COPE puts a free bus on Vancouver streets
For years, transit advocates have called for a free bus service in downtown Vancouver to alleviate traffic congestion and make it easier for people to get around.It’s done in Seattle and it’s done in Portland, but for some reason, TransLink has never delivered this sensible idea in downtown Vancouver.
The reason is that it is not a “sensible idea” – it’s a gimmick. It does absolutely nothing to “relieve traffic congestion” nor does it make it easier to get around.
And just because they have them in Seattle and Portland does not mean we should have them here. For one thing we already have a greater percentage of trips on transit then either of them.
If you ask car drivers why they do not take transit, you will get replies about speed and convenience. They won’t mention fares unless they are prompted to. People who have cars do not do so because they think transit is too expensive. The strongest advocates for free transit are those who use it anyway and like the idea of someone else paying for it. For just as there is no free lunch there is no free transit. Someone has to pick up the tab. In downtown Vancouver that used to be the merchants. Fighting the rise of suburban shopping centres, and seeing the effect of having two main shopping areas – one around Woodwards and one around the Bay – they paid for a bus to link the east and west bits of a larger shopping area than we have today. That service of course stopped when Woodwards gave up.
People who travel by transit every day into the downtown are well advised to have passes. Since they are going to make 10 trips a week, the average fare is cheaper with a pass. And every extra ride beyond those ten commute trips is “free” – or to put that in economistspeak the marginal cost of trips is zero. Transit users with passes in downtown thus have nothing to gain from a free bus. If you want to serve existing transit users better, then provide them with more service. They are already willing to pay for poor service, so any extra funds Translink has should go to making it better – more frequent is the first priority.
If you live and work in downtown, why are you more deserving of a free ride than people who live in less expensive areas? If you now walk or ride your bike to work, why should we try to get you onto transit? If you drive into downtown for work you probably get a parking spot paid for by your company. So you probably do not move it much during the day as you would then have to pay to park yourself.
So what does a free downtown bus service achieve?
The objective for the regional transportation authority has been and should be to increase transit mode share. Free buses in downtown do not serve that objective so they are not to be considered if there is extra funding available. If someone else has a different objective and money to spend then by all means let them put on a free bus – just as COPE has. For instance, if I had a parking lot full of long term contract parking but wanted to redevelop that site and shift those parkers to some more remote location, then a “free” shuttle makes a lot of sense. Just ask YVR who do exactly that at the airport – and will do more once the Canada Line opens. But just because the users do not pay a fare does not make it “free” – users of the airport are paying for that service through their user fee.
I can think of a number of more deserving cases who should get all of their transit costs paid for by the community as a whole. Downtown Vancouver residence is not, in my view, a sufficeint qualification. But I also think if we want to make adjustments in income distribution, there are much fairer, equitable and efficient ways of doing that than handing out bus tickets.