Stephen Rees's blog

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

“Translink’s U-Pass yields hidden benefits”

with 17 comments

I have to start with an apology. Recently I wrote that Langara students don’t have U-Pass. Turns out I am behind the times again

Langara College and Capilano University were added to the program only in May 2008 and January 2009, respectively.

I wish I could find where I made that comment but I cannot track it now to correct it.

The self absorption of students on this issue never ceases to amaze me. They talk about why students need more subsidies and why they ought to get them, but there is never any reference to all the other people who may actually be more deserving  of public support, or what other legitimate claims there might be for transit service provision. Now for campaigners that is understandable, but when it comes to a “thesis for a public-policy master’s degree at SFU” I expect a lot more objectivity.

The headline comes from a Georgia Straight article by Carlito Pablo which is also somewhat one sided. It is acknowledged that “TransLink is in a financial sinkhole” – in other words it simply cannot afford to extend U-Pass to other students let alone people who have graduated – up to five years ago!  But no one seems to mention that when university graduates do get a job, they tend to be better paid than the rest of the workforce. I recognize that right now the jobs market is unusually tough for graduates – but then that is true for everyone trying to get a job. And yes there is also under-employment in the first year or so of the new graduate’s career. But that is not the transit system’s problem.

In fact, I argue that social welfare is not something that transit systems are set up to deal with. Concession fares are essentially marketing tools, not methods to correct maldistribution of income. There was – when I worked there – a small program, fully funded by the provincial government, to give free transit tickets to the indigent. I say was because I simply do not know if that has survived the BC Liberals meanness in social policy. Certainly Translink and BC Transit have no way of determining the income of its users and adapting fares to what they can afford. Most people pay the same fare, and the ones that get a break are due to some special initiative or other, like U-Pass. Quite why students get to the front of the line of people who want a break on the fare is not something I feel comfortable discussing.  Mainly because I think there many more deserving causes like single mothers on welfare or people with disabilities who cannot get around any other way, and who for as long as I have been aware of the issue do not get anything like the number of rides they need. Most recently I was asked to support a group that wants fare concessions for school children to take field trips. Everyone has a good cause.

But it is also the case that basic transit service is inadequate now – overcrowded and underprovided – but will be cut heavily if Translink cannot get more funds. It is bad enough students pushing themselves to the front of the line when times are good. Doing it now just looks greedy to me. First priority for Translink is more revenue to keep existing services going and, for a whole range of reasons, expand the system significantly. We do not actually need any program to encourage ridership. What we have seen is that as transit service improves in frequency, range and service speed is that people do use it, and the system can win people out of their cars.  Indeed, one of the findings that Brian Mills report cited was that the soon to be withdrawn #98 B-Line attracted new riders to the system, not just people from other bus routes. So it is perfectly possible to get people out of their cars – and it does not necessarily have to be very expensive, grade separated railway to do it. In fact, it is probably worthwhile someone doing a comparative cost benefit analysis. How does the cost per new rider compare between the B Line and the Millennium Line now – or the Canada line in a few years time?

As Ken Hardie notes in the Straight: “It’s not cost-neutral, because we always see the ridership go up—which is what you want, right? But what happens is we have to put in extra buses and extra hours of service,”

It is a pity that his point was not made years ago by staff at Translink who stuck to the line about “revenue neutral” U-Pass prices in their Board reports and failed to calculate the impact on costs. The story at CMBC since the U-Pass was brought in has been a constant struggle to get more service onto SFU and UBC routes, and that has cost plenty.

B.C. Transportation Ministry spokesperson Linda Gold said the government is “still moving forward” with a provincewide U-Pass program for September 2010. “As far as details about costs and things, they haven’t determined that yet,” Gold told the Straight by phone.

I am sure she did. But then this morning the CBC reports that a projected revenue shortfall of $3bn for the provincial budget

The government is desperately trying to maintain key services, but a $3-billion shortfall is making that a real challenge, Hansen said.

