Five-year-old Hailey runs ahead of her mom and little sister, heading for the bus stop located a few blocks from their home in South Burnaby. A young but lifelong-transit user, she knows the route well. She’s excited because bus rides usually mean a trip to the park or swimming pool.
Those outings might soon come to an end, Hailey’s mother, Jacqueline Saunders, told the Georgia Straight. She said she’s worried that service reductions and other changes at TransLink could price transit beyond what her family can afford.
For example, she began, on Sundays and holidays, TransLink lets immediate relatives all travel on one monthly pass.
“It’s the only way that we’ve been able to go out as a family on the weekends,” Saunders said. “What we’ve tried to do is save all of our travelling for Sunday so that we can all go out together, because now that my daughter is five, it’s become fairly expensive to get anywhere.”
Effective January 1, 2014, TransLink is ending those free rides.
“We just won’t be going out anymore as a family,” Saunders lamented. “It just won’t be feasible, especially after my other daughter turns five. It will be $20 just to get out the door.” $21.50 for a return trip from Burnaby into Vancouver (two zones), she later calculated, and $27 after her youngest’s fifth birthday.
That cut was announced on July 30 alongside a number of other money-saving moves that TransLink says will make the Lower Mainland’s public-transit system “more equitable”.
The Employer Pass Program is also being discontinued at the beginning of next year. It offers a 15-percent discount to workers who make a 12-month commitment to buy monthly passes. Similarly, FareSaver booklets are going away. These packs of 10 tickets are sold at an average 20-percent discount compared to cash fares.
Replacing current forms of payment for TransLink services is the so-called Compass system—cards that require preloading for riders to “tap” in and out of TransLink fare-paid zones. The cards will cost a $6 deposit and offer a 14-percent discount. Cash payments will still be accepted, but will not provide transfers from buses to SkyTrain or SeaBus services.
TransLink maintains that these changes, revealed this summer, will create a system that’s more efficient and convenient. But parents and community groups are expressing alarm about measures they worry will hurt low-income families.
Sally Marques is a lifelong transit rider who told the Straight she uses TransLink for everything from shopping for groceries to trips with her three-year-old daughter to Stanley Park.
“I feel like TransLink, as a company, has slowly been revealing its true colours,” she said in a telephone interview. “They are supposed to be a public service and a company that works for the public, but they have slowly been stripping away every piece of TransLink that was a little bit human.”
Marques added that her family will also miss free travel on Sundays. “It was something that had a little bit of heart to it. We’d plan to do something on a Sunday that we wouldn’t otherwise do because we knew that we had that.”
Saunders and Marques met each other through South Vancouver Family Place, a community network that supports parents and children five and under. Family Place distributes FareSaver tickets to members who can’t afford public transit to activities it hosts. (Groups that do the same include the YWCA, Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, and Jewish Family Services Agency [JFSA], to name a few.)
With FareSaver tickets about to disappear, Saunders said she’s worried she won’t be able to continue attending those events. “TransLink is taking away every discount possible,” she said. “It means I doubt I’ll be able to go to the Family Place any longer because they won’t be able to give me FareSavers, and that was my only way to go.”
Marques said she’s heard the same concern from other low-income parents.
In a telephone interview, Susan Alexman, associate executive director of the JFSA, told the Straight that TransLink benefits reductions and the introduction of the Compass card will “complicate” social programs already stretched thin.
“It’s incredible how quickly it adds up,” Alexman said. “This is all having an impact. Unfortunately, for low-income families, an outing at the park is usually something that they can do and look forward to because it doesn’t cost a lot of money. But this will really impact families that can’t take advantage of what the city has to offer.”
Several parents interviewed by the Straight noted that benefits cuts have come as TransLink gave senior executives pay increases.
In 2012, TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis was paid $394,730 and COO Doug Kelsey earned $336,729, according to the transportation authority’s most recent financial statement. Seven other executives collected more than $200,000 in annual compensation. Fifty-eight of the 166 constables with TransLink’s police force earned more than $100,000 that year.
Last year, TransLink generated $1.42 billion in revenue and reported $1.43 billion in expenditures, according to the organization’s 2012 annual report.
As the mayor of Burnaby, Derek Corrigan represents a lot of citizens who travel to Vancouver for big family attractions like Science World and the Vancouver Aquarium. He told the Straight that when you take things away from people who are already vulnerable, “people’s lives are damaged.”
“Families are particularly suffering as a result of some of these cuts and fare increases,” Corrigan said in a telephone interview. “While those fare increases may seem minimal to people who have a higher income or people who are driving their cars to work, for parents who are living under or at the poverty line, these changes are creating a great difference in their ability to provide for their families.”
Corrigan argued that the core of the problem is TransLink’s corporate structure and its board of directors’ independence from an elected government body.
“You can see that the attitude is one that doesn’t any longer reflect public policy,” he said. “It mainly reflects the economic strategy of the organization, the bottom line.”
Retired politician Bob Williams has kept a close eye on public transit in Vancouver for more than four decades.
“Way back when I was a deputy minister when Glen Clark was premier, I tried to talk him into an expanding free-transit program,” Williams told the Straight. He said that he’s still convinced that’s the best way to go and that it’s not as far-fetched an idea as people might think.
Williams noted that over the past few decades, land values throughout Metro Vancouver have skyrocketed, perhaps nowhere more so than where public-transit projects like the Canada Line have led the way for development.
“In the end, it could be a simple land tax that funds transit,” Williams continued. “But here you’re doing in the orphans and widows and all the poor folks out there that really need the system in order to just have a life. Meanwhile, the real wealth is right under your nose; you’re walking over it every day.”
Chantelle Krish, an advocate for YWCA Metro Vancouver, told the Straight that transit-service changes initially had staff worried but that she believes TransLink is responding to people’s concerns.
“We’ve connected with TransLink and we’ve had some great discussions,” she said. Krish explained that although the details are still being worked out, it’s her understanding TransLink is planning to sell single-use Compass tickets to community groups, which can then distribute them to people in need, much as they distribute FareSaver tickets today.
TransLink’s vice president of enterprise initiatives defended the Compass card and argued that programs like free Sundays for monthly pass holders’ families were never intended to be permanent.
“We’re not raising prices, we’re just ending some discount programs,” Michael Madill told the Straight. For example, he explained, the free-Sundays program was introduced as a means to lure back disgruntled customers after a four-month transit strike in 2001. “Today, we have ridership at record levels and are really at a state where that program has served its purpose and so we need to move forward.”
On the elimination of FareSaver tickets, Madill claimed that TransLink has heard the concerns of social-service providers. “We know that there are community groups out there that have been buying books of FareSavers and providing them to their clients for single rides,” he said. “For those organizations, we are going to make available bulk-sale Compass tickets.”
According to Madill, packages of 50 single-use tickets will be available for those organizations to purchase at a discounted price comparable to that of other Compass tickets.
Saunders said that regardless of how the Compass cards work, they won’t give her family its Sundays back.
“We go swimming on Sundays, when we can, or we go to Stanley Park,” she said. “Those sorts of things that don’t cost too much that we can bus to, those are the things that we’ll be missing out on.”