Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘UPass

The lack of joined up thinking

with 9 comments

Two stories in today’s Sun struck me as being “bloggable” in the sense that they clearly meet the criteria of its stated purpose. The issue for me has been what to say about them that is worth saying – given that they are really not new or different, and only require me to repeat things that I have written here before, many many times.

Both illustrate what happens when we deal with transportation as though it were an end in itself. Both result from “silo” thinking. They are caused by the way we govern ourselves and the institutional arrangements we have. How people get to become decision makers – and what those decisions do to us.

The first is Ken Hardie threatening to cancel U-Pass.  An empty threat, of course. Ken himself can’t do that: indeed, it would be very difficult for Translink to do that, though they might indeed find themselves in that position. Fare evasion would not be the only reason, but could be cited as a contributory factor. Ken says that the selling of UPasses on Craig’s list is threatening the viability of the program. Now you do understand, don’t you, that Ken is the spokesperson – the chosen communicator. Indeed, that is where his expertise lies. Not in transportation or economics, but in presenting organizations to the public in the best possible light. The sort of person who suscribes to the idea that perception is reality. Though in fairness I have to say that is was his former boss Bob Paddon who tried to persuade me of that, not Ken himself.

And the rising losses, he warned, could put the program in jeopardy because if it’s not sustainable, TransLink will consider shutting it down.

Ah, so now we are in the murky area where we do not have direct  reported speech – and that is what the headline writer (not Kelly Sinoski) mangled.

UPass never was “sustainable” – and could not have been from the outset. For a long time, the staff who examined the idea of the UPass told the senior management – “The Executive” – that Vancouver was not like King County, which had introduced UPass for Washington state university. Metro there had spare capacity it could utilize. BC Transit in Victoria found something similar. In this region UBC is out at the end of a peninsula and SFU is on the top of a mountain. And neither university has nearly enough student accommodation on campus, and no way to fund more. The pressure on the transit provider was to help solve the universities’ problems – and those of the students forced to commute great distances by the lack of affordable accommodation. As a policy analyst I pointed out that students were no different to large numbers of other people who were also commuting due to the Vancouver housing affordability issue, and I could not make a plausible case for their needs to be given priority over other, arguably more deserving groups – the working poor for instance, or single mothers trying to get off welfare , or people with disabilities.

It may have been significant that when the UPass was finally approved Translink’s CEO had a daughter who was going to UBC. It may also have been significant that the planner who presented the case used the “revenue neutral” formula. He said that the deal would not reduce the amount of money coming in to the system. He said nothing about cost – the money going out of the system – or capacity – the ability of the system to adapt to changing demand patterns. “Sustainability” was not an idea mentioned in the context of Upass.  I know that since it was such a hot button word for me. The communicators had gotten ahold of it. Indeed some time before I was trying to convince provincial government environment ministry communicators not to talk about “sustainable transportation” since it was not a meaningful concept. Sure it would help the environment if fewer students drove and more used transit – but since many students car pooled that was not exactly clear cut. And anyway, no one was willing to pick up the tab. It seemed to me that any decision had to be based on a cost benefit analysis in policy terms and a cost effectiveness analysis for operational reasons. UPass was not subject to either of those tests. “Revenue neutral” was a catch phrase, usable in sound bites. Not good policy but easy communicability.

If we were really interested in sustainability we would question the location decisions that give rise to so much motorised transportation demand. And we would also wonder about setting up higher education establishments that think only of research and teaching but not accommodation.  At one time the most important person in any college was the bursar – not the vice-chancellor. Once universities were made more business like – and made to get their funding from corporations – they lost the ability both to govern themselves sensibly and to meet the needs of society as a whole.

