British Columbia


2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite - Participatory Planning Analysis

December 13, 2023 emilypark9090
British Columbia

Comparative Perspectives on Planning History and Futures [PLAN 500]

School of Community and Regional Planning | UBC


Aaron Li, Erin Grace, Charlotte Lemieux, Jamie Tseng, Emily (Young Eun) Park, Brandon Chow


The 2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite was a significant event in the region's political history. It arose from a campaign promise by the British Columbia Liberal Party led by Premier Christy Clark. The decision to hold a public vote on transportation funding was an unusual case in the context of Canadian governance, as major public infrastructure projects are seldom decided by a plebiscite or referendum. This move was seen as controversial, generating debate over the appropriateness of placing complex infrastructure planning in the hands of the general public.

This plebiscite is unique in the history of public participation and will be critically analyzed using Fung’s Democracy Cube (2006) and Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation, highlighting the shortfalls and missed opportunities to ensure robust, equal, and deep participation.

Scope and Plan

The proposed projects under the plebiscite were diverse and aimed at enhancing the transportation network within Metro Vancouver,  including the expansion of the light rail network, such as the Broadway Subway project and Light Rail Transit (LRT) in Surrey and Langley, enhancements to existing bus services, a new 4-lane Pattullo Bridge, and significant upgrades to major roads (Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation, 2015), as shown in Figure 1. These projects aimed to address the growing challenges of the region, specifically around transportation, transit, and congestion, with the goal to enhance connectivity and facilitate smoother commutes for residents.

Figure 1. Proposed projects for transportation investment

Image from Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation, 2015

Controversial Funding Mechanism

The funding mechanism proposed for these ambitious projects was a controversial component of the plebiscite. The question on the plebiscite ballot read: 

“Do you support a new 0.5% Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax, to be dedicated to the Mayors’ Council transportation and transit plan?” 

(Election BC, 2015a, p. 3). 

This tax increase was proposed to be included in BC sales tax and was projected to raise about $250 million annually (Pawson, 2015). The plebiscite being funded by an increase in sales tax was not popular among many voters, and other issues were raised around cost-effectiveness, the additional financial burden in a region already known for its high cost of living, and the evaluation of long-term economic benefits. It also raised the fundamental question of how the tax increase would disproportionately affect lower-income individuals and families who already spend a larger portion of their income on taxable goods and services. 

Furthermore, the plebiscite served as a referendum on the public’s trust in TransLink, the regional transportation authority responsible for the planning and management of transportation within Metro Vancouver. TransLink has faced extensive public criticism over its management, operational efficiency, and transparency issues. Therefore, the debate during the plebiscite often shifted focus from the proposed infrastructure improvements to the ability and credibility of TransLink to implement these plans effectively.

The result of the plebiscite was ultimately a rejection by the voters, with 61.38% voting “no” and 38.32% “yes” (Election BC, 2015b). This outcome reflected the electorate's concerns over increased taxation, hesitation to absorb additional financial stress, and a lack of confidence in TransLink to effectively manage and execute the proposed improvements. The rejection prompted further discussions about funding mechanisms for public transportation projects, signifying the critical role of public participation in complex infrastructure decision-making.


Elections BC was responsible for the execution of the 2015 plebiscite, which cost almost $5.4 million dollars (Elections BC, 2015a) and was initiated on February 12, 2015, when the Plebiscite Regulation was established (Elections BC, 2015a). The entire process of the plebiscite started on March 16, 2015, when voting package distribution began; only registered BC voters were eligible to participate. The voting method was through mail-in ballots that voters would mark and send either directly to Elections BC or through a plebiscite service office. The number of registered voters was 1,551,507 at the initial package distribution date. The initial distribution was fully delivered to all voters by March 27. 

The 2015 plebiscite was the first one of its kind administered by Elections BC since the 1972 “British Columbia Time Plebiscite,” which was held simultaneously with a general election where voters were asked if they were in favour of Pacific Standard Time, including Pacific Daylight Savings time. The 2015 campaign was open to 23 municipalities in the Metro Vancouver Regional District, and residents were strongly encouraged to register to vote before and during the plebiscite as they would not be eligible to participate if they were not registered to vote in the province.   

