SFU prof Anthony Perl highlights how distance-based transit fares can lead to urban sprawl

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      Charging transit riders by how far they travel may produce an unwanted outcome, an academic has cautioned.

      Unless car owners in Metro Vancouver are also made to pay by how far they drive, distance-based fares might only encourage urban sprawl, according to SFU’s Anthony Perl.

      Sprawl is the development of car-dependent communities outside city centres that are well served by transit.

      It is associated with loss of farmland, traffic congestion, and greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicle use.

      Perl, a professor of urban studies and political science, was interviewed as TransLink launched the second phase of its review of the current three-zone fare system.

      As part of its review, the transportation agency is conducting a public survey until February 17 on three possible ways to vary fares.

      These are by distance, time of travel, and type of transit service.

      “Distance-based pricing is, in an ideal world, if it were coupled with distance-based road pricing…the most efficient way to go,” Perl told the Georgia Straight by phone. “I think it would encourage people to work and live close to where they need to be or want to be…and…discourage sprawl.”

      However, Perl noted that the transit-fare review is being done without any immediate prospect of a pricing policy for road use by car drivers.

      “The problem is that we tend to look at these two systems separately but, of course, it’s an integrated mobility network,” he said. “And people make decisions about how to move and what to do and where to live not based on one piece of it but the whole system. So if we change one without the other, then we have the risk of unintended consequences, I think.”

      Anthony Perl says transit users who can afford housing only in suburban areas should be “rewarded for not driving those long distances”.

      Perl pointed out that the Lower Mainland has both compact communities where there is an abundance of transit services and sprawl in other areas as more roads and bridges are getting constructed.

      A shift to distance-based fares without a parallel change to road pricing for drivers will worsen this “polarization”, the SFU professor said.

      “What that will do is make sure that no one—or fewer and fewer people—will use transit in those far-flung locations that they are encouraged to locate in based on the sprawl on the roads,” Perl said.

      Perl said that a distance-based fare system combined with road pricing will reveal the real cost of living far from work.

      “Now people look for the cheaper housing, but they don’t think about the transportation cost of moving south of the Fraser [River] or further east into the [Fraser] Valley,” he said. “And right now, that leaves people with imperfect information.”

      Perl cited studies by transportation expert Todd Litman showing that it costs taxpayers more to subsidize automobile transport than transit. He calls it “road socialism”.

      Litman, founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, has also pointed out that transportation costs are often not considered in studies about housing affordability.

      In a critique of a 2015 international housing-affordability survey by U.S. think tank Demographia, Litman wrote that households spend 20 to 25 percent of their budgets on transportation in car-dependent communities.

      In communities where transit is an option, this level drops to five to 10 percent, according to Litman.

      “A cheap house is not truly affordable if located in an area with high transportation costs, and conversely, households can afford to spend more on housing in an accessible, multi-modal neighborhood where it is possible to reduce vehicle expenses,” Litman wrote.

      Perl said transit users who can afford housing only in suburban areas should be “rewarded for not driving those long distances” and “not punished” through distance-based fares.

      Suggesting a flat-fare system, Perl said: “Now would be not the right time for TransLink to be putting in distance-based fares. But I’m pretty sure they will because the political masters just want more revenue to come in.”