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.

Traffic lights: Hate

At the intersection of ubiquity and stupidity, lies my nemesis.  The traffic light.

Let’s look at three traffic scenarios.

1.  Light traffic.

I am stuck at the traffic light for no discernible reason.  No cars are coming.   The red light has me pinned down like a gleeful high school bully.

2. Medium traffic.

Cars go in one direction for a minute.  Cars go in the other direction for a minute.  Sounds fair!  But because of the way traffic builds up gradually, and moves off only gradually, we get lines of stopped cars in both directions.

This is the traffic wave effect, expressed in beautiful, scientific detail here.

3. Heavy traffic.

People aren’t moving anyway.  The light cycle shuffles through irrelevant sequences like a failing comedian.   Noone’s laughing. Continue reading Traffic lights: Hate

Population policy

I’ve been haunting the forums and threads on transit and urban policy for some time now. And I’ve noticed a change. Back in the day, the response to any proposal for more housing, or train lines, or new suburbs was:

Let’s not build it, who wants another million people?!?

It’s a classic case of mistaken identity between our old friends, that nebulous duo, cause and effect. In fact, the need to support another million people is almost a fait accompli.

But the naysayers are getting smarter and have reinvigorated their attack. Today, in response to proposals for more roads, more trains, more urban density and more tax, the naysayers exclaim “we must establish a population policy!”.

Obviously, they don’t specify a level of government that should do this, nor a target level, nor a means. But this is progress nonetheless.

And our illustrious, lustrous egg-head of a Prime Minister must have been haunting those forums too, because suddenly the Australian Government has a Minister for Population, Tony Burke. In addition to keeping an eye on Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture, he now has to manage into existence a population policy, with a reporting deadline in 12 months time.

This is a good thing. IN THEORY. In reality, actually doing something about population growth is extremely difficult and may not be worth the effort. Here’s a few reasons why:

Continue reading Population policy

On Formula 1: Profanity-laced Urbanity.

For a long time there was a group called Save Albert Park, arguing against the Melbourne Grand Prix. On the suburb’s street corners, bearded men (and women) sat on folding chairs distributing photocopied pamphlets and yellow ribbons.  But here’s the thing:  Albert Park is not all that.  It’s dreary and windswept.

The group could benefit from rebranding. One option I consider especially sonorous is: F1ck the Grand Prix.

Five reasons we should say ‘F1ck it’: Continue reading On Formula 1: Profanity-laced Urbanity.

What makes a good hostel?

Youth hostels are like little cities.  You have private space and public space.  There’s common infrastructure like kitchens and bathrooms.

If you don’t look after the common infrastructure, you get a hostel that’s like Calcutta.  And if you design the public spaces wrong, you end up with a hostel that’s a bit like Canberra.

The reason to stay in a hostel (other than saving a few bucks) is that it creates a place where you can meet some people.  The great thing about a shared room is that it forces interaction.  Then, when you move to the common area,  you can meet people from other rooms too.

But how to meet other people? It depends on ambience.

In Japan we stayed in one hostel that had a great public space with a few couches, an open fire and a beer vending machine. But the people who sat there barely spoke. The reason? A huge flat screen TV with hundreds of channels. Sitting there, you felt like you might be interrupting if you started talking.

Continue reading What makes a good hostel?

A stab in the back for the heart of the nation.

I had three people bag Canberra to me today. First, I watched a video embedded in this link, in which Former Prime Minister Keating described it as ‘a great mistake’. Malcolm Fraser then described Parliament House as ‘not meritorious in itself’. He was trying his hardest to be nice.

FIve minutes later I was instant messaged by a friend who lives there. Unprompted, she concurred, delivering the pithy soundbite they were aiming at: ‘the can sucks… 🙁 ‘

And it’s true. Continue reading A stab in the back for the heart of the nation.