Transit: Kevin Falcon speaks

A few months ago, BC Transportation minister Kevin Falcon announced a 14-billion dollar transit bonanza for B.C. The announcement made front page news in a both national newspapers, and rightly so. It is rarely in Canada that we see such long-term investment in long-term infrastructure. The money will see five new rapid transit lines being built in the lower mainland over the next twelve years (one of which will branch to UBC), a doubling in the bus fleet (up 1000 buses) and the development of a new network of rapid bus lines (akin to the B-lines we all know and love). The goal is to double transit ridership by 2020. Info on the plan is available on the provincial government website, here. Falcon, in addition to these transit commitments, is also going forward with the controversial highway expansion plan that would see the Port Mann Bridge twinned in the “gateway” project. He has also overseen changes to the structure of TransLink: it now consists of an unelected professional board, and overseen by a mayor’s council instead of the previous arrangement which had elected appointed members of the GVRD on 1-year turnover cycles.

Last Friday, Falcon was on campus for a brief but intense gathering hosted by the UBC Young Liberals at Mahoney’s pub. He mingled for about 5 minutes, spoke for about 20 minutes, and answered questions for another 15, as people munched the complimentary heart-attack-on-a-plate deep fried snacks. Falcon started his spiel with a general campaign-style defence of the budget Carole Taylor just released – including the much-touted carbon tax. He then focused in on his transportation plan, outlining the main spending areas. Falcon was quite direct. While the fluent and campaigny extolling of everything the Liberals have done, are doing, or will ever do was a bit tiresome, as was the self-glorification about making “tough” decisions (isn’t that the definition of leadership, pray tell?), Falcon was actually quite convincing in the question/answer period.

There were some tough questions. When challenged that the new TransLink structure was less democratic and accountable Falcon was blunt. He said that the old structure was dysfunctional because of the high turnover and lack of expertise. He defended the fact that the new board’s meetings are closed to the public, saying that letting people come in to “scream and shout” wouldn’t accomplish anything. Now, you can agree or disagree about that, but he didn’t beat around the bush. When asked if the highway expansion to the suburbs negated plans to increase public transit ridership, Falcon was also blunt. He said that compared to the road and bridge infrastructure Vancouverites enjoy, Surrey and the fraser valley are very undeserviced – and as the fastest growing areas in BC, they deserve to have both better transit and better commute times. To me, this sort of missed the greater point, which is that as a province with pretensions to sustainability, we should be looking at ways to make Vancouver more affordable, thus minimizing the sprawling growth of suburbs in the first place. Unfortunately this is beyond the scope of Falcon’s portfolio per say (and also way beyond his staunchly suburban constituency voter base).

With rapid transit out to UBC by 2020 a few things could happen: the importance of living close to campus in the Kits and Point Grey areas will decrease. You’ll see alot more students talking advantage of cheaper rents in the tri-cities and Surrey. Demand for on-campus housing will probably stay the same. There will always be people in search of the campus life experience, and that won’t change. We’ll just see commuter student living farther away, and perhaps even less able to participate in campus life. On the other hand, people that do stay in Vancouver will have an easier time getting around, and might engage more. Analyzing student engagement on the basis of transportation is always a bit dubious – just because the reasons people choose at what level to engage on campus are complex. We don’t have good data about it, that’s for sure. The AMS should look into including some well-designed questions about finances, location, and transportation on its next survey.


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