Transit plebiscite: YWCA CEO's perspective

YWCA's Janet Austin hopes Metro Vancouver residents will vote "YES!" in the transit plebiscite.

YWCA's Janet Austin takes transit. Photo of Janet Austin by Danny Kresnyak

Janet Austin, CEO of the YWCA, takes the Canada Line SkyTrain to her downtown office every day, where she oversees programs that serve 30-40,000 people in the course of a year. Her core clientele consists of single mothers and children.  

"For single mothers, our goal is to help them make a successful transition into personal and economic independence, so employment is really the route out of poverty," she says.

Austin believes the Metro Vancouver plebiscite on the Mayors' Council Transportation and Transit Plan is a "legacy opportunity" for the region, particularly for low-income families.

According to a First Call 2014 report, B.C. has the second-highest child poverty rate in Canada. Low wages are a major factor, as is lack of access to affordable and reliable transportation.

Single mother-led families are the poorest of all family types, says Austin. They have the most difficulty accessing affordable housing, and they rely particularly heavily on transit.

One of Austin's clients, Ayesha (who doesn't want her full name used), is a full-time student raising three daughters (14, eight and six). They live in Surrey with its relatively affordable housing and car-centric urban planning. City blocks are long, punctuated by inward-facing housing complexes and shopping centres surrounded by parking lots.

Bus service runs every 15 minutes during peak hours but consumes considerable time due to long distances and traffic. Ayesha's daily bus commute to school takes thirty minutes each way, whereas driving would take about 13 minutes. Some routes also have limited weekend and night service.

Ayesha waits for transit. Photo by Janel Johnson.

"It just makes the process so much longer," she says. For a busy student and mom, who's attending employment workshops on the weekend, it means she can only plan one thing per day. On days she goes to school, she can can't go grocery shopping, or to the doctor, or take her kids to recreational activities. 

For mothers like Ayesha, who don’t have good access to transit, grocery shopping is a challenge. They're forced to purchase groceries at expensive convenience stores. Ayesha lives near a grocery store but can get almost twice as much for her shopping dollar at Superstore, a 45-minute bus ride away.

Despite the aggravation, she spends the one-and-a-half hours on the bus with the kids while carrying her groceries.

"I have to stretch my allowance," she says. 

Ayesha worries how poor transit options may affect her job search once she finishes school. "If I get a job... I can only search for a job where there's bus service." Asked whether she'll vote 'YES' to a tax that will stretch her allowance even further, Ayesha says it will make a difference.

"My life depends on it. For my kids, that’s my only choice," she said.

For Austin, the transit "legacy" means empowering single moms to leave poverty behind. "Really, you don’t have much chance of improving your employment potential or of participating in the economy, if you’re not able to get to your job," says Austin. "And that’s the case with so many people."

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