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

Archive for August 26th, 2013

We’re not the only ones

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The Guardian reports this morning “Glaswegians revolt over ticket changes for ‘Clockwork orange’ subway system”. Like the Translink issue, the problem is that the new stored value “smart card” (in Glasgow called “Bramble”, in Vancouver called “Compass”  and in the Guardian compared to London’s “Oyster”) is being introduced at the same time as a significant fare increase.

some passengers have been angered by the withdrawal of 10 and 20 journey tickets, which took place in June, arguing that the new system will leave them paying considerably more for their journeys.

This is precisely the same issue we have with Compass.  It really surprised me that the (paywalled thus not linked) Sun actually produced a pro-Translink editorial on the subject. Indeed, I think this must be a first for that organ. It reads like a Translink press release, except that is criticizes those who use other media to voice their opinions. Because they differ from the official line, and the Sun, and, of course, in some respects with each other, they must be wrong.

The Guardian concentrates on the withdrawal of fare discounts. There is not quite the huge penalty for cash use for some kinds of trips as here – but there are definitely incentives to use the smart card. The problem is that these incentives are not nearly as good as earlier incentives to use transit more frequently. Paying up front for a bunch of tickets helps the organization’s cash flow. Not everyone makes two trips every weekday, so passes are not a universal answer. Monthly discounts work well for commuters, not so well for people who have a more varied trip pattern. The point about Oyster was that did not matter as the system would ensure users got the best deal going no matter how many trips they made. The policy in London at the time of its introduction was to encourage people to use the transit system.

Translink made two fundamental errors. The first was to use the introduction of Compass to raise fares in general. At the same time it has been forced to cut service in many places, to meet overcrowding elsewhere. It has not been able to do enough for the most crowded routes and at the same time it has caused considerable inconvenience to users who were already putting up with slow and infrequent services. The second was to ignore the lack of provision in the new system to open gates with existing magnetic media during the changeover period, which was going to have to be years not months due to the need to replace bus fareboxes that could not issue Compass tickets for cash. Due to the omission of this facility in the specification of the system, and the lack of funds to replace not yet life expired bus fareboxes, one type of “seamless” journey (cash on the bus transfer to SkyTrain and SeaBus) would not be possible. It is possible to buy magnetic readers for fare gates – or for ticket vending machines. It may have seemed expensive at the time, but in the context of a hugely expensive and uneconomic (it cannot ever pay for itself) crackdown on fare evasion, balking at the last few million having lashed out $170m of public funds seems obtuse. And by the way, Compass itself will allow for new kinds of fare evasion.

I frankly doubt that the idea of making people pay twice for one direction of travel really was thought of as a good incentive to switch to Compass. It sounds to me like people covering their rear ends after discovering an omission. And – to correct the false information in the Sun’s editorial – it was not “leaked”.  The bus operators were concerned that the passengers who found out about the need to pay twice would take it out on them. The operator is, after all, the most visible and vulnerable face of the organization. I have always preferred the cock-up theory of history to the conspiracy theory. That does not mean there is not evil in the world, just that bad things happen more often due to mistakes than deliberate malevolence. For reasons that we need not discuss here, Translink has long been incapable of admitting error. Yet it is run by people and therefore mistakes are inevitable.

The most egregious error now is that the view that Translink is using fare policy to deter ridership is gaining credence. The transit police in particular have taken to tweeting (and other communications) in ways which have convinced many that bus transfers will not be accepted anywhere on the system.

It is too late now to roll back the fare increases slid through as part of the Compass system. It cannot now be made to look like something that every transit user will welcome. It is not about being convenient. It is simply a worse deal than transit users now get. And Translink should admit that. The discount for ten rides is not nearly as good as with ten tickets. Don’t pretend that we should be happy with that. Translink could move back the day when the gates close until something can be done for those with bus transfers. Or operators could simply inform cash payers that they will have to pay at the station (not on the bus) to get the gate to open. After all, unless a fare boundary has been crossed, there is no revenue loss. Compromise is a solution that dissatisfies all equally. Translink  cannot now expect to win everything it wants. The ease of transfer is essential. We always have had an integrated fare system and retaining that ought to have been a prime objective in adopting any new system.

This is not to damn Translink and all its activities. This is not part of a “hate on” against this or any institution. This is pointing out that a mistake has been made and must be corrected. Pretending otherwise is simply not good enough.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 26, 2013 at 9:05 am