By Carol Volkart, DRA Newsletter Editor
Dunbar residents may be relaxing after TransLink rescinded plans that would have cut 40 percent of the No. 7 bus stops between 41st and 16th in January, but the larger battle is far from over.
The status of some of the saved Dunbar bus stops is unclear, as TransLink’s website says the plan is to “revisit” some of them in the spring “in partnership with the community and the City of Vancouver.”
And now concerns are being raised about the large number of stops being cut elsewhere on the route, while Dunbar lost only a few. The CityHallWatch website noted Feb. 22 that Nanaimo Street lost a total of 12 stops in mid-January, one directly in front of a school at Cambridge and Nanaimo, while only three out of a planned 15 were removed along Dunbar and Alma at that time. (https://cityhallwatch.wordpress.com/2022/02/22/many-bus-stops-removed-on-nanaimo-st/)
Regardless of what happens on this route, many other communities will be facing similar controversies in the future, as TransLink plans to expand its Bus Balancing Program throughout the region, removing or relocating stops on four to eight routes a year.
And Vancouver City Council recently kicked things up a notch by weighing in on TransLink’s undemocratic governance structure and asking the provincial government to review it.
“I think we have a problem with TransLink the way it is,” Councillor Jean Swanson told a Feb. 9 debate on a motion about transit governance. She said the city needs a convenient, easy-to-use transit system that encourages people to get out of their cars as part of the battle against climate change, “but lately TransLink has been cutting bus stops, reducing frequency of service and raising fares. These are all things that reduce ridership.”
At the core of the motion, initiated by the city’s Seniors Advisory Committee and Transportation Advisory Committee, is the lack of democratic representation on the TransLink board that approves initiatives like Bus Balancing. Nine of the 11 board members are unelected, and there is no guarantee of Vancouver representation, even though Vancouver has the highest transit use in the region, with 50 percent of transit riders.
TransLink governance has been an issue since 2007, when then-provincial transportation minister Kevin Falcon – now leader of the B.C. Liberals – rejigged it to take power away from a board of elected mayors and councillors and put an appointed board in charge. The elected officials had run afoul of Falcon by opposing (before finally approving) plans to build the Canada Line.
Regional mayors, who now sit on a 21-member body called the Metro Vancouver Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation, have been pushing since 2015 for a review of TransLink’s governance structure. The NDP promised in the 2017 and 2020 election campaigns to do so, but so far has taken no action.
City council’s motion was the latest stab at the issue. It asked the mayor to write the provincial government urging it to reconfigure the board so the majority are local elected officials, with positions allocated according to the populations, ridership and transit infrastructure of the member cities.
Connie Hubbs, a member of the city’s Transportation Advisory Committee, told council that TransLink is perceived as undemocratic, opaque and unapproachable, with few public meetings or opportunities for speakers to address it. She said the majority of the appointed board are corporate executives who may do a good job of fiscal responsibility, “but may do less well in making transit more attractive to users.
“Raising bus fares in a pandemic and cutting over 100 bus stops, doubling or tripling the distance people must walk to a bus stop, discourages transit use,” said Hubbs. “How is making transit less affordable and less accessible consistent with the Vancouver Climate goal of cutting our carbon in half by 2030? Obviously, it is not.”
Marc White, co-chair of the city’s Seniors Advisory Committee, criticized TransLink’s “current over-emphasis on satisfying the needs of regional customers and rapidly reducing the number of local bus stops, mostly ignoring the needs of seniors and people with disabilities and ignoring the real benefits of having a robust transportation system.”
During debate on the motion, Swanson said council has passed motions about TransLink initiatives that discourage transit use, but nothing happens “because we don’t control transit, TransLink does. The hope is that if the folks on the board are elected, they will be more representative and maybe we can get a better system. We need a connection between the transit users and the decision makers.”
Councillor Colleen Hardwick said an open and democratic process is “key to the success of our institutions. . . . I’m much more comfortable seeing elected members sitting on the TransLink board than I am seeing appointeds, many of whom are political appointments.” Councillor Pete Fry, who introduced the motion, said because TransLink is a taxing authority and collects money from residents’ tax bills, “there is a direct line for accountability with the public that pay for that.”
The main opponent of the motion was Councillor Christine Boyle, who along with Councillors Sarah Kirby-Yung and Rebecca Bligh, voted against it. Noting that many elected councils, including Vancouver’s, are behind on their climate targets, Boyle said she’s not convinced more elected representation on TransLink’s board will be the solution. “I agree we need more advocates, transit users at the table, but I’m not sure elected representatives will get us there.”
Kirby-Yung said the TransLink board can’t be considered in isolation, as it’s part of a complex, interconnected system. The goal of the motion may be laudable, she said, “but this is not the way to get there.” She said one of the problems with giving control to elected representatives is that they tend to focus on the moment, while transit must be planned for the long term.
The motion passed, with Mayor Kennedy Stewart and Councillors Lisa Dominato and Melissa De Genova absent for the vote.
TransLink says its Bus Balancing Program, launched in 2020, is aimed at improving speed and reliability by removing or relocating stops considered too close together. This year’s cuts to the No. 7 and 4 routes followed earlier rounds affecting the No. 2, 17 and 25 routes.
As for how Bus Balancing made its way onto the streets of Vancouver, TransLink official Sonia Takhar emphasized that the TransLink board and the Mayors’ Council have been in sync on the issue. The program was “initially endorsed by a joint TransLink board of directors and Mayors’ Council New Mobility committee in a closed-door meeting in 2020. This was then taken to the Mayor’s Council in July 2020 for public endorsement of the program,” she wrote in an email. Since then, it has had continued support through the TransLink board of directors’ 2021 and 2022 business plans and the Mayor’s Council Rapid Response plan in February 2021, she said.
When it comes to balancing individual routes, she described an intensely consultative process involving close work between TransLink and the city, with input from bus operators, key community stakeholders and the public. “We share the proposals with senior leadership of each organization and city council.” Each round of balancing is presented to three city committees, followed by a six-week public notification process that includes signs at every bus stop. After that, the stops proposed for closure are removed for six weeks while public response is monitored.
Whatever consultation surrounded the closures on Dunbar, the first many residents knew of them were signs on bus poles announcing stops would either be closed or kept.
Dunbar Residents’ Association president Bruce Gilmour, who is blind and navigates the transit system with a guide dog, first learned about bus balancing during the 2021 cuts to the No. 25 route. When he bumped into a cardboard sign at one of the dual No. 7/No. 25 stops on Dunbar, he had to have a passerby read him the contents. He was shocked to learn that stops were being removed; he hadn’t been contacted in either his capacity as DRA president or as a member of the blind community.
DRA board member Angus McIntyre, a retired long-time bus driver, also criticized the consultation process. When people encounter a sign saying their stop will be closed, “that sounds pretty final,” he said. It’s “confrontational, even nasty,” to come into a community and “put up all these signs and get everyone upset,” he said. “What about some engagement first, and then see what happens?”
Gilmour and McIntyre were both surprised at the success of the Dunbar residents’ campaign against the bus-stop closures, which involved letter-writing, phoning, media appearances and a pre-Christmas walkabout with TransLink and city officials.
Expectations had been low given that TransLink had restored just two stops on two previously “balanced” routes and six on another. “Dunbar is the first group in two years to win the battle against TransLink on bus stops,” said Vancouver transit advocate Nathan Davidowicz after the decision was announced in January. “It’s a big win.”
Welcome as the result was, the process left Dunbar residents scratching their heads. Why were so many stops originally planned for removal? What and who was behind the dramatic reversal? It’s all a mystery that other communities will soon be tackling for themselves.