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

Archive for July 5th, 2010

What will fare by distance mean?

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This is a post that I have considering for a while. It is not tied to any specific event – or even release of information – because on this topic there’s not a great deal. Translink is going to install faregates – because the previous Minister of Transportation instructed them to, and the current one is providing some funding towards that. I have discussed this here many times.   You can also read Translink’s justifications – both of those date back to 2009 (not that it appears on either page, you have to look in the address bar of your browser).

To summarize, gates are coming and then smart cards are coming later – which will allow a review of the current three zone system in use now Monday to Friday before 1830. That review is expected to allow for fare by distance – and the smart card will allow for “value loading” so that instead of you buying system access for a specified period of time – 90 minutes for cash or pre-purchased tickets, 1 day or 1 calendar month for passes – the system will deduct the cost of each trip as you make it. Many systems around the world have such stored value cards and I have used them in London, New York and Paris. In London I paid the equivalent of three one day passes in 2009, and found that after five days in London – and a return visit a year later – I still had enough value on the card to use the Underground for the trips I needed to make. The London Oyster card works out the lowest price for the trips you make on it. New York’s Metrocard (also produced by Cubic the current suppliers to Translink) was less flexible but almost as convenient. Translink has yet to chose a supplier for the new faregates, but it is probable they will also supply the cards as most systems are proprietary.

The exact terms of the new system are, of course, yet to be determined. But we can assess easily some of the impacts users will see. Firstly, for fare by distance to work the card has to interact with a reader as you enter and leave the system. Currently, fares are only checked on the way in – and on transfer. Even then, to speed things up, most frequent users have cards that are not read electronically, since the “dip” reader used takes far too long.  It is likely that Translink will chose a proximity reader – which means cards get read if you are close enough, without any need to swipe, touch or dip a card.  That will allow for a system that keeps delays to a minimum which is a significant benefit of arrangements such as all door boarding on B-lines. Similarly, gates should be open by default, and only close if there is no valid media present when someone passes through. This is a safety feature that allows for rapid evacuations – but those can also be achieved at supervised gates if there is an override control. Obviously, if passengers can open gates “in emergency” they will under other circumstances. This already an issue in New York where exit gates are frequently opened by people not holding keys legitimately, or using override controls designed for those with a special needs. The system there has seen drastic reductions in staffing, but many subway stations have multiple unmanned entrances/exits. If you cannot manage the turnstile or gate the system enables another door to be opened – but with an alarm. And that alarm is mostly ignored. In London, the stations are manned and the system is designed with a barrier line between the platforms and the street. If the gate rejects your media for whatever reason, you have to go to a specially provided window at the ticket office. Paris does not have that system – even at stations like Charles de Gaulle airport – which means passengers have to be quite creative (and physically fit) to get through with their luggage.

But I am less concerned here about the cards and gates than the loss of the three zone system during the day – one zone evenings and weekend we have now. The three zone system was designed when the majority of use was for commuting to downtown Vancouver. It is based on concentric rings around the City of Vancouver (plus UBC). That means City of Vancouver residents have a one zone trip for most purposes and many destinations and get dinged on the way to the airport, ferries and for trips to the ‘burbs. Everyone else gets a one zone trip for many domestic and leisure trips but may or may not have to pay more to commute.  The zone system was designed when the region was different – and transit subject to a larger degree of local political control. Since then, much employment has left the City of Vancouver for other places: much industrial and port land has been converted to other uses. While most municipalities have a variety of centres, very few have to the sort of centralized employment locations that transit can serve easily.  People like Kevin Falcon can even claim, with some justification, that the regional plan to concentrate economic activities in regional town centres has failed. Outside of Vancouver’s downtown most of the region has developed around the car and works like every other North American suburb. Jobs are now widely dispersed, and the Origin-Destination trip pattern is many to many, not many to few.

