Stephen Rees's blog

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

Are we ready for road pricing?

with 17 comments

The amount of coverage that Martin Crilly’s report got surprised me. After all it was not as if he was saying something new, or that anyone was bound to act upon his recommendations. The only substantive issue covered was would he approve next year’s fare increase if the Mayors endorse it. All the rest was editorial.

In an opinion piece in today’s Vancouver Sun, Craig McInnes forecasts that it will be up to the province to decide if the Evergreen Line gets built.  Which is also hardly a stunning insight. The decision to build the Canada Line that was forced through the former Translink board was achieved by “promising” that the two lines would both be built. And there is both federal and provincial money lined up to do that. Just no way for Translink to come up with its share. The Canada Line is now open, and there is no sign that the Evergreen Line will ever be built.

McInnes accepts Crilly’s assertion that there is now spare capacity in the transit system. He also endorses the idea that simply increasing capacity has not been enough to tempt people out of their cars and onto transit – which, of course, has not happened to any great extent. Transit ridership grew but only as total demand for transportation grew – transit share of the market has hardly changed. Therefore, the argument goes, since just providing capacity “didn’t work”, we need sticks as well as carrots.

I am not sure that this analysis is adequate. Firstly, the claim about spare capacity is new to me. It is not backed up either by figures in Crilly’s report or, so far as I am aware at present, in figures that Translink has made available. As I noted in my previous post, Crilly says that he has seen unpublished data at Translink. I regret that I am not prepared to accept his word for that. Firstly, because I have too much experience with the way that Translink creates its ridership “data” – and any statements about capacity utilisation have to be based on ridership data. But secondly, given that Translink is in a desperate cash crunch and badly needs to convince us all of its situation, why has this data set not been made available publicly?

But passenger demand was not just driven by new and more frequent services. The biggest increment in demand was due to the introduction of the UPass – and we are still seeing significant impacts on operating costs of that decision. Much of the new capacity that will start next week is to relieve overcrowding on routes serving UBC. Wherever this “spare capacity” might be on the system it is certainly not on Broadway. (And maybe Gordon Campbell cares more about his tube to UBC than the north east sector?)

There are indeed passenger counters at the new Canada Line stations. But they have only been working for the last three weeks. I have heard talk that the small number of passenger counters installed on a few buses are not proving reliable – but that’s just talk. And it also reminds me of the time when we first started getting data from the electronic fareboxes. The idea that everyone would swipe their ticket when they boarded a bus was quickly relinquished even before the new machines were put into use as they were not “swipe” but “dip” – which meant it took too long to board if all pass holders lined up and waited for the machine to return their pass. But, if we had data on cash payments and transfers – as well as good survey data on pass usage – we could factor up  farebox data to produce estimates of boardings by route and time of day. A huge advance. Except the service planners refused to even look at the data, since it did not confirm their “professional judgement” of ridership. The absence of “good survey data” was also a handicap. We had some data, but not nearly enough to be confident at the route and time of day levels.

So unless things have changed greatly since I left, I remain skeptical. But I also recognize that the bus operators themselves have a vested interest – and an on going campaign – on overcrowding and pass ups. And Translink themselves are saying that on Tuesday morning, when school starts again and everyone is back from their vacations, there will be overcrowding and stress on the system. As they always say just before Labour Day every year. If there really were plenty of capacity on the system to absorb new riders – as Crilly and by extension McInnes assert – then, surely,  there should be no problems on Tuesday.

The figures are needed since it is essential to understand how much capacity we now have, how it is utilised, and how much more would be needed if some or all of these new “sticks” were to be deployed. Forget road pricing for a moment (that is the least likely after all) Translink had its own parking tax quashed by the province, and the prospect of  increasing the current sales tax on paid parking vanished with the switch to HST. ICBC commissioned a study on pay as you drive insurance years ago – and has sat on it ever since. We know it would work, we know it would also be a much better way of allocating risk – the more you drive the greater your chance of a collision. ICBC refuse to even discuss the idea- even with the man who wrote the report for them!

