photos: Public transportation is not a toy, but too many people act like it is. Flawed as it is, we can’t afford not to vote yes to B.C.’s transit referendum. Photo: The Buzzer / flickr.

Transit poverty is on the rise. Here's what's at stake

In order to steer away from becoming
 a sprawling, socially divided metropolis with seemingly impenetrable rich-poor boundaries
 like New York City, Vancouver needs to shape up.

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It should never have come to this. But starting this month, Metro Vancouver residents will receive ballots asking them to support a 0.5 per cent increase on the Provincial Sales Tax to help pay
for a $7.5 billion, 10-year regional transit plan.

The proposed plan, approved by the majority
 of Metro Vancouver mayors, includes a 10-station Broadway subway to UBC, light rail in Surrey, a third Seabus, and various other upgrades. These are crucial infrastructure improvements for a rapidly expanding region—32,000 new residents arrive
in Metro Vancouver each year, with many low- income newcomers settling in suburbs like Delta and Surrey, where housing prices are lower.

The transit upgrades are aimed at decreasing road congestion in an increasingly-crowded region and work towards a more environmentally sustainable transportation system.

I won’t bemoan why this is even being put to a referendum (actually, it’s a non-binding plebiscite, just in case you thought this couldn’t get more futile) when other major public infrastructure projects,
like the $3 billion bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel, or the $8.8 billion Site C Dam, are not.

Or why the region is reduced to raising a sales tax (which is a flat tax and disproportionately punishes poor people) instead of tying transit costs directly with fees and taxes meant to discourage car traffic (such as vehicle levies or the carbon tax). For better or worse, this is the plan and
 Metro Vancouver can’t afford for it to fail.

There are many economic and environmental reasons to vote yes in this plebiscite, but one of the most significant is how improving Metro Vancouver’s transit will benefit the growing number of low-income individuals and families in the suburbs who are more reliant on public transportation and more likely to suffer from what urban planners call “transit poverty.”

Transit poverty refers to a situation many 
Metro Vancouver residents face daily: they’re forced to pay more for their transit than they
can reasonably afford. And like other forms of poverty, transit poverty is a vicious cycle. For low- income people who live in suburbs because of
the cost of living, jobs are often an unreasonable commuting distance away via public transit, notorious for insufficient service in the suburbs.

In Surrey, B.C. for example, the median income of $45,462 is below the Metro Vancouver average of $50,015. But only 13 per cent of Surrey employees use public transit to get to work compared to an average 20 per cent of Metro Vancouver residents, according to Statistics Canada's 2011 National Household Survey.

One possible culprit: beyond its SkyTrain hubs, bus service
 in Surrey is widely known
 to be both slow and inefficient.
 “There’s a saying that the suburbs are
no place to be poor,” former City of Vancouver planning director Brent Toderian told Business in Vancouver magazine last month. “If you’re poor and in the inner city, you have options. If you’re poor in the suburbs, you have to own a car.”

As real estate prices push people out of Vancouver, a 2012 report released by UBC professor and urban geographer David Ley showed a “suburbanization 
of poverty” occurring in Metro Vancouver,
 with more low-income people moving out the
 city centre, mostly along SkyTrain lines.

While this trend shows people are at least able 
to cluster around transit hubs, recent census data indicates poverty is continuing to grow in the region.

That means transit infrastructure needs to
 keep pace. In order to steer away from becoming
 a sprawling, socially divided metropolis with seemingly impenetrable rich-poor boundaries
 like New York City, Vancouver needs to shape up. A 2011 study by Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C., shows that the “typical” resident of an American city could only reach 30 per cent of jobs within 90 minutes. This is not something we can afford here.

If low-income people can’t access employment via transit, then they are increasingly reliant on cars, which also hurts them. A recently study by the Australia Institute showed that the lowest 20 per cent of income earners spend three times as much of their income on gas as the highest 20 per cent.

Whether low-income people in the suburbs can access jobs or not, an underfunded public transportation system keeps people in poverty.

Judging by the responses from both the opponents and proponents of our transit plebiscite, both
the vote and proposed tax isn’t the way anyone really wanted this to go. But here it is, and if this fails, we don’t have a backup plan in place.

For the sake of the region’s health—both economically and environmentally—and for those who can’t afford any other option, let’s vote “yes.”

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