Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘U Pass

“Translink’s U-Pass yields hidden benefits”

with 17 comments

I have to start with an apology. Recently I wrote that Langara students don’t have U-Pass. Turns out I am behind the times again

Langara College and Capilano University were added to the program only in May 2008 and January 2009, respectively.

I wish I could find where I made that comment but I cannot track it now to correct it.

The self absorption of students on this issue never ceases to amaze me. They talk about why students need more subsidies and why they ought to get them, but there is never any reference to all the other people who may actually be more deserving  of public support, or what other legitimate claims there might be for transit service provision. Now for campaigners that is understandable, but when it comes to a “thesis for a public-policy master’s degree at SFU” I expect a lot more objectivity.

The headline comes from a Georgia Straight article by Carlito Pablo which is also somewhat one sided. It is acknowledged that “TransLink is in a financial sinkhole” – in other words it simply cannot afford to extend U-Pass to other students let alone people who have graduated – up to five years ago!  But no one seems to mention that when university graduates do get a job, they tend to be better paid than the rest of the workforce. I recognize that right now the jobs market is unusually tough for graduates – but then that is true for everyone trying to get a job. And yes there is also under-employment in the first year or so of the new graduate’s career. But that is not the transit system’s problem.

In fact, I argue that social welfare is not something that transit systems are set up to deal with. Concession fares are essentially marketing tools, not methods to correct maldistribution of income. There was – when I worked there – a small program, fully funded by the provincial government, to give free transit tickets to the indigent. I say was because I simply do not know if that has survived the BC Liberals meanness in social policy. Certainly Translink and BC Transit have no way of determining the income of its users and adapting fares to what they can afford. Most people pay the same fare, and the ones that get a break are due to some special initiative or other, like U-Pass. Quite why students get to the front of the line of people who want a break on the fare is not something I feel comfortable discussing.  Mainly because I think there many more deserving causes like single mothers on welfare or people with disabilities who cannot get around any other way, and who for as long as I have been aware of the issue do not get anything like the number of rides they need. Most recently I was asked to support a group that wants fare concessions for school children to take field trips. Everyone has a good cause.

But it is also the case that basic transit service is inadequate now – overcrowded and underprovided – but will be cut heavily if Translink cannot get more funds. It is bad enough students pushing themselves to the front of the line when times are good. Doing it now just looks greedy to me. First priority for Translink is more revenue to keep existing services going and, for a whole range of reasons, expand the system significantly. We do not actually need any program to encourage ridership. What we have seen is that as transit service improves in frequency, range and service speed is that people do use it, and the system can win people out of their cars.  Indeed, one of the findings that Brian Mills report cited was that the soon to be withdrawn #98 B-Line attracted new riders to the system, not just people from other bus routes. So it is perfectly possible to get people out of their cars – and it does not necessarily have to be very expensive, grade separated railway to do it. In fact, it is probably worthwhile someone doing a comparative cost benefit analysis. How does the cost per new rider compare between the B Line and the Millennium Line now – or the Canada line in a few years time?

As Ken Hardie notes in the Straight: “It’s not cost-neutral, because we always see the ridership go up—which is what you want, right? But what happens is we have to put in extra buses and extra hours of service,”

It is a pity that his point was not made years ago by staff at Translink who stuck to the line about “revenue neutral” U-Pass prices in their Board reports and failed to calculate the impact on costs. The story at CMBC since the U-Pass was brought in has been a constant struggle to get more service onto SFU and UBC routes, and that has cost plenty.

B.C. Transportation Ministry spokesperson Linda Gold said the government is “still moving forward” with a provincewide U-Pass program for September 2010. “As far as details about costs and things, they haven’t determined that yet,” Gold told the Straight by phone.

I am sure she did. But then this morning the CBC reports that a projected revenue shortfall of $3bn for the provincial budget

The government is desperately trying to maintain key services, but a $3-billion shortfall is making that a real challenge, Hansen said.

“We are desperately trying to maintain the critical services in health care and education and the social services. So it’s definitely been a challenging summer,” the finance minister said Wednesday.

“Maintain health care” of course means significant cuts already in surgeries – but that is the current year. No doubt it will be worse next year.

Of course, with this government’s priorities being quite different to mine – or indeed most people in BC (see recent poll data) there is no telling what the new budget may say. “It could translate into a larger deficit, higher taxes or more program cuts” observes the CBC unhelpfully. Probably all three I would say. I doubt that one of the program cuts will be the Gateway, but stopping the Highway #1 expansion would save $3bn off the bat. Not much chance of that. But you can bet that the arts, libraries and school field trips will be first in line for the chop – as well as “elective surgeries”. So if your granny has been waiting for a new hip, she can expect to spend a lot more time in great discomfort and very limited mobility. Because making sure the Olympics are a great PR success is a lot more important. Quite where the “commitment” to U-Pass stands in all this remains to be seen, but it does not seem likely to survive – any more than any other BC LIberal promise made three months ago will survive. They are in power now and can go for four years before they have to worry about promises again.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 20, 2009 at 11:11 am

Posted in transit

Tagged with

Students ready for fare fight

with 2 comments

Georgia Straight

As the new term approaches the campaign for UPass for all students heats up again. Their argument is that all students ought to be treated the same. This is a nice principle, but the real world is not a fair place at all.

The deal struck with UBC and SFU was forced through by pressure from the top at Translink over the better advice from staff. The system was already under strain, with not enough capaicty and no way to get much  more quickly, and a distinctly iffy financial prospect. But that was ignored in favour of making a nice big splash. Of course, the fact that the CEO’s daughter was just starting at UBC at the same time is merely coincidental, and it is simply mischievous to suggest that such a well respected public servant could possbibly be influenced by such personal conscerns.

Anyway, the money problem now looks like getting worse and Translink simply cannot afford to subsidise every student in the region. And cvertainly could not cope with another influc of riders. Though int he case of some institutions like VCC, where most of the student already use transit with no financial inducement, there is very little ridership to gain but a lot of revenue to lose.

And it might also be argued that there are many other low income riders who also “deserve” a break,  not that anyone is suggesting that our taxes be used in this way  – other than the BRU that is.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 22, 2008 at 9:07 pm

Posted in transit

Tagged with ,