

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