A shift to distance-based fares may hurt poor transit riders, a Vancouver city councillor worries.
Geoff Meggs is concerned that charging people by the kilometres they travel could lead to higher fares and discourage transit use.
“The basic purpose of the public-transit system is to let people get around at a reasonable cost,” Meggs told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
TransLink recently indicated that a fare-policy review may be done in 2016. The transit authority expects to gather information on how far people travel and at what times when its new fare gates become operational next year.
With riders tapping in and out with their Compass smart cards starting in 2014, TransLink will know if there’s a case for doing away with the current three-zone system, which is a basic form of distance-based fare scheme.
The three fare zones are in effect weekdays from start of service until 6:30 p.m. It’s one zone across the system after 6:30 p.m. and on weekends and holidays.
“I think you can argue that if you wanted to grow the transit ridership, you might want to make it somewhat cheaper for people to travel long distances so they won’t be so inclined to use their cars,” Meggs said.
Fares make up a third of TransLink’s revenues. According to a review by the Ministry of Finance, fare revenues grew 36 percent from 2007 to 2011, to more than $433 million. TransLink’s 2012 annual report notes that fare revenues increased by almost $15 million in the previous year.
Coquitlam councillor Brent Asmundson suggested distance-based fares may be more fair for riders.
Asmundson has been driving for TransLink’s Coast Mountain Bus Company for about 28 years, and he said that there are a number of “complications” with the three-zone setup.
Some riders, for example, get charged for travelling two zones even when they are only going a few blocks to their destination. But those coming from Kootenay Loop on the east side of Vancouver, just a few blocks from Burnaby, pay for only one zone even if they travel all the way west to UBC, he noted.
Asmundson said that depending on how TransLink structures fares based on distance travelled, a shift may even increase transit use and benefit users.
“People are already paying two zones, three zones and sometimes just going a short distance, and so I think that it may work out better for low-income people and people in general,” Asmundson told the Straight in a phone interview. “You won’t be getting stuck with that short two-zone trip or that three-zone trip where you’re just entering the next zone.”
A study commissioned by the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario notes that smart-card technologies “facilitate” not only distance-based fares but also the alternative of “time-dependent” fares. The latter means charging people more during rush hours and less during off-peak times.
The January 2013 report, Financing Roads and Public Transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, also states that “fare differentiation according to distance and time of travel can boost revenues by exploiting differences in fare-price sensitivity across market segments.”
Public-transit advocate Nathan Pachal travels three zones to get to work in Vancouver from his home in Langley. He believes he gets a good deal. Even though he may end up paying more with a distance-based fare system, he still thinks that such a shift would be in a
“One of the good things about it is that it really adds some equity into the system,” Pachal told the Straight by phone.
According to the founder of the South Fraser Blog, riders in Vancouver who go about their business without leaving the city may actually save money.
Pachal also noted that the distance-based fare models of Seattle’s Link light rail and San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit have proven to be successful.
In Vancouver, councillor Meggs allowed that people may pay more to travel farther “if they get there quickly and it’s a quality experience”.
“But if they have to pay more to stand for 45 minutes or an hour on a jammed bus that’s only coming every 20 minutes,” Meggs added, “they probably won’t continue.”