Adam Pankratz is a lecturer at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. He is on the board of directors at Rokmaster Resources.
In her 1818 novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley gives us the tale of the young doctor Victor Frankenstein, who creates a creature he cannot control. Dr. Frankenstein wanted to revolutionize medicine, but ultimately created something that destroyed him and terrorized the populace.
Maybe provincial MLAs and Metro Vancouver politicians, who have just averted strike action on TransLink and SkyTrain systems, should give the classic another read.
For years now, politicians have been telling Vancouverites – Lower Mainland residents in particular – to get out of their cars and get on transit. Residents largely resisted. Then came the push they needed: The 2010 Winter Olympics. In the decade since the Games money funded the Canada Line, Lower Mainland residents have embraced transit like never before. And in November, 2018, the previously unthinkable happened: Monthly ridership surpassed the record of 39.2 million boardings, previously recorded during the 2010 Games themselves. What had been considered a once-in-a-lifetime transit achievement happened again to the jubilation of local politicians. Finally, Vancouver was living up to its transit potential.
But then that achievement kept happening, and as more and more people flocked to buses and SkyTrains, it became more or less commonplace. The new reality in Metro Vancouver – almost 350,000 daily SkyTrain boardings and more than 1.3 million total daily transit boardings – makes transit indispensable to the functioning of the city and region.
Minister of Labour Harry Bains told the CBC that the recently struck deal between Unifor and Coast Mountain Bus Company was proof that “the system works,” and no designation of transit as an essential service was necessary.
But Mr. Bains’s optimism is entirely misplaced. The deals came together last-minute, at midnight and 5 a.m. Whether actual system disruption technically occurred is beside the point: Any “system” that involves a single mother sitting up until 1 a.m. hitting refresh on the TransLink website hoping for a strike update so she can get to her job or arrange child care is no system at all. Any “system” that involves seniors waking up at 4 in the morning, hoping SkyTrain will run or they face a two-hour bus ride both ways to an appointment they have waited six months for is no way to run a world-class transit operation. In their zealous encouragement of transit use, politicians seem to have conveniently forgotten the transit users who depend on the service.
Indeed, those hit hardest by the job action and service-disruption threats are inevitably the Metro Vancouver residents in the worst position to cope, as they depend heavily on transit as part of their daily lives. Low-income earners, the elderly, students and those with generally limited transportation options are those who disproportionately suffer from strikes.
That’s been made all the clearer by the unions’ recent intransigence. Many transit riders earn less than their bus driver or the SkyTrain worker with whom they share the platform. The median personal salary for people aged 25 to 54 in Metro Vancouver is approximately $45,000; the pre-strike starting salary of bus drivers was $50,877. A bus driver’s starting salary is higher than that of a starting teacher whose income, depending on the school district, starts at approximately $47,000. Within 24 months, bus drivers see their salary increase to more than $67,000; it will take the same teacher eight or nine years to earn an equivalent amount. It makes sense that during the most recent hiring round at Coast Mountain Bus Company, 10,000 applications were received for the 1,000 employment opportunities available. This is a desirable job, well-paid and secure.
Provincial and local politicians, bus drivers and SkyTrain employees should be congratulated for creating a safe, reliable and expanding network of transit options for Lower Mainland residents. They have made the system essential. What cannot happen is for those same politicians to encourage people to abandon driving without considering the mechanics of what goes into keeping the alternative running. Politicians have created this transit monster; it’s up to them think seriously about how to deal with it. Declaring transit an essential service should be on the table.
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