Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘free transit

Free transit motion to be debated by Vancouver city councillors

with 2 comments

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 I forget now when that concession was withdrawn, but I would be willing to bet that cost was a concern.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

A case for free transit in the downtown core

with 3 comments

Other cities do it–why can’t we?

Vancouver Courier

Bizarrely this opinion piece is actually field under “news” – and it is not attributed apart from an email address for “tos”

The idea has been around for a while – you will find earlier refutations on this blog too.

But the simple question that appears under the headline is easy to answer.

Even if this were a good idea (I don’t think it is) we cannot afford it. The US cities that have free transit are much smaller than us, and the ones that have free transit just in the core have a better supply of transit and more resources available to them. They use free transit to fill up empty buses, and often have financial support from the downtown businesses who need this service to compete with suburban malls that have lots of free parking. Free transit essentially distributes shoppers – and others – to a greater range of parking lots. Because even in less successful downtowns parking is problematic, because space is at a premium.

In Vancouver we do not have enough transit supply. We haven’t had enough for many years because the province controls how much is spent on transit in BC. Since transit is not a popular subject in “the heartlands” – where public  money spent in Vancouver is greatly resented – there is more political capital at provincial election times at railing at transit “wastefulness” (something Shirley Bond was falling back on prior to the current fuss) than doing the right thing. We have already given huge incentives to some post secondary students to use transit – and will be extending to the  rest shortly – also due to provincial decision-making. The result has been overcrowding and pass-ups. We simply do not need to promote more transit use in downtown Vancouver because we cannot carry all the people who want to use it now.

Translink is cash strapped – not just for capital projects like the Evergreen Line – but also the daily operating and maintenance of the existing system. The Mayors were dissuaded from cutting service to balance the books, but Vancouver showed during the Olympics that more transit – and less space for cars – would work well if continued. We lost that impetus – a great shame – due to financial imperatives.

“Tos” thinks that the province could divert the $317m a year that is now used to subsidize the oil and gas business. Shame there is no source cited for that figure – I would love to use that argument myself. They won’t, of course. Promotion of oil and gas has been the centrepiece of the economic program of this government – as well as the hideously expensive and wrongly directed Gateway Program. He is right that if we want to do something about greenhouse gas the money could be better spent – but, aside from the token carbon tax, I see no evidence of that. Rather the contrary in fact.

The other thing that “tos” doesn’t notice is that we have a very different distribution of people in our downtown. Vancouver’s downtown is quite different to Seattle’s or Portland’s. Indeed many US cities send their planners here to see how we’ve done it. The vast clusters of residential towers – many in owner occupation and most highly desirable residences – are being copied elsewhere now. We lost a lot of employment in our downtown core too – and that employment did not go to the regional centres but was dispersed to suburban office parks. That is a huge problem for transit. Such places are difficult to serve – and many aren’t. If we put free transit into the downtown core the greatest beneficiaries would be the people who can now afford to live there. This is not like the “inner city” problems that plague other places – except of course the Downtown Eastside.

If someone is going to throw $317m at transit in BC, the best thing would be to use that fund more service in places where there is currently excess demand. Then to start providing transit to places that have supportive local density – the dense “nodes” of townhouses and multiple family developments – that dot the landscape in places that are otherwise remote from journey destinations like workplaces and post secondary education – the sort of trips that transit is good at. Surrey and Langley would both gain a lot of service from that. What has always been found in the transit business is that you win more new users by improving service than anything else. If you cut – or remove fares – there is a short-term bump as people try to get on. But they quickly lose interest when they find that the bus is not going to stop for them. Or they are uncomfortably crammed in if they can get on.

When you ask people who drive why they do not use transit, they don’t mention fares as the deterrent. It’s speed and convenience they talk about. And you cannot provide that if you have no funds.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 13, 2010 at 10:52 am

Posted in transit

Tagged with

COPE puts a free bus on Vancouver streets

with 5 comments

Charlie Smith in the Georgia Straight notes

For years, transit advocates have called for a free bus service in downtown Vancouver to alleviate traffic congestion and make it easier for people to get around.It’s done in Seattle and it’s done in Portland, but for some reason, TransLink has never delivered this sensible idea in downtown Vancouver.

