Geof (a new commenter on PT, I think – welcome!) responded to this post taken from the Mayors’ Council, with some good advice on a better way to talk about  (and name) the referendum campaign (emphases mine).


We face a choice.

Metro Vancouver will grow by one million people in the next 30 years. Our region is already congested now, and this will get worse if we fail to act.

We need to get ready for growth.

Fortunately, there is a plan. Metro Vancouver mayors came together to agree on a plan that meets the needs of the region today and into the future.

The Mayors’ plan will cut congestion by providing improved transportation and transit choices to people everywhere in Metro Vancouver.


I am afraid this is framed poorly: It is expressed in terms of a negative (congestion is bad), and it is implicitly about a laundry list of individual interests. Finally, it avoids the elephant in the room: we are being asked to pay a tax.

A negative campaign works for the No side: as Jarrett Walker says, No is the default option. Individualizing costs and benefits fragments support into thousands of calculations of self-interest. This allows Jordan Bateman to set the terms of that debate: the highest principle is to keep our money to ourselves. We can do better than that. We need to give people something to vote *for*, not a fear to vote against.

I believe the campaign needs to do several things:

1) Present a positive vision. The rational argument (for efficiency, pollution, etc.) is important, but it’s not enough.

2) Make voting a meaningful act. It should not be a duty or a calculation: it should make us feel good about being part of something larger than ourselves.

3) Own up to the fact that this will cost money, if possible turning it almost into a positive.


As I see it, in voting Yes we express who we are. We stake a claim to the future of our city. We are not just building buses, trains, and roads: we are laying the foundation for vibrant neighborhoods and communities.

Until now, transit has been at the whim of the government in Victoria. They pay the tab, they pick the megaproject, they own it. We are voting to raise taxes voluntarily *on ourselves*. We know that building a great city takes commitment and sacrifice. We choose to make that sacrifice because we want to take ownership of our future.

We have focused on how a No result would be a disaster. But a Yes victory would be a triumph, achieving far more than another edict from Victoria. It would transform what we are capable of. I think we should take care not to be seen to complain about the plebiscite. I do not think it reasonable that only transit should be subject to a vote, but that is water under the bridge. We should seize democracy with both hands. An effective Yes campaign will be a victory regardless of the outcome of the vote.

The difficult problem remains, which is finding the right way to communicate that vision of the future. It does little good that I can see it in my heart. Communicating with the heart is what good rhetoric and symbolism do. Think the slide carousel in Mad Men. Think of JFK’s speech when he said, We go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard. (Imagine if he had made it seem easy: We go to the moon to humble the Soviets and hey, we can afford it.)

I have been trying to think of a name for that vision. The best I’ve come up with so far is the Evergreen City, encompassing the whole region (and borrowing the Evergreen Line’s name, now that it’s about to be branded Millennium instead.) But it’s not a name that matters, it’s the image it arouses: seeing it ourselves and sharing it with others.


  1. Thank you for the post! I have been reading for many years (close to a decade?), but have seldom commented. I have one other thought.

    This is to be a mail-in ballot. I believe I read a a claim somewhere that a past mail-in vote had a response rate of 10%. When voter turnout is low, getting out the vote is of paramount importance: it is more important to energize Yes voters than it is to convert No voters. This only reinforces the importance of a positive vision. We need to make people care. (If we were really organized, we would follow up with them to make sure they vote. Is there a political party that might be willing to use its lists? Greens perhaps?)

    1. Surely Vision should donate their lists to this cause? They campaigned on the Broadway line being one of their top priorities.

      I’ll go out and knock on doors if someone gave me a list of doors to knock on…

  2. I agree Gordon. We need a captivating vision and the feel of a vibrant neighbourhood that will come from supporting the transit referendum. The economic stakes- the bounty of rewards like the Sony Electronic Arts locating in the old Sears bldg downtown because Vancouver is so livable- needs to be quantified and turned into sound bites.

    These knowledge economy workers/creative class can relocate anywhere in the world. Let’s make it the Metro Vancouver region where they move to.

    The down side of not supporting the transit referendum is that exponential congestion will permanently displace jobs at the ports when Northern BC goods leave Seattle instead of Vancouver. That needs to be quantified and turned into sound bites. The fact that the .05% sales tax will cost an average family “39 cents” a week (that was one estimate) needs to be turned into a sound bite with beautiful graphics and a local construction worker happy to work on the new transit projects.

    The Transit tax just keeps us in the economic game, our heads above water. We’ll sort out governance later but in the meantime, audits to keep Translink focused.

    Where are the savvy, creative communication consultants for the Mayors’ Council?

    1. Maybe the mayors will push this hard, maybe they won’t. I think it is a mistake to rely only on our leaders. That is not a comment on them, but on what the demands of citizenship: I believe democracy is not something we have, it is something we do. I helped organize the Vancouver fight against the copyright bill from 2008 to 2010. A few ordinary folks can make a big difference. It can take a lot of time and work that many of us don’t have (myself included), but if we won’t do it, we can’t expect anyone else to.

      I disagree with you about the cost (the number I saw is 35 cents a day). I think it is a terrible mistake to tell people the plan only costs them this much or that much. There is research showing that people’s values fluctuate. When you ask them to think about self interest they de-emphasize community, and vice-versa. This plays in perfectly to Bateman’s campaign. The message he’s selling is “not a penny more” – whether it’s 35 cents a day or 35 cents a month makes no difference. I would especially not say “only” – people know what their money is worth. We need solidarity, not self-interest. Nor does saying “you only have to give up this much” energize Yes voters. It makes them think narrowly about the cost to them rather than their vision for the city.

      The angle I would take is that this money is not something we give to someone else, it’s a commitment we make to one another: something to take pride in, not something to downplay. It’s more like giving blood than paying taxes.

      Think of Douglas College’s brilliant “DO what you love. be good at it.” campaign posters. They sell an attainable dream. Imagine instead images of vibrant city life, not just in Vancouver, but in Burnaby, Surrey, Richmond, Port Coquitlam. Make them recognizable so they meet people where they live. The slogan is tough. “GO city” might run into trademark or copyright issues. Just to start thinking about it, something like:

      I’m putting in my 35¢.
      Join me.

      If you want to build a larger brand, put that in too, e.g. Evergreen City (make sure there’s something highlighted green in the image). I suppose E City is too 90s, though Portland(ia) gets away with it. (Or maybe something like “my two cents” since it’s a mail-in vote?)

    2. Going somewhat against my own advice about “only”… A picture of an interesting person (young, old, wise, energitic, laid back, etc.) in an urban location, with a stamp marked 35¢ (postmark Vancouver/Port Moody/Maple Ridge/etc.):

      Remember when it cost 35¢ to connect?
      It still does. Vote Yes with me.

  3. Likely every one of those statements was focus group tested, and found to resonate. The Yes campaign has yet to launch, can’t wait to see their creativity!

  4. CutCongestion was a bad choice of catch phrase. Not just that it frames the issues as a negative, it’s also simply not true that the mayors plan will cut congestion. And they know it too, adding public transit has been shown to have little or no effect on congestion.

    Time to ditch the phrase. Finding a better one should probably be left to native speakers, but how about

    Planning For Mobility: With 1m people moving into the region we need to act now to preserve our mobility options. Only massive increases in transit capacity can enable the mobility to keep our region functional. If all new residents were to drive at the same rate as current residents (insert some nice graph here).

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