Yes campaign looks to student voters for support in transit plebiscite

This piece was also featured in: The Globe and Mail 

VANCOUVER —

Student voters could give the Yes campaign a much-needed boost in the upcoming Metro Vancouver transit plebiscite if they put their ballots in the mail, one leader says.

About 105,000 students are eligible to vote in the transit plebiscite, and many of them use public transit, said Bahareh Jokar, co-chair of the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition.

In the coming weeks, the coalition, which is leading the Yes campaign, will work with student organizations to inform young people about the plebiscite, in which residents will vote on whether they are willing to pay extra tax to finance transit improvements.

“Our goal is that as many students as possible are aware and have a ballot in hand so they can participate,” Ms. Jokar said.

Many students use transit to commute to and from campuses every day. Full-time students account for about 21 per cent of transit users in Metro Vancouver, according to a 2011 report by the transit agency TransLink.

Ten postsecondary institutions, including the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, have partnered with TransLink for the U-PASS BC program. The arrangement provides students with a low-cost monthly transit pass that they pay for through their student fees.

The Alma Mater Society, which represents 50,000 students at UBC, is supporting the ballot question, said Ms. Jokar, who is also vice-president external for the student organization.

An increase in B-line bus routes and improved night services would benefit students, Ms. Jokar said.

“We see that as integral in the growth of our campus and for moving students across the region.”

Rapid-transit proposals, including the Broadway subway, are also appealing to those concerned about the commuting options for the growing number of students at Vancouver’s universities and colleges, Ms. Jokar said.

“If you think the Broadway corridor is congested now, imagine what it’s going to look like if we don’t invest in infrastructure,” Ms. Jokar said.

The benefits, some argue, even outweigh the cost of the proposed sales tax increase, even for cash-strapped students.

It is estimated that the increase would cost an average family $125 a year, but as little as $30 a year for a single student, said Meghan Winters, an assistant professor of health science at Simon Fraser University.

“It’s probably a cost most can bear,” Ms. Winters said.

And from the perspective of many students, overcrowding on buses is an issue in need of a solution.

Ms. Winters said the millennial generation, to which most students belong, tends to choose transit over driving and to live in walkable communities, and would see a long-term impact from new transit.

“They’re the generation that’s going to live in this region 30 years from now when we have the million more people and 600,000 more cars,” Ms. Winters said.

Persuading students to vote yes is not likely to be the challenge for the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition, but rather getting them to register to receive a ballot and then put it in the mail, Ms. Winters and Ms. Jokar say.

Many students move regularly, have never voted before and don’t regularly use regular mail, Ms. Winters explained.

“It’s a mechanism that’s much more suited for older generations and homeowners,” Ms. Winters said of the mail-in vote.

Ms. Winters said she has informally polled her students about their intentions.

“The majority of them would vote yes, they just probably wouldn’t vote,” she said.

Ms. Jokar said working with student leaders, groups and faculties, and setting up registration stations are among the plans under way to ensure that students receive ballots by March 16.

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Linda Givetash

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Linda Givetash is a Canadian-South African freelance journalist based in Vancouver, B.C. Her work has appeared in print, digital and broadcast media outlets around the globe.