Stephen Rees's blog

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

The lack of joined up thinking

with 9 comments

Two stories in today’s Sun struck me as being “bloggable” in the sense that they clearly meet the criteria of its stated purpose. The issue for me has been what to say about them that is worth saying – given that they are really not new or different, and only require me to repeat things that I have written here before, many many times.

Both illustrate what happens when we deal with transportation as though it were an end in itself. Both result from “silo” thinking. They are caused by the way we govern ourselves and the institutional arrangements we have. How people get to become decision makers – and what those decisions do to us.

The first is Ken Hardie threatening to cancel U-Pass.  An empty threat, of course. Ken himself can’t do that: indeed, it would be very difficult for Translink to do that, though they might indeed find themselves in that position. Fare evasion would not be the only reason, but could be cited as a contributory factor. Ken says that the selling of UPasses on Craig’s list is threatening the viability of the program. Now you do understand, don’t you, that Ken is the spokesperson – the chosen communicator. Indeed, that is where his expertise lies. Not in transportation or economics, but in presenting organizations to the public in the best possible light. The sort of person who suscribes to the idea that perception is reality. Though in fairness I have to say that is was his former boss Bob Paddon who tried to persuade me of that, not Ken himself.

And the rising losses, he warned, could put the program in jeopardy because if it’s not sustainable, TransLink will consider shutting it down.

Ah, so now we are in the murky area where we do not have direct  reported speech – and that is what the headline writer (not Kelly Sinoski) mangled.

UPass never was “sustainable” – and could not have been from the outset. For a long time, the staff who examined the idea of the UPass told the senior management – “The Executive” – that Vancouver was not like King County, which had introduced UPass for Washington state university. Metro there had spare capacity it could utilize. BC Transit in Victoria found something similar. In this region UBC is out at the end of a peninsula and SFU is on the top of a mountain. And neither university has nearly enough student accommodation on campus, and no way to fund more. The pressure on the transit provider was to help solve the universities’ problems – and those of the students forced to commute great distances by the lack of affordable accommodation. As a policy analyst I pointed out that students were no different to large numbers of other people who were also commuting due to the Vancouver housing affordability issue, and I could not make a plausible case for their needs to be given priority over other, arguably more deserving groups – the working poor for instance, or single mothers trying to get off welfare , or people with disabilities.

It may have been significant that when the UPass was finally approved Translink’s CEO had a daughter who was going to UBC. It may also have been significant that the planner who presented the case used the “revenue neutral” formula. He said that the deal would not reduce the amount of money coming in to the system. He said nothing about cost – the money going out of the system – or capacity – the ability of the system to adapt to changing demand patterns. “Sustainability” was not an idea mentioned in the context of Upass.  I know that since it was such a hot button word for me. The communicators had gotten ahold of it. Indeed some time before I was trying to convince provincial government environment ministry communicators not to talk about “sustainable transportation” since it was not a meaningful concept. Sure it would help the environment if fewer students drove and more used transit – but since many students car pooled that was not exactly clear cut. And anyway, no one was willing to pick up the tab. It seemed to me that any decision had to be based on a cost benefit analysis in policy terms and a cost effectiveness analysis for operational reasons. UPass was not subject to either of those tests. “Revenue neutral” was a catch phrase, usable in sound bites. Not good policy but easy communicability.

If we were really interested in sustainability we would question the location decisions that give rise to so much motorised transportation demand. And we would also wonder about setting up higher education establishments that think only of research and teaching but not accommodation.  At one time the most important person in any college was the bursar – not the vice-chancellor. Once universities were made more business like – and made to get their funding from corporations – they lost the ability both to govern themselves sensibly and to meet the needs of society as a whole.