UPass has been very successful in getting transit ridership increased quickly. Unfortunately, the transit system has not been able to cope with that. Prior to UPass, it was already straining capacity – and having difficulty justifying to the region as a whole how that capacity was distributed. Because in places where ridership was low because service was poor – and even pockets of dense development were single use and widely spaced – it was hard to justify levels of taxation equal to those in areas where service was better (I cannot use the word “good”).  But that toothpaste is out of the tube now. Cancelling UPass would have much larger consequences than not starting it in the first place. And as long as Translink has funding problems to solve, fare evasion is always going to command more attention than it might reasonably merit on a cost benefit or a cost effectiveness basis. Just look at the figures. Actually on second thought look at the absence of the really important figures: no total revenue, no revenue  from UPass, no percentages. Just large numbers waved around without context. It’s all spin, no substance. $15 million sounds a lot – it would make a nice lottery win, for instance. But in the context of the transit budget? Or of Translink’s revenue as a whole?  Or in terms of what Translink needs in terms of operating funding over and above fare revenue to meet the needs of a growing region that wants to become more sustainable?

Which brings me to Jerry Dobrovolny, the City of Vancouver’s Director of Transportation who is starting a public consultation process for the long-range transportation plan for 2040.

The city hopes to shape its latest plan with feedback from the public, who can give suggestions at 11 town hall meetings, 50 stakeholder events and through a city website,, between now and July 15. A second phase of the plan will start early next year.

Interestingly the link the Sun provides (but not as a working, clickable link like the one above) takes you to two such processes – but we will stick to transportation for now. I will go back to the housing one later, since it raises similar issues of governmental “silos”.

What is being suggested is quite remarkable for a Transportation Director and really refreshing to hear, as I have reported before

Dobrovolny envisions a city of dense, compact communities around transit hubs, with HOV and bus lanes on major arterial routes so it’s “not a hardship but a joy” to get out of the car.

It has never been unusual to hear Vancouver planners to talk like that, but to hear it from the engineer is progress indeed. I will pass on the HOV for now and just press for bus lanes. Since the city cannot possibly afford to widen any of its arterial streets and avenues, bus lanes can only be made available by taking road space from cars. (Or, whisper it quietly, those wide, treed  boulevards.) Dobrovolny could have been doing this for some time – and indeed has been doing exactly that for bicycle lanes. Again, I suspect that this has more to do with who is the Mayor and what his priorities are. In terms of mode share – especially at the regional scale of movement – I happen to believe that bus lanes would benefit more people than bike lanes, especially in a city that has a tight grid of streets and lots of marked cycle routes off the arterial roadways. But I concede that bike lanes in the city centre were an important political fight to win.

To entice more walkers, the city would consider wider sidewalks on busy downtown streets like Granville and Georgia to reduce congestion and pedestrian “traffic jams” and ensure they’re covered with awnings to protect people from the rain. More lighting and way-signing would help pedestrians find their way around town.

Public spaces with chairs, benches and tables for major events would draw more walkers and cyclists, he added, while traffic calming on neighbourhood streets and separated cycle lanes would make cycling more comfortable for the 60 per cent of people, like seniors and children, afraid to ride in traffic.

“Tables and chairs” is pure Jan Gehl, via Janette Sadik-Kahn. I am sad that Jerry cannot bring himself to espouse the very necessary commitment to gradual but steady reduction in car use as a policy objective, but maybe that is just a red rag we do not need to wave right now. If we can get this and the following we are going to be going the right way

And those who can’t give up the car would have the option of car-sharing, pay-as-you-drive insurance and low-carbon vehicles.

And those of course are largely outside the City’s jurisdiction, but as we saw at the Car2Go launch they are being supportive.

But when it comes to transit, the city’s hands are somewhat tied,

More than “somewhat”. In a regional transit system, giving more to those who already have most is politically difficult. We do not have a regionally run system  – indeed I doubt we ever did – but it is hard to see how Christy Clark is going to resolve this one. The carbon tax was another of those “revenue neutral” sales jobs – just like the HST. She seems to be making a dog’s breakfast of both right now. Jerry does a good soft shoe shuffle here.

Christy Clark is not about sustainability any more than Gordon Campbell was. I frankly doubt her credibility on the HST business and it may even be her downfall. If she can pull it off, expect a fall general election. But also do not expect vast amount of capital flowing to major transit projects from the carbon tax. That is a small slow trickle – but might be useful to prop up operating funding for transit across the province. It would mean less would be going to tax cuts of course, but she is showing that she is far less dogmatic in that area. Even Kevin Falcon now professes the need to do things differently (though I doubt he would have had he won the leadership).

