Let me paint you a picture of everyday life in a Tokyo suburb.
I shut the door to my apartment and jog my way down the single flight of stairs. My bike leans against the concrete pillar beneath the staircase. I bend down, insert my bike key into the lock, and hear the satisfying but rusty click as it slides free.
I walk the cheap bike out onto the narrow street. I hop on, looking at the road briefly to make sure no other bikes are coming. Sometimes there are cars, but it’s mostly just kids on bikes, their hair flapping in the wind as they zip down the hill without helmets.
There are three train stations within a ten to fifteen minute bike ride from my apartment, but I always go to the same one: Higashi-Koganei Station.
I arrive at the main road, which is incredibly wide, with four lanes just for cars, and blue lanes on either side. They’re meant mostly for cyclists, but also for the tiny pink community bus – CoCo Bus. The buses only really run down the main road and then back to the station.
About a dozen cyclists around me use the lanes, and another half dozen use the sidewalks.
I ride quickly. Not quickly enough to break a sweat. After a few blocks the bike lanes end, but the cars are well used to cyclists, so I ride on the road without fear.
I make it to the station – the eki – where restaurants, supermarkets, shops, and all manner of entertainment and amenities cluster around the station gates. It’s the hub of this small community. I roll my bike over to my preferred bike parkade, find a spot with some difficulty among the hundreds of parked bikes, and finally lock my bike before leaving the parkade.
I walk into the small indoor shopping strip towards the station’s electronic gates. I tap my Suica card, then walk through.
I now have access to all of Japan, from the northern city of Sapporo to the southern city of Kagoshima, and everything in between.
After living in Tokyo for over a year, my first Skytrain ride back in Vancouver was enlightening. I felt like a Saudi prince in a soup kitchen. The train was filthy, with a stench that seemed to have seeped into the seats and flooring. Seats that stacked two by two with only a tiny aisle in between. A large communal pole at the centre of the standing area, oily to the touch. The Compass tech looked cheap and flimsy. And at the end of my trip, when all I wanted was to use the washroom, there either wasn’t one in the station, or they forgot to label it.
If you similarly compare irritable bowel syndrome to tuberculosis, you might come to the conclusion that IBS is “not that bad.”
What’s sad is that on the whole they’ve actually improved since 2015.
“Come on,” you might be saying. “Be reasonable. It’s not that bad.”
If you’re comparing our public transit infrastructure to a city in North America, then you might be right. Maybe things in Vancouver are pretty good by those standards. If you similarly compare irritable bowel syndrome to tuberculosis, you might come to the conclusion that IBS is “not that bad.”
But Canada and the US, the Sam Elliott voiced frontiers for all things mud-caked and grease-soaked, were built around the culture of the car. Our city planning evolved around the assumption that we would all drive cars. While other parts of the world have shot ahead in the public transportation sector, we have obstinately continued about our business. When we think of diesel cars in Canada, we think of ancient pickups that smell like they’ll give you the black lung, not clean diesel compact cars in the European mould (albeit Volkswagen kind of dropped the ball on that one).
So if you want to compare what we have in Vancouver to other North American cities, then maybe things don’t look so bleak. But what is gained by that?
Why not set your aim higher?
Their platform is filled with interesting and sensible ideas like investment in clean tech and incentives for low/zero emission vehicles.
We have three main parties in BC in this upcoming election and their platforms all assure voters they will invest in our transportation infrastructure. The Green Party and the Liberals have pledged to match the $2.2 billion over eleven years promised by Trudeau’s Liberal government. The primary goal for the NDP and the Green Party is to follow through with the Mayors’ Council’s 10-Year Vision for Metro Vancouver with the NDP pledging to cover 40% of the costs for every phase of the 10-year plan. Clark’s focus is a bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel, but she is also on board with the Broadway subway and Surrey light rail projects.
Clark’s Liberals and Horgan’s NDP will try to win voters over south of the Fraser by respectively limiting and removing tolls from the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges. Conversely, Andrew Weaver is a firm believer in the principle of user-pay, which could help free up funding for the remainder of the Green Party transportation platform. Their platform is filled with interesting and sensible ideas like investment in clean tech and incentives for low/zero emission vehicles.
The Green Party plan to carry out a full audit of all conducted projects to ensure efficiency, while the NDP, true to their strategy of attacking all things Liberal, suggest that TransLink is in need of a new governance structure.
Whether it’s a result of poor governance, inefficiency, or some combination of factors, it’s clear that people are not satisfied with the job TransLink has been doing.
In 2013, an independent consulting firm reviewed TransLink’s governance structures and policies. In the report they issued, they identified a lack of accountability and transparency as well as an overly complex structure as critical issues. The report suggested that as nobody in TransLink’s private board was an elected representative or had been installed by an elected representative, there was really no way to hold them accountable.
The Compass system as a core concept is a good idea, but it’s far from innovative.
TransLink conducted a referendum in 2015 in the hopes of approving a 0.5% sales tax increase that would help fund the 10-year plan. Voters responded with a resounding 62% against, with “No” voters seeming to be motivated more by distrust for TransLink than by the merits of the project.
In the aftermath of the failed referendum, TransLink fired several key executives and cycled through several CEO’s before current CEO Kevin Desmond took control. He seems passionate about the improvement of transportation in the Lower Mainland, but you have no further to look than the rollout of Compass – a fare pass system that would cut down on fare evasion and be more user friendly for riders – to see that TransLink still hasn’t done enough to inspire consumer confidence.
The Compass system as a core concept is a good idea, but it’s far from innovative. Such systems have been in use for more than a decade. Tokyo introduced the Suica card in 2001, fifteen years before Compass made its debut. You can use Suica to pay for things ranging from coffee to electronics, and it’s even supported in some prefectures outside of Tokyo.
International precedent should have made it easier for TransLink to successfully introduce their own system.
Not so much.
Cubic Transportation Systems was hired in 2010 for the $194 million project of developing Compass. Consistent issues - the zone calculation on buses seemed particularly challenging - led to the project dragging on for six years before it was finally implemented. Other cities like Chicago and London (with systems developed by Cubic) have had issues too. But communal suffering doesn’t help TransLink recover the revenue they have lost through their patchwork solution – making all bus rides single zone fares.
Is it surprising then, that people don’t trust TransLink?
Vancouver will likely never be as convenient as Tokyo, but what’s the use in a defeatist attitude?
After a similar loss of confidence, the public entity Japanese National Railways sold its assets to several private companies in 1987. Since then, JR East has administrated and expanded rail transport in the Kanto area (this includes Tokyo). Shinjuku Station, the busiest station in the world, (3.64 million passengers per day) is run by JR East.
Privatization may not be a suitable option here, but some creative problem solving would not go amiss. The same 2013 review mentioned earlier can be found on TransLink’s website, with great examples of publicly owned transit programs in cities like London and Stockholm.
Tokyo is a city with a population roughly equivalent to all of Canada combined, so I recognize the “apples to oranges” nature of such a comparison. Vancouver will likely never be as convenient as Tokyo, but what’s the use in a defeatist attitude?
You can call me a transit snob or suggest that my expectations are unrealistic. But I’ve seen the future, or rather, someone else’s present. Forgive me for coming running and screaming back to the past to tell you about how much better things can be.
Without a drastic shift in the landscape, that future isn’t even on the horizon.