Transit ridership and service figures unclear
“Lies, damn lies and statistics”
Or, in the case of Translink a vivid imagination. At one time it was thought that the new electronic farebox would at long last bring some reality to the business of estimating ridership. But then the operations people got worried about the delay to service while everyone swiped their tickets and passes, so passes remained “flash media”. Automatic counters are now being deployed on new buses. There are counts and survey of course, but the problem with a count is that you have no idea how that relates to individual journeys – many people are probably counted several times. So you get this issue of “boardings” and “trips”. Then there are fare audits, which attempt to establish the extent of fare cheating, but then if someone is dishonest enough to ride without a ticket they are unlikely to be truthful when asked about their origin and destination.
Sample surveys and trip diaries try to make up the data gap, by tracking individuals who report all their journeys in some detail. 5,000 such diaries are collected every five years as part of the regional travel survey. That is enough to be statistically significant at the regional level, and allows for some “calibration” of the model together with cordon or screen line counts. But it is a very small sample – 0.04% of trips – compared to the 4% of trips that get counted in the Toronto Travel Survey.
Back in the bad old days of Glen Clark, a head count reduction was demanded of what was then BC Transit. It was realised that cutting operators or maintenance staff would be catastrophic, but the loss of “checkers” (the people who conducted passenger counts) would not have an immediate effect on service. And then there was always the use of market research firms who could do focus groups and questionnaires and the like.
But the good thing about this sort of data is that you don’t have to be bound by it. There’s plenty of room for interpretation and “professional judgement”. For example, the first two years of data from the farebox were simply ignored by the planners, because they were so different from what the estimates had been telling them for so long. And then there was the auditor, who did not understand that the estimates of fraud were based on calculations made from the total fare revenue divided by the “average fare”, which in itself was based on an estimate of ridership which included a set percentage for fraudulent travel.
The people who think that everyone rides Skytrain for free are mistaken. Most people get to the station by bus, and have a transfer or a pass. That’s why they don’t buy a ticket from the machines. But bus operators do not enforce the fare system – it’s too dangerous and not worth risking a faceful of knuckles (or worse) for an expired transfer. Most people are basically honest, and passes allow so many trips that they are a real bargain, so the decline of the cash fare is actually part of the plan. Counting coins is expensive, but Translink is much cheaper than the banks if you need to buy lots of rolls of coins.
UPDATE Based on information provided by the comment below this post has been revised