Vancouver: Yes, you have a cost-effective transit agency!

A transit referendum underway in Metro Vancouver is asking voters to raise sales taxes to fund a huge range of transit improvements that are inevitably needed in such a dense and densifying region.  Polls are suggesting that one of the most transit-dependent regions in North America is going to vote no.  

There is plenty of room for argument about whether sales taxes are too regressive, or whether transit measures should go to the voters while highway measures are considered essential Provincial spending.  All those debates are happening.   I also suggested, here, some principles for deciding how to vote on transit funding measures in general.

But I want to intervene on one point.  The no campaign has managed to spin a lot of anecdotes to suggest that TransLink is a wildly inefficient or incompetent agency. 

TransLink is a major agency that does many things at once, answers to many masters with conflicting agendas, and certainly makes mistakes.  But the core of any transit agency budget is its operating budget — what it spends to run service and what it achieves in return.   That's the only budget that goes on and on forever, so it dominates the total budget picture.  The numbers confirm that Metro Vancouver is getting excellent value for its transit dollar.  Todd Litman of Victoria Transport Policy Institute recently put these numbers together.  

First, subsidy per passenger-kilometre (one passenger moving one km on transit).  What do regional taxpayers pay to move the massive numbers of people they move every day?  Less than 20 cents per passenger-km, which is right on the Canadian average and far better than what's achieved in the US, Australia, or New Zealand.  

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 12.15.35 PM

And what do Metro Vancouver taxpayers get for these 20 cents per ride?  Quite simply, a network that makes the regional economy possible, by allowing economic activity to grow despite the limits of the road network.  

One measure of this is passenger-kilometers per capita.  How much personal transit does Vancouver provide?  How many people can travel, and how far, to access jobs and opportunities without contributing to traffic congestion?

Vanc psgr kms per capita

Metro Vancouver's TransLink is a leader among similar sized regions, matched only by the older metro area of Montreal.  (Toronto does better than TransLink if you look only at the city [TTC in this chart], but the fairer comparison is with the whole metro area [GTHA in this chart], as TransLink covers all of Metro Vancouver.) 

Metro Vancouver has reached a level of transit reliance that is unprecedented for a young North American city.  Only centuries-old northeastern cities come close.   That reliance means that the region can add jobs and housing without adding traffic congestion.  Todd's paper provides some other excellent analysis to put these benefits in perspective, and explains why the sales tax is vastly cheaper than not having a good transit system. 

There are lots of reasons for Canadians to be unhappy about the Transit Referendum, including why it is happening at all.  And there will always be plenty of anecdotes about any agency that does so many different things at once.

But if you're voting no because you think your transit agency is fundamentally wasteful, that's just not true.   

23 Responses to Vancouver: Yes, you have a cost-effective transit agency!

  1. Alon Levy March 27, 2015 at 4:59 pm #

    The subsidy numbers are per passenger-km, not per passenger. Not sure why the first graph disagrees with itself here.
    Anyway, to me, the biggest success of Vancouver transit, and the biggest reason to vote yes, isn’t the financial indicators, but the transit mode share trend: 14.3% in 1996, 16.5% in 2006, 19.7% in 2011 (the 2001 census was conducted during a transit strike). The Millennium and Canada Lines have paid off… and neither even follows Vancouver’s busiest transportation corridor. Neither does the Evergreen Line. Broadway needs that subway, which if ridership projections hold is a C$12,000/rider (eventually $9,000/rider) project, i.e. the cheapest rail line under consideration or construction in North America by a large margin. And TransLink may have totally botched the payment system, but the ridership projections for the Canada Line and the cost projections for the Canada and Evergreen Line have held up. It’s bad at $160-odd million faregate projects, but decent enough at multibillion construction projects. It’ll throw pennies to defense contractor Cubic, but by North American standards is excellent with pounds.

  2. Burnabybob March 27, 2015 at 5:44 pm #

    Oh, Vancouver. You have the opportunity to build a world-class Transit system – possibly the best in North America – but you’re flushing it down the toilet. You’re listening to people like the automobile lobbyist Jordan Bateman rather than people who actually know about city planning. It’s pretty sad.
    I’m not sure who I’m more frustrated with – the provincial government for its foolish decision to hold the referendum in the first place, or the gullible voters.