Two significant trends have emerged in recent years. The first stems from  policy decisions in further education: two universities built far away from everything else but with totally inadequate student accommodation.  The students get UPasses and overcrowded buses. And the universities are both developing residential land uses on their property as a way to replace public funding, not provide students places to live. The second reflects municipal decisions to try to attract non-residential development – since it provides a net tax gain – in competition with each other, and other cities. That means the developers build on green fields close to freeway interchanges (or equivalent). And that is as true in Burnaby as it is in Langley. So both post-secondary and employment commuting presents significant challenges to the transit system. But together are also the main source of ridership.

The concentric rings – and the radial pattern of rapid transit – did both help to optimize revenue collection, based on the old paper ticket/coin collection system. But anomalies are noticeable. A short trip across a zone boundary costs passengers a lot but very long trips possible through Zone 3 are cheap. Prior to electronic ticket machines, “long transfers” were one of the biggest sources of revenue loss. People expected to be able to complete a trip within the time allowed on a transfer (even though the tariff was no longer written that way) and operators usually obliged.

Oner of the appeals of the “fare by distance” system is that it will seem to better reflect the value users place on trips. Note that I am not talking about cost. The cost of carrying a passenger actually varies by a modest amount as distance increases. There is a large increment of cost – an “entry cost” if you like – with each passenger. But since people and equipment are employed in any event – and will travel the whole system most of the time – the fixed cost of system operations is a high proportion of total cost. That is why the first subways in North America, built by private enterprise, had a flat fare system. It kept fare collection costs low and gave longer distance passengers an incentive to use the system. Now that electronics are so cheap, and technology much more widely available, other systems look attractive. But it is also worth thinking abut how they impact users who have other alternatives available to them.  What deters people from using transit now is not the fare but the inconvenience and time to make a trip. For example, a two zone ride from Vancouver to Richmond now costs $3.75. If the origins and destinations are not in the centres near the Canada Line stations, there are two transfers. Journey time around an hour, but drive time 20 minutes or so depending on traffic. (A one zone trip from UBC to Boundary Road is actually longer but cheaper.) Some commenters here have questioned my personal mode choices, but the reality is that if time is an important concern, transit use when there is a car available and  parking is free is quixotic. Even when there is a parking charge, when the car carries more than one person, out of pocket expenses for a trip by car are usually lower than transit, even on weekends and in the evening. And of course car use is generally much more convenient: no waiting or transfers!

Many trips in this region do not have a rail option, and bus operations do cost more as people travel longer distances. But again, it is not system cost so much as passenger perceptions of value that matter when setting fare policy.  And those perceptions of value also have a component of memory in them: when you change any system there are winners and losers, and you need to be careful that you do not offend too many current riders. That is because it costs eight times as much to win a new passenger as retaining an existing one (or so the marketing gurus at Translink kept telling me).

If you now live in Zone 3 and make long trips within that zone, fare by distance is bad news. I suspect too that it could hit longer distance travellers within Zone 1 – especially those making the long trek out to UBC. Those who gain will be people who cross current fare boundaries on short trips. For instance, those who need to cross the Burrard Inlet but don’t go far on the other side. Expect much cheering from the North Shore. Trouble is, that is not a part of the region that is going to get many more people and therefore not much more transit either. Where transit is needed most – where it is currently carrying a very low share of the transportation market, and is very unattractive compared to driving – transit will undoubtedly cost even more to use. That is Langley and Surrey. And that is where the next million people to arrive in this region over the next twenty years will, by and large, be expected to live.  Those are also the people, by the way, who get hit hardest by tolled bridges  – Golden Ears now, Port Mann and Patullo at about the same time fare by distance hits.  So Translink is going to need to be insulated against political unpopularity even more than it is now.

There is also the question of what happens to short trips on transit within one zone. Fare by distance might make those cheaper, but that only gets you more people who now walk or use bikes for those short trips. That really does not help anything. People who walk in cities are important, for all kinds of reasons, but the one that gets noticed is that they are more likely to spend money as they travel. (People who get in a car in the garage at home and drive into the basement garage of where they work are not likely to dip into their wallet during that trip.)  A transit ride is an interrupted walk. I have long opposed the idea of free transit in downtown Vancouver for just that reason, and I expect that if fare by distance gives a break on short trips within one zone then it will also be counter productive, at least in terms of livability.