Making Vancouver – City or Metro – better able to cope with a world which is reducing is anthropogenic carbon emissions and adapting to the consequences of those already emitted – ought to be item one on the agenda of all the levels of government involved. Since most of us live in cities and all of us depend on what cities provide.  ICBC is a provincially directed corporation  that could go for pay-as-you-drive but has not, yet. “Can’t give up the car” is a function of housing and highways – and right now I do not see Canada getting back into public provision of housing (except in very limited special cases) and no sign at the provincial level of abandonment of their disastrous highway expansion projects.

Red streetcar

Seattle Streetcar - my photo

The City must do what it can – and I would like to suggest that among those things could be providing a downtown streetcar. Both Seattle and Portland found ways to do that outside of their regional transit systems. Because it was a City priority, but not a regional priority. And it was more to do with encouraging compact urban development in both of those cities  than with current transportation demand. Our needs are a bit different – and we already have the compact development along much of the route.

Much of what must be achieved in this region requires senior governments to start to grapple effectively with issues that up to now they have muffed. Or they could (even more unlikely) stop treating municipal government so badly.  Taxinequities is a powerpoint slide show that Gaetan Royer, the City Manager of Port Moody has put together. I saw it at the Green Party of BC AGM, and applauded it loudly.

POSTSCRIPT  May 26, 2011 2:50pm

The Richmond Review is now reporting that Craig’s List has been removing the adverts for UPasses – after a request from the “Transit Police” and adds

Hardie said TransLink has not considered cancelling the U-Pass program over the pass reselling problem.

May 27, 2011 3:13pm

And I am not the only blogger looking at this issue: Darren Barefoot takes a closer look at Translink’s creative UPass math

Written by Stephen Rees

May 26, 2011 at 11:29 am

COPE talks about Transit, Bikes and UPass

with 5 comments

COPE Talking on Transportation meeting at Our Town Cafe 12 February 2008

Last night I went to a COPE meeting in Vancouver that was to dicuss transportation. The meeting was held in the Our Town cafe which makes good cappuccino, and has a nice atmosphere but was not ideal for this kind of format. There were three presenters on the panel, and a short Q&A session. There was no amplification, and the cafe remained open. So conversations, milk frothing, and guitar tuning all continued throughout, making hearing what was being said a challenge. The meeting was also recorded on video, and I will be inserting links to that when it becomes available.

Councillor David Cadman

This region has a history of accommodating cars. We could have had light rail because we have plenty of existing track to use. Basically all we needed to do was buy rolling stock and put in some double track here and there. Bill VanderZlam wanted an unmanned system, mainly because of his fight with the transit operators union. Then Glen Clark overrode the professional recommendation for light rail on Broadway and went for SkyTrain for the Millennium Line. It was much less than was needed and therefore underperforms. Essentially bus riders subsidized the rapid transit system, although after 22 years the Expo Line is probably breaking even on operating costs. We are 800 buses behind where we need to be and that is without UPass for all students.

There are only three ways Translink can raise money: property tax, gas tax and fares. Gas tax increases underperform because people can find ways to reduce their gas consumption and also buy gas outside the region. Increasing fares does not pay because it drives down ridership.

In terms of goods movement we have been told to expect a four fold increase in the number of containers in the next five years, by which time emissions from ships will surpass that of cars. The great push from the port for more road space is simply because they work in the daytime only. We could have a very good system if trucks only moved at night.

He also referred to the recent scandal of the new Translink board pay scales.

The regional strategy says that we should plan for more walking, cycling and transit use in that order, cars coming a distant fourth but we don’t have the capital for these three modes. The expansion of the the airport is a massive investment in infrastructure that we had not anticipated.

We need a long term plan for transit and also distance based car insurance. It will be a hard process to get there – and we need the share of the gas tax that currently goes to Ottawa and Victoria. We need to do what Zurich has done. However the new Translink board is not pedestrian or bike oriented. We also need to be aware that to achieve the financial result required for the p3 contract, we will need 100,000 passengers to pay for the Canada Line. Diversion from existing bus services will only produce 43,000 – and no-one knows where the rest will come from.


