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

Archive for February 10th, 2014

“Vancouver’s transit system needs a face”

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Actually, no it doesn’t. It needs money – lots of it. There is indeed a desperate need to improve transit in Vancouver. Marketing is not a priority – and a face is not necessary at all.

Jordan Yerman in the Vancouver Observer 

“How do we get people to love a transit system? Find out why penguins and bears are so important for buses and trains, and how we can get TransLink to stop sucking.”

People will love a transit system that provides good service. That means it takes them where they want to get to in a timely, reliable and reasonably comfortable manner. They will want to feel safe, and that they are getting good value for money. Putting a penguin or a bear on a ticket or a poster is not going to do anything at all except irritate them some more. Right now transit services in much of the region are being cut back. They are becoming less frequent, and thus less convenient, in order to relieve the serious overcrowding on some routes. The system is thus plagued by pass ups, and a lot of standing around – either for a service that you cannot board when it comes – or one that doesn’t come for a very long while. For people dependant upon transit – who rely on bus or HandyDART for most of their trips – their current experience is subpar and their expectations low. A mascot is not going to change that one iota.

There is a reason why transit sucks here and it is simply the deliberate policies of not just this provincial government, but most of them in recent years. Transit has been identified as necessary – indeed essential – to the region, but the provincial government refuses to help pay for it. It is far too pre-occupied spending huge amounts of money on new and expanded roads. Even Translink fell into that trap – and now wastes $40m a year on a toll bridge that not enough people use. More of these are going to be built even though the two we have are financial basket cases.

The provincial taxpayers do support transit. If you live in Greater Vancouver your provincial income and sales tax payments go to help transit in places like Prince George or Kelowna. Just not the other way around. The province has long maintained the fiction that it makes a contribution through the gas tax. But that is only collected in the Greater Vancouver Region – so only residents and some visitors pay that. Except those who are so determined not to pay taxes that they burn more fuel to go outside the region to get gas. There are quite a few of those apparently. And there is a small sum collected in other areas to help pay for hospitals that is not collected here. Not that it makes a great deal of difference.

Transit use has been growing steadily – mainly because of a now provincially mandated fares arrangement for post secondary students who get UPass. They actually have no choice in the matter and are obliged to pay for a UPass with their student fees, so it should come as no surprise that having got that pass they try to use it. I say try, since there are many occasions when transit to places like UBC or SFU is at capacity at peak periods. Other people who used to get a similar pass for their journey to work have seen that withdrawn. There are no funds to provide additional capacity – hence the service cuts elsewhere, presented as efficiency measures by the spin doctors. There is no shortage of marketing and spin – and most people see right through it.

There is actually nothing new about any of this. Even before UPass people were complaining about the paucity of transit in Vancouver. Indeed expansion of the system was one of the reasons the region asked to take over the system from BC Transit, since it did not seem likely that there would be ever enough provincial priority on transit in general and transit in BC’s biggest metropolis in particular. In part that is driven by the way the constituency boundaries are drawn: a vote in the city region is worth roughly half what it is in the rest of the province. But it is also still very much the conservative mantra that road spending is an investment, transit spending a wasteful subsidy for the undeserving.

Putting a funny face on tickets does not make them more acceptable. Compass is an uninspired name but it doesn’t matter. Other payment systems are going to be phased out – or made unattractively expensive to use. You do not need to market such a system. People will use it because they either have no choice or a very poor alternative.  Many systems have introduced cashless payment systems – and use various types of card to do that. They do not have faces on tickets in London, or Paris or New York. Their transit systems do not suffer lack of usage as a result. London Transport has long had a very recognizable symbol – we now call it a “logo” – the simple ring and bar (we used to call it the roundel) so widely used that it seems to be copied by all and sundry with no fear of reprisal. Doesn’t look like a face to me.

Lloyd's of Gastown

The choices that Yerman comes up with are especially inappropriate. The Vancouver Winter Olympic mascots are very unlikely to be available and anyway my memory of their introduction was that they were treated with derision. There were too many of them, none of them memorable, and none with any discernible regional relevance. A bit like the choice of the inukshuk – which is a well known feature of a part of Canada – just not BC or Whistler/Vancouver.

If you must have the face of a cute, cuddly creature one does come to mind. The Sea Otter. Walter. Shot in the face by someone unknown but surviving despite his wounds. Now lives at the Vancouver aquarium. Who I am sure would like a small contribution in return for the use of his likeness. Someone deliberately hurt Walter. But he keeps on going the best he can. A very appropriate symbol for our transit system – if we need one.

Wally Oct 18 2013 01  photo by Neil Fisher  Vancouver Observer

Wally Oct 18 2013 01
photo by Neil Fisher
Vancouver Observer

Written by Stephen Rees

February 10, 2014 at 11:55 am

Posted in transit

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