  3. Burnabybob March 27, 2015 at 6:06 pm #

    If anyone is incompetent in BC, it’s the provincial government. It blew over 4 billion dollars on the new Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges, both of which have been underused, and which contradict the mayors’ goal of reducing auto traffic in the region. The money could have otherwise provided half the total needed for the mayors’ council’s plan. But needless to say, those projects were not subject to plebiscite.
    It’s a sad state of affairs in BC. Provincial government without vision, unconcerned about sustainability or the long-term livability of the region, and uninterested in funding public transit. And to make matters worse, the provincial opposition government is utterly inept and incapable of providing a viable alternative.
    Given the circumstances, it looks like the mayors will have to resort to less ambitious, incremental project funded by property taxes. Some years ago, Jarrett Walker presented a cheap way to fix the millennium line with a short extension from VCC Clark to Olympic Village, leaving open other options like BRT to complete the route to UBC. It looks like options like those may be more realistic:

  4. Rob March 27, 2015 at 6:19 pm #

    Alon, those mode share numbers are fantastic. Are they for all trips regionwide, or for peak trips, work trips or City of Vancouver trips only? Impressive either way…

  5. Rico March 27, 2015 at 7:56 pm #

    I will answer for Alon. The numbers are journey to work for Metro Vancouver.

  6. Royal City March 27, 2015 at 8:19 pm #

    I live at the top of the hill in New West, when the winds blow, you can see Mt. Baker, otherwise I watch the smog accumulate into the Valley and know more people are going to have troubles breathing. The lineup of cars and trucks outside my building is long and very slow trying to get on the Pattullo as they try and avoid the tolls on the Port Mann. I take the 5 AM bus into Vancouver, it used to be me and the driver, now it is packed to the front door every day, we need to get more buses etc before total gridlock occurs, think it won’t happen, come downtown Vancouver in rush hour and watch the emergency vehicles try and get through, people are going to die because emergency crews cannot get to the person on time due to volume.

  7. Rob March 27, 2015 at 11:12 pm #

    Thank you Rico.
    Is there a clear sense of why the public seems unfavorable to this tax measure, or is it a mystery?

  8. Dexter Wong March 28, 2015 at 2:51 am #

    Thank you for posting these numbers. It gives some of the other cities an idea of what they are paying for and what they get back.

  9. Burnabybob March 28, 2015 at 5:40 am #

    I have been following the Vancouver transit referendum closely. An opposition group called the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, led by Jordan Bateman (who is really an automobile and freeway lobbyist), has managed to make the referendum about Translink rather than the mayors’ council’s plan. They have basically used anecdotes, such as the problems implementing fare gates, high executive salaries, expensive public art in stations, to portray Translink as wasteful and inefficient. In response to the heat, several weeks’ back Translink decided to fire its CEO, but he will continue to draw a salary for the next year or so, while they pay another full-time CEO. The whole episode has only confirmed people’s worst thoughts about Translink.
    The YES campaign for whatever reason did not see any of this coming and was slow to counter. I suspect they were overconfident heading in to the referendum, as polls last fall and even in December showed people favoring increased taxes to pay for transit. They were slow coming out of the gate with their campaign, and allowed the NO side to frame the issue. People like Gregor Robertson have made the issue worse by starting their arguments as “I know Translink is in bad need of reform, but these transit improvements are still necessary.” They shouldn’t have even engaged the debate about Translink. As soon as the No side succeeded in putting the debate on their terms, it was a lost cause.
    So that’s basically what’s happened. It was always going to be a tough sell, given the short time frame and many people’s knee-jerk opposition to more taxes. But it looks like it could be a rout. Latest polls have the No side with a 2-1 lead in polls.

  10. Burnabybob March 28, 2015 at 5:47 am #

    One other factor that might be in play in the Transit referendum is that people in Vancouver are fed up with growth and their city’s high cost of living. Transit is viewed as a catalyst for high-density development. People don’t like that their neighborhoods are changing and that the city is increasingly unaffordable. They see developers benefiting from public transit without paying their fair share of its costs. A common refrain on comments boards is “let developers pay for it.”

