TransLink Fare Review

Now that we are all used to having a Compass Card, and even whingy, retro-grouch, late adopters like me have adapted and find the payment system easier to use, it’s probably a good time to discuss whether the current payment system for public transit makes sense. Fortunately, TransLink is doing that right now.

The system used by TransLink now dates back to the BC Transit days, more than 30 years ago. The familiar zones, transfers, off-peak discounts, and concession fares have only been tinkered with since the SkyTrain was shiny and new. The shift to single-zone buses to accommodate Compass Card was probably the biggest system-wide shift, but the arrival of Compass and long-awaited expansion of transit service make this a good time to review if the system we have really serves its customers best.

As New Westminster is the community that relies on transit more than any other on a per-capita basis, I hope people in New West take the opportunity to take part in the on-line survey and share their ideas.

Fares paid by transit users represent about 37% of TransLink’s revenues, a little over $510 Million out of total revenues of $1.4 Billion. However, it is not the intention of the ongoing fare review to increase the amount of revenue generated from current users. It is more about making the system more efficient and more attractive to users, which may result in increased revenue through boosted ridership.

At this point, TransLink are asking three simple, high-level questions, although each leads to longer discussions about how we want our transportation system to work, and what we want it to be. They are described in more detail here, but my short version is:

1) Zones: Should there be a flat fare for the system regardless of distance traveled, or should people pay more to travel further? If the latter, how fine-grained do you want zones to be? We currently have 3 zones for SkyTrain and one for bus and separate ones for YVR and West Coast Express, but could easily break the region up into 10 or more zones, or create “floating” zones where the edges shift based on where you first enter the system.

2) Travel Time: Should you always pay the same rate to ride transit, or should TransLink continue to give discounts outside of the busiest hours to try to spread the load (and crowds) across the system? If the latter, should there be only a Peak and an Off-Peak rate, or should the rate shift throughout the day, even hourly?

3) Service Type: Should all transit cost that same, or should you pay more for SkyTrain than you do for a bus; more for B-lines than for regular buses; different rates for West Coast Express and SeaBus? Perhaps more provocatively: should we have “business class” buses, with WiFi and cushy seats and foot massage for a premium cost?

I have my own opinions (surprise!) on all three of these topics. I even got to share them at a stakeholders meeting for elected types a few weeks ago. Fortunately, I also got to hear differing opinions on each of the points from people around the region. Most of these arguments discussions ended up circling around providing a “simple” system vs. a “fair” system. I tended towards the latter argument, mostly because I want a system that works for the day-to-day users and encourages use by residents of the region, and am less fussed about whether the system is quickly understood by tourists. I’ve traveled in transit systems in lots of countries in the last few years. Whether it was New York’s flat $2.75 a ride or Singapore’s highly variable distance-based sliding rates, we always managed to figure it out very quickly, and with a digital cards, it was never enough of a hassle that it made riding transit difficult.

I was also very curious about how any future payment system would be integrated with a regional road pricing scheme. It has always bugged me that tolls to cross the river or the Burrard Inlet have always existed for transit users in the form of “zone boundaries”, but driving across the bridges remained toll-free. If we want to leverage fair pricing of our regional transportation network towards Transportation Demand Management goals, the fare system must be integrated.

Finally I have a bunch of opinions (surprise!) about other aspects of the TransLink fare system. Why do we charge youth when they are travelling with their parent? Where are the employer incentive programs? Why am I paying an extra $7 at YVR? But these are not part of the current discussion. That type of fine-tuning and incentive program development will need to be a new discussion once TransLink has scoped out a renewed fare model based on the three principles above.

So go and take the survey, please, in the next couple of days, and give TransLink a bit of guidance about how you use the system, and how you want to pay for it. Make it work better for you, and for the region.

One comment on “TransLink Fare Review

  1. One of the reasons given for the current “1-zone bus ride” policy is that the Compass tap-out readers on the buses weren’t fast enough, and could slow down the unboarding process. Although, given the speed that people can exit SkyTrain stations, maybe this isn’t a problem (or is only a problem for bus tap-outs?). I would think that this issue must be resolved before the complete “fare by distance/bus stop traveled” approach can be utilized.

    It seems to me that the mere fact that the tap-off stations are still installed at bus exits means that the bug is either solved, or well on its way to being so.

Leave a Reply