UPass has been very successful in getting transit ridership increased quickly. Unfortunately, the transit system has not been able to cope with that. Prior to UPass, it was already straining capacity – and having difficulty justifying to the region as a whole how that capacity was distributed. Because in places where ridership was low because service was poor – and even pockets of dense development were single use and widely spaced – it was hard to justify levels of taxation equal to those in areas where service was better (I cannot use the word “good”).  But that toothpaste is out of the tube now. Cancelling UPass would have much larger consequences than not starting it in the first place. And as long as Translink has funding problems to solve, fare evasion is always going to command more attention than it might reasonably merit on a cost benefit or a cost effectiveness basis. Just look at the figures. Actually on second thought look at the absence of the really important figures: no total revenue, no revenue  from UPass, no percentages. Just large numbers waved around without context. It’s all spin, no substance. $15 million sounds a lot – it would make a nice lottery win, for instance. But in the context of the transit budget? Or of Translink’s revenue as a whole?  Or in terms of what Translink needs in terms of operating funding over and above fare revenue to meet the needs of a growing region that wants to become more sustainable?

Which brings me to Jerry Dobrovolny, the City of Vancouver’s Director of Transportation who is starting a public consultation process for the long-range transportation plan for 2040.

The city hopes to shape its latest plan with feedback from the public, who can give suggestions at 11 town hall meetings, 50 stakeholder events and through a city website,, between now and July 15. A second phase of the plan will start early next year.

Interestingly the link the Sun provides (but not as a working, clickable link like the one above) takes you to two such processes – but we will stick to transportation for now. I will go back to the housing one later, since it raises similar issues of governmental “silos”.

What is being suggested is quite remarkable for a Transportation Director and really refreshing to hear, as I have reported before

Dobrovolny envisions a city of dense, compact communities around transit hubs, with HOV and bus lanes on major arterial routes so it’s “not a hardship but a joy” to get out of the car.

It has never been unusual to hear Vancouver planners to talk like that, but to hear it from the engineer is progress indeed. I will pass on the HOV for now and just press for bus lanes. Since the city cannot possibly afford to widen any of its arterial streets and avenues, bus lanes can only be made available by taking road space from cars. (Or, whisper it quietly, those wide, treed  boulevards.) Dobrovolny could have been doing this for some time – and indeed has been doing exactly that for bicycle lanes. Again, I suspect that this has more to do with who is the Mayor and what his priorities are. In terms of mode share – especially at the regional scale of movement – I happen to believe that bus lanes would benefit more people than bike lanes, especially in a city that has a tight grid of streets and lots of marked cycle routes off the arterial roadways. But I concede that bike lanes in the city centre were an important political fight to win.

To entice more walkers, the city would consider wider sidewalks on busy downtown streets like Granville and Georgia to reduce congestion and pedestrian “traffic jams” and ensure they’re covered with awnings to protect people from the rain. More lighting and way-signing would help pedestrians find their way around town.

Public spaces with chairs, benches and tables for major events would draw more walkers and cyclists, he added, while traffic calming on neighbourhood streets and separated cycle lanes would make cycling more comfortable for the 60 per cent of people, like seniors and children, afraid to ride in traffic.

“Tables and chairs” is pure Jan Gehl, via Janette Sadik-Kahn. I am sad that Jerry cannot bring himself to espouse the very necessary commitment to gradual but steady reduction in car use as a policy objective, but maybe that is just a red rag we do not need to wave right now. If we can get this and the following we are going to be going the right way

And those who can’t give up the car would have the option of car-sharing, pay-as-you-drive insurance and low-carbon vehicles.

And those of course are largely outside the City’s jurisdiction, but as we saw at the Car2Go launch they are being supportive.

But when it comes to transit, the city’s hands are somewhat tied,

More than “somewhat”. In a regional transit system, giving more to those who already have most is politically difficult. We do not have a regionally run system  – indeed I doubt we ever did – but it is hard to see how Christy Clark is going to resolve this one. The carbon tax was another of those “revenue neutral” sales jobs – just like the HST. She seems to be making a dog’s breakfast of both right now. Jerry does a good soft shoe shuffle here.