But let us suppose for a moment that a sudden light goes on somewhere in Victoria and some new and really effective policy is introduced that changes the way that people view the cost of driving. Now we have a good example of that – the dramatic rise in gasoline prices to $1.50 a litre here and $4 a gallon and more in the US not so long ago. And, as far as that goes, the increase in unemployment and the loss of easy financing, that has encouraged more Americans than ever to try to use their transit systems. All over the US demand for transit has increased, and car use is down. But not a single system can cope with this – they simply do not have the operating funds. Every system is both cutting service and raising fares because its tax base has fallen due to the recession. We can see quite clearly what happens when you start applying the “stick” but also have inadequate capacity to cope with demand. All you have to do is set up a Google news alert with the search term “transit” and you will get a page full of links to US local news sources bewailing the current crisis of transit there every weekday morning (it quietens down at weekends).

I will even accept, for the sake of argument, that there may be some spare capacity on Translink – but I cannot accept that there is anything like enough to cope with the sort of shift in mode share that we actually need to see to make any real difference. And, for the want of anything better, I will restate that in 1999 we said that 11% mode share was not good enough and that by 2009 we should be at 17%. Without seeing any data, I am willing to bet that it is nothing like enough to accomodate that sort of shift from single occupant cars to transit.

Road pricing is a very good idea indeed.   It was a very good idea in 1967, too, when Gabriel Roth published “Paying for Roads”. At that time the technological requirements seemed a bit like science fiction. These days, that is no longer the case. But it is not the technological issues that have held back road pricing. There is nowhere, yet, that has adopted a comprehensive system that charges for road space that varies by location and time of day. There are a few places that levy a flat fee to enter a central cordon. There are a few others that charge varying amounts for queue jumper lane usage depending on congestion (so called HOT lanes – High Occupancy or Toll). If Metro Vancouver were to adopt regionwide road pricing it would be unprecedented – and for that reason alone I think it is unlikely. But even if we accepted some system that made the best use of available technologies – such as GPS satellites and cell phones – I think it would still take a great deal of time and effort to create the necessary billing and payment system, even if we could resolve the obvious concerns about privacy.

It could be done, but it would require a major shift in public opinion. Because the reaction that can already be seen is the common belief that we have already paid for these roads through our taxes – and that we are “entitled” to use them whenever and wherever we want to. The notion that road space at peak periods is a scarce resource that is either rationed by queueing (as we do now) or pricing is way beyond common understanding. Not that that could not be overcome. But again that would take time and resources.

Oddly enough, we do have a provincial government that prefers user fees to taxation for government provided services. They just promised us another income tax cut, which they promptly took back in higher MSP fees. Post secondary education used to be supported by taxes, now it is supported by fees – and student loans. We now even pay to use provincial parks – and we always have had to pay for healthcare services such as ambulances and prescription medications. So in terms of political dogma there should be no problem. But then there is the prospect of public outrage such as we saw over the vehicle levy (a flat fee not related to road use at all) – or, come to that, the HST. Which they seem to be sticking to despite the furore and fuss.

We cannot use a cordon price system here. We no longer have a single, dominant central place that creates a “many to few” (origins – destinations) morning commute. We also have very little through traffic in downtown to be diverted to a ring road. Geography also does not help. Simply tolling water crossings (another much discussed option here) misses off the predominant movement east-west on the Burrard Peninsula which has no water crossing. Congestion is widespread, but occurs only at limited times of day. So a real road pricing system is needed which varies the price by location, direction of travel and time of day. A driver westbound towards the Port Mann at 7:30am (lots of congestion) ought to be paying much more than one southbound on Highway 99 at 9:30pm (none at all). And it needs to cover more than just the major and provincial road networks if there is not to be a major impact through diversions to minor roads.

