Transit chatter: rich people win again

So lately I’ve been carrying on about mass transit, mostly thanks to this post from Frances Woolley over at WCI.  She makes the point that public transit tries to satisfy three goals:

  1. Affordable transportation for people who can’t afford cars.
  2. Eco-friendly transportation for people who can easily afford cars.
  3. Comfortable jobs programme for transit employees.

In her WCI post, she focuses on status signaling as a major source of tension between 1. and 2. in the context of buses:

Commuter-oriented express routes and buses servicing time-rich retirees have middle-class appeal. But low money costs and high time costs – buses are usually subject to the same traffic congestion as cars and stop more often – mean that there is always a risk of the bus becoming the loser cruiser.

And once buses are full of losers like me, they lose that middle-class appeal and taking the bus as a suit-wearing professional is seen as a signal that you’re a fuckup who can’t afford a car, not that you (say) care deeply about minimizing your carbon footprint.  In my response, I demurred, noting that I loathe and despise taking the bus for a wide range of reasons that have nothing to do with status insecurity.  (This might have a lot to do with the fact that, as a long-term grad student, most of my peers have been habitual bus-takers.)  In her comment on my post, Dr. Woolley noted that social status matters too, at least for people who aren’t ludicrously introverted wookiee-suiters:

Things that are considered serious hardships when experienced on public transit – e.g. standing up in a crowded compartment holding onto a strap – are viewed entirely differently when experienced in a high status environment e.g. a ride up the mountain in the gondola on a skiing holiday.

As it happens, that “on a skiing holiday” qualifier is rather critical.  This, friends, is the kind of shit I have to put up with from my municipality:

Simon Fraser University is located on scenic Burnaby Mountain*, overlooking a light-rail station.  As you might guess, a lot of students and staff want to get between that light-rail station and SFU’s campus, and indeed there’s a bus that runs between them — the trip takes about 15 minutes, and during peak hours buses run about every three minutes to handle the traffic.

And some guy wants to build a gondola to take people between the two.

Well, why not?  It seems like a pretty decent idea: Burnaby Mountain* sees a lot of snow that the rest of the city doesn’t, and since Vancouverites seem morally prohibited from buying snow tires that usually, um, “disrupts” bus service.  A gondola would provide an escape route for students and staff who’d otherwise be stuck on campus.  And with a peak-hour throughput of 3000 pax/hr, it would probably cut down on bus congestion a fair bit.

On the other hand, the proposed opportunity cost is $70,000,000 to build the thing.  You could buy a lot of buses — and snow tires, for that matter — for that kind of cash, and probably have money left over to put together a couple of homeless shelters.  We’ve not begun to talk about operating costs, of course, but who cares about those?  Never mind that the extra buses you could buy with seventy mil would add a lot of flexibility to the transit system — traffic load to/from SFU goes way down during the summer semester, but you can’t exactly take half the gondola cars and use them to shuttle people around downtown during that lull.

Oh wait, there’s something I neglected to mention.  The kind folks at SFU are trying to build up UniverCity, “a sustainable urban community for 10,000 people on Burnaby Mountain”.  Here’s a hint: it’s not exactly priced for the student market.  The folks who live in UniverCity — or the folks that UniverCity would love to attract — aren’t the sort of people who can’t afford their own vehicles, and with SFU’s substantial transit infrastructure an enviably short walk away it’s not like they’d be terribly inconvenienced by gaining access to public transit.  Further, the flow of students to and from SFU is pretty much opposite in polarity to rush hour for Working Professionals at UniverCity (no need for extra capacity), and the gondola would see just as much student traffic as the bus it’d replace (no class privilege).  It would, however, permit UniverCity’s affluent residents to get to high-status mass transit (the SkyTrain) without lowering themselves to taking the (shudder) bus.

File this one under “rich people win again”.


* Note to anyone who’s seen a mountain: Burnaby Mountain is emphatically not a proper mountain.


3 Responses to “Transit chatter: rich people win again”

  1. 1 perlhaqr
    May 7, 2011 at 08:23

    I suppose the idea of letting the “sustainable urban community” shoulder the $70M costs of their tramline is just too out there to even consider? ;)

    • May 7, 2011 at 11:56

      Oh hell no; that won’t do at all.

      It’s important that the regional transit authority be given the extra funding to build the tramline from their own budget. Not only does it look good on the records of the relevant apparatchiki, but it sets a precedent for future Grand Projects. Budgets tend to expand rather than contract, after all.

      Letting “UniverCity” pay for its own tramline would be twice problematic for TransLink. First of all, it’s humiliating: it makes them look like beggars. Second, it makes explicit the fact that they’re catering to high-income customers with a high-status transit mode; TransLink loves to sell the idea that they provide affordable mass transit for the Everyman. Well, fine; but the Everyman isn’t trying to get from a swanky Burnaby Mountain condo to the heart of the downtown business district without setting foot on a bus.

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