Flat-fare transit system, not ‘smart’ cards, is the way to go

In 2013, TransLink will launch a new electronic fare system that would allow it to charge riders only for the distance they actually travel, rather than by zone. But just because they can charge more for people traveling long distances doesn't mean they should.

In 2013, TransLink will launch a new electronic fare system that would allow it to charge riders only for the distance they actually travel, rather than by zone. But just because they can charge more for people traveling long distances doesn’t mean they should.

A ‘smart’ card system is anything but. It makes intuitive sense to drivers to say that someone traveling from King George to Waterfront ought to pay more than someone going from Columbia to Sapperton. But when it comes to public transportation, riders paying more for traveling a longer distances hamstrings efforts to get  more people out of their cars.

TransLink should be doing all it can to provide incentives for suburbanites traveling long distances into work to take transit instead of driving. I understand that it costs more for TransLink to carry them, but it is more challenging and  impactful to remove a car from the road that would travel from Surrey into Vancouver than a car traveling only a few blocks.

The current zoning system is terrible. There’s no good reason a person should pay more to travel from Patterson to the next station, Joyce, than from Patterson to Metrotown on the other side of the zone boundary. The zone system also makes it vastly less attractive for residents of Coquitlam and Surrey (and beyond) to choose the SkyTrain over driving. (Exclusive transit use is almost unheard of in those areas, as I know having grown up in Coquitlam/Port Moody. Service frequency is too low, and there are significant gaps in bus coverage, depending where you need to go.)

The fare changes proposed are better than the current system. But what we really ought to do is implement a flat-fare system. Yes, it means that we subsidize riders in the ‘burbs. Taking transit at least some of the time is easy in New Westminster, much of Vancouver and parts of Burnaby. Everywhere else in the Lower Mainland, it’s a significant sacrifice. Paying more for less service makes it even less attractive to choose public transit.

Briana Tomkinson

Briana Tomkinson is a Montreal-based writer and original founder of Tenth to the Fraser. She really likes to write letters by hand.

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18 comments

  1. I went to a workshop on food security last week. It was near King George Station. I walked 15 minutes to Braid, got on a train, transferred at Columbia, rode three stops to King George, got off and walked. It didn’t even occur to me that the trip was actually two zones…because I can ride across New West into Burnaby (10ish stops) for the cost of one zone. It didn’t even occur to me, in fact, till I returned home and another workshop participant commented on how silly it was to be paying 3.75 to go 4 stops. I agree the zones are no longer effective.

    1. A workshop on food security ?

      Is that what the worlds come down to now. You need to protect your groceries ?
      Next thing you know they'll have shopping bags with combination locks !

      N.W.

  2. I wrote a piece 2 years ago taking a very similar stand (http://delirious.ca/591/), that if the system goes to purely distance-based fares this will be very BAD for fighting climate change and congestion. Suddenly all these discretionary trips people with monthly farecards take will have a price, so given the choice they'll be more likely to drive than take transit.

    This means more cars on the road, more pollution, more congestion. Unfortunately this puts Translink in a win-win situation, if people drive or take transit it will be money in their pocket either via fares or gas tax. Such a system provides no financial motivation for Translink to encourage mode-shift. Idling cars are purring cash machines for Translink.

    Do I think Translink's motivations are this draconian? Of course not, but I think they must carefully weigh the consequences of the decisions they make when it comes to smartcards and I am afraid the allure of money jumping in to their pockets with every boarding might be too tempting to ignore.

    You're right, we do need larger, systemic solutions that address the real problem of chronic underfunding of transit by our higher levels of government. The stat I'm sure we've all heard many times before, we're the only Western country without a national public transit strategy, even the free enterprise Americans are decades ahead of us in ensuring there regular, dependable federal funds available for public transit.

    1. Another point about the monthly farecards and discretionary trips. Right now, they are transferable. That means, if one person isn't using it, he/she can hand it off to anyone else to use. In our house, that means that sometimes I use my husband's pass if he isn't using it. I know definitely in my case there are times when I would have taken trips by car, but since I could use my husband's pass, I took transit instead. I wonder if passes will continue to be transferable under the new system?

  3. I never realized just how awful the zone issue was until I myself was affected. After a fire at my apartment building, my mother and I found ourselves staying at a hotel in Coquitlam, just far enough in that one would opt to catch the bus a few stops in the rain so they don't end up soaked. However, that means paying a 2-zone fare, even though it's within walking distance of Lougheed Station. My total ride on the bus between two zones would have been four minutes – certainly not worth the extra $1.75.