The reason is that it is not a “sensible idea” – it’s a gimmick. It does absolutely nothing to “relieve traffic congestion” nor does it make it easier to get around.

And just because they have them in Seattle and Portland does not mean we should have them here. For one thing we already have a greater percentage of trips on transit then either of them.

If you ask car drivers why they do not take transit, you will get replies about speed and convenience. They won’t mention fares unless they are prompted to. People who have cars do not do so because they think transit is too expensive. The strongest advocates for free transit are those who use it anyway and like the idea of someone else paying for it. For just as there is no free lunch there is no free transit. Someone has to pick up the tab. In downtown Vancouver that used to be the merchants. Fighting the rise of suburban shopping centres, and seeing the effect of having two main shopping areas – one around Woodwards and one around the Bay – they paid for a bus to link the east and west bits of a larger shopping area than we have today. That service of course stopped when Woodwards gave up.

People who travel by transit every day into the downtown are well advised to have passes. Since they are going to make 10 trips a week, the average fare is cheaper with a pass. And every extra ride beyond those ten commute trips is “free” – or to put that in economistspeak the marginal cost of trips is zero. Transit users with passes in downtown thus have nothing to gain from a free bus. If you want to serve existing transit users better, then provide them with more service. They are already willing to pay for poor service, so any extra funds Translink has should go to making it better – more frequent is the first priority.

If you live and work in downtown, why are you more deserving of a free ride than people who live in less expensive areas? If you now walk or ride your bike to work, why should we try to get you onto transit? If you drive into downtown for work you probably get a parking spot paid for by your company. So you probably do not move it much during the day as you would then have to pay to park yourself.

So what does a free downtown bus service achieve?

The objective for the regional transportation authority has been and should be to increase transit mode share. Free buses in downtown do not serve that objective so they are not to be considered if there is extra funding available. If someone else has a different objective and money to spend then by all means let them put on a free bus – just as COPE has. For instance, if I had a parking lot full of long term contract parking but wanted to redevelop that site and shift those parkers to some more remote location, then a “free” shuttle makes a lot of sense. Just ask YVR who do exactly that at the airport – and will do more once the Canada Line opens. But just because the users do not pay a fare does not make it “free” – users of the airport are paying for that service through their user fee.

I can think of a number of more deserving cases who should get all of their transit costs paid for by the community as a whole. Downtown Vancouver residence is not, in my view, a sufficeint qualification. But I also think if we want to make adjustments in income distribution, there are much fairer, equitable and efficient ways of doing that than handing out bus tickets.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 14, 2008 at 11:52 am

Posted in transit

Tagged with


leave a comment »

Not so long ago we were engaged in a debate about how transit could be made free to use. This article in the Guardian purports to explain how things can be given away, and by operations that make lots of money. Which I thought was good until I came across this paragraph

But even that was good news. High-street bookshops might not have space to stock those Compton-Burnett novels I so ardently crave, but some warehouse off the M1 near Daventry might supply my outre demand if I ordered online. What is more, the internet could link geographically distant secondhand booksellers into one webpage. As a result, I need not visit Hay-on-Wye to trawl secondhand book shops. I could instead buy a book online, thereby saving me travel costs, while incurring negligible postal charges. In so doing I would be making someone outside the book-retailing mega-chains a few bob. Which has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

Yes and it already exists and has done for some years. The site is called Abe books and it was started by a secondhand bookshop in Victoria BC and has already transformed the used book business. And not just in Canada.

When I read a newspaper like the Guardian I assume it is written by people who know what they are writing about. Of course in my own specialized sphere, I do not expect them to be quite as knowledgeable. But something like this really begins to make me doubt the value of my source. And Guardian is still one I refer to a lot out of more than just nostalgia.

But there is some kernel of wisdom here. Right now tax payers pick up half the bill for transit – and here in Vancouver BC that translates into high fares and poor service for most of the region. And because it is a monopoly and under control of government, innovation is rare and sputtering, and often in bizarre areas of little concern to the people trying to get on a crowded bus. But money gets spent on things that appeal to politicians – and they seem to think they know better than we do what we ought to want.

