Surrey advocate links automobile dependence to poverty

Surrey has  higher rates of both poverty and automobile dependence than other Metro Vancouver municipalities

Alice Sundberg, co-ordinator of the Surrey Poverty Reduction Coalition, says public transit is not an option for the working poor. Photo: Rob Kruyt

Ayesha Rahimyar gets anxious when she thinks about how she would travel from her home in Surrey to a regular job.

The 34 year-old single mother of three is struggling to get her life back on track. She’s currently on social assistance and is studying for a high school diploma.

But the morning rush of getting her children ready for school, combined with poor transit options, often make her late for class. She can’t afford a car and in her neighbourhood, buses come every 25 to 30 minutes.

“The schedule of the buses, it’s not something I can rely on,” she said. “When I think about the future when I start working, it worries me a lot.”

With the transit plebiscite fast approaching, a new campaign spearheaded by the Surrey Poverty Reduction Coalition (SPRC) is underlining the city’s deep reliance on cars for work-related transportation.

Approximately 83% of employees in Surrey use a vehicle to get to work compared with 71% across Metro Vancouver. Only 13% use public transit compared with the regional average of 20%, according to Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey.

“People don’t have access to adequate public transportation in surrey,” said SPRC coordinator Alice Sundberg. “We know that you can save a lot of money by taking public transit. But if you don’t have access to it, or if it takes you two and a half hours to get to work via public transportation, you’re not going to use it.”

Even though the tax is regressive, meaning low-income people will be more affected than higher-income taxpayers, Sundberg said her organization is urging a yes vote because good transit can be an important benefit to people who are living in poverty.

At $45,462, Surrey’s median income is below the Metro Vancouver average ($50,016), and there are approximately 14,632 households and 20,610 individuals in Surrey relying on income assistance, according to the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation. This represents about 23% of the 62,512 income assistance cases across Metro Vancouver.

Brent Toderian, former director of city planning for the City of Vancouver, said the issue is part of a North American trend in which poor people are being financially pushed out of cities into suburban areas. The migration forces many low-income workers, who previously relied on public transportation, to purchase vehicles.

“There’s a saying that the suburbs are no place to be poor,” Toderian said. “If you’re poor and in the inner city, you have options. If you’re poor in the suburbs, you have to own a car.”

Toderian noted this trend could be applied to Surrey because the SkyTrain essentially serves only a small portion of the city.

Surrey public transportation upgrades are featured in the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation’s wish list.

“The biggest benefits [of transit] are that it allows households to reduce their car ownership – and the effect is huge,” said Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. “The average household in a car-dependent community has one car for every adult, so even low-income households are spending $10,000 a year on owning and operating their car, where that same household in a multi-modal community would be spending half as much.”

A year’s worth of monthly transit passes in Metro Vancouver would cost an adult commuter $2,040.

Toderian added the savings are possible only in suburbs with adequate public transportation as an alternative to commuting by vehicle, which Surrey does not have.

“if you happen to live close to the SkyTrain you’re OK, which most don’t,” he said. “The bus systems in Surrey are challenged when it comes to being an attractive alternative to car ownership. And even if you don’t need a car to get to work, if you live near transit and take transit to work you still potentially need a car for all the other trips that you have in your life. ”

He noted many North American suburbanites are finding themselves in even deeper levels of poverty now that they’ve added in longer commute times in vehicles.

With files from Jen St. Denis