    Under the old transfer system, bus drivers would give you some leeway when you were within 1-2 stops of a new zone. With the computerized system now however, they can't give you that same leeway and it has certainly turned me off of using transit to get to where I'm going. I've chosen to get up at 5am and catch a ride with my mum in the morning instead, when I don't even need to be at the building until noon.

    At the same time, when living at the building I would typically only use the skytrain to go two stops. Paying $2.50 for the rare time I have to catch the skytrain two stops is a great waste when compared to the guy paying $2.50 to go ten stops. I greatly overpay for my use of the skytrain compared to my peers, so through my eyes buddy over there is getting a discount and I'm the one being forced to pay the difference.

    What I didn't see on the Translink site was a pricing guide. Am I blind, or have they just not reached that part of the plan yet? I'm not going to get all giddy over a new system until I have all the information.

  4. I haven't completely wrapped my head around the implications of the smart card system. But, without all of the information, I agree with a flat-fare system that hits things in the middle of the road price-wise, if you'll excuse the expression. The thing is this; if I have to pay a bit more to feed a system that we NEED to be WAY more extensive than it is, I will.

    Travelling in Delta, and Surrey as I do, now that certain members of my family have moved to public transit unfriendly areas, of which there are shamefully many in Delta and Surrey, has forced me to think that I now HAVE to buy a car in order to see them. In the 21st Century, I shouldn't have to buy a car to make a simple trip across a river. I would rather put the money I'd spend on a car/gas/insurance into a fair public transit fare for the present, and into taxation which will result in a more reasonable and vastly more extensive system for the NEAR future that doesn't make miles and miles of this area in which I live and call home into no-go zones for me.

  5. Not fully up to speed on this one, there is something I don't understand. You pay when you get on the bus. Not when you get off the bus. How is this smart card supposed to work ? And what about people without the card ? I can see people who use transit for daily commutes saving in some circumstances, but how would the billing cycle work ? Would you be invoiced or something ? Must be some sort of 'Proximity' card if thats the case.

    I've heard good things about Seattle transit down south. Hear nothing but 'fare evaders' and lack of service and tax hikes with translink and their beloved RTL. As for the buses apparently all you have to say is your not paying, and the driver pushes a button indicating a fare evader, the drivers don't want to get beaten or spit on over a buck or two. Back to this RTL lemon, which is so costly to construct they have to dip into property tax and fuel tax and however else they can dip into the public coffers. They really should take a look at transit of the past. Street level electric trolly. This elevated rail system is ridiculously cost ineffective.

    N.W.

  6. It's true, few details have been released. Ever since the idea first was pitched I continually push Translink to ensure monthly passes will still be available for the reasons outlined in my original blog posting. And every time the answer is, "Yes, of course they'll still be available."

    Just because they're talking fare by distance doesn't mean it will occur that way. You'd need tap in and out points on every bus, at every door, you'd need the support lines for people to call when incorrectly charged, the public education campaign about the new system, etc. It would be hard and costly to change our fare structure.

    I more suspect we'll see in these unrelased details the card will simply work like a stored value card, similar to a pre-paid Visa. I suspect the zones will remain as is, at least for the near future, simply instead of having fare saver tickets you'll have a value loaded on to the card which will work like fare savers. And for monthly pass users it will display for the operator simply as "valid/invalid" with a number of zones associated with it. The only innovation we're likely to see will be fare rates perhaps changing on time of day or geographic location.

    Unless you have a totally flat fare structure, which I have no problem with as long as there is money from other sources to make up the difference (read, income tax) rather than just averaging the 1-3 zone prices costing all short distance riders more on average, it's pretty much impossible to achieve everything people in this thread seem to want. To have 1-2 stops cost less even across a zone boundry, then you need fare by distance. Otherwise you're in a zone system world. I'm trying to rack my brain for a world example that doesn't fall in to one of those two categories (I'm way too much of a transit geek who knows way too much about world wide transit systems) and isn't a flat zone system.

    So it becomes a political question again, do we value public transit? Are we serious about mode shift and fighting climate change? If so, then the politicians at higher levels of government, the onces with the purse strings of OUR money need to stop flapping their lips and make the policy changes we need. It really all comes down to political will and why we aren't streaming in their ears to stop listening to their developer friends who want to pave Surrey and start being part of the solution.