So there could be a way to do free to user transit – but as long as the present system of (mis) governance persists, I do not see how we can break out of the mould that has trapped us in an expensive system that still only carries 11% of the trips at high cost to riders and taxpayers, and does not serve most of the geographic area very well – and some of it not at all.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 6, 2008 at 7:45 am

Posted in Economics, transit

Tagged with

Free Transit

with 11 comments


CBC 690 AM

Regular readers here will know that I do not think this is a good idea. Neither did the people of Geneva . Though it was a bit of a surprise that Frank Buckholz thought our fares were a bargain. But this idea keeps coming back.

On the radio Dave Olsen (who wrote the Tyee series) presented the other side and at the North Shore Transportation Panel were Eric Doherty and Jane Sterk (Leader of the Green Party of BC)

I was asked to provide my “usual summary” but sitting on a panel and sitting in the audience are two different things. Not only that but there was a timer on every speaker and the questions were set and then rotated. So the format was really not conducive to note taking. I didn’t take my lap top, and the notes I scribbled were to make sure I did not miss any of the points I wanted to make.

This is being written the next morning and I hope that if any of the participants feel that it does not reflect their views that they will post a comment. And there is no time limit here!

Dave Olsen has done a lot of research on this issue – and the first thing he says is that you should not just take out the farebox. He likes the example of Hasselt in Belgium. He also said that some larger high ridership systems are also considering fares free systems including San Francisco. He thought that we needed to have done transit in this region much better in the past – he likes surface light rail – and the first thing we need to do before we go for completely free is expand service and look at free fares off peak, where he said there is currently spare capacity. He thought that it should be possible to use the sources that now subsidize road users to finance transit use, and that abandoning fare collection would also reduce costs, although he did point out that Translink does not separate out the cost of fare collection in its accounts.

Jane Sterk is a very impressive politician. She was the only speaker who consistently spoke for less than the time allotted her but managed to be balanced and fair. She also was clear that free fares are not a solution in themselves but could be part of a much wider transformation of society, which would see more people living where they work and an overall reduction in transport demand. She opposed the idea of encouraging longer commutes, and thought that the carbon tax was a positive step in the right direction if only a very small step. I should perhaps point out that the meeting was actually organised by the Green Party, though it was free and open to the public.

Eric Doherty talked about UPass, and how it had out performed all predictions. He conceded that overcrowding had been (and still is) a major problem, but with better planning a universal pass system showed promise for promoting a shift from driving to transit. Unfortunately it also promoted a shift from car pooling and bike riding too. He spoke about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from driving, and the costs that car dependency imposed on society. In contrast, the cost of supporting transit was trivial now and would not be very much greater if fares were lower, but the pay back in terms of health and the environment would far exceed the cost. He agreed with Jane that longer distance commuting – and he singled out West Coast Express – should not be free.

The discussion was really more about how we get from where we are – with an inadequate transit system that is expensive and difficult to use – to where we need to be. And that allowed concepts to be introduced like paying for road use as a way of funding transit. There was also an interesting comment that free transit could reduce walking. The pro-side thought that was worthwhile since it would reduce pedestrian casualties. But it also became clear that most people also wanted better walking and cycling facilities too. The title of the discussion might have been free transit but we spent quite a bit of time on what is wrong with bike lanes at present.

I am not going to use this space to repeat what I said as it is all here – somewhere or another. But there was a high degree of consensus – the main differences being priorities and methods. “How are you going to pay for that” is a difficult issue, and just identifying the current subsidies to car use (and disagreeing about how big they are) really did not resolve the issue.

No major transit system is fares free. All systems that are have support from national or federal taxes. They are all in smaller cities, none in major conurbations. But there are also wide ranging free passes for different groups, and widespread dissatisfaction with the way that BC treats people who cannot afford current transit fares. It was also generally agreed that BC communities outside Metro Vancouver would need to look to their rather different circumstances.

As it happens the Guardian’s travel blog looks at free bus passes in the UK this morning.