There were nine service offices dedicated to providing services, guidance, and registration of new voters during the voting process. They were dispersed throughout different Metro Vancouver shopping centers. Elections BC operators were available six days a week, and contact hours were extended until midnight on the last two days of the package request deadline. Voting package requests were also available online for information updates or registration. 

Getting the Word Out

The Mayor’s Council was responsible for the marketing of the plebiscite processes. Advertisements were dispersed on the radio, newspapers, social media, transit stations, and the Election BC website, as well as information pamphlets distributed to all residential addresses in the participating municipalities 1-2 months before the voting date. By the deadline of the voting package request period of May 15, around 11,000 new voters registered. The distributed packages were available in only English, however, voters were able to visit the official website to find 17 different translated ballot instructions, ensuring a diverse range of residents to vote.

Figure 2. Example of a newspaper advertisement. Image from Report of the Chief Electoral Officer on the 2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite, 2015

Receiving Ballots & Quality Control 

Elections BC arranged to physically receive all ballot packages through Vancouver's main Canada Post facility to ensure that packages were not lost. The deadline for all ballot packages to be received by Elections BC was Friday, May 29. Once a package was received, the review started with a mandatory certification check to assess personal information from each ballot package. The ballot was not opened or considered if certification envelopes with incorrect information - such as name, address, birth date, and signatures - were found upon review. The voter’s name and address were preprinted on each unique certification envelope but required a signature from the voter to declare it as correct. If the ballots were considered to have an error, they were rejected. 

However, with this plebiscite, a new correction process was established that gave voters an opportunity to correct their envelopes. Voters were notified over the phone of their mistakes - 31,973 people were informed of the correction process, and 25% of them resolved their errors on the envelope (Election BC, 2015a). The review process was extensive; it was the first time that Election BC used scanning machines to count ballots, scanning 3000 to 4000 per hour, to ensure they were all counted. 

Figure 3. Plebiscite information on the outside of each package. Image from Report of the Chief Electoral Officer on the 2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite, 2015

Figure 4. Plebiscite ballot. Image from Report of the Chief Electoral Officer on the 2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite, 2015


A total of 798,262 ballot packages were received by the deadline (Election BC, 2015b). The ballot counting period began the next day, May 30, and lasted until July 2, when the voting results were announced. Only 48.64% of registered voters ended up participating in the plebiscite. Not all ballots received were considered valid votes; there was a final count of 2,513 rejected votes due to errors. The percentage of “Yes” votes to the plebiscite question was 38.32%, while “No” was 61.38% (Election BC, 2015).

Referendums vs. Plebiscites

Elections BC defines a plebiscite as “a vote on a matter of public concern, conducted under the Election Act, and may be binding on the government. A plebiscite is held when the Lieutenant Governor in Council (cabinet) directs the Chief Electoral Officer to determine the opinion of voters on a matter of public concern. The government establishes the threshold for success and outcomes of a successful plebiscite” (Elections BC, 2023). It defines a referendum as “ a vote on a matter of public interest or concern conducted under the Referendum Act or separate legislation for a specific referendum. The results are usually binding on the government. A referendum is held whenever the Lieutenant Governor in Council (cabinet) thinks that an expression of public opinion is desirable” (Elections BC, 2023).

Pros & Cons

Referendums and plebiscites are commonly used when specific issues regarding projects of the commons arise. It is important first to define and contrast the two, as they are often used interchangeably. To begin, referendums are held for citizens requesting to vote on major decisions highlighting both policy and constitutional changes, electoral systems, legislation, and other local concerns. Conversely, Plebiscites are used to settle disputes regarding boundaries and political autonomy and, similar to referendums, can be used to obtain public approval for changes in taxes or new laws. Some advantages of using these participatory mechanisms are that they allow citizens to take charge and have a direct say instead of relying on elected officials and encourage community engagement and public discussion to assist with decision-making. Additionally, they assert legitimacy as the ultimate decision-making is made “by the people.” 

