Seniors are among the highest users of public transit, right up there with millennials. But they’re among the most likely to be on the “no” side of the Metro Vancouver transit and transportation plebiscite.
That’s even though the highest concentrations of seniors’ housing in the region are adjacent to proposed express bus routes, according to an investigation by the Thunderbird. And with an aging population, there will simply be more seniors to rely on transit.
[pullquote align=right]It’s become a very emotionally charged debate[/pullquote]The disconnect between how people plan to vote and how they use or will use transit is familiar to Ernie Daykin. He’s the building administrator at Maple Towers senior’s residence and former mayor of Maple Ridge.
He said that seniors voting “no” may have unrealistic expectations about what the improvements will mean for where they live, and how much these projects actually cost.
“It’s become a very emotionally charged debate,” he said. “Who’s going to vote for taxes to go up?”
“I think seniors, because they feel like they’ve worked so hard all their lives to get to this stage in life, they may think ‘I’m paying enough, or I paid enough.’”
Maple Towers residents would see a new express bus line passing through the Maple Ridge town centre down the street if the planned improvements go ahead. This would connect to the new Evergreen Line SkyTrain in Coquitlam. Daykin estimates that thousands of seniors live in the few blocks surrounding the town center alone.
In part because he was on the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation when the plan that’s now being put to a vote was created, Daykin has been discussing the plebiscite with residents of his building and trying to get past preconceptions they have.
While many have grievances with TransLink, the provincial government, or simply feel that they can’t afford any additional tax.
Seniors rely on transit
Older residents — whether they’re 65 or 90 — rely on transit in large numbers. According to the My Health, My Community survey conducted by Vancouver Coastal Health released in early March, transit ridership is highest among those aged 18-29 and, crucially, those 70 and older.
For older residents and those with chronic health conditions, access to transit is critical. “Transit is not a choice, it’s a necessity,” said Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health as she presented the findings of the study in March.
Like most of North America, Metro Vancouver’s population is aging rapidly. As of the 2011 census, Metro Vancouver had more than 300,000 residents aged 65 or older — 13 per cent of the population. In less than two decades’ time, seniors will make up nearly 25 per cent of residents.
Quality of life
According to research conducted by Vancouver Coastal Health, the efficiency of and access to transit plays an important role in the quality of life for seniors, especially when it comes to social connectedness.
Lorraine Logan, president of the Council of Senior Citizens Organization of British Columbia (COSCO), said it comes down to having options.
“Choices. It’s about isolation. It’s about getting out and being social, being active, being aware,” she said. “When you start cutting people off from people you lose a part of yourself…it starts to get defeatist and it starts to get depressing.”
For both Logan and Daykin, isolation and social connectedness are unseen social issues that are part and parcel of the larger transit plebiscite.
“The biggest thing with seniors when they age in place is losing their independence,” said Daykin. “If they have that easy, frequent, accessible transit system then that gets them out of their suites. It just adds to their quality of life.”
This is especially important for suburban areas, which have high numbers of seniors but fewer transportation options other than driving.
But those suburban seniors would directly benefit from the proposed express bus routes across the region.
Based on data from the City of Vancouver and BC Housing on non-market housing for seniors and adults with disabilities and seniors’ supportive housing, TheThunderbird.ca built a map of where seniors live in relation to proposed transit lines, namely 11 new express B-Line bus routes and the Surrey LRT project.
Nearly all seniors’ public housing and assisted living residences in the cities with the high seniors’ populations — North Vancouver, White Rock, Langley, Port Coquitlam and Maple Ridge — would fall within easy walking distance (approximately 400 metres) of the proposed express bus lines.
A vote for ‘no’
The region’s seniors don’t seem convinced, though. Support for the “no” side of the debate is more pronounced from drivers and older residents. According to an Angus Reid Institute poll released March 16, a majority of those aged 55 or older (45 per cent) and 35 to 54 (42 per cent) said they would vote “no.” Cities on the periphery of Metro Vancouver have high proportions of seniors, yet are polling more toward the “no” side of the vote than the core.
[pullquote align=right]I’m skeptical of TransLink in general[/pullquote]Many of those on the “no” side cite the dubious reputation of regional transit agency TransLink. Concerns about increased taxation also factor heavily. Angus Reid’s poll reported that two-thirds of those over 55 planning to vote “no” were doing so because of distrust of TransLink while a third said their motivation was the tax increase.
TheThunderbird.ca asked several seniors in New Westminster how they intended to vote in the plebiscite, and why. Rick Johnson said he’s voting against the measure because he doesn’t trust TransLink. “I’m skeptical of TransLink in general,” he said, “I want to see the roads improved but I’m not convinced that they’re going to be the best steward of my money.”
Johnson said friends his age are split between the “no” side and reluctantly supporting a “yes” vote.
“Some of them are strident ‘no’s and some are saying ‘I’ll vote yes and hold my nose.”
People feel strongly on both sides, Daykin said, but it’s those who feel less anger or support who hold a lot of potential in the vote’s outcome.
“People who are angry and want to vote ‘no’ will make sure that they go out and vote ‘no’. [With] the people that are happy, there’s a sense of complacency that sets in, [they] don’t get out and vote.”
After the Council of Senior Citizens Organization of British Columbia consulted its members, it agreed to support the “yes” side of the plebiscite, albeit with some caution. Logan noted the non-binding nature of the plebiscite and issues with using a sales tax for funding as reasons why her organization remains somewhat uneasy about supporting a “yes”, even if they ultimately see it as the best option.
“Sometimes we vote and hold our nose.”
Still, seniors stand to make a considerable difference in the outcome of the plebiscite, something the organization was acutely aware of when it made its endorsement.
“We vote. If we do nothing else, we vote,” Logan said. She remains skeptical of what comes after, but is confident that supporting a ‘yes’ vote is the best course of action for now.
“[It’s] going to make me nervous, but at least if we get the ‘yes’ vote, it’s a starting place. And I think after that, we watch.”
“And there will be plenty of watchdogs. Believe me.”