Stephen Rees's blog

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

COPE puts a free bus on Vancouver streets

with 5 comments

Charlie Smith in the Georgia Straight notes

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.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 14, 2008 at 11:52 am

Posted in transit

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5 Responses

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  1. There are cases when free buses help: delivering people from parking garages to shopping places around downtown. They are also great for tourists, who don’t need to figure out the fare system, etc.

    Corey Burger

    November 14, 2008 at 1:57 pm

  2. If anyone wants to park in downtown to go shopping there are plenty of pay spaces to accomodate them. I really cannot see that the rest of us should pay for them to park a long way from the store just so they can catch a bus. If the stores want to validate parking or give away bus tickets, good for them. I just do not see that as a high priority for a cash strapped transit system that is in desperate need of more buses for the suburbs.

    Tourists do not need to “figure out the fare system” – just buy a day pass. That’s what I do in any strange city and did here on my early visits. And also, why do tax payers here have to subsidize tourists – who anyway already chip in their own taxes on hotels to pay for Tourism Vancouver. Now if you got a bus pass for every time you paid a night’s tourist tax (i.e. some of that revenue flowed to Translink) THEN you are on to something.

    Everyone wants a free ride. That does not mean we have to pay for them.

    Stephen Rees

    November 14, 2008 at 2:08 pm

  3. Last week I got on a Fraser trolley on Seymour and Dunsmuir. I wanted to go to Goh Ballet at the y between Kingsway and Main. From where I got on I calculate that only about 40% of the people that got on the bus paid. The driver said nothing (and so would if I were the bus driver). So we really have a de facto free bus service in Vancouver. My friends who work for Translink argue that many more “freaks” would take the bus if buses were free. I don’t think so.

    I sometimes take a bus downtown from 41st and Granville. I have a pre-paid book of tickets in my pocket. The regulations stipulate that if my pass is not validated I cannot get on the other two doors of the B-Line. If I obey this regulation I will wait for a long time at that bus stop. I get on at the end of the bus and when I get off at Seymour and Georgia the bus is still full. How do I validate my pass? It is my feeling that some people know this and simply don’t pay. The same situation happens in the afternoon at Sasamat and 10th going East on the UBC B-line. Because I then have to transfer to the Number 10 Trolley or the Richmond B-line to go to 41st I have a renewed opportunity to validate my pass. Sometimes it is impossible here, too.

    De facto, we almost have free buses in Vancouver.

    Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

    Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

    November 14, 2008 at 2:53 pm

  4. Quote:

    “From where I got on I calculate that only about 40% of the people that got on the bus paid”

    Really, how did you ascertain this? People with passes need not pay, just display their pass. Until we have a more scientific calculation of fare cheats, casual observations only enhance the ‘fare cheat’ myth.

    Malcolm J.

    November 15, 2008 at 12:59 pm

  5. How did I ascertain this?

    None had passes. Most looked in terrible shape. One woman coughed here way in while we passengers tried to get out of her way as quickly as possible. It is the obligation (as far as I know) for bus drivers to point out that would-be passengers must pay. The driver has no obligation or mandate to force the situation.

    The most scientific calculation woud involve asking the drivers. Be my guest.

    Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

    Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

    November 15, 2008 at 5:08 pm


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