“We are desperately trying to maintain the critical services in health care and education and the social services. So it’s definitely been a challenging summer,” the finance minister said Wednesday.

“Maintain health care” of course means significant cuts already in surgeries – but that is the current year. No doubt it will be worse next year.

Of course, with this government’s priorities being quite different to mine – or indeed most people in BC (see recent poll data) there is no telling what the new budget may say. “It could translate into a larger deficit, higher taxes or more program cuts” observes the CBC unhelpfully. Probably all three I would say. I doubt that one of the program cuts will be the Gateway, but stopping the Highway #1 expansion would save $3bn off the bat. Not much chance of that. But you can bet that the arts, libraries and school field trips will be first in line for the chop – as well as “elective surgeries”. So if your granny has been waiting for a new hip, she can expect to spend a lot more time in great discomfort and very limited mobility. Because making sure the Olympics are a great PR success is a lot more important. Quite where the “commitment” to U-Pass stands in all this remains to be seen, but it does not seem likely to survive – any more than any other BC LIberal promise made three months ago will survive. They are in power now and can go for four years before they have to worry about promises again.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 20, 2009 at 11:11 am

Posted in transit

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17 Responses

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  1. Stephen you are right in principle..
    When I was a post secondary student in Europe we weren’t allowed to work in a store etc. so our extended family “subsidized” us (actually paid for the whole darn thing..tuition, room and board, entertainment..)so we could hardly complain about our hardships ..but we did and even joined unions protests etc.
    Now I am likely going to infuriate you by saying that transit systems in all major countries subsidize students and seniors, regardless of their income (and school trips and..).

    I do know that “just because everyone does it” is a very poor argument but then again how come European and Japanese towns smaller than Vancouver can afford to do it? and it is not as if they had unlimited resources either or weren’t hammered by the economic crisis.

    Red frog

    August 20, 2009 at 12:09 pm

  2. What would Translink do if the universities, or student societies collected fees from students and used those funds to subsidize the sale of transit passes. This would be cost neutral to translink from a retail perspective, and the student cost would be dependant upon rate of subscription. Students subsidizing students. But even in this scenario the costs to translink might increase as every new rider to these locations does put a strain on the system.

    The City of Vancouver is subsidizing the transit costs for employees through the new pay parking scheme, but is finding that too many people are taking up their offer, and not enough are paying for parking. So their transportation plan might need to be reworked.

    As can be seen, the model for public transit is such that if it ever became popular, it would be unsustainable.

    Julien

    August 20, 2009 at 4:05 pm

  3. Regarding “a group that wants fare concessions for school children to take field trips.”

    If you restrict the concession to school hours, since there is excess capacity in the system, it may actually work.

    Sungsu

    August 20, 2009 at 4:07 pm

  4. A couple of other points worth discussing from the article is that capturing riders at a young age is key for transit. If they become used to living without a car, they will continue to do so. Many students come from neighbourhoods that would be considered unwalkable, and therefore, if the cycle of driving everywhere can be put on hold, there is a greater likelyhood of that ex-student doing without a car, and looking for walkable neighbourhoods.
    There is a limit to that however, when 3 zone students are treated the same as 1 zone. In the author’s situation, driving to SFU vancouver from PoCo would have been difficult to justify, due to other factors. Without a U-Pass, her choices would have been the purchase of a 3 zone pass, or to relocate closer to her destination.

    But again this is the common theme that Translink is only responsible on the part between point A and B and has no influence on the location of those points.

    Julien

    August 20, 2009 at 4:18 pm

  5. How about simply raising the U-Pass fares until they are actually neutral (accounting for the increase in cost that the program created) instead of merely revenue neutral?

