TransLink's ridership momentum could be blunted by long work dispute

UPDATE — Nov. 27, 2019: A tentative deal has been reached between the union representing thousands of transit workers and Coast Mountain Bus Company, narrowly averting a complete suspension of bus service in Metro Vancouver. Unifor said strike action is over and bus service is returning to normal levels.

EARLIER STORY: 

A regular member of the group overseeing regional transportation in Metro Vancouver worries what will happen if a system-wide bus strike goes from a few days to a few weeks. 

"People in the region have built their lives around transit and relying on transit," said West Vancouver Coun. Craig Cameron, who has represented the district on the TransLink Mayors' Council this year.

"We have some of the biggest ridership growth in North America and a system that is the envy of most other jurisdictions. And I think a prolonged strike could impair public confidence in that system."

A three-day long strike by the Coast Mountain Bus Company is scheduled to begin Wednesday and would leave about 350,000 passengers looking for alternative forms of transportation. 

Cameron said the Mayors' Council is briefed on negotiations but won't "get into the weeds" of offers and haven't asked management to change its tactics. 

But as the region braces for its first full bus shutdown in 18 years, he hopes for a fair resolution before people lose faith in the long-term stability of the transit system.

"If you don't think you're going to be able to get to work by transit in the future because of labour disruptions ... then you're not going to build your life around transit, and you're going to be more prone to use a car."

Impact south of the Fraser

In recent years, nowhere in Metro Vancouver has the transit boom been more pronounced than south of the Fraser: the area from Surrey to Langley Township had a 16 per cent increase in bus boardings in 2018. 

Langley City Coun. Nathan Pachal agrees that a prolonged strike would have a negative effect in his region of Metro Vancouver — but doesn't believe it would be permanent.

"You have to balance that out with the facts of congestion in the region as well," said Pachal. 

"If everyone decides to just drive ... you're going to see a steep increase in congestion, which will encourage people to take transit again."

Pachal says Langley City residents are partially protected from the strike because the area's community shuttles are operated by a separate company. 

For people with jobs in Vancouver though, it's another story.

"I am taking the opportunity to work from home this week," he said.

"That's an option that my employer presented, but I know that that's not an option for a lot of folks."

Ben Nelms/CBC

All systems go?

For some time in Metro Vancouver, growth in transit use has been directly tied to population growth, with the concept of transit-oriented development along rapid transit lines becoming the norm among most local and regional planners.  

Longtime transit advocate and former Vancouver councillor Gordon Price thinks any strike will just be a blip on that radar. 

"There really is no other path. There's no other choice but to proceed on the route we've already taken, because really it has worked so well," he said. 

And for evidence for that, he points to the failed 2015 transit referendum: there was a prolonged campaign critical of how TransLink was operating, and voters rejected a PST increase for transit improvements. 

But in the end, TransLink changed its leadership, governments decided to fund most of the improvements in the proposed referendum, and public confidence — and ridership — rebounded.

"The referendum cost us probably several hundred million dollars ... but it really didn't change the ultimate trajectory," he said.

"[Now], there's still going to be improvements rolling out on the 10-year plan. So whatever bad feelings or ill will the strike may generate, I think will be overcome."