Mobility pricing for Vancouver not going anywhere without more political support
Planners generally say it’s good policy. But planners aren’t the ones who vote.
The road to mobility pricing in Metro Vancouver is like a car during pre-COVID rush hour on the North Shore: it might end up slowly advancing, but it's just as likely to be stuck in traffic indefinitely.
"I do think it's about being willing to stand up and say, 'We know this needs to be done. We know it's hard, but we're gonna lead,'" said Vancouver councillor Christine Boyle.
Boyle put forward the motion in 2019 that had Vancouver declare a climate emergency. She's been the leading advocate of policies city staff have proposed to advance that declaration and reduce carbon emissions.
That includes the proposal to start studying mobility pricing, essentially a toll for any drivers entering or leaving the downtown area.
Ultimately, most of the city's climate plan — including permitting parking and higher standards on new buildings — is likely to pass when it comes to a vote, expected on Nov. 17.
But it's the mobility pricing proposal that has gotten the most pushback, and Boyle knows it won't survive unless more politicians join her in actively pushing for it.
"It's been punted around for decades. Everybody agrees it's a good idea, and nobody wants to be the one to do it," she said.
"I think Vancouver should continue to lead."
Mayors' Council has punted the issue
Mobility pricing is often proposed by planners because they're often asked to find solutions to congested roadways and reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and in theory, charging for road access in the busiest areas of a city does both.
Planners don't make decisions, though, politicians do. And in Metro Vancouver, there's historically been very few of them wanting to stick their neck out after these sorts of proposals are made.
"There hasn't been ... on the elected side, a lot of advocacy for it," said Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West.
He's part of the TransLink Mayors' Council, which generally oversees transportation policy for the entire region. In 2017 and 2018, they approved a plan to study mobility pricing. It was studied. And then, nothing happened.
"The report landed with a thud. And there's been deafening silence ever since. It's been put on a shelf, and remains there," he said.
Not every mayor is as critical of mobility pricing as West, who says it unfairly penalizes people who moved to the suburbs for affordability, and where there are fewer public transit options than in Vancouver.
However, even the more urbanism-focused leaders in the region — including New Westminster's Jonathan Coté, North Vancouver's Linda Bunchanan and Vancouver's Kennedy Stewart — have been mum on the issue.
And Premier John Horgan said during the election campaign that he wouldn't approve mobility pricing in Metro Vancouver.
When asked by CBC News about Vancouver's discussions, a spokesperson for the premier's office said "municipalities can discuss any number of ideas but at this point there is nothing concrete being proposed and Premier Horgan has been clear on this issue."
Boyle argues "there's a lot of misinformation circulating" about what's in the mobility pricing report, and she's got a point.
There are a fair number of folks making claims of how it would cost families (it's yet to be determined), that it would hurt low-income people (the report explicitly says mobility pricing would be implemented with an equity lens), or that approval by council this month would set the situation in stone (there would literally be an entire municipal election fought over it two years from now before a final vote).
But it's equally true that it doesn't matter how many policy analysts and urbanists call something "good policy." Unless politicians get behind it, it never actually becomes policy. Just dreams.
Which is why Boyle hopes other politicians start speaking up.
"Do we want to meet our climate commitments or not?" She asks.
"And if we are committed to those climate emission reductions, then we need to do everything in this plan to get there. And mobility pricing is one piece of that."