For that is the real question that seems to get ignored. As we have moved steadily away from multiple objective policy evaluations to simple, private sector driven “bottom line” impact analysis, many of the broader objectives get lost. Since Translink is increasingly viewed as being analogous to the Airport or the Port authorities, so many of the worthy social and environmental objectives of transit provision  are getting lost. Fare by distance is unlikely to measured in terms of long term growth of market share – or effect on greenhouse gas emissions (which is nearly the same thing) as it is by the cash flow it can generate. Short term, people have a hard time adjusting some of their travel patterns. But as we have seen, travel patterns do change, and are sensitive to price – and more sensitive to price in the longer term. (The technical term for this is longer term price elasticity and the place to go for more about that – and indeed all transport economics is Todd Littman’s site.)

If we had “joined up thinking” – or what we once called integrated transportation and land use planning – then fare by distance actually makes a lot of sense, as it would encourage people to make shorter trips – and, combined with road user charges and carbon tax, fewer mechanized trips. But the one glaring loss we have suffered in recent years is that of public subsidy of housing. (The Tyee has a thought up a way of dealing that.) Oddly enough, last night I was reading a poster, put up by the City of Vancouver in 200o, on a utility pole on Main Street in Riley Park, that lauded the sense of community and making do on little engendered by the Little Mountain housing project – which of course was recently pulled down and will not get replaced until a private sector developer is sure of making a great deal of money. Housing is steadily becoming unaffordable for new entrants to the market – or those on who we depend for all of the provision of our services. Health, child and senior care being areas mostly clearly hit already – and going to get very much worse quickly, but all the others too. Resorting to secondary suites (many of them still illegal) being about the only response currently available. The one thing I heard most often when I was doing public consultations at Translink was that people felt forced to live far from where they work – or unable to afford to live close to places well served by transit. This is not a concern of governments at any level now. Affordable housing gets lip service but no action. Rental vacancy rates are too small to measure, and house price increases large and rapid.

Transit has, in popular imagination at least, become steadily more expensive as incomes have remained nominally static – or declined in purchasing power. You can play games with charts but basically, since cash fares have been increasing in 25c lumps at widely spaced intervals, transit users feel they got hammered every time. Is perception important? Try this quote from Tom Prendergast

“The public firmly believes that fare evasion on SkyTrain is higher than has been measured in past audits.  The belief that the system is losing revenue due to fare evasion is very often cited as a reason not to support additional revenue measures needed to sustain and expand the transportation system.”

So the gates (and by impication smart cards and fare by distance) are not being introduced because there is a lot of money being lost on fare evasion but because Translink wants less opposition to “additional revenue measures” i.e. tax increases. And, of course, fare by distance will be approved only if it gets a higher take from transit users than the current system: they are not doing it because they want to get more use – they can’t cope with that anyway. They want more revenue.

As for fare evasion, it won’t be eliminated by any of those systems. It will be different, that’s all. Ticketless travel is already low. What is harder to detect – with any system – is the extent to which the passenger is entitled to use the fare media in their possession. Some people get concessions and deals. But just as blue parking badges get passed around, so do concession tickets and all sorts of passes. Indeed, if you have a monthly pass for your commute you are now entitled to lend it to your family members for their use at evenings and weekends: take the kids with you for free off peak. That’s revenue loss too, but calculated into the system. Oyster cards have been hacked. Passengers did get hold of duplicate keys that got them free rides on the New York subway.

And fare evaders are people like you and me. The people who make you feel unsafe on transit may well have tickets – but still nurture crime in their hearts. There’s no way of telling. Paul Bernardo preyed on transit users in Scarborough for years, but looked clean cut and well dressed while he did it. You might feel safer if there is a gate and a barrier, but you won’t be. And, if you are frequent transit user, you will be poorer.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 5, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Fare evasion, transit