Christy Clark is not about sustainability any more than Gordon Campbell was. I frankly doubt her credibility on the HST business and it may even be her downfall. If she can pull it off, expect a fall general election. But also do not expect vast amount of capital flowing to major transit projects from the carbon tax. That is a small slow trickle – but might be useful to prop up operating funding for transit across the province. It would mean less would be going to tax cuts of course, but she is showing that she is far less dogmatic in that area. Even Kevin Falcon now professes the need to do things differently (though I doubt he would have had he won the leadership).

Making Vancouver – City or Metro – better able to cope with a world which is reducing is anthropogenic carbon emissions and adapting to the consequences of those already emitted – ought to be item one on the agenda of all the levels of government involved. Since most of us live in cities and all of us depend on what cities provide.  ICBC is a provincially directed corporation  that could go for pay-as-you-drive but has not, yet. “Can’t give up the car” is a function of housing and highways – and right now I do not see Canada getting back into public provision of housing (except in very limited special cases) and no sign at the provincial level of abandonment of their disastrous highway expansion projects.

Red streetcar

Seattle Streetcar - my photo

The City must do what it can – and I would like to suggest that among those things could be providing a downtown streetcar. Both Seattle and Portland found ways to do that outside of their regional transit systems. Because it was a City priority, but not a regional priority. And it was more to do with encouraging compact urban development in both of those cities  than with current transportation demand. Our needs are a bit different – and we already have the compact development along much of the route.

Much of what must be achieved in this region requires senior governments to start to grapple effectively with issues that up to now they have muffed. Or they could (even more unlikely) stop treating municipal government so badly.  Taxinequities is a powerpoint slide show that Gaetan Royer, the City Manager of Port Moody has put together. I saw it at the Green Party of BC AGM, and applauded it loudly.

POSTSCRIPT  May 26, 2011 2:50pm

The Richmond Review is now reporting that Craig’s List has been removing the adverts for UPasses – after a request from the “Transit Police” and adds

Hardie said TransLink has not considered cancelling the U-Pass program over the pass reselling problem.

May 27, 2011 3:13pm

And I am not the only blogger looking at this issue: Darren Barefoot takes a closer look at Translink’s creative UPass math

Written by Stephen Rees

May 26, 2011 at 11:29 am

9 Responses

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  1. If only they had thought about using the U-Pass as an opportunity to do a trial run for a transit smart card! One Euro town (with a population of 300 000, including suburbs and a transit system using buses only) has used a transit smart card since 2002 so its’ not as if TransLink had to invent the wheel.. of course they likely aren’t aware of what’s going on outside North America.

    Red frog

    May 26, 2011 at 8:24 pm

  2. When the existing system was bought, smart card was an optional extra – and could have been added at any time. At a price. The “economics” of UPass did not include new fare media.

    Stephen Rees

    May 27, 2011 at 4:12 pm

  3. I challenge the $15million number.

    Let’s assume that everyone using an “illegal” U-Pass would otherwise purchase a three-zone monthly pass (the first of many big assumptions needed here), that means that using the $30/month pass instead of a $151/month pass costs TransLink $121/month per cheater. The vast majority of students are at school two semesters a year: 8 months, so $968 per dedicated cheat per year. To reach $15 million a year, you would need 15,500 of the most dedicated cheaters.

    UBC has ~40,000 students, SFU has ~30,000 (Hardie’s Stats are about existing cheats, not future cheats with the extended U-Pass program starting in September at many other schools). So Ken is suggesting that more than 20% of the U-passes are used fraudulently. Seriously?

    Pat Johnstone

    May 27, 2011 at 6:57 pm

  4. Stephen Hume has a column in Friday Sun about the U-Pass..apparently even students that cannot use a pass as there is no transit where they live, or they live close enough from a University to walk, MUST buy a pass…one can hardly fault them is they wanted to sell them..

    We had monthly school passes in high school and universities but no one HAD to buy them…

    When I was in the army (compulsory–unpaid) we got X free cartons of cigarettes a month. They knew I didn’t smoke but I got them and sold them (by the middle of the month, to the most desperate).

