With Metro Vancouver’s population expected to grow dramatically by 2040 – and a crucial transit referendum planned next year – now is the time to take a serious look at the future of mass transit in the region. Here are four ways to improve a maxed-out transit system and promote sustainable development.
1. Adopt performance-based transit funding
What is an objective way to decide which transit projects to fund? In the Lower Mainland, for example, do you decide between an overloaded urban core like the UBC-Broadway corridor or a growing area like Surrey? One way to make these decisions more equitable is to tie transit funding to cities’ performance at developing their land according to Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Plan. This helps take the politics out of the decision, and replaces it with greater objectivity. It also creates more of an incentive for municipalities to develop sustainably.
2. Embrace user fees to fund sustainable growth
With Metro Vancouver’s population expected to double in less than three decades, the only way the region can grow in a sustainable manner is if cities, developers and citizens pay the full cost of their sustainability decisions. We need to embrace certain user fees to guide behaviour and pay for transportation upgrades. This includes higher development fees on projects that are low density or located far away from existing transit and services. It also means tolling roadways strategically. Otherwise, you are encouraging urban sprawl by making it the cheaper option.
3. Factor health and economic benefits into transit decisions
Regions need to do a better job of calculating the health and economic benefits of potential transit projects into the decision-making process. Studies show that transit investments can be cost-effective ways to increase economic growth and reduce health care costs, which are eating up government budgets. These benefits can help offset project costs over the long term. Failing to take such long-term benefits into account can lead to overstated project costs.
Good transit creates healthy populations. It promotes moderate physical exercise and reduces chronic illnesses from pollution and sedentary lifestyles, generating health care savings. On the economic side, cities like San Diego, London and Toronto created impressive growth and innovation by linking their top universities with industry (health, technology, business, banks) via transit, as a recent study commissioned by UBC and the City of Vancouver found. The UBC-Broadway corridor has the potential for such a connection, but is missing high-capacity rapid transit.
4. Delaying transit improvements has a steep price
The belief that delaying transit investments saves us money is a huge misconception. Dragging our feet only makes projects more expensive and harder to implement. Why? Because as population growth continues, taxpayer dollars will go to support entrenched, unsustainable patterns and the opportunity to benefit from new projects will be diminished.
Lawrence Frank, a professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health and School of Community and Regional Planning, will be a panelist at Your move: How can we expand public transit in the Lower Mainland, a UBC Dialogues public event on Monday, Nov. 18.