  11. Rico March 28, 2015 at 6:44 am #

    One thing I see in a lot of ‘transit supporting people’ who are voting No is the belief that when the referendum fails they will get their preferred plan. Either in terms of how to raise or how to spend the money. The No side has been very good at encouraging this. Unfortunately under the current government it will likely just mean no new transit funds…and we need to do something about congestion so we need to build a new George Massey tunnel replacement. No need for a referendum…

  12. Wayne March 28, 2015 at 9:31 am #

    I’ve voted No. I use transit wherever I travel (LA, SF, Chicago, NYC, DC, London, Hong Kong, Portland, Seattle, Toronto, Montreal). I’m not a transit expert but I have some basis for comparison aside from graphs, charts and stats. Stats indicating the stellar service (compared to other cities) Translink provides do not jibe with the real world experience of a huge number of Metro transit riders.
    Arguments against the plebiscite from the CTF have had absolutely no influence on my decision to vote No. Fare evasion is epidemic in Metro. Fare gates won’t remedy this situation on buses and it’s very rare to see transit police on buses. Enforcement of fare payment may not result in a great increase in revenue but it might make for a more civilized trip on transit.
    Even though fare cards have been in use in dozens of cities world-wide with infinitely larger networks Translink has been unable to get the Compass Card into operation and have not been willing to provide the beleaguered taxpayer with any reasonable explanation for the long delay.
    The ‘subway to UBC’ is usually touted as the plum public transit project to be funded by the new tax. It’s not going to UBC any time soon, if it starts at all it’s going to Arbutus St. I’m not convinced a subway is the best option but if it’s not going all the way to UBC it’s a farce.
    The stat of 95% (or higher) on-time service is often quoted by Yes supporters. That figure is clearly skewed by the ALRT stats and I’m sure they’re accurate for the Canada Line and Skytrain (and even the SeaBus) but they aren’t accurate for buses. Many bus routes inside Vancouver are off schedule on a daily basis. There are lies, damn lies and statistics.
    I’m happy to pay my share for better transit in Metro and I can live with the results of the plebiscite but I believe voting No is the best way to force change. Politicians who use the scare tactic of telling voters there is no Plan B will have to answer for their position in the next election.

  13. Burnabybob March 28, 2015 at 11:05 am #

    You’re kidding yourself if you think voting against this plan is going to make things better. More likely the opposite. But have fun sitting in traffic.

  14. Jarrett March 28, 2015 at 12:23 pm #

    Wayne. How do you know fare evasion is out of control? SkyTrain is a barrier-free system with fare inspection. People with valid tickets board the train without waving them, so nobody watching what happens is in any position to evaluate whether fare evasion is occurring. My understanding is that TransLink’s fare evasion rates are in the usual rate, which reflect the sweet spot where you don’t spend more on enforcement than you get back in revenue. Are you suggesting that TransLink spend money on enforcing fares instead of running service? Because that’s what it sounds like. Jarrett

  15. Rico March 28, 2015 at 8:12 pm #

    Wayne, with the exception of Portland these are all much bigger cities most have much more established transit than Vancouver as well. That said I have used transit in LA, San Fransisco and Montreal. I found the Montreal system the best, San Fransico similar to Vancouver and LA poorer than Vancouver. Remember though none of these cities are fair comparisons to Vancouver (except Portland and maybe Montreal). The fact that you are comaring transit in Vancouver to transit in London and Hong Kong says a lot about how good transit in Vancouver is. I also think you will be disappointed in the results of a No vote. I don’t see it getting whatever your preferred plan B is unless your plan B is more roads and less transit.

