This week, TransLink launched the first phase of its transit fare review, saying, by way of news release, "It's time to take a fresh look at our fare system."
This was first announced last October, and TransLink says it will take two years to complete the four-phase review process.
TransLink, let me save you some time by providing some honest answers to the questions in your customer survey – the first phase of the review.
For each of the transit services you use, how satisfied are you with the current way fares are determined?
Um, since you asked, not very.
I ride the SkyTrain a few times a week and almost never take the bus. That said, switching all bus rides to one zone under the Compass card system was a bad idea. It's fundamentally unfair. The only reason it happened is because the tap-in and tap-out Compass card system doesn't work for bus riders. But you went ahead with it anyway.
Making all rides a single zone was an admission of failure. Stand by the rear door of a B-Line bus and count the number of people who board without tapping in at all.
Even your own CEO admits enforcement is next to impossible on the busiest routes, like the 99 B-Line. "You have to assume and hope that the vast majority of people who use the transit system know they have to pay for it," CEO Kevin Desmond told me during a recent bus ride. "On the other hand, a service like this is so, so busy and crowded, you've got to open up all the doors."
On the subject of enforcement, he said: "Imagine having a fare inspector trying to patrol these crowded buses – a fare inspector would be locked in one place."
Another flaw of the new fare system is that people who pay cash on buses need to pay again to get on the SkyTrain or the SeaBus. That's a step backward and penalizes the poorest riders who manage to scrape together enough coins for a ride. It also penalizes convenience riders who may very occasionally ride transit. Want to court new riders? Don't make them pay twice.
I know, get a Compass card. It's true, it solves the problem and it's cheaper per ride, but not everyone is that organized.
As for the 30-year-old fare-zone structure, it's been unfair for 30 years. A ride on the Expo line from Joyce to Patterson (two stops) crosses an arbitrary line that increases the fare by $1.25. But I can ride the nine stops from Joyce to Waterfront for the price of a single zone.
How to fix it? Base the fares on distance travelled. Surely TransLink's $194-million Compass system is capable of such a thing.
Charge more for peak periods? You already do – sort of – since the arbitrary fare zones disappear after the evening rush hour and everyone pays the same fare – which, by the way, means no discount for single-zone riders. Do I want to pay a premium for riding during the most crowded and uncomfortable time of day? I do not. But keep the off-peak hour discount.
Should transit be priced to compete with car driving? Yes, but that doesn't mean hiking fares. It means (and sorry about this, car people) hiking parking rates. Take a family of five to Science World on the weekend (a one-stop ride) and a round trip costs $21.50. Parking all day (if I recall correctly) costs $12. How is that an incentive to use transit? I can also park downtown on weekdays for as little as $11. Put another person in the car and the cost of driving is cheaper than riding the SkyTrain.
Plus, no backpacks, cellphones or unwanted touching.
Look TransLink, I appreciate you asking me all of these questions, but is there really a customer concern that you haven't heard about in the course of your annual customer-satisfaction survey?
You've already got a pile of data from the Compass system, and a building full of experts to analyze it and act on it.
Should this really take two years? Probably not.
I do love the feeling of being wrapped up in the warm blanket promise of public consultation, but I'm thinking that in the end, somehow all these questions and review phases will add up to the inevitable answer: We'll all end up paying more.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.