On Wednesday (January 25), B.C. transportation minister Blair Lekstrom once again announced the Evergreen SkyTrain line to Coquitlam and the Tri-Cities area. This time he announced the start of work after more than a decade of delays—well sort of. Only minor preparatory work is starting. No contracts for the actual transit line have been signed, and further delays are possible. The numerous delays to the Evergreen Line stand in marked contrast to the rapidly progressing work on the massive new Cape Horn freeway interchange connecting to the Tri-Cities.
The new Cape Horn Interchange and expanded Highway 1 freeway will provide a toll-free route for Coquitlam residents heading into Burnaby and Vancouver. Effectively, the B.C. government has spent $3.1 billion to convince people to drive instead of riding the $1.4 billion Evergreen Line.
Roadway expansion in the guise of “balanced transportation” is one of the main drivers of increasing oil consumption and carbon emissions. Like stepping on a car’s gas pedal and brake at the same time, building freeways and transit at the same time is expensive and creates a lot of pollution. The cars and trucks clogging up the newly expanded freeway will be burning one of the dirtiest fuels on Earth—gas and diesel made from tar sands bitumen. Local environmentalists love to point fingers at China and U.S. as the destination for tar sands pipelines and tankers, but the gooey muck mined in Alberta is piped through the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline to Burnaby and already ends up in our gas tanks.
Another tar-sands-friendly government policy was also on display recently, with the request for comments on the proposed 12.5 percent increase in TransLink transit fares scheduled for next year. The planned fare increases would bring a three-zone cash fare to $5.50 up from $5, or $11 for a return trip. The steep increase is supposed to bring in an extra $48 million in 2013; not that much considering that the Golden Ears Bridge cost TransLink $33 million in 2011 alone.
TransLink claims that this 12.5 percent fare increase, about twice the rate of inflation, will result in a mere two percent drop in ridership compared to what it would be if fares were frozen. But numerous studies show that the loss of ridership will be much greater in the long run, and the revenue gain smaller as people choose to drive instead of paying the higher fares.
The Victoria Transport Policy Institute compiled the results of numerous studies and concluded that overall transit ridership declines 0.6 to 0.9 percent with each one percent increase in transit fares. Suburban commuters are even more sensitive to price increases, with ridership declining 0.8 to one percent for a one percent increase. This suggests that a 12.5 percent increase will cut ridership between 7.5 and 11.25 percent. The impact on suburban commuters riding the Evergreen Line would likely be even greater, between 10 and 12.5 percent. (These figures are for the long-term effects relevant to TransLink’s goals. Aggressively reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation help cut B.C. greenhouse gas emissions 33 percent by 2020.)
The environmental damage caused by expensive transit is substantial. Car owners are some of the most cost-sensitive transit riders, and they make up the majority of adults in B.C. Therefore, affordable transit fares are essential to increasing transit’s share of trips and reducing our dependence on tar sands oil.
A 2007 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study estimates that reducing Lower Mainland transit fares 30 percent would increase transit ridership by about 20 percent over five to 10 years at an annual cost of $146 million. Over two-thirds of this cost would be for increased transit operating costs to accommodate increased ridership; less than a third is lost revenue. Reducing transit fares is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce emissions and show that we can live well without tar sands oil.
The tankers full of tar sands oil that leave Burrard Inlet every week are going to fuel cars trucks and airplanes elsewhere in the world. If Vancouver can’t kick the oil habit, or at least cut down substantially, how can we expect the U.S. and China to live without a steady stream of tar sands oil?
Now that the movement against tar sand pipelines has experienced its first big win, with the first round victory against the Keystone XL pipeline in the U.S., the focus needs to expand to where the tar sands oil is actually burned. We need to show that we can find solutions to our own addiction to tar sands oil. The solutions are not that difficult, and start with shifting public spending away from roadway expansion to transit, cycling, and walking facilities. Similarly, funds for expanding airports must be redirected to passenger rail and intercity bus service.
You can comment on the proposed transit fare increases until February 15 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eric Doherty is a transportation planner and coauthor of the Wilderness Committee-Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study Transportation Transformation: Building Complete Communities and a Zero-Emission Transportation System in B.C.