Transit Referendum Part I: An Overly General Dislike of Overly General Arguments

Talking to people about the upcoming transit referendum, I have noticed that a surprising (to me) amount of people are not planning to vote “yes”. I believe that you should vote “yes” roughly for reasons outlined here: greater Vancouver’s public transportation infrastructure needs to be improved. To do that, it makes sense to dedicate money to that improvement. I am prepared to pay the roughly $60 a year I would face for that improvement.

There are several avenues for disagreement here that I have encountered. There are unsurprising ones from the right, and there is the anti-development argument from the left that made me decide to write on the topic in the first place: citizens paying for transit infrastructure is a sop to developers out to transform the entire city into a giant Yaletown, and the transit referendum failing is the only way to stop it. I will talk about this argument in the next post.

But first, in this post, let me explain why I’m not convinced by the other “no” arguments I have heard from friends and acquaintances.

The “I drive a car, so what do I care if transit improves or not?” argument ignores the effect of transit on traffic. If there is no money for transit infrastructure improvements and a large increase in people, it means a large increase in people driving cars, and a large increase in traffic. The increase in commute time is likely to make you less happy regardless of mode of transportation (unless you commute for more than 3 hours for some reason). So you are effectively voting to make yourself (and other people) unhappy. It also ignores the money dedicated to road-building in the budget. Also, to me personally, the whole worldview that looks at civic developments with just yourself in mind rather than your city seems to me kind of selfishly shortsighted, but I recognize that many people don’t see it that way.

The “it’s a raise in the tax, and all tax raises are bad” argument is one that ignores reality. Chances are, the people making this argument are not against all taxes – because that is a very extreme position if you give it more than a second’s thought. Given that, saying that something is a tax is nothing but Scott Alexander’s “worst argument in the world” – it doesn’t actually contain any useful information. Whether a person who dislikes money taken from them in the form of taxes (roughly all people) should support a given tax or not depends on what that money will be spent on. Is what you will get a tradeoff worth making for the amount of money you will pay? That’s what you have to consider, and base your decisions on.

Same with the “I would vote for a perfect transit solution, but not for this one, because it has problems.” I agree that the package offered in the transit referendum is not perfect. But this is the “third party” argument all over again. The nature of democratic systems is that they present us with imperfect choices. Recognizing that tradeoffs are necessary is part of creating any positive change. It could be that in the opinion of people who say this, giving any money to Translink is so bad that they would rather not have transit improvements at all than do that. But then they should make that argument, rather than present the perfect alternative which isn’t on offer.

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3 Responses to Transit Referendum Part I: An Overly General Dislike of Overly General Arguments

  1. verymuchconfused says:

    The changes to traffic violation processing which will “Dramatically increase fine revenue” don’t by any chance make any of this superfluous?

    • zolltan says:

      No, they don’t. The changes to traffic violation processing seem at first glance to me to be a very bad idea, for one thing, and hopefully the change can be undone via public pressure or successfully challenged in court. I will try to learn more about this before spouting off, but that’s the way it seems to me for now.

      Financing transportation through road fines is a bad call. Financing through fines leads to situations like St. Louis, where police basically work to extort their citizens (e.g. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/09/03/how-st-louis-county-missouri-profits-from-poverty/).

      The amount of money is also completely the wrong scale. For instance, last year traffic fines in Richmond brought about $2 million dollars in profit. Scaling that up to all of greater Vancouver (avoiding all jokes about quality of driving in Richmond), you’ll see that that’s nowhere near the $250 million that is at question. The increase in fine revenue is projected from people failing to fight fines rather than from new fines being written. So it’s not going to get anywhere near that figure either. It’s also the case that that money goes entirely to fund policing and public safety. You may object to how much of that money is collected, where it goes and what is done with it. But I think there are better ways to express that dissatisfaction than voting no in the transit referendum (which will not in any way affect how much fine money is collected, where it goes and what is done with it).

      My stance continues to be that in the transit referendum, it makes sense to vote on the direct question of the transit referendum, and not on some more general question of whether you like the government, taxes, Translink, Vancouver as a city, are happy with the police, like your life, or anything else like that.

  2. Pingback: Transit Referendum Part II: Development Politics in Vancouver | Rated Zed

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