Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for August 20th, 2009

“Say “no” to TransLink and Metro’s Hong Kong model for funding transit”

with 9 comments

The title is taken from an opinion piece on the Straight’s web page forwarded to me by reader Mike Harridon. It is written by Elizabeth Murphy who “has a background in development and urban land economics and has worked in the private sector, for the City of Vancouver, and for the Province of B.C.” She also seems to be able to conjure up a great deal out of very little evidence. It is a long article, and I won’t quote much from it, but you need to read the whole thing to get an idea of what she is concerned about. I am not saying she is wrong – with this government who knows what they think they can get away with. I just think she is probably over reacting. And anyway who can we say “No” to? Neither Translink nor the Provincial Government listens to citizens concerns.

She takes one diagram out of Transport 2040: A Transportation Strategy for Metro Vancouver, Now and in the Future and from that concludes “The province has effectively given TransLink authority over land-use policy plans at the regional and municipal levels.” It seems to be to be over reaching. I take the diagram to mean that the province sets the overall transportation and transit strategy for the province, and then Translink translates that into a 30 year transit plan for the region and has a dialogue about it with Metro.

Translink_chart2_090819But, as she says what the arrows are supposed to mean  “are never explained”.

If I had not already recently disposed of Harvey Enchin’s similar fantasies, I might have disregarded the rest. But I read carefully and also looked at the references, and I still cannot come to the same conclusion. But perhaps that is because I spent a few years in the GVTA (the SoCoBritCA predecessor that also used the Translink identity) wondering what we had to do to get legitimate transit concerns about major developments considered either at the regional or the municipal level. Becuase the old GVTA Act said they had to consult and they didn’t, and wouldn’t. And since the GVTA was then run by a Board composed mostly of Mayors and some other councillors no-one in the management really had any desire to tackle the issue. So it simply got ignored.

She is absolutely right to be concerned about “the Undemocratic Nature of TransLink and Its Transportation Plan”. And I agree that “the Proposal to use the Hong Kong Model of Funding Transit through Real Estate Development is Problematic”. Actually the main problem I see is that in the current market there is little chance of Translink making much money and a great risk it will end up, like the City of Vancouver, in trouble with a development like the olympic Village.

For instance, to raise only $15 million toward funding one SkyTrain station in Richmond at Capstan Way, 16 towers were proposed. That project has since fallen through because of the economy and the financial crisis.

Translink was not part of that development of course, and the developer had promised to pay that sum to get a station near his development, then  backed out of the deal when it looked like he would have trouble selling the units. That is quite different to Translink buying land to build a line, which it then pays for out the development on the bits it doesn’t need for stations. Which is what I understand is the Hong Kong model.

But then she goes on to state “Metro Vancouver’s 2040 Regional Growth Strategy Proposal Implements TransLink’s Hong Kong Model of Development-Funded Transit”. No, I do not think it does. It says, quite properly, that future density needs to be served by better transit and concentrated at transit nodes or along transit corridors. That is just good planning policy. But Metro has absolutely no way of making the municipalities actually do anything. We saw that with the previous LRSP. Each municipality had to get the GVRD’s endorsement that its OCP was compatible with the Regional Growth Strategy, but once that was done, what they decided to do on Monday night when they looked at development applications was up to each individual municipality. And in BC there is no appeal of a municipal planning decision – not to the region or the province. The Regional Growth Strategy said nothing about Office Parks, for instance, but did say employment should be concentrated in the regional town centres where they could be served by mass transit. Except most of them weren’t  and very few developers wanted to put up expensive towers near the transit lines. They wanted to put up cheap low rise buildings with huge parking lots near the freeway entrances. And that is what most municipalities allowed as they needed the property tax revenue.

I happen to think that Frequent Transit Development Corridors as proposed in the Regional Growth Strategy are a very good idea – but that doesn’t mean that even if Metro endorses them that we will necessarily see them happening. Only if enough developers buy in to the concept and municipalities decide to let them.

She also has a series of recommendations, most of which I can support except for this one

TransLink should be limited to authority for transportation only

Which I think is actually the case at present. Allowing them to develop the sites they own to produce transit oriented development seems to me to be a much better idea than the current practice which produces places like Sexsmith park and ride or Phibbs Exchange which seem to me to lack basic urbanity, but could be quite good places if developed properly. They might even make money, but right now I would regard that as a possible bonus not a secure source of funding for transit growth. But also I think that we need a different kind of regional authority or government. One that actually has real powers over transport and land use – as well as other regional services like sewers, parks, waste disposal and all the rest. That would combine Translink and Metro as one directly elected body, accountable to the people of this region and with powers to both borrow and to raise taxes and levy charges. Metro as it currently stands has no power over planning: it tries to achieve consensus which means we go no faster than the slowest – and we cannot afford that any longer. We need to change, and change radically, to a sustainable region which means more transit, denser development and no (expletive deleted) freeways! The chances of that happening here now are slim to none, and we will suffer for that. But eventually we will have to embrace this notion or we are doomed. Business as usual is no longer an option. And I think that is really what  Elizabeth Murphy wants to return to.

I really doubt hat there is any substance to the idea that the province thinks it can control development through Translink. And anyway it doesn’t need to. It is already influencing future development patterns by picking its preferred transit lines (Canada Line gets chosen over Evergreen is a purely provincial decision) and by expanding the freeway. That and the SFPR have pretty much set the pattern of development across the region for the next forty years – and it is not going to be transit oriented.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 20, 2009 at 7:56 pm

“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

Tagged with

‘A lost transit opportunity’

with 8 comments

Pacific Coach 3004 Swartz Bay 2008_0926

What appears to be an article in the Times Colonist is uncreditted, and reads like a letter to the editor from an all ill informed reader. A journalist writing such a story would at the very least pick up a phone and call Translink’s press office. There is no express service from the Ferry to Vancouver because of a long standing agreement with Pacific Coach Lines. They operate the coach service between Victoria and Vancouver which gets carried on the ferry. This service is commercial so fares are higher than transit as there is no subsidy. People are prepared to pay more for the greater speed and convenience. Translink (and its predecessor BC Transit) agreed not to run direct bus services between the ferry and downtown as that would abstract PCL’s traffic. Using public funds to compete head to head with private companies is not allowed.    The existing #620 is a distinct improvement over the old #640 – which required Vancouver bound passengers to change at Ladner (although you could still do that and get a #601) but most people currently ride all the way to “Airport Station” and change there for the #98 B-Line or the #424 to the airport itself.

Increasing ferry fares have had the effect of encouraging walk on passengers, with a considerable rise in the number if drop offs and pick ups at the terminal in private cars (“Kiss and Ride” in US transit parlance) but also of transit use. BC Transit does offer express service to downtown Victoria from Swartz Bay – quite why they are not covered by the PCL non-compete agreement I do not know. CMBC has on occasions put on express services when loadings were exceptionally heavy – presumably when PCL was overloaded too.

There is also the argument that transit subsidies are not intended for inter city travel, but solely for travel within the transit operation’s boundary. Cross boundary services with neighbouring operations were always regarded with caution. After all, Greyhound gets no subsidy for its operations – which is why fares to so many small places within BC are so high. If we actually cared about greenhouse gas emissions more than private sector profits then these policies might be reviewed – but don’t hold your breath on that one either.

BC Transit Dennis Trident Victoria BC 2007_0909

Written by Stephen Rees

August 20, 2009 at 9:22 am

Posted in transit

Tagged with , ,