Dr Fred Bass

“I was removed from the TransLink Board because I would not support the RAV line. I want to talk about cycling.” He then conducted an impromptu survey of the meeting’s bike use which showed that COPE is much more bike intensive than the rest of the region. “I sold my car in 2003and that has saved money, I use my wife’s car and a car co-op, bus and taxi. I have gained hard cash – $3,000 to $4,000 a year and I lost 15lbs – cycling is good exercise.”

While the priorities of the regions transportation plan are pedestrians, bikes, transit and cars in that order, the expense tell a different story. Transit riders pay over 50% of cost of their ride. There are 1.2m cars in the region but they do not pay their share of their costs. In 1996 the GVRD estimated that each car was subsidized by $2,800 a year (Todd Littman estimates it at $3,700 now.)

Bikes bring the community together, there is less air pollution, but the risk of injury is ten times that of a car driver, based on UK statistics. There should be compensation for using a bike. One city in the US uses a lottery to reward someone who has recycled properly. This idea could also apply to cyclists. He the went through a long list of cities that have higher rates for cycling than we do and concluded that we are not world class. “We need more bike routes and to get to a critical mass. I want to see the Burrard Bridge full of bikes.”

tiffany-kalanj.jpgTiffany Kalanj: Student Union of Vancouver Community College

Tiffany is a full time staff member of the Union and is determined to get UPass for VCC. The cost of transit at VCC is significant and there are students there, she said, who have to choose food or fares.

In 1990 the students started negotiations for UPass and in 1994 got FastTrax as the second prize. The decal gets a student a 3 zone ride for a 1 zone fare, but gives no discount to those who only ride within one zone. There is a large discrepancy compared with what UBC students now pay for their pass. In 2002 after UPass was successful in Ontario, Victoria and the University of Washington in Seattle, Translink returned to the negotiating table. Only SFU and UBC were accepted a part of the pilot program. In its first year UPass saw a 39% increase in transit ridership at SFU and 53% at UBC. A Translink report in 2005/6 proposed to expand UPass to nine community colleges but all nine had to agree. At the 2005 municipal election Sam Sullivan said, “I will make sure you get UPass even if Translink does not want to give it you.” Since then he does not return phone calls. The revenue neutral policy has not worked.

Buses are really overloaded. Under the proposed “all or nothing” deal the cost could have been $34 per month, but if it was VCC only it would be double UBC price. (Note that UBC does make a contribution towards the cost reflecting its savings on parking provison.) Some colleges are not interested, which makes the deal hard to complete.

VCC has 11,000 students and a high percentage are single parents. 33% are also working full time. There are a lot of low to moderate income single moms upgrading their qualifications in the hope of better employment.

The basic issue for the students is access to education. The ghg figures produced by the province and Translink don’t add up. A policy change is needed. It should no longer be revenue neutral and we need to get all colleges in the region on board.


Andrew Eisenberg said he liked the ideas he had heard but asked “how will you fund it?”

Fred Bass said that there are 1.2m cars in the region. They cost their owners $9,000 a year. That works out to around $11bn a year out of drivers pockets plus $5bn in subsidies. If you could redirect 10% of that to transit we could have a good system. He also pointed out that money spent on cars goes out of this region.

Tiffany Kalanj said that there is currently a $300m surplus at Translink, but they raise the fares and they increase their own pay. What about the poor? It is not that difficult: it is just a political decision.

Dale Laird noted that at present CN intermodal ships containers from the port to their Thornton rail yard by truck. He also noted that the only way that the Canada Line has stayed within its budget is by a reduced scope. Two train sets have been cancelled and the provision of storage for spare or damaged trains at the ends of the tracks have been eliminated. Lavalin has therefore also required the removal of its performance guarantee, as these measures make it impossible for them to meet their targets.

David Cadman concluded that transit should be a wedge issue in next election. We need to get the ped/bike/transit coalition as organised as the truckers. Cope is opposed to Gateway. He also noted that Sam Sullivan had promised to roll back the previous fare increase. While on the Translink Board he did nothing to bring this about

We must stop expansion of roads to absorb traffic from the freeway expansion but Bill 43 means TransLink can overide city council and insist on local road widenings to distribute increased traffic from the widened freeway.

Fred Bass said simply “We have been screwed on transportation. It has been a robbery of our democratic rights.”



Written by Stephen Rees

February 12, 2008 at 7:48 am