However, there are negatives associated with using referendums and plebiscites; significantly, they continuously derail progress on plans and projects because they rely on public participation. Other negatives include the topics being too complex for the public to understand or voters may be uninformed, resulting in an uncertain vote. As a result, this can lead elites and political groups to manipulate the public with persuasive information and campaigns to sway their vote, marginalizing the voices of vulnerable groups along the way.  

Public Discourse

As mentioned, the political climate leading up to the plebiscite was contentious, with the major players quite unpopular with the public. It was an interesting case, as there was a significant amount of public discourse around it shaping public opinion, specifically on social media, with a Reddit thread (Figure 5) set up by the city to answer questions about the plebiscite process. This was an interesting example of a “bargain” from Fung's democracy cube (Fung, 2006), where extensive public discourse existed around the issue. The Reddit example exemplifies this. This will be explored further in the subsequent analysis section.    

Figure 5. Reddit Thread, r/Vancouver, 2015 

Analysis: Fung’s Democracy Cube

Before exploring specific analytical questions regarding the 2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite, it is beneficial to analyze the event through Fung’s (2006) Democracy Cube to understand its overall participatory process. We will discuss three essential aspects: methods of participant selection, modes of communication and decision, and form of authority and power, respectively. Our overall democracy cube is shown in Figure 6.


Figure 6. Fung’s Democracy Cube (Fung, 2006). Annotated by Jamie Tseng, 2023

Methods of Participant Selection

The 2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite predominantly aligns with Fung’s (2006) "Open, Self-Selection" and "Diffuse Public Sphere" categories of participant selection. As an "Open, Self-Selection" (Fung, 2006) process, it was accessible to all eligible voters, fostering inclusivity and voluntary participation and allowing for widespread participation. However, the tendency for those with more significant resources or vested interests to engage more actively could lead to an underrepresented number of the broader population, a point that subsequent analysis will further discuss. Also, the plebiscite not only allowed for self-selection but also engaged the "Diffuse Public Sphere" through extensive public involvement. The extensive conversation across multiple media and platforms, as previously detailed, reduced participation barriers and allowed an exchange of ideas among the public. However, in contrast to the usual activities within the “Diffuse Public Sphere” that tend to influence discussions without direct or formal policy changes, the outcomes of the plebiscite had a significant and immediate effect on policy decisions. In summary, the 2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite’s participant selection process showcased a blend of inclusive, direct democracy and dynamic civic engagement.


Modes of Communication and Decision

The modes of communication and decision-making align with Fung’s (2006) "Aggregate and Bargain" mode. The primary reason is the plebiscite's foundational mechanism for establishing public preferences through a majority vote that transforms individual choices into collective decisions. Every vote cast by a participant directly impacted the outcome, reflecting an issue-specific form of public participation in policymaking. Again, the bargaining component was evident in the extensive public discourse across various platforms, including news, social media, forums like Reddit, and blogs, which aided participants in determining their decisions. While these discussions did not directly alter the plebiscite's outcome in a formal sense, they played a crucial role in shaping public opinion, facilitating the exchange of ideas, and developing a broader understanding of the issue. This blend of direct public voting and informal public debate captures the principle of the "Aggregate and Bargain" mode (Fung, 2006).


Form of Authority and Power

The 2015 Vancouver transportation plebiscite, when examined through Fung’s (2006) framework, presents a mix of "Direct Authority" and "Co-governance" in terms of the form of authority and power. Although the plebiscite enabled the public to express their preferences on the transportation issue directly, its non-legally binding nature suggests a more complex dynamic than pure direct decision-making. In other words, the public’s clear and direct vote can be argued as an advisory role rather than a decisive command. This advisory aspect brings the process closer to co-governance, where the final decision-making authority remains with elected officials and governmental authorities despite being significantly informed by the public's input. Essentially, the plebiscite served as a powerful tool for evaluating public opinion and influencing policy but fell short of granting the public complete control over the policy outcome. This combination of direct public involvement with ultimate reliance on formal governmental decision-making captures a participatory process that spans the boundary between empowering the public and maintaining traditional governance structures.


