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Municipal Politics

Proud Planner: 'I Work for TransLink'

Sabrina Lau Texier once shirked from discussing her employer. Then came the transit vote.

Doug Ward 31 Mar

Doug Ward is a Vancouver-based freelance writer who was previously a reporter with the Vancouver Sun. Find his Tyee stories here.

Sabrina Lau Texier is proud of her employer. Its strategies are cutting-edge, admired by her professional peers from other cities. But there was a period when Lau Texier's high regard for her agency was an esteem that dared not speak its name.

When she was at a party and someone asked what she did, Lau Texier would name her profession: transportation planner. It was only when asked where she worked that Lau Texier would steel herself and blurt out the truth: "I work for TransLink."

As the 32-year-old Vancouver planner recalled recently: "I learned the hard way just to tell people what my occupation is -- and not name my employer. If I said the dreaded T-word, I would get an earful from the strong anti-TransLink crowd in this town."

But once the region's transportation plebiscite campaign began, Lau Texier decided to throw caution to the wind and be upfront about her professional identity.

"I now view each social interaction as an opportunity. I talk about the plebiscite with the barista, the bouncer, my hair stylist, my friend's parents, the guy who helped me at Rona..."

Much to her dismay, TransLink has become a central issue in the current plebiscite, which asks Metro Vancouver residents to vote on a new half-per-cent sales tax to finance a 10-year plan for regional transportation improvements. No side supporters such as right-wing activist Jordan Bateman argue that the transit agency can't be trusted with the money that will be raised if the tax increase is approved. Yes side supporters such as Lau Texier point out that money raised by the tax hike will be kept in a separate fund and audited annually.

To Lau Texier, the TransLink issue is a giant red herring -- and a particularly troubling one, given the transit agency's high standing within the transportation planning community.

"We have many examples of industry experts telling us we are mostly getting it right," said Lau Texier. "I have yet to find one credible source outside of the Lower Mainland telling us where we got it dead wrong."

TransLink's "damaged brand," said Lau Texier, puts local politicians and transportation planners in a dilemma because the pressures on the region's transit system will escalate with inevitable population growth.

"How do you reach a population that is so disillusioned with your organization that they prefer to view the referendum as a vote on the agency itself, rather than on the larger issues?"

Lau Texier loves her job, but finds it hard to remain upbeat given the negative coverage of TransLink in the media. "No office runs perfectly, but TransLink is doing a lot of things right, and gets no recognition for it. And the direction this referendum is taking leaves me awake at night, worrying about what happened to this progressive city that I am, or would like to be, so proud of?"

Lau Texier recently attended a concert with former friends from the University of British Columbia where she was asked about her profession and then her workplace. After acknowledging that she worked at TransLink, Lau Texier was told by one friend: "Oh, you people waste so much money." Lau Texier told the critic that TransLink had been subject to audits and had implemented several cost-cutting measures.

The critic then said that Singapore, which he'd frequently visited, had much better transit than Metro Vancouver. Lau Texier tried to explain that Metro Vancouver and Singapore were not comparable when it came to transit systems.

Singapore has far greater population density than Metro Vancouver and its government has far greater control over land development for transit-financing than does TransLink.

"I asked him how voting No would help Vancouver reach Singapore's standards. There's no good answer for that one, but I am sure he is still voting No," she said.

It's not enough that Lau Texier has a master's degree in transportation planning or that she worked for a top transportation consulting firm in New York City. When it comes to transit, everyone's an expert. A quick stroll among the No side vanguard on social media will tell you that.

TransLink's 'progressive' reputation

Lau Texier grew up in Vancouver and regularly took the bus downtown, to the beaches and eventually to UBC where she studied environmental science. She can recall cursing on more than one occasion when she missed a bus. Her passion in university was sustainability and she had a strong interest in alternative vehicle fuels such as bioethanol. But she came to believe that the creation of transit-oriented communities was the key to reducing energy consumption.

So Lau Texier studied transportation planning in graduate school at the University of Toronto. She then landed a job with a top transportation firm in New York City, one run by Sam Schwartz, the engineering planner who popularized the phrase "gridlock." Lau Texier worked in New York for five years and witnessed what she called the "transformation of its streets from auto-dominated through-routes to celebrations of public spaces."

