Progressive alternatives to Translink’s fare hike

Translink has announced that in the new year it will raise fares by 10% to 12.5%. But these fare increases are not fair, and the rationale is not rational at all.

With the cost-of-living rising faster than wages, many working people don’t have money left over for transit. The fare hikes will only push the working poor deeper into debt. Even worse, for those living in the suburbs and commuting to work in Vancouver, the increase in the 3-zone fare to $11 per round-trip is atrocious. It means that for those working at minimum wage, their commute will cost them more than an hour’s wage everyday. Further, this $11 roundtrip fare is one of the highest costing work commutes in North America.

In addition to speaking out against the injustice of these fare increases, it’s about time we recognize that using fares to fund transit does not make sense at all. Under the current funding formula, Translink pays for 1/3rd of its expenditures with fares. That number is arbitrary. Motorists would be up-in-arms if a full 1/3rd of road construction and maintenance costs were funded through road tolls.

But amount alone is only half the argument. Efficiency is the other half.

Raising transit revenue though fare collection is a most inefficient way to raise revenue. For each fare dollar collected, a full 10 cents is spent collecting or accounting for that dollar — ticket dispensers, police, and now turnstiles. Buses spend a significant portion of time at a stand-still, especially during peak hours, as drivers collect fares and check identification. Translink pays for this wasted time in drivers’ salaries and other costs, while passengers are delayed in reaching their homes and workplaces. These costs, which economists call “friction costs,” make fare collection one of the most inefficient forms of raising revenue.

The other 2/3rd of Tanslink’s funding comes from property and gas taxes. Collection from these sources, as well as from income taxes, is far more efficient than fare collection. Based on efficiency considerations alone, it does not make sense to fund transit through fares.

Fare increases also deter ridership. BC Ferries’ recent fare hike caused a decline in ridership. When Translink first proposed the current fare increases, they anticipated a 2% decline in ridership because people would switch to cars. But as we seek to address climate change, we want more, not fewer, people to use public transit. Therefore, we should reduce fares to get people out of their cars and onto public transit.

A progressive transit authority would not start from the random funding formula where 1/3rd of revenues come from fares. Instead it would start by asking what portion of people we want to ride the bus, then work from there. It would look at creative ways of getting people out of their cars. Last week I spoke on TV and radio about establishing “fare-free zones,” like those in Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia, and other cities. The most common criticism of my proposal was that it may unfairly benefit residents of downtown Vancouver. But congestion by definition is a sign that people are coming from areas far-and-wide, so a fare-free zone in downtown Vancouver would benefit a wide range of people. Furthermore, it makes good sense to have fare-free zones in all congested areas throughout the Lower Mainland.

There are other things I have suggested to increase ridership. Translink is proposing a fare hike for off-peak hours from $2.50 to $2.75. That’s a step in the wrong direction. There are already too many empty seats during off-peak hours. If we’re serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we should fill those empty seats. We could start by eliminating fares during off-peak hours. This could be done by municipalities purchasing a kind of “u-pass” for off-peak hours, funded through a minor adjustment to the property tax mill rate, making public transit free for all their residents during those times.

Other ideas I’ve proposed include another type of “u-pass”, a neighbourhood “u-pass,” where residents within a particular catchment area could vote democratically for a neighborhood “u-pass.” The cost would be divided over all property tax bills in that catchment area. Everyone in that neighborhood would get a free bus pass – just like post-secondary students do now. Public transit would then be free for everyone living in that neighborhood.

Why stop there? The twin crises of climate change and stagnant wages demand big thinking. I’ve always thought we should look at a “u-pass” for all workers in the GVRD. Assuming Translink collects $400 million in fares annually, and assuming 600,000 workers participate in the program, then a premium of $50 per worker per month would eliminate all fares. If the costs were split 50/50 between employer and employee, the universal pass would cost each worker only $25 per month. Something like that could start the system change we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

So now you know what I think a progressive Translink would look like. What are your thoughts?

This article was first published at Tim Louis is a practicing lawyer who has been actively involved in Vancouver civic politics for over twenty-five years, including as Parks Board Commissioner from 1990-1996 and City Councilor from 1999-2005. He co-founded the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the BC Coalition of the Disabled, and he served for 12 years on the Board of Directors of VanCity.