At present Gordon Campbell seems to be in denial. He was on the box again last night saying the Evergreen Line will be built. He is convinced that Translink has the resources even though the Commissioner doesn’t. And nor does anyone who knows much about the system expect there to be discovery in the next month that will turn up more than relatively small sums compared to what is needed. Actually, the decision not to proceed with the Evergreen Line is one of the easier ones. After all, we don’t have it now and thus won’t miss it. That is not the case with the the current threat to transit service. If that is cut – and it costs more to use the system – there will be significant anger. And I can only hope that it is directed at Gordon Campbell – since it will be the result of people doing his bidding. But history shows that it was Translink that has always borne the brunt of the consequences of Premiers’ incompetences (and there has been plenty of precedent there).

Written by Stephen Rees

September 5, 2009 at 12:30 pm

17 Responses

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  1. Stephen —

    Thanks for saying more on the question of capacity. I’ve been thinking about since yesterday, since if I followed Crilly’s reasoning, his argument that Translink needs to transition from supply-side carrots to demand-side sticks works only if there’s excess capacity to accommodate new passengers. And as you say, overcapacity is not the experience of people on the Broadway corridor (or the Expo Line, just for starters).

    So what about the rest of the region? I know people complain (and it’s fair for them to do so) that bus service, say, south of the Fraser is infrequent. But are the buses full? But more generally,is it possible that Crilly’s claim about excess capacity comes from looking at lower-density parts of the region? Or (and this would be disappointing) does the claim just depend on the fact that buses run in both directions during rush hour, and the buses doing the reverse commute are typically only half full?

    I’m in no position to answer these question, but since the excess capacity claim seems so central to other things Crilly wants to say, I can’t help being curious.



    September 5, 2009 at 2:53 pm

  2. Click to access Regional_Planning-September_4_2009-Agenda.pdf

    [moderator’s note: this is the first time this commenter has appeared on this blog. The link provided – which was all that the comment was – includes a report from Metro staff on Translink’s ten year plan. That may or may not be helpful to some but does nothing to answer the questions raised by my post.]


    September 5, 2009 at 4:18 pm

  3. Campbell is in denial about a lot of things including the fact that North Road is no longer the sensible route for the Evergreen line. Actually it was never going to be cost effective to tunnel under the Coquitlam hill, but there is some current and future density along that route that’s completely absent on the other.

    Now that he’s decided to go ahead with a new Port Mann Bridge the Evergreen line needs a total re-think.

    The sensible route now runs from Douglas College past Coquitlam Centre, down either the Lougheed or CPR to Cape Horn where it goes straight over the Port Mann to Guildford and then on to Surrey Central Station. In the future it would continue down the King George to Newton where it would meet the interurban.

    A second branch would turn west and run to SFU. If the cost of going up the hill is deemed too high then the line would terminate at Production Way where the existing bus service takes passengers from SkyTrain to campus.

    This makes lots of sense because Lougheed highway and Hwy 1 are being completely re-built in the Cape Horn area. Laying the tracks now is far easier and cheaper than doing it later.

    Providing a direct link between Coquitlam and Surrey is what we need if Surrey is truly to become the second city of Metro Vancouver.

    Of course all this would be done with standard LRT occupying lanes on the highway or track sharing with the CPR. Based on the cost of such construction elsewhere, the $800 million already committed by the Province and feds would be enough to build the entire thing from Coquitlam to both Surrey and SFU.


    September 5, 2009 at 8:57 pm

  4. I read C.MacInnes piece with incredulity as, being a daily transit user at various times of the day, I know how crowded transit is. Contrary to what the government and VANOC believe, and expect us to do next February, most people cannot change their work hours to ensure that there will be more available seats for Olympics visitors!! or to balance the supply and demand all year long.
    A crowded transit at rush hours and a near empty one at other times is a world wide pattern. Not much we can do..short of being automatons controlled by a Big Brother computer..