    David

    August 20, 2009 at 8:53 pm

  6. Stephen,

    While it may be true that there are some advocates that focus exclusively on accessibility to transit from a student perspective(such as the Master’s thesis that you mention), it has been my experience that when student unions across this province talk about the U-Pass, they are not exclusively concerned with students, but are also are concerned about the overall accessibility and affordability of the system for all. I do not believe it is fair to pit the necessity of students’ accessibility to transit against those of single mothers. It is entirely consistent and prudent to advocate for both.

    Blake Frederick
    President, AMS Student Union

    Blake Frederick

    August 20, 2009 at 9:04 pm

  7. I always thought the U-Pass was way too cheap for what it offered. I think the monthly cost of the pass should have been 75-100% of the cost of a 1-zone pass.

    When I was in university, we had the Fast Track sticker (still in use in some colleges) that allowed me to use a one-zone pass as a three-zone pass. I thought was adequate.

    I have to agree with David in raising the U-Pass fares. I think whoever developed the U-Pass started the monthly rate at way too low a price. Now everyone is used to the low rate.

    I think the key to the U-Pass is that it is a required part of student fees. If all those students had to pay roughly the cost of a 1-zone pass, wouldn’t that help the financial crunch a little?

    Henry

    August 20, 2009 at 10:57 pm

  8. Henry: the price of the UPass was negotiated with the students – over a long period of time. In order to get the pass included in all students fees, it was necessary to get the student approval, which meant that people who did not use transit – and had no intention of switching – had to be persuaded to vote for the new pass. The formula adopted by Translink staff in the negotiations was that the price of the pass had to be revenue neutral. That meant a survey of student travel, and passenger counts, were used to determine how much revenue was being collected at each institution and then that total revenue was divided by the enrollment to determine the price for that institution. That also means that schools where many students already use transit do not get offered any thing as attractive a deal. In other transit systems which brought in U-Pass such as Seattle and Victoria there was spare capacity at peak periods which could be utilised to carry the new passengers attracted by the U-Pass. That was not the case in Vancouver – there was no spare capacity. The incremental cost of the new ridership therefore had to be absorbed somehow – because there was no incremental revenue. The U-Pass was declared ” a success” because ridership increased and car use decreased, but we all paid for that in both poorer transit service elsewhere and increased subsidy.

    Stephen Rees

    August 21, 2009 at 7:09 am

  9. Blake: the effect of the U-Pass negotiated with AMS was to increase costs with no additional revenues and overload services that had no spare capacity (see my reply to Henry). You may think that you “advocate for both” but in reality all transit users and taxpayers have paid dearly for your excellent U-Pass price. That means there is much less for everyone else, no matter their need or ability to pay. The leaders of AMS got a very good deal for students. Translink staff did not do a good job for the system as a whole.

    Stephen Rees

    August 21, 2009 at 7:16 am

  10. David – do you think a majority of students would vote for that?

    Stephen Rees

    August 21, 2009 at 7:16 am

  11. Sungsu: I dispute that there is “excess capacity in the system”. The field trip may get the children to their destination after the morning peak, but the homeward trip in the afternoon will be at a peak travel time. Besides, interpeak service is reduced to save costs and reduces capacity.