  16. Alon Levy March 29, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

    Bear in mind that the polls were giving the yes side a clear majority three months ago. What’s happened since is a string of bad news for Translink, chiefly the farce involving Compass Card and the faregates, both of which were supposed to enter operation in 2013. US defense contractor Cubic convinced the agency that fare evasion (which is a total of 5%) is a huge epidemic and only faregates will remedy that problem; a couple hundred million dollars later, nothing. Generally Translink does a good job, but it’s had some fully deserved negative press lately, so the no side is winning.
    If you’re following the British election, it’s a similar story, in reverse. The Conservative-LibDem coalition enacted austerity that deepened the recession, and for most of the last five years, Labour was getting a large parliamentary majority in the polls. But in the last year or so the economy has been improving – GDP per capita finally rose above pre-crisis levels last year – so, despite general discontentment with the coalition, the polls are pointing to a rough tie.
    And Wayne,
    I was in Washington at the beginning of this month. I needed to use Metro to visit a friend. Total time I waited for my train: 9 minutes, during rush hour. One line has weekend headways of 24 minutes nowadays. And this is the best Americans have done in a postwar city. Seattle and Portland… give me a break. They have a few sad, infrequent light rail lines. Portland’s about to open an at-grade MAX extension whose cost per kilometer is maybe 1.5 times that of the Evergreen Line, and whose cost per projected rider is three times as high, and six times as high as that of the UBC subway.
    SkyTrain is better than that. The only problem with SkyTrain is that it misses the Westside entirely – and this is where it needs money. The plan, endorsed by the city, is a subway to UBC. If money runs out in the middle, it’ll build part of the plan, and finish it later when there’s money. There’s no better plan – a failed vote means that the city will have to find money in other ways, and not that it will design a better plan. There’s not much opportunity for cost reduction: the cost per kilometer is in line with global construction cost ranges for subways, and is the lowest of any underground project I know of in North America. All that’s needed is money.

  17. Mat March 30, 2015 at 5:29 am #

    regarding that first graph, you write it’s subsidy per passenger-kilometre but the graph title say subsidy per trip. And you go on saying “… for these 20 cents per ride”.
    Can you confirm which one it is ? My understanding is that a passenger-kilometre is different than a trip (or ride) when it comes to transit metrics.

  18. BurnabyBob March 30, 2015 at 7:51 am #

    I agree with many of your points, but it may be that a Skytrain to the West side just isn’t feasible. It would be massively expensive – $3 billion+ for the tunnel. And there would be huge resistance to building high rises in Kitsilano and Point Grey, which would otherwise help justify construction of a subway.
    As an alternative, they should consider building a short connection to Olympic Village, then adding a new B-Line Bus connecting Main Street Station, Olympic Village Station, then running along 6th avenue and connecting to Broadway at Arbutus, where it would finish its journey to UBC. This would move a lot of the UBC traffic off of the most congested part of Broadway. This wouldn’t be as glamorous as a Broadway Subway, but it would bring greater cohesion to the Skytrain network and reduce the overcrowding on the Broadway B-Line by decoupling the VGH and UBC traffic. And it would be relatively cheap – the city’s portion could probably be funding with property taxes.

  19. Alon Levy March 30, 2015 at 10:25 am #

    The traffic projections for the Broadway subway do not depend on Westside TOD; they call for 250,000 weekday riders at opening. The 4th Avenue and Broadway buses are very busy, with more than 100,000 weekday riders, even without this TOD. Because Kits and Point Grey are so expensive, most UBC students commute from farther east.
    The problem with the relief line you’re proposing is that the 84 already provides faster service than the 99-B from the Millennium Line. Once it hits 4th Avenue proper and makes limited stops, it averages 30 km/h all the way to UBC, since there isn’t as much traffic as on Broadway. Likewise, the 44 offers faster service from downtown than SkyTrain-to-99. The 4th Avenue buses are all extremely crowded with longer-distance traffic – living in Kits, I would not be able to get on the last bus that makes morning class, so I made sure to always show up to my classes with 15 minutes to spare. This isn’t some hidden gem waiting to be discovered. 4th Avenue is already the third busiest bus corridor in the city, after Broadway and Commercial.
    City buses have a sharp limit to capacity. Below about 3-minute headways, they bunch so much that adding more buses doesn’t really add more capacity. That’s why relief lines, limited-stop overlays, and express lines exist – anything to split traffic between multiple lines, each of which can run minimum headway. All the reasonable relief lines to Broadway are already maxed. Just get over the sticker shock and think in terms of “there is not a single city in North America where construction costs are low enough to enable C$12,000/rider subways.” It could give Vancouver such a mode share boost it would threaten New York’s position as the North American metro area with the highest transit mode share.

  20. EngineerScotty March 30, 2015 at 10:50 pm #

    Just returned from a Spring Break visit (family vacation) to Vancouver