After discussing Fung's democracy cube, we will address the analytical questions. At first glance, holding a plebiscite or a referendum may seem an excellent way to give power back to citizens in the sense that citizens have the final vote on the project. However, a more in-depth analysis of the process raises many questions, including:

  1. To what extent does a plebiscite redistribute power to marginalized groups?
  2. What tools are provided to citizens to make an informed choice?
  3. What are the implications of planning and funding transit regionally rather than locally for participatory planning?

The objective of this brief analysis is to answer these questions by providing a critical analysis of the plebiscite as a participatory process. As aforementioned, the main phases of this process include the plebiscite campaign period and the actual vote. To our knowledge, no participatory processes were undertaken to build the Regional Transportation Investments plan. 

To what extent does a plebiscite redistribute power to marginalized groups?

The first question asks whether the plebiscite allowed the redistribution of power to marginalized groups. According to Arnstein (1969), citizen participation is the empowerment of citizens, meaning that power must be redistributed to those currently excluded from political and economic processes. Michels (2011) studied the effects of referendums, participatory policy-making, deliberate surveys, and deliberate forums and concluded that referendums have the most significant impact on policy, even for non-binding referendums like plebiscites. This process could be interpreted as tokenism since the government is only required to consider the results. However, given the political context, it is unlikely that the government will go against the wishes of the citizens. In that context, citizens are indeed given the power to affect the outcome of the process through their vote.

The plebiscite allows all citizens to vote, not just the “have-nots”/marginalized groups, as suggested in Arnstein's description of citizen power. If we consider the “have-nots”/marginalized groups as being the most disadvantaged groups, then these are theoretically included in the process as they have the right to vote but are not given the total power. Indeed, their vote might be lost in the mass of votes, especially for underrepresented groups. This idea is supported by Michels (2011), who found that referendums are inclusive in the sense that everyone can participate. However, they are not always representative. They can contribute to the inclusion of more people in the process but also to the exclusion of particular groups.

In the case study, 759,869 ballots were considered, representing 31% of the population based on the 2016 Census (Statistics Canada. 2017). The proportion of votes per municipality is shown in Figure 3. The Tsawwassen First Nation is one example of a municipality with limited power under this process, representing less than 1% of the voters. Despite having the right to vote, some groups do not have the power to influence the final outcome. Instead, the approach used implies that each vote counts equally. It is equivalent to considering the majority’s opinion without consideration for underrepresented or more vulnerable groups. In this specific context, this stands out as noteworthy, given that the plan primarily aims to enhance public transportation, which is a mode of transport disproportionately utilized by marginalized groups such as low-income individuals, non-white communities, and women in North America (Hosford & Winters, 2022; Clark & CJI Research Corporation, 2017; Taylor & Morris, 2015). This leads us to the question: Who are the “have-nots”/marginalized groups? Moreover, in general, who is the relevant public?

Figure 7. Votes distribution across municipalities. Created by Charlotte Lemieux, 2023.

What tools are provided to citizens to make an informed choice?

The second question focuses on the tools provided to citizens to make an informed decision. This question is essential to understand to what extent this process gives control to citizens. The Major Council first shared their investment plan with citizens in June 2014. In December 2014, citizens were informed that the vote would occur in March 2015. Between these dates, the government held a vast campaign period. As discussed earlier, during the campaign, citizens were informed by various parties, including the government, media, and other stakeholders interested in the plebiscite question. The whole phase mostly corresponds to Arnstein’s “Informing” process. It was a one-way information flow where the government communicated its plan with various platforms. For instance, the government was also responding to questions by using the Reddit platform, where people could directly ask questions to an employee of the City of Vancouver. In addition to this more formal access to information, citizens were also bombarded with information by several stakeholders. Those include the ‘Yes’ Coalition (more than 100 organizations), political parties, academics, individuals sharing their personal opinions, and more. The information and opinions about the project were shared using various platforms, including but not limited to traditional media and social media.