Among the things Lau Texier learned in New York was that "TransLink has a reputation for offering progressive transit service, punching well above its weight class in terms of density and size. It could have developed along the same lines as Seattle, where transit is nowhere as good as Vancouver."

Transportation planners elsewhere envy how Metro Vancouver has one transportation agency, rather than several, she said. "Toronto has nine separate transit systems, Seattle has 10, San Francisco has 20. I think this is lost on transit users here who never have to use two different fare cards to pay for two different systems."

Metro Vancouver is considered a pioneer in regional planning because its Livable Region Plan is based on creating compact communities linked by transit, said Lau Texier. She cited a study by the International Bus Benchmarking Group, which found that TransLink, in comparison to 14 other major urban bus systems, had the largest growth in ridership over the past five years. It also had the lowest cost per vehicle mile and below-average administration costs. Lau Texier said that TransLink has the highest per capita ridership among North America's big city transit systems, other than Toronto and Montreal, which are much older.

TransLink, she added, is also the only transit agency in Canada which finances investments through a bond market, with a Double A rating.

Moving back to Vancouver from New York in 2012 and working at TransLink was an easy choice for Lau Texier. "TransLink was my first choice of work environments due to the complexity of planning and operating transportation on a regional scale."

No side cynicism 'unfortunate'

Lau Texier hasn't owned a car since 2003. She takes transit, rides her bike and uses car-shares such as Car2Go and Modo. She lives in a Mount Pleasant townhouse. "We save a ton of money by not owning a car. We chose our living location to put off buying a car."

Her daily commute involves riding down to the Main Street SkyTrain station, placing her bike in TransLink's pioneering $1-a-day bike parkade and riding a train to TransLink headquarters in New Westminster. "Since I don't have to focus on the road, I read my emails and newspaper articles on the ride in."

Many of those newspaper articles have left Lau Texier shaking her head on her ride to work over the media's reflex to pander to taxpayer outrage, which is easier than covering complicated public policy.

"Some of the media does cater to a mob mentality. Let's say your bus passes you by, and you are thinking that TransLink sucks, and then you see a headline reaffirming that.... If you do see a thought-provoking article that makes the case for TransLink, by comparing it to other systems or putting it in context, I'm not sure that resonates with the same crowd that is formulating opinions based on headlines in the daily newspapers."

Lau Texier noted that respected experts such as San Francisco transportation planner Jeffrey Tumlin and Portland planner Jarrett Walker recently called TransLink one of the best, if not the best, regional transit systems in North America.

"Metro Vancouver has reached a level of transit reliance that is unprecedented for a young North American city," wrote Walker. "Only centuries-old northeastern cities come close."

In another post, Walker wrote of TransLink: "The system's backbone, the driverless rapid transit system SkyTrain, delivers very frequent service at all hours, achieving a degree of simplicity and ease that few North Americans can imagine."

The planners' pro-Yes side comments were dismissed by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation's Bateman, who argued in the media that Tumlin and Walker are unable to speak about TransLink with any integrity because they have done contract work for the agency.

For Lau Texier, Bateman's dismissal of Tumlin and Walker reflects an unfortunate cynicism on the No side. "I personally think it's unlikely an industry expert would put their professional credibility on the line and make public claims if they weren't true."

Lau Texier has felt duty-bound to treat the plebiscite as an educational opportunity, knocking on doors for the Yes side. "The comments I got were often contradictory. I remember one guy who was very environmental, and his concern was climate change. But he was also against TransLink. I asked how voting No would help reduce oil consumption, and he had no answer."

Lau Texier said the problem for the Yes side is that the transit plan's opponents got a head start and many people made up their minds long before the mail-in ballots were sent off early this month. "People don't like to change their original position because it would amount to admitting that they were wrong. And, unfortunately, the No side got out first with a message they had been working on for years."

Lau Texier said she will keep pitching the Yes side transit gospel to whomever will listen.

"It would be easy to put my head down and tell individuals in social settings that I wasn't responsible for their particular grievance. But I am proud of the work that my city, region and transportation authority have accomplished," she said.  [Tyee]

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