    Red frog

    May 27, 2011 at 11:36 pm

  5. @ RedFrog:
    Forcing all students to participate in the U-pass program is what got the price so low. The calculation was thus:

    Take the estimated total amount of money collected from UBC students for transit services in 2001 and divide that amount by the total number of people at UBC eligible to participate in the U-pass program.

    While the aim of the program, get drivers to subsidize transit users and perhaps be encouraged to get out of their cars, was noble, the implementation was fatally flawed.

    It was designed to be “revenue neutral”, a favourite expression of the BC Liberals, but not cost neutral. Surely someone in the BC Government realized that the program would generate additional passengers and force TransLink to operate more buses, but they didn’t care. Making someone else the bad guy is a good political move if you can pull it off.

    The combination of U-pass and the drastic reduction in on-campus parking has created some interesting parking patterns. Many now park just off campus along the shoulders of SW Marine Dr. and 16th Ave. and hop a bus the rest of the way. Others have decided that the residential streets of west Point Grey are the perfect place to leave their car for the day.

    U-pass has been a big winner for pass holders and UBC. Transit users got lower fares, drivers got cheaper parking and UBC got hectares for new development that had previously been used for parking. TransLink, as usual, got screwed.


    May 30, 2011 at 3:44 pm

  6. […] U-Pass. Translink is threatening to discontinue the U-Pass program if it continues to lose money to U-Pass theft and fraud. But Stephen Rees reminds us that the U-Pass program was never sustainable in the first place. […]

  7. I don’t buy the argument that it was necessary for all students to buy a pass to keep the price low. I know that several Euro towns have cheap passes for students or even just for young people, even those that are employed in well paying jobs, and these cities don’t require every student or young worker to buy a pass.

    Some monthly students passes (for those under 25):
    Lyon 25 Euros (their transit system has 4 subway lines, 4 LRT lines, 120 urban bus lines, 3 cog railways). Toulouse 10 E., Strasbourg 22 E., Bordeaux 27.50 E.(good for anyone under 28, not just students)..

    Of course it is hard to compare with Vancouver as, for starter, all these towns have a single zone in their metropolitan area.
    As a comparison 1 small cup of cafe cost from 2 to 3 Euros.

    Even adults don’t pay that much:
    48 Euros per month for the Greater Lyon transit system. 64,40 E. for Greater Lyon Transit and commuter trains within the same area. 70,50 E. for a Greater Lyon transit pass plus a pass for commuter buses in the area of the Rhone-Alpes region located around the Greater Lyon (nearly 3 million or 1/2 the population of the whole Rhone-Alpes).

    Adults fares for Milan transit: from 30 Euros within Milan to 77 E. for the farthest suburbs.

    All the fares in many European towns are cheaper if bought as a yearly subscription.

    Red frog

    May 30, 2011 at 8:41 pm

  8. RedFrog,

    The full adhesion to the Upass is part of the “business plan” (it is based on the premise that not all students will use it, so they can display an artificially lower price, obviously if student not using it resale their pass, the business plan is broken…)


    the Lyon transit jurisdiction (systral) is the size of Vancouver, around ~600km2.

    Langley-UBC is the same distance as St Etienne-Lyon…How much student are paying to commute on that distance?

    Lyon transit has a farebox recovery of ~50%
    similar to translink but with a jurisdiction 6 time larger than Lyon (with only twice more population), and for sure it is not Surrey or Delta helping on it…

    In brief, Transit is generally much more subsidized in France than here…is it good or bad is another question.


    May 31, 2011 at 10:18 pm

  9. The key is to use student ID cards instead of separate transit passes to administer the UPASS programs. Using student ID cards, in addition to preventing non-students from accessing the bus, can easily have the transit access disabled if the pass is lost or if the student withdraws from school.


    June 2, 2011 at 11:46 am

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