Participants were not provided with the resources necessary to address this complex question of supporting a 0.5% tax increase allocated to the transportation transit plan. Given the complexity of the issue, it is unlikely that citizens would grasp the entire question and its implications through a political campaign. How many individuals would have thoroughly read the complete plan before casting their vote? Additionally, considering that a significant amount of information is available online, have individuals with limited literacy been adequately informed? We believe that answering the plebiscite question requires significant finance and transportation planning knowledge. We do not expect people to understand the collective benefits of public transportation that go beyond their personal interests. As supported by Gastil and Richards (2013), during a referendum, citizens do not receive enough information about the issue, are offered a limited choice of solutions to respond to it, lack clear criteria to evaluate these solutions, and do not have the opportunity for deep reflection before decision-making.

Addressing these shortcomings is necessary to achieve a transformative level of participation where individuals can "decide and act for themselves" (Cornwall, 2008). However, this type of process requires significant resources, especially if the aim is to include the entire population. Gastil and Richards (2013) recommended using randomly constituted citizen bodies throughout the entire policymaking process (from problem identification to policy proposal) to create a direct democratic process that is more transformative. Within a random assembly, there could be specific training related to the issue being studied, along with the provision of credible third-party information sources to ensure that citizens are exposed to various perspectives for making an informed decision.

What are the implications of planning and funding transit regionally rather than locally for participatory planning?

This last question raises the complexity of participatory processes when studying a region that encompasses territories with different populations, land use, transportation infrastructure, and more. As shown in Figure 1, the Majors’ Council investment plan is not equally distributed across Metro Vancouver. Mobility needs vary locally. Proposing a regional strategy to meet local needs can be a complex task. The percentage of citizens who voted in favour of a tax dedicated to transportation investments varies significantly from municipality to municipality, as shown in Figure 4. We note a higher approval rate for municipalities near the city centre where more investments were proposed, including the Broadway Subway extension. Peterson et al. (2008) examined the spatial patterns of votes in the 2002 Seattle Monorail Referendum, which proposed funding for the project by raising the automobile registration tax. Their findings indicated that individuals living near the proposed line were more inclined to vote in favour of the increased tax.

Figure 8. Percentage of citizens who voted for a tax increase per municipality. Created by Charlotte Lemieux, 2023.

While regional planning might be necessary for establishing a connected public transportation network across multiple regions, the way of involving the population in the planning process must be adapted based on the phase of the decision-making process. In the studied case, it would probably have been preferable to employ a participatory process when defining the investment plan to determine the necessary projects at local and regional levels. We believe that the population might not possess the knowledge to decide whether this plan should be funded by a tax across the entire Metro Vancouver. The question regarding who should bear the costs for these infrastructures, mainly whether municipalities without proposed investments should fund projects in other municipalities, remains a significant concern. Indeed, such inquiries frequently arise when discussing taxation. Several projects require substantial one-time funding, prompting debates about services predominantly funded by either suburbs or urban areas. We cannot answer this question without considering the range of services provided to the population about the taxes extracted from each municipality. This is especially relevant for transportation taxes, as urban residents often contribute a higher share compared to those living in the suburbs (Brueckner et al., 2001). 

Overall, this plebiscite process can be characterized as having a wide “breadth” but little, if any, “depth.” Indeed, the process involved the entire population for a single phase of the extensive projects proposed in the plan. An alternative participatory process involving a more selectively chosen smaller group of people, better suited in different phases of the planning process, such as the plan's development, would have resulted in a more meaningful process with better outcomes for the public. As mentioned by Cornwall (2008), there is a need to achieve a better balance between “depth” and “breadth.”

Lessons Learned & Conclusion

At first glance, a plebiscite or referendum seems like an equal process of allowing citizens to have the final vote on such a large regional infrastructure plan; however, by using the frameworks of Fung’s Democracy Cube and Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation, it is clear that an alternative participatory process would have resulted in a more meaningful process with better outcomes. Specifically, a more selective process in choosing a smaller group of people for different phases of the planning process and equipping those people with the necessary information to make a holistic, informed decision would create a more appropriate participatory process. 

