As Lower Mainland mayors attempt to craft a referendum question on increased funding for transit expansion (assuming they are trying to craft a question at all and not sidestepping the entire issue), SkyTrain riders have been treated to two major system-wide shutdowns in less than a week.
The images of people abandoning the trains mid-track and making the dangerous trek to the nearest station tend to stick. Not the kind of disaster-movie scene you want out there when you're trying to convince the public that raising taxes or introducing new fees to help pay for new transit projects is a good idea.
It is true that in the nearly three decades since the Expo Line opened, the system has been remarkably reliable – 95 per cent reliable according to TransLink. Sure, there are glitches and delays due to ice and snow. There have been times when I've paid my fare and made my way down to a platform that became increasingly crowded, only to have it finally dawn on me that no trains were in sight.
But only twice in recent memory have I given up and gone searching for cab or a Car2Go. It was a hassle, but it was not the end of the world.
That a transit system ought to be reliable goes without saying, but reliability is not the only factor people look at when they decide to use transit.
I know that on most mornings, downtown-bound trains on the Expo Line will arrive at my station every two minutes or so.
I also know that I'm going to have to push my way onto the train and be prepared to get up-close and personal with my fellow riders, each with his or her own standard of personal hygiene. For me, the ride is mercifully short – just two stops.
Which brings me to another factor – affordability. For two adults sharing a ride, parking a car downtown costs less than riding the train. On weekends, a family trip downtown and back will cost $16 on transit – again, I can park for much less. On weekdays, riding the two stops from Commercial Drive to Stadium costs the same $2.75 as riding nine stops from Waterfront to Joyce Street. Riding two stops from Joyce Street to Metrotown costs $4 because I've crossed into another zone.
That doesn't make sense.
Yes, TransLink says that when the Compass Card is finally introduced, the zone system may disappear as card readers are able to determine the length of a trip. But for now, the arbitrary zones remain.
The Compass Card is its own issue. The fare card is still in the experimental stage, although TransLink began installing fare gates three years ago. According to TransLink, "technical issues with the new Compass Card system are taking longer to resolve than anticipated and our contractor needs more time to fix them."
Never mind that when the fare system does go online, the cost of operating and maintaining it will be about twice the amount of the fare evasion it is intended to stamp out. One of the other selling points when the fare gates were first introduced was that they would improve passenger safety. It is worth noting that since the introduction of a dedicated Transit Police Force in 2005, the force's ranks have more than doubled to 170 officers and 65 civilians. So with fare gates or without, plenty of well-paid police officers are keeping riders safe.
The bottom line is that reliability is not the only thing that will determine whether the public thinks new transit is worth the money. People will also be looking at safety, comfort, affordability, convenience, cleanliness and speed.
All of that will determine the degree of confidence they have in the system and the organization that operates it.
Nobody wants to hand cash over to someone who doesn't know what they're doing.