Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

A case for free transit in the downtown core

with 3 comments

Other cities do it–why can’t we?

Vancouver Courier

Bizarrely this opinion piece is actually field under “news” – and it is not attributed apart from an email address for “tos”

The idea has been around for a while – you will find earlier refutations on this blog too.

But the simple question that appears under the headline is easy to answer.

Even if this were a good idea (I don’t think it is) we cannot afford it. The US cities that have free transit are much smaller than us, and the ones that have free transit just in the core have a better supply of transit and more resources available to them. They use free transit to fill up empty buses, and often have financial support from the downtown businesses who need this service to compete with suburban malls that have lots of free parking. Free transit essentially distributes shoppers – and others – to a greater range of parking lots. Because even in less successful downtowns parking is problematic, because space is at a premium.

In Vancouver we do not have enough transit supply. We haven’t had enough for many years because the province controls how much is spent on transit in BC. Since transit is not a popular subject in “the heartlands” – where public  money spent in Vancouver is greatly resented – there is more political capital at provincial election times at railing at transit “wastefulness” (something Shirley Bond was falling back on prior to the current fuss) than doing the right thing. We have already given huge incentives to some post secondary students to use transit – and will be extending to the  rest shortly – also due to provincial decision-making. The result has been overcrowding and pass-ups. We simply do not need to promote more transit use in downtown Vancouver because we cannot carry all the people who want to use it now.

Translink is cash strapped – not just for capital projects like the Evergreen Line – but also the daily operating and maintenance of the existing system. The Mayors were dissuaded from cutting service to balance the books, but Vancouver showed during the Olympics that more transit – and less space for cars – would work well if continued. We lost that impetus – a great shame – due to financial imperatives.

“Tos” thinks that the province could divert the $317m a year that is now used to subsidize the oil and gas business. Shame there is no source cited for that figure – I would love to use that argument myself. They won’t, of course. Promotion of oil and gas has been the centrepiece of the economic program of this government – as well as the hideously expensive and wrongly directed Gateway Program. He is right that if we want to do something about greenhouse gas the money could be better spent – but, aside from the token carbon tax, I see no evidence of that. Rather the contrary in fact.

The other thing that “tos” doesn’t notice is that we have a very different distribution of people in our downtown. Vancouver’s downtown is quite different to Seattle’s or Portland’s. Indeed many US cities send their planners here to see how we’ve done it. The vast clusters of residential towers – many in owner occupation and most highly desirable residences – are being copied elsewhere now. We lost a lot of employment in our downtown core too – and that employment did not go to the regional centres but was dispersed to suburban office parks. That is a huge problem for transit. Such places are difficult to serve – and many aren’t. If we put free transit into the downtown core the greatest beneficiaries would be the people who can now afford to live there. This is not like the “inner city” problems that plague other places – except of course the Downtown Eastside.

If someone is going to throw $317m at transit in BC, the best thing would be to use that fund more service in places where there is currently excess demand. Then to start providing transit to places that have supportive local density – the dense “nodes” of townhouses and multiple family developments – that dot the landscape in places that are otherwise remote from journey destinations like workplaces and post secondary education – the sort of trips that transit is good at. Surrey and Langley would both gain a lot of service from that. What has always been found in the transit business is that you win more new users by improving service than anything else. If you cut – or remove fares – there is a short-term bump as people try to get on. But they quickly lose interest when they find that the bus is not going to stop for them. Or they are uncomfortably crammed in if they can get on.

When you ask people who drive why they do not use transit, they don’t mention fares as the deterrent. It’s speed and convenience they talk about. And you cannot provide that if you have no funds.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 13, 2010 at 10:52 am

Posted in transit

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3 Responses

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  1. Hard to argue with you as you got it right. It was quickly obvious the first couple of times I went to Portland –years ago–that both free transit and very cheap parking (in an indoor parkade yet) was to attract customers downtown, away from suburban malls!

    Last month my buddy and I stopped in downtown Eugene and parked in a parkade as we planned to stay several hours. Total cost for 3 hours: 75cents! first 2 hrs are free, then it is 75 cents per hour..

    Another time we were in downtown Salem and started to park in a government official reserved parking spot..a cop came up at once and took us a few block away in a parking lot that was free for 4 hours…so we stayed longer than planned and ate and shopped there.

    This is the type of things that don’t cost much but help downtown businesses.

    Red frog

    October 13, 2010 at 10:53 pm

  2. I have a question about a piece of oft-repeated conventional wisdom about Vancouver, which is that we have lost employment downtown from an unspecified number at an unnamed date to today. I was under the impression that downtown employment numbers have never been higher. If ‘employment’ refers exclusively to mining and energy head office jobs, then yes, I believe we have lower employment in that sector than in the past.

    With that said, I completely agree with your position that free transit downtown is unnecessary and unaffordable. Let’s try to accommodate the paying demand that already exists before we start giving it away for free. One idea I’ve been walking around with for some time would be to make the night-bus service free. In light of the current surge in demand for the night-bus service and the proven success of free New Year’s Eve travel, I think that free night buses would be a win-win scenario all around. For the limited number of buses that Translink is running at that time of night the $110 bucks an hour that it costs to operate a bus, on average, would be worth it in lives saved.

    East Vancouverite

    October 14, 2010 at 9:48 pm

  3. The answer is not in the absolute numbers of employees in downtown but the share of regional employment. At one time, travel to Vancouver’s downtown dominated the morning commute: that is no longer the case. The regional has grown dramatically in the last twenty years – but most of the growth in employment has occurred elsewhere – and not in the regional centres as planned either.

    If free is wrong all day it does not become right after 01:00. If bars and restaurants were to give patrons a transit ticket each (say, for example with the third drink) that would certainly help to encourage their business and road safety. It wouldn’t do much about paying for more transit capacity at that time though.

    Stephen Rees

    October 15, 2010 at 10:41 am


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