Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for October 29th, 2006

Who cares about the bus?

with 7 comments

Seven Oaks Magazine.

A link to this article was posted on the Livable Region Coalition’s list serve. I thought I would pass it along, but bear in mind this thought. The Bus Riders Union – the reference right after the end of this piece – does not exactly share the “non-sectarian voice” that this publication seeks to be. But it is fair enough that they be heard as most of the main stream media seem to ignore them most of the time, which of course simply pushes them to be even more obnoxious as a way to get some attention.

It is certainly true that transit systems are trying to win additional riders, and therefore do not seem to be especially responsive to people who are already committed to transit. It is simply sensible market segmentation. There is simply not much point trying to win over people who would not be caught dead on a bus, or who believe their time is far too valuable to waste. Similarly, if you are what is called “a captive rider” i.e. someone who has no choice but to use the bus, then you will, whether or not there is some additional incentive. So to make the best use of limited marketing dollars, attention goes to winning over those who can be persuaded to change modes. That is why mode share – or market share – is the important indicator not ridership. Similarly if the people who start to switch to the bus formerly walked or used their bikes, you have also not had a positive effect on the environment. Which is why I think proposals to put free transit service in downtown are brain dead.

But I also think that there is every reason to hang on to the riders you have got. It costs eight times as much to win a new rider as keep an existing one, and Greater Vancouver has one of the highest rates of “churn” of any system I am familiar with. A lot of people have tried to use transit and given up. Even so called “captive riders” can also find other ways to get around (walking, cycling and getting rides with other people) or finding other ways to meet their needs – shopping on line, or downloading videos rather than going to the multiplex to cite only two examples.

The decisions to invest in system expansions tend to be made by provincial politicians even in a region that is supposed to have its own regional authority. The GVTA has decided to depend on provincial and federal support to determine its priorities. And provincial and federal politicians like to have ribbon cutting opportunities. Just buying some more buses may make much better sense, but it is much less likely to capture their attention.

The analysis applied by the BRU is based on US experience – especially the way that LA decided to build a rapid transit line rather than more buses, which was interpreted as a blow to the existing transit users who were more likely to be poor and black. This analysis does not fit well to the Vancouver experience, which is more nuanced to our (very) peculiar local politics. The original GVTA Strategic Plan was based on the LRSP approach of “intermediate capacity” rapid transit (rapid bus or conventional light rail) which being cheaper than grade separated would go further – literally. By adopting the Canada Line as the first priority, the province stuck to its Vancouver centric, don’t get in the way of the car, approach. This means there is not enough for expanded bus service or light rail in the outer parts of the region. It is not a class or race issue here. Middle class, affluent Vancouver rejected the use of light rail on existing tracks and fought Richmond Rapid Bus into submission – so there was very little improvement in transit service for suburban commuters, but lower income residents of Marpole got a much better bus service into downtown. The Canada Line is simply the same policy only much more expensive, with distinctly negative impacts on existing bus users from south of the Fraser (including Richmond).

Meanwhile, Translink had also decided to introduce U-Pass even though it did not have enough bus capacity to serve either UBC or SFU adequately – let alone both at once. And did not make adequate provision to get enough new bus capacity into place before the demand from these universities exploded.

We need to better understand transportation needs in low density, “many to many” Origin/Destination pairs that is the pattern of demand common to most of the region – and come up with solutions that are less environmentally damaging than increased car use. Which may be conventional transit in some denser corridors – but is likely to be quite unconventional elsewhere.

Updated 30 October, based on a post to LRC general list

Written by Stephen Rees

October 29, 2006 at 8:06 pm