Why I’m happy to vote Yes on the Transit Referendum

Last year I spent seven months in a major city in Latin America. The congestion, pollution and crime are so bad that it makes moving around the city a nightmare. A trip that should take 15 minutes can take 45 minutes to an hour. 45 minutes breathing noxious gases, in aggressive traffic, is enough to make anyone prefer to stay home and read a book rather than go to the theatre, a good restaurant, or meet up with friends.

The experience impressed on me the value of public transit. When I think of public transit I don’t just think about buses, trains, roads and bridges. I think of the freedom to move around town tolerably efficiently, safely, cheaply and sustainably. This is just one of the goods we get in return for the taxes we pay.

Our well-being is closely tied to the quality of these kinds of goods. Others such goods include great public schools, and a public health care system that does not ask for a credit card before asking what ails us, safe streets. Governments alone can provide these goods, and they benefit us all. Many Canadians take them for granted. I don’t. That is why I support the transit referendum.

I will vote Yes because I want to continue to live in a vibrant, livable, safe, clean, sustainable, healthy, and naturally beautiful city. The small tax increase we pay now is an investment in the future. It is a bit of insurance against Vancouver becoming a congested, segregated, unsafe and smoggy city.

I admit there are things about the referendum that I don’t like. I don’t see the necessity of asking voters every time we need to raise taxes to make public investments. This sets a bad precedent and could put us on the same path that has been so disastrous for California where governments have been hamstrung by naysaying voters.

I also don’t like the fact that the revenue for transit will come from a regressive consumption tax. People with high incomes don’t need public goods as much as the public at large, but they should still pay their fair share—maybe more. They can drive luxury cars rather than use the bus or train, pay for private rather than public schools and clinics, and wall themselves off from social problems like homelessness and addiction.

But just because high income earners can find private substitutes for public goods does not mean they should be free riders. The more the affluent fail to contribute to public goods, the more we are like to become like Third World cities with their glaring disparities of income and underfunded public goods.

For all the problems with this referendum, voting “No” is short-sighted and counter-productive. The website of the “No” campaign invites voters to forgo the tax and spend their money on private consumption—a dinner out, a hockey game, or swimming lessons.

I’ll happily pay a modest increase in taxes for public transportation because enjoying the goods comparable cash can buy turns out to be a lot less rewarding when the child you’re taking to swimming lessons has asthma from air pollution, or you’re too tired from spending miserable and unproductive hours in congested streets breathing polluted air on your lengthy commute home, to bother dinning out or going to the hockey game with friends.