    I am afraid that both Crilly and Mcinnes are totally wet about transit! do they ever use it on a regular basis?? I don’t care what anyone say, other towns around the world are proof that the more transit lines there are, the greater the number of people that use it. And by transit I mean subways and trains. Buses are ok for short distances but for longer trips it is a nightmare as they are stuck in traffic jams.
    One year I had walked all over London, was dead tired, and took a bus on Sloane square. It took us over 1 hr to go from there to the corner of Sloane St and Brompton road, a 10 minutes walk or a few minutes ride on the Tube.

    I have friends living in Kobe (Japan), a town that is about 30 minutes from Osaka by frequent commuter trains. Kobe looks like the North shore: a relatively narrow strip of land jammed between the water and a mountain range. There are in fact 3 different railway companies running trains between Kobe and Osaka.
    I know by experience that at rush hours all the trains of these 3 companies are full!! and full over here means that you are jammed so tight against others your ribs hurt! One can find an empty seat of course in the middle of the day, but the lull doesn’t last that long. Because of all these trains the majority of people use transit and leave their cars home (the gas price, the parking fees and the lack of parking close to where one needs it are all good deterrents to car driving).

    Red frog

    September 5, 2009 at 9:24 pm

  5. […] for ‘ambience’ [The Globe and Mail] Vancouver architect proud of his public pissoir [CTV] Are we ready for road pricing? [Stephen Rees's blog] Minister vows to cover $57m TransLink shortfall [The Province] CANADA We need […]

    re:place Magazine

    September 6, 2009 at 9:23 am

  6. I fully support a road-pricing system.

    If the major of people continue to prefer cars over transit then the only options are increase road space or better manage demand.

    A road-pricing system may be complex and expensive but is it more expensive than destroying more communities and farmland to build roads, bridges and highways?

    I guess it is impossible to calculate the point at which a system such as the one Stephen describes becomes cost-effective for a society, but surely we are rapidly approaching that point if we haven’t already passed it.


    September 6, 2009 at 3:44 pm

  7. Chris – I agree with you. We passed that point some time ago – but successive governments continue to behave as though freeways can be expanded indefinitely.

    But we live in a society that is in denial – denial about peak oil, denial about climate change, denial about the inevitable collapse of a civilisation that exceeds the carrying capacity of its habitat. And in the case of BC, a province that is controlled by a man who was convinced two years ago that climate change was an imminent disaster but now seems to have lost interest in that issue all together.

    Stephen Rees

    September 6, 2009 at 4:45 pm

  8. I’m not sure how they count people like me, who almost always purchase a monthly pass and never have to insert it into the farebox on a bus. Or Skytrain for that matter. There’s a handful of workdays every month I use it more than twice a day, and take advantage of the family rate Sunday/Holiday rate many times a year

    Also, I’m sure the 11% figure was up to 15% a year ago during the $1.50/litre gas spike; I read and commented on it on this very blog.

    And it’s not road pricing, or gas pricing, that keeps this commuter from driving to the CBD, even at $99/month, transit makes more sense than driving to work where parking is > $200/month. And there isn’t the stress of driving. Sure being stuck on a sardine can Skytrain car has its own stresses, but at least (in my case) they don’t last > 10 minutes.


    September 6, 2009 at 4:59 pm

  9. 15% is a gross exaggeration. Translink claimed 12 – but that was rounding up from 11.5.

    What keeps people off transit is that there is not nearly enough of it. The distribution of resources is concentrated in the City of Vancouver and its immediate vicinity – and the rest of the region has very little. A lot of what is there is infrequent, indirect and unreliable – so I am not surprised that minor additions do not attract much new ridership. I suspect any spare capacity is due to poor service quality.

    Stephen Rees

    September 6, 2009 at 6:28 pm

  10. I’m in a similar boat to you David. 99% of the time I have no problems on SkyTrain and my travel time is less than 15 mins anyway. SkyTrain may be expensive but I think it’s perfect if you only have to travel a few stops.