    Stephen Rees

    August 21, 2009 at 7:19 am

  12. School ends between 3:00 and 3:15 pm, and the students need to back at the school by then for dismissal.

    Sungsu

    August 21, 2009 at 7:36 am

  13. Re school children: Euro transit systems have had reduced fares for children on field trips for ages. Even small towns like Rennes (France)the smallest town so far (1/2 million with far flung suburbs)with an automated LRT system offer them (as in all French towns with good transit system they have about 2 dozen different fares..)
    Bordeaux, another French city, has 2 possible fares for children on a field trip:
    1-for a group of 10 children under 16 a special return ticket cost 6.20 Euros for the 10 kids. One adult or more must supervise 10 children and get reduced fare tickets too.
    2-for groups of 10 to 30 children under 16 with 6 supervising adults, a pack of 36 tickets cost 25.10 Euros. If there are less than 36 people in the group extra tickets cannot be used at another time.
    In both cases trips must be taken between 8:30 and 16:45 (French school have longer hour due a long noon break)
    as a point of reference: 1 single trip cost 1.40 E. 5 tickets cost 5.20 E., 10 cost 10.30 E. An adult monthly pass cost 38.50 Euros if bought one month at a time or 31.50 E. per month with a yearly subscription of 378 E. (with automatic monthly withdrawal)
    In Bordeaux ANYONE under 28 pays a reduced fare.
    Car drivers without a weekly or monthly pass can park in a secure Park and Ride lot for 3 Euros per day and the driver and all the passengers each get a free return ticket, valid from the time the ticket is issued until the tram and buses stop running.
    reference: http://www.infotbc.com click on tarifs (fares)
    Many fares are set low to reduce the use of cars to a minimum possible…and downtown has lots of car-free streets to reduce car use even more.

    Berlin has a neat system for families..with a 1 weekly or monthly or yearly pass:
    One adult and up to three children aged from 6 to 14 years of age travel free of charge with the ticket holder on Mondays to Fridays from 20:00 hrs as well as Saturdays and Sundays, and all day on public holidays. Further accompanying persons, etc.: Children under 6 years of age (a maximum of 3 children on ferries), prams/pushchairs and luggage as well as one dog travel with the ticket holder free of charge. A reduced tariff ticket is required for each additional dog. A bicycle tariff ticket is needed to travel with a bicycle.
    Reference: http://www.bvg.de/index.php/en/Bvg/Index/folder/706/name/Tickets+%26+Fares (check left hand side column for various fares)

    As far as I know neither French towns nor Berlin suffer undue financial hardships from all these discounted fares..

    Red frog

    August 23, 2009 at 10:55 am

  14. TransLink screwed up by not going to the students with a truly neutral plan in the first place and while I agree that they cannot expect students to voluntarily fix the problem, the system as a whole is broken and the bleeding needs to be stopped in as many areas as possible. Most university students are bright people who know just how ridiculously cheap their passes are. If the alternative is service cuts, I think most of them would accept a modest increase.

    David

    August 23, 2009 at 2:50 pm

  15. Stephen,

    I’m coming late to this thread, but there’s one thing I want to point out. You say:

    They talk about why students need more subsidies and why they ought to get them, but there is never any reference to all the other people who may actually be more deserving of public support, or what other legitimate claims there might be for transit service provision. Now for campaigners that is understandable, but when it comes to a “thesis for a public-policy master’s degree at SFU” I expect a lot more objectivity.

    In the Straight article, Cooper–the grad student in question–argues that students “ought” to get discounted passes because those discounts encourage them to take transit. That is, she makes a fairly straightforward means-ends argument. That’s all. If she makes any arguments elsewhere about student’s “legitimate claims” to discounts, or what students “deserve”, there is no indication of those arguments in the Straight piece.

    Now, the Straight reporter who wrote the article, Carlito Pablo, does seem to suggest the kinds of arguments you object to. But that’s him, not Cooper. I suspect your fire is better directed at him, rather than Cooper.

    viewfromthe44

    August 27, 2009 at 12:19 pm

  16. View: You are right – but I was extending the discussion (without making specific reference to it) to my experience of dealing with various student activists on this issue – mostly from other institutions who wanted the same deal that UBC and SFU got. I should have been clearer about that.

    Stephen Rees

    August 27, 2009 at 12:43 pm

  17. Stephen,

    I think you were right to extend the discussion more generally — and I’m especially inclined to agree that it’s a mistake to think of the policy aims of transit planning as transit-for-low-income-people (even if that’s often a happy consequence of good transit). That’s a tough discussion for progressives to have, but an important one.

    But you also specifically knock the “objectivity” of Cooper’s master’s thesis, when (at least in that Straight article) she hasn’t said anything to warrant the criticism.

    Scott.

    viewfromthe44

    August 27, 2009 at 12:56 pm


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