  7. I went to San Francisco for the first time this summer and found the BART (subway) system is "pay by distance." I'm not sure how it would work with buses, but in San Francisco, you insert the card as you enter and as you exit the system. It calculates how far you have gone and deducts the appropriate fare.
    The difference between Vancouver and San Francisco, of course, is significant. San Francisco is in a much bigger metro area. I have a feeling driving is probably a horrible way to commute for most people.
    In the Lower Mainland, it's often still much quicker to drive than it is to take transit. So, definitely, incentives to use transit are needed. A "smart" card is probably only smart in cities where transit is already a clear winner over driving. In much of the Lower Mainland, it's not, not yet.

  8. I am a transit rider, and a taxpayer. I don't want to subsidize the people who pay less to live larger in the outer areas…but I am all in favour of public transit (and pretty much banning private vehicles) so I am stuck, aren't I. We will need to hear more about how this electronic system is supposed to work as it's not clear now. I'd like to see the 'peak time' travel cost more again as well. Transit here can't handle the #s – that might mean some would travel at less busy times again. And why do some students get a cut rate… I could go on and on.

    I feel it's important to note also that transit now even in Vancouver/Burnaby.New West isn't good unless you live/work/shop along transit routes. Service where I live in Burnaby is less convenient/available than before SkyTrain and, of course, I pay more – all for doing the 'right' thing. And I'm not sure that municipal gov'ts, for example, Burnaby, keep transit in mind when planning new facilities. It should be one of the first things thought about, not parking!

  9. So far among people I've talked too, the ones that are in favor of fare by distances are those who do not have to take transit for EVERYTHING they do.

    If you live downtown, why would you need a car?
    For the rest of us who live in Burnaby, New West, Coquitlam and further, do not benefit so much from the fare by distance proposal.

    I pay $110 for a 2-Zone monthly pass. And while I feel that it's expensive for being on someone else’s schedule; reliability issues due to the weather, not running often or late enough, it makes social outtings and running the simplest of errands a much bigger, timelier (and possibly soon to be), a more costly ordeal.

  10. With that said, the amount of ground I can cover (if it's not late) for the flat zone fare fee's is really nothing to complain about.

    I've never understood how the Transit committee can decide what is best for the people who take transit when none of them take it themselves.
    Taking Transit once in a blue moon does not qualify you as a transit user, in my opinion.

    Pretty soon with all the continuous changes, it will be cheaper, and more cost efficient for our time to own a car.

  11. What a confusing issue. I am a two zone pass employer pass holder. I live in New West and work DT Vancouver. Does my two zone pass work going to New West to Surrey? I've never been able to figure that out.. Case studies of a flat fare and distance fare system.
    1. Calgary, Alberta. Flat fare across the board, no matter if you are travelling 20 stops or 1 stop. They also have their C-Train (think our skytrain on the ground) free in the downtown core. Which is great when I lived downtown (free transit!) but also has it's problems (think homeless people on them all day but hey when it's -20 out I won't begrudge anyone a semi-warm place to hang out)
    2. Manchester, England. This city is all over the pay by distance idea. You tell the bus driver where you are going and the machine calculates your fare. Manchester's transit is privately owned and there are two competing bus companies, which made the fares lower, like a weekly pass for 2 pounds!
    It's a complex issue and I'm not sure there is a clear cut solution. As a person who doesn't have a car, I'll be watching this issue unfold with great interest.

    1. Megan, you can cross ANY TWO ZONES with a two zone pass. It's not just from one location.
      Whatever location you're in, that is zone one. Cross a zone, you're in zone two.
      It's that easy. Read the back of the pass, it explains it there. 🙂

      I live in far Coquitlam and have worked in Surrey, New West, and Burnaby, all on a two zone.

      Hope that helped.

      1. And it is different for the general Monthly passes. Two zones passes are for two selected zones only. If you look on the front, there is a foiled spot marked "1/2." If, for example, you live in New West and work in downtown Vancouver, you leave the pass as is. If you live in New West and work in Surrey, you are supposed to scratch off the foil and the pass will read "2/3." Your monthly pass therefore is valid for zones 1/2 OR zones 2/3. You cannot use it for both. So if I need to go to the Passport Office in Surrey, I need to purchase a 2 zone ticket, which annoys me and I always hope there is no line-up so I can get back on the same ticket!

  12. Solane,
    Yes, I just looked at my Employee transit pass and it is for zones 1/2. It's a 2 zone pass, I should be able to use it for zones 2/3. Think the transit police will buy that when I get stopped on the skytrain??

    1. If you catch one in a good mood, they might! Usually they are pretty rigid about it though, especially since they are now Skytrain police and not just attendants.

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