    I don’t think it’s entirely fair to just blame the provincial government Stephen. The people of BC did, after all, vote them into power. I think many people are stuck in a 50s mind set, believing oil will always be cheap and plenty full and the perfect life is driving to work in an expensive luxury car then returning home at night to the family. Cars are still a symbol of power and success sadly. The manufacturers are very good marketing and selling them but governments have to find solutions to the problems they create when everybody wants to use them at the same time and still hope to get re-elected.


    September 6, 2009 at 7:12 pm

  11. The trains have left the platform too long ago, we will never catch up with them!!
    The most populated area of Ontario has had 7 lines of GO trains, plus many Go bus lines since 1967 “GO Trains and GO Buses serve a population of six million in an 8,000-square-kilometre area (3,000 square miles) extending from downtown Toronto to Hamilton, Milton, and Guelph in the west; Orangeville, Barrie, and Beaverton to the north; Stouffville, Uxbridge, and Port Perry in the northeast; and Oshawa and Newcastle in the east. The buses widen our service as far as 100 kilometres (over 60 miles) from downtown Toronto” (

    The Aquitaine region of Southwestern France has only about 3 million people. Its capital, Bordeaux, has 250 000 people (it cannot expand in any direction, not even up) with 1 million people in the Greater Bordeaux (within a 60 km radius around the town).
    Yet there are 11 (ELEVEN!)commuter train lines radiating from Bordeaux and 57 interurban bus lines.

    TBC, Bordeaux transit system, has long distance commuter passes, loaded in a smart card called Modalis, for the use of all Bordeaux’ urban trams and buses + either a commuter train route or an interurban bus route.

    Adult Fares for monthly train passes go from 77 Euros for a 27 km trip(one way) to 300 Euros for a 235 km trip (also one way). Add 29 Euros for the urban transit pass (instead of 39 euros if bought alone).
    Fares for monthly bus passes (the interurban buses run much shorter routes than the trains)cost 125 euros for 60 km.
    I don’t know why anyone would commute 235 km a couple of times a week if not daily, but obviously there wouldn’t be passes if there was no demand at all..

    What is interesting is that in the 1970s people fell in love with all the finally completed new motorways (despite having to pay a toll) so regional trains and interurban buses started on a steep downward spiral. They might well have been shut but, whatever the reasons, from the mid 1980s on many regional lines of trains and buses were renovated, restructured etc. all over the country.

    Even if we weren’t in such a financial pickle, and even we had politicians that actually like to take trains once a while in their private lives, building the transit network we need would cost trillions.

    Red frog

    September 6, 2009 at 9:54 pm

  12. […] was a point lurking in our discussion of road pricing from a couple of days ago, and Stephen Rees touched on it too, so I think it’s worth making the point explicit, if only to have it clearly set out in […]

  13. This is the post I was thinking of…

    It was the census, so the numbers may be based on what people say they do as opposed to what the actually do.


    September 7, 2009 at 1:23 pm

  14. The census only looks at journeys to work – the important mode share figure refers to all trip purposes.

    Stephen Rees

    September 7, 2009 at 1:28 pm

  15. […] as it stands, has enough excess capacity to absorb those new passengers. But as Stephen Rees pointed out a few days ago, we don’t hear a lot about excess capacity.  The Expo Line?  The B-Lines?  […]

  16. Is it possible to request the ICBC commissioned ‘pay as you drive’ insurance report under the Freedom of Information act? I am really enamoured with the idea of PAYD and find it frustrating that ICBC wouldn’t offer such a service when it puts market mechanisms to work, reduce externalities and would have a meaningful impact in terms of both reduced greenhouse gas emissions and congestion. Not to mention the equity component of people who drive seldom subsidizing those who drive frequently.


    September 18, 2009 at 11:00 am

  17. You do not need an FoI request to find out what is in the report. Just read Todd LIttman’s version in his TDM encyclopedia. He was the author of the original work and its content and references are all there

    Stephen Rees

    September 18, 2009 at 5:35 pm

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