Stephen Rees's blog

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

TransLink studies ‘smart card’ fare systems

with 2 comments

TransLink studies ‘smart card’ fare systems

Another “no news” story put out by Translink ahead of one of their staff reports. Smart cards have been studied at Translink for as long as it has been in existence. We don’t have them have them because the market for them here is too small to be financially viable. Small transactions are of no interest to the banking system, and cost merchants a fortune. For example, Dairy Queen (where my son works) charges an additional 25c flat fee for Interac transactions. Many other merchants refuse debit cards for amounts under a specific limit, reflecting the transaction cost.

Since I started looking at the issues of small cash payments, back in London in the eighties – first for parking meters, then for the Underground – matters have changed a little, but economies of scale still have to be present to make the considerable up front investment in kit worthwhile. Hong Kong and London both have Oyster systems, which have been very successful, but they are orders of magnitude bigger in number of transactions than Vancouver. Experiments such as VISA cash have been small and have not developed into full blown systems. Parking can now be paid for by cell phones, and this kind of convergence may betoken the future. Other types of card – such as the Starbucks card – are more about retaining customer “loyalty” than reducing costs.

The other big issue is the complexity of Vancouver’s fare structure, which has grown incrementally with the years and is now so byzantine as to require a purpose designed software suite for the bus farebox as to be prohibitively expensive to change. And it can only be done by Cubic, the original contractor, since they own the source code. And, yes, it can have a Cubic smart card reader added to it , but only to their spec. And the Electronic Fare Box (EFB) cannot talk to all the other electronic systems on the bus such as the destination display, communications systems and so on – which requires several separate log ins by the operator.

To be fair, Translink did pay someone on staff for several years to work on the “architecture” of ITS – to no useful output that I can recall.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 2, 2006 at 8:14 am

2 Responses

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  1. I had read a letter in the Courier responding to their article on Translink’s study of Shanghai’s integrated fare system. I searched online to find the article but stumbled across your blog instead.

    I’ve always wondered why the Skytrain operated on a flat rate while some other cities have train fares were based on distance travelled. It seemed counter-intuitive: Vancouver being such a small city *ought* to be on a pay-per-stop system. I never factored in population into the equation until I read this.

    Its a bummer; you’d think more people would use (and PAY to use, ie. not evade fares) the Skytrain if it was pay-per-stop.

    Thanks for the insight.


    September 15, 2006 at 9:52 am

  2. Skytrain operates as part of an integrated fare system that covers the entire network – buses, SeaBus and SkyTrain. Only West Coast Express requires an additional fare.

    The system is only flat rate rate in the evenings and weekends. During the day (start of service to 6:30pm) there is a zone fare system in place. This is based on municipal boundaries and works outwards as concentric rings from the City of Vancouver (Zone 1).

    Passengers may transfer between buses or modes as often as they need to within the validity of the fare paid. For passengers paying cash a transfer is issued valid for transfers in the zone(s) specified for up to 90 minutes after issue, in any direction. It can therefore be used for short return trips.

    For a fare by distance system to operate effectively, passengers must check in and out. On Translink buses passengers must interact with the operator on boarding: the only exception is the #99 B-Line at terminals in the peak period. On all other modes, proof of payment is required.

    The point about population density refers to costs not revenue. Since outside of the downtown core residential densities are low, passengers must travel longer distances to reach their objectives. Once the initial costs are accounted for, operating cost increases proportionately to distance.

    Fare evasion is, as far as anyone knows, fairly moderate. 6 to 8% is often quoted – and is comparable to other cities. SkyTrain is no worse than the rest of the system, and better now that transit police are indisputably police officers and not perceived as “security”. Expert fare evaders are not detected in any system. Levels of fare evasion can only be estimated by sample surveys and passenger counts. Translink has followed BC Transit’s practice by not having enough resources to do adequate surveys, even though they claim they are “statistically significant”. For example, the Greater Toronto Trip Survey samples 4% of the trips in its region. In Greater Vancouver that is 0.4%. There has never been, in my time, enough resources to do adequate passenger counts

    Installing gates to check passengers in and out through existing stations would cost far more than is lost due to fare evasion. They would also add significantly to operating costs as they woudl need to be supervised at all times by station staff. This is because stations must be capable of being evacuated quickly in the case of an emergency. Translink has no control over this requirement as it derives from provincial safety legislation.

    Pleased to be able to help

    Stephen Rees

    September 15, 2006 at 10:18 am

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