Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for January 2019

Free transit motion to be debated by Vancouver city councillors

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The headline is taken from a CBC News story and the motion will be debated tomorrow. It also provides a link to the motion as a pdf file. The motion asks Council to support the All on Board  campaign. Apparently there is going to be a “research report containing evidence” – but that is not ready yet. You might think that it would be a Good Idea to have had that ready in time for the discussion. Because there is remarkably little evidence on offer so far either in the motion’s “Whereas” section or the campaign website. Other than some people think it might be a Good Idea and other places have already tried it.

What needs to be considered is how much revenue is going to be lost from this proposal and how it might be replaced. The motion suggests that the Provincial Government will be approached for more funding. Presumably, the Province will also have to consider if this is something that needs to be applied province wide. If not, then you can expect the attention to switch to property taxes as that is about the only source that the municipalities can access. I would certainly expect that someone will actually do the necessary policy analysis, which, of course, is entirely absent so far. This would include some assessment of the costs to increase transit supply at peak periods – and also at times when young people are not in school and can be expected to be enjoying their new found freedom to ride transit as often and as far as they can go. I would also expect questions to be asked like why does this demographic get pushed to the front of the line when others – the aged, the disabled, the desperately poor adult population –  fail to get anything like such generous treatment?

I accept that for low income families even reduced fares for children can be inadequate to be affordable for many trips. At one time people who had transit passes could take their spouse and children with them at weekends for no extra charge. I forget now when that concession was withdrawn, but I would be willing to bet that cost was a concern.

It is true that giving children free rides will increase ridership – though the campaign has not made any forecast of that. Nor have they considered what other ways might also increase ridership and their comparative effectiveness. What we do know, and what is not mentioned anywhere in these materials, is how increasing service frequency and improving reliability (through traffic management measures) can offer much higher rates of return at lower levels of cost, and can be better targeted. For just as there are families that can’t afford transit, there are plenty for whom the fare is not the deterrent that inconvenience, unreliability and inadequate service undoubtedly are. Transit takes you from where you are not to a point at some distance from where you want to be. And for a lot of the trip will expect you to stand, or be crowded with others, or left at a bus stop wondering how long your wait will be. People who have invested heavily in a vehicle, and its insurance (which does not vary by distance driven) have a vested interest in getting as much use out of that expense as possible. And despite traffic congestion and the hassle of finding parking still get a better travel experience than transit riders for most trips. The car is at your convenience and takes you all the way without a transfer!

I do think that the province ought to be increasing what it spends on transit, I just think we need to be a bit more considered about how that money is spent. I also think that transit should not be considered as a social service or a redistributive device. If people are poor then giving them more money is far better than giving them scrip for approved expenditures. Free transit passes are as prescriptive as food stamps and both can be a stigma. Giving free rides to children whose parents are wealthy may not actually reduce car use all that much, if at all and is palpably wasteful.

And anyway, why are we focussed on transit and not asking why these kids are not walking more or using their bicycles? Might it be something to do with concerns about their safety?


Written by Stephen Rees

January 14, 2019 at 2:04 pm

Geography and demographics perpetually conspire against Delta

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There is a piece by Justin McElroy of the CBC that discusses transit – or rather the lack of it – south of the Fraser and in particular – in Delta. As usual this is in the context of the Massey Tunnel. And I found myself irritated by McElroy’s journalistic attitude. Which is a shame since I generally enjoy reading his stuff.

He has got some data that he puts into Infograms – but the one thing that is very obviously missing is this map

screen shot 2019-01-11 at 10.27.31 am

The original is a pdf that you can get from metrovancouver. It is the second one in the list. Most of Delta is either agricultural or the protected area of Burns Bog. The only population centres are Ladner and “North Delta” – the bit of Surrey that flops over the municipal boundary in the northeast corner.

“Strip away the urban studies jargon,” says McElroy – which is frankly offensive. What Kevin Desmond says is simple and obvious. But what would have made it clearer is if the article had included this map. The relationship between transit service and residential density is very basic and very clear. Though what is a bit of a surprise is that Tsawwassen does not even show up on this map. It is not labelled but does show the “urban containment boundary” – and is still pale green , not the orange of the next density step up. I am not sure if the next census is going to be much different – or if it will show the Tsawwassen FN as a separate “municipality”. But then White Rock doesn’t get a label either though Semiahmoo does. But that is because the labels refer to “Regional and Municipal Centres”.

And actually the lack of transit in this region is nothing to do with geography or demographics. It is simply politics. For 16 years we had a provincial government that neglected transit except for a its pet megaprojects – and foisted an unnecessarily divisive referendum on transit funding which has held back service growth. That log jam has now been broken and things are getting better slowly, but clearly priority for new service has to go to where overcrowding is worst. The province is still fumbling over the need for better regional connections because MoTI is still run by traffic engineers keen to build more and bigger roads. Everyone else seems to understand induced traffic, and the only real argument seems to be over transit technology – which is actually much less important than transit priority.

And while I think there is improvement, we have by no means solved the underfunding of transit operations and maintenance. Senior governments only want to fund projects that have nice photo-ops for politicians, not the dull but essential everyday need to keep the fleet running. Which makes me even less tolerant of the people who keep pushing the idea of free transit, as though we did not already have enough issues of overcrowding and pass-ups. If we had lots of spare capacity and the ability to replace fare revenue from some other source I might be more receptive, but these never ever get mentioned by the free fare crowd. They seem to think that somehow not collecting fares actually saves money, which is not true here – and is only true is very small, underutilized systems – mostly in the US. If you really want public services to be free please concentrate on health and education – which are supposedly free but are not by a long way. When you do not need health insurance for any treatment, and anyone can go to post secondary education without needing loans or grants or scholarships, then I will accept that free transit can be next up. But recognize that means making wealthy people pay more taxes. As we have seen with property tax, you can expect pretty hard push back.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 11, 2019 at 10:52 am

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

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