UPDATE April 5 A Guardian reporter and his Dad try to travel the length of England on his free bus pass

Written by Stephen Rees

March 31, 2008 at 7:38 pm

Geneva says “no” to free public transport

with 7 comments

Tram passengers will get no free ride in GenevaSwiss Info
Image caption:

Voters in canton Geneva have turned down an initiative to allow people to travel on local trams and buses for free.The controversial proposal, which was supported by leftwing groups, unions and an association for retired people, was rejected by 67 per cent of Geneva voters on Sunday.

Geneva senator Robert Cramer told journalists he was both pleased and relieved by the result.

“If it had been accepted, it would have led to a considerable reduction in the quality of the Geneva public transport system,” the Green Party politician commented.

Very sensible people the Swiss. Unlikely to be swayed by appeals to emotion. The basic question the proponents had not dealt with was how they proposed to replace the revenue from fares since taxes already cover 55% of the costs. Is that a tax increase you would like, or a cut to some other service like health?

Geneva, just like Vancouver, needs to deal with congestion, and would like to see fewer people driving and more using public transport. But if you give up a big revenue source, you need to replace that just to stand still, let alone cope with an influx of new users. And once there is no fare revenue, additional ridership just increases costs or crowding. The only way to improve the system is to go back to the taxpayers and ask for even more money.

When something is free to use, it gets over consumed. That is why we have a problem with traffic. There is no additional cost to use a car at peak periods other than delay. And the increase in delay caused by the last few people who decide to add themselves to a peak hour flow has a huge impact on delay for all concerned. Oddly, our politicians cannot seem to get their heads around the need to ration road space. Yet we use the price system for nearly everything – and where we don’t, we get “line ups” or “waiting lists”. Time and money are substitutes. So people with time to waste don’t worry about how long they will sit in traffic, and are oblivious to the delay they cause everybody else.

The price system of course does not help people on low incomes. But that is not a reason to abandon it. We all have to pay for our food, and our power, and our shelter – and no one (so far as I know) suggests that these essentials should be free. Income redistribution has been gradually removed from our tax system, with the inevitable result of increasing inequity. Food banks have not solved poverty and neither will free transit.

Now, do not misunderstand me. I am not against free. I really like free software. Open source is also safer, and gets better the more people use it. I also like free education and free health care – and think there should be much more of both. Because both are consumed based on need, and because society is better, the more educated and healthy its people are.

But simply giving away mobility is strangling us. It is not that transit should be free. It is that road space must stop being free to the user. We can no longer afford to pay for infinite amounts of road space. We are, quite literally, running out of planet. And mainly because of the way we have organised personal motorised transportation. Making the next best alternative adopt the same disfunctional distribution system cannot make either better.

And isn’t that a nice looking tram? Wouldn’t look at all out of place on West Broadway – and it’s a darn sight cheaper than a bored tube!

Written by Stephen Rees

February 24, 2008 at 7:32 pm

Posted in Economics, transit, Transportation

Tagged with

Free Ride?

with 4 comments

Translink P3355 Braid Stn New Westminster 2007 1220

If you produce a free paper to give away to transit riders, it is probably a good idea to have a big front page splash of a story that has “a member of the premier’s influential climate-action team ‘advocating for free public transit'”

Problem is that it is not much of a story. Naomi Devine is a student at UVic – and thinks that UPass should be available to everybody. There is no analysis of this idea, just Maurine Karagianis “having concerns”.

I think it would be worthwhile to look at how much Translink depends on fares – just look at their recent proposals to hike fares next year and every other year thereafter. And how short of cash for more transit they claim to be – despite sitting on a pile of it. And, of course, Kevin’s plan to deny any fuel tax increase that is not matched by fare increases and property tax increases.

That means if you give up fares you need to replace them with some other source of revenue. And while the feds and the province also are sitting on budget surpluses that does not mean they are even willing to consider a steady commitment to pay for transit operating costs.

But also we need to look at what else you could do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Certainly getting more people to use transit is probably going to be a better solution than many others – as APTA has found. But free fares don’t get many people out of cars. Better transit service, on the other hand, does. And if you took the view that we should get a big cash infusion for transit from senior governments, I think that at long last providing adequate transit service across the region would get you more new riders than eliminating fares – which would also cut your ability to run better services.

Hopefully this is the sort of analysis that will be done by, or for, the “climate action team”.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 20, 2007 at 4:09 pm

Posted in transit

Tagged with ,