Using Arnstein’s (1969) and Michel’s (2011) theories as a basis for analysis, they prove that a plebiscite or referendum gives an illusion of inclusion as anyone can participate; this is a facade due to the “equalness” of one person one vote that plebiscites and referendums operate, this process is not very equitable as no extra emphasis is given to disadvantaged, marginalized populations so their votes are also counted. Furthermore, lower-income groups are given equal voices as everyone else, although their dependency on the transit system is greater. In applying Cornwall’s (2008) findings, the issue of what tools and resources were provided to citizens before they can make an informed choice is explored. Gastil and Richard(2013) offer a strong recommendation of using randomly constituted citizen bodies throughout the entire policymaking process so that there can be specific training for the random assembly to ensure their properly informed decision. 

Lastly, while the 2015 Metro Vancouver Plebiscite promises plans to improve regional transportation as a whole, the plan ultimately benefits some jurisdictions more than others. Most citizens base decisions on local demands, not on a regional basis. As mentioned by Cornwall, spaces that people create for themselves tend to be more transformative than those that are merely invited. This plebiscite was not driven by the population's desire to voice their opinions with a specific interest in the issue at hand. Cornwall raises the point that giving power to citizens without involving them in the actual decision-making process, particularly in defining the plan, might not be constructive or meaningful.

In conclusion, the appropriateness of using a plebiscite as the participatory process of such a large-scale regional infrastructure project is questioned, as it fails to address the complexity of the many factors, such as differences in local populations, uneven benefits, and equity in engagement. Therefore, we argue that a more selective process in choosing a smaller group of people for different phases of the planning process and equipping those people with the necessary information to make informed decisions would equate to more meaningful citizen involvement and a more appropriate and equitable participatory process.


Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A Ladder Of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of 

Planners, 35(4), 216-224.

Brueckner, J. K., Mills, E., & Kremer, M. (2001). Urban Sprawl: Lessons from Urban 

Economics [with Comments]. Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs, 65–97.

Clark, H. M. & CJI Research Corporation  (2017). Who Rides Public Transportation.

Cornwall, A. (2008). Unpacking ‘Participation’: models, meanings and practices. Community 

Development Journal, 43(3), 269-283.

Elections BC. (2015a). Report for the Chief Electoral Officer on the 2015 Metro Vancouver 

Transportation and Transit Plebiscite. Retrieved December 10, 2023, from

Elections BC. (2015b). Voting results: 2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit 

Plebiscite. Legislative Library of British Columbia. Retrieved December 10, 2023, from

Fung, A. (2006). Varieties of Participation in Complex Governance. Public

Administration Review 66: 66-75

Gastil, J., & Richards, R. (2013). Making Direct Democracy Deliberative through Random 

Assemblies. Politics & Society, 41(2), 253-281.

Hosford, K., & Winters, M. (2022). How the Canadian Population Gets to Work

Laclaire, L. [cityofvancouer] (2015). I am Lon LaClaire, manager of Strategic Transportation Planning for the City of Vancouver. AMA! [online forum post] Reddit.

Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation (2015). Regional Transportation Investments - a 

Vision for Metro Vancouver. Retrieved December 10, 2023, from

Michels, A. (2011). Innovations in democratic governance: how does citizen participation 

contribute to a better democracy? International Review of Administrative Sciences, 77(2), 275-293.

Pawson, C. (2015). Voting begins in Metro Vancouver transit referendum. CBC News. Retrieved 

December 10, 2023, from

Peterson, A. F., Kinsey, B. S., Bartling, H., & Baybeck, B. (2008). Bringing the Spatial In: The 

Case of the 2002 Seattle Monorail Referendum. Urban Affairs Review, 43(3), 403-429.

Statistics Canada. (2017). [Census subdivision], British Columbia and Greater Vancouver, RD 

[Census division], British Columbia (table). Census Profile. 2016 Census. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-316-X2016001. Ottawa. Released November 29, 2017.

Taylor, B.D., Morris, E.A. Public transportation objectives and rider demographics: are transit’s priorities poor public policy?. Transportation 42, 347–367 (2015).

Ward, Doug. (2015) Secrets of Failure: Why the Transit Referendum Crashed. The Tyee. Retrieved on December 12th 2023, from