Stephen Rees's blog

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

“Vancouver’s transit system needs a face”

with 6 comments

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

Tagged with , , ,

6 Responses

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  1. What Metro Vancouver needs is provincial and municipal politicians that are TRULY transit literate. The various Premiers, ministers of transportation, mayors, councilors etc. don’t seem to know much about the governance of transit systems in other places and I doubt that many use transit on a regular basis.

    Elected members of the London Assembly (amongst other things they supervise the London Mayor and its various responsibilities, including transit) get an annual transit pass. Nor for the whole system but for all the zones from downtown to their home.
    These passes are a taxable benefit so they do use them (besides the fact that in London, as in Paris, Tokyo etc. driving is relatively easy but finding a parking spot relatively close to there one goes is very hard or very expensive or both..)

    It is not a matter of copying slavishly other towns, but when one look at transit systems (some very big, others quite small) that work well–for the size of the area and population they service— one see similar patterns, a somewhat similar governance…and also a regional government (state/ province/ region/ lander/ etc. as they are called in the respective countries..) that provides a STEADY source of financing..

    It is not just the TransLink board, but also the technical staff at TransLink. I have attended many open houses and have been amazed by the lack of knowledge of the staff that was supposed to educate the public…

    When the staff working on the planning of a new line has never used a subway, a tramway, doesn’t know that many automated systems have platform walls…has no clue about the size and passengers capacity of basic transit vehicles, doesn’t think that Park and Ride lots are very important, etc. one can only wonder..

    Surely, in any job, the minimum requirement is to know exactly what the business one work for is making, selling etc.

    Red frog

    February 10, 2014 at 10:53 pm

  2. what a ridiculous article. (not yours, the first one!). The author is suggesting the TransLink system is suffering from lack of use? It’s not attractive enough?

    Tell that to the people stacked like cordwood on every westbound Expo Line train in the morning, to the people queued up down the stairs at Brighouse Station every morning, to the people being passed by my multiple “Sorry Bus Full” signs on a rainy curb on Broadway, to the SFU Students who spend their mornings jockeying for position on a 145 in time to get to class, to the dozens of people who stood with me in the cold wind at Edmonds Station the other evening as the train we were taken was removed from service and it took 20 minutes for the next one to arrive.

    We don’t need otters or bears or penguins. We need a Minister of Transportation who is ready to start working on the problem instead of cheaping out on political ploys to avoid accountability.


    February 10, 2014 at 11:09 pm

  3. […] the Jordan Yerman proposal for a cute TransLink identifier, namely a bear – particularly Stephen Rees’s response.  Whether he intends it or not, it comes across as another trashing of […]

  4. That was an excellent commentary, Stephen. I hope that it gets re-posted widely, especially in relation to the ongoing funding/referendum debate.

    I want to comment on one part of what you wrote: “They (buses) 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.”

    I once had occasion to ride the BC Transit bus system from Waterfront Station in Vancouver to Mission, in 1995. I did not choose to, but I had no alternative. Anyway, the ride took 4 hours, whereas the WestCoast Express takes 73 minutes. In Maple Ridge, there were three teenage girls standing by the side of Dewdney Trunk Road, at a bus stop, talking to each other, waiting for the bus.

    The bus driver slowed down, and blazed right past them, without picking them up. I asked him why he did that. He said that they were not standing close enough to the curb, and he did not know if they wanted to get on the bus or they were just loitering. He said that he wanted to teach them a lesson. I think that the next bus was in 90 minutes. I am sure that those girls likely would not grow into happy transit customers.

    Adam Fitch

    February 20, 2014 at 12:30 pm

  5. I guess that Jordan Yerman went to the same school as the people who thought up the Telus panda bears and hippos…

    Adam Fitch

    February 20, 2014 at 2:14 pm

  6. If what Red Frog said is true about the sorry lack of knowledge of TransLink public info meeting staff, it is a sad situation. On the other hand, they may know about such international system models, but not feel free to talk about them, because they know that TransLink is cash-strapped, and they do not want to give false hopes to consumers about implementing models that TransLink cannot afford to do.

    Sometimes, when a public servant is confronted with a knowledgable, demanding member of the public, what is actually a tight-lipped, politically cautious, circumspect reaction, can look like a deer caught in the headlights…

    Adam Fitch

    February 20, 2014 at 2:40 pm

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