Post-secondary institutions key drivers of economy

March 04, 2015

Op-Ed submitted to the Vancouver Sun

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Arvind Gupta
President and Vice-Chancellor
University of British Columbia

It is with a sense of resolve and responsibility that we have decided to speak out about the coming plebiscite on the Mayor’s Council plan on transportation and transit.

We do so, first, out of a sense of duty to our students, staff and faculty members who commute daily from every corner of this region, plus the thousands of alumni and others who visit and engage with our institutions. Thanks to the scope and quality of existing transit services, students especially constitute a huge transit user group.

In 1997, 77 per cent of all trips to and from UBC’s Point Grey campus were made by automobile. Today, 55 per cent are made on transit; 77 per cent of students come and go on the bus. At SFU, which enjoys SkyTrain service to two of its three campuses, transit usage is even higher — 88 per cent among undergraduates. In total, the 127,000 students who participate in the U-Pass transit system account for 50 million boardings per year. Fifty million.

Imagine the congestion, pollution and added expense if pressures on the service cause these and other users to shift back to private vehicles. Imagine the further impact as our population increases by a million people in the next 25 years.

Even now, we seem to be nearing a breaking point. SFU students commute an average of 47 minutes on transit — each way. This is almost double the national average. Many spend 30 minutes just waiting to transfer from SkyTrain to over-capacity buses at Production Way. UBC students, traversing the congested Broadway corridor, spend even longer — 50 minutes. And every day, 2,000 riders on this route are left standing while overcrowded buses drive by without stopping. South of the Fraser, many lack any viable transit options.

These aren’t just students, enduring a perverse rite of passage. They are your sons and daughters, your future employees, the artists, entrepreneurs and professionals who will strengthen and enrich our society and economy. Riders include staff and faculty, and residents travelling to the growing communities on Point Grey and Burnaby Mountain. On West Broadway, the region’s second-busiest commercial centre and its most important health-care precinct, they include medical professionals, business people, patients and customers.

The Mayor’s Council estimates that congestion, lost time and foregone productivity already costs the region more than $1 billion a year, a number that could get worse with population growth — or better with transit investments that draw our institutions and our communities closer together.

Viewed in this light, the transit and transportation question is not so much a problem to be solved as it is an opportunity to be seized. SFU and UBC are Metro Vancouver’s strongest innovation engines. With a combined, direct economic impact of more than $17 billion a year, they power a research and development network that has helped to enhance value in our natural resource sectors and to lead the world in high-technology innovation.

The Broadway/Millennium Line corridor weaves from UBC through a series of research-intensive hospitals, a global leadership hub in cancer research, the new Emily Carr University of Art and Design campus and a host of high-tech employers along Broadway and Great Northern Way. SkyTrain then connects directly to Vancouver Community College, to SFU Burnaby and to SFU Surrey and Surrey’s emerging Innovation Boulevard. With the Canada Line linking our downtown campuses to YVR, this network connects a world-class capacity for generating, developing and deploying knowledge — for supercharging the region’s productive potential and enriching the social and artistic fabric of our communities.

This is the context in which we view the coming plebiscite. Metro Vancouver mayors have weighed both the risks and the opportunities of a sound transit investment. They have crafted a plan that proposes everything from replacing automotive choke points, such as the Pattullo Bridge, to improved transit services, such as new rapid transit lines in Surrey and Vancouver and increased bus capacity, at night and in congested or underserved parts of the region. The mayors further tied new funding directly and exclusively to these improvements.

For all of these reasons — but especially for the well-being of our students and the future of this region — we will be voting yes. And, with this much at stake, we urge all Metro Vancouver residents to give this plebiscite the consideration it deserves.