TransLink is spending almost $200-million to install a new fare system to combat fare evasion, provide data, and improve convenience. But is this the cure for what ails public transportation in Metro Vancouver?
By Liam Britten, Contributor
Next month will see the first Compass Cards distributed to West Coast Express riders. It’s the first stage of a phased rollout of TransLink’s new fare system—a system that has been controversial since it was first announced.
Initially, the conversation was about fare evasion. Cynical observers and even riders have noticed for years that Vancouver’s transit system is shockingly open. Bus drivers rarely make a fuss if someone forgets their fare or is unable to pay. Compared to the prison-like turnstiles in a city like New York, Metro Vancouver’s SkyTrain stations practically roll out the red carpet for all riders, even if they haven’t paid their way.
So the decision to finally clamp down on evasion was quite a hit at first. Finally, we can make those deadbeats pay!
Then the numbers came out.
The incredibly inexact science of calculating fare evasion placed the losses of TransLink to fare evaders at somewhere between $10–18-million yearly. The Compass Card system will recoup about $5-million of that—at a cost of $12-million a year.
Couple that with what TransLink acknowledges as declining numbers of fare evasion tickets being handed out despite more checks being made by police, and one could be forgiven for asking what the point of this new system was.
Don’t fear the beeper
If you talk to anyone from TransLink’s head office, you will notice the term “fare evasion” has to practically be dragged out of them.
The message they are trying to get out there has nothing to do with security, enforcement, deadbeats, or freeloaders. They say the rationale behind Compass Card’s fare gates and scanners is customer experience, convenience, efficiency, and data analysis.
“First and foremost, it’s convenience for our customers… it’ll make life much easier for them,” said TransLink spokesperson Mike Madill. “The second thing is, in the long run, it’s going to save us money. It produces a positive benefit with different cost savings. So, it’s not only about fare evasion.”
Madill and another TransLink spokesperson, Pamela Findling, elaborated on their points. They said riders have consistently found the current fare system inconvenient and confusing. After all, it’s 2013: why shouldn’t someone be able to buy their bus pass online, from home, instead of making a trip?
But the real benefit of the Compass Card is rider tracking. As a person makes a trip on the system, every tap in and tap out they make along the way will be tracked. This will allow TransLink to create profiles of the riders who use the system, where they come from, where they go, when they make their trips, and how frequently. This rich, detailed data will give the transit authority the ability to make decisions on routes with greater clarity than ever before.
If you’re the type inclined to wearing a tinfoil hat, rest easy: none of your personal details will be associated with your Compass Card if you pay for the card with cash and don’t go for the optional online registration.
But, if you ride a bus that frequently has empty seats, you should probably be concerned: in order to cut costs and become more efficient, TransLink may be building a case to partially or completely cut service on your line—and evidence provided by Compass could be the smoking gun.
Throwing Compass under the bus
Dr. Anthony Perl, a professor of urban studies and political science at Simon Fraser University, has seen the world.
But don’t call him part of the jet set; train gang might be more accurate.
Dr. Perl specializes in public transit policy, and to him, the adoption of the Compass Card system is an odd choice for TransLink to make when compared to the various systems used around the world and the different priorities emphasized.
If the problem is not enough paying customers, he says, TransLink should focus on expanding the system to bring in more riders—the vast majority of whom are paying—instead of hunting down the few delinquents who take a free ride.
If the problem is a lack of convenience, then the late-20th century technology used in the Compass Card system (and other systems like it built by the Cubic Corporation of San Diego) seems to miss the mark. Why not use a system modelled after Paris’ or Seoul’s that allows riders to pay by phone, or use near-field scanner systems that eliminate the need to even pull out a fare card?
Dr. Perl sees the decision to use Compass as one rooted in ideology, not sound public policy. From his point of view, the focus of the system is on stopping fare evaders above all other concerns. It’s a reaction to a knee-jerk attitude that says “No more free rides.”
And that goes for both paying and non-paying riders.
“All of us who use public transportation are, in their view, getting something for nothing because we’re not paying for the entire cost of the operation. And on top of that, the deadbeats who just walk in and riding around for free are getting even more of something for nothing,” he said. “They’re trying to send a signal, just as they’ve done with social safety net programs, that if you want other people to pay for your lifestyle in British Columbia, you’re not going to be doing too well as a result.”
Dr. Perl said the emphasis on more accurate and robust fare collection speaks to a belief held by many of BC’s top decision makers that people who don’t pull their weight are “a parasite of one sort or another,” and such hostile beliefs are not only untrue, but lead to bad public policy.
“It happens all the time. People make decisions based on beliefs rather than evidence,” he said.
Too soon to ride the blame train?
TransLink’s vision of a utopia of convenience and profit and Dr. Perl’s vision of a Metropolis-style assault on the poor are both highly speculative.
What isn’t speculative is that the Compass Card is coming very soon, and its success or failure will have wide-ranging impacts on the further development of public transit in Metro Vancouver.
Success means a more effective system that responds to customer needs in a more efficient, convenient manner. Failure, beyond short-term launch hiccups TransLink acknowledges will probably happen, could turn people off riding public transportation ever again.
“There’s a huge amount of uncertainty, there’s a huge amount of risk to the system,” said Dr. Perl with a wry laugh. “I wouldn’t want to be a senior executive in TransLink. This is the sort of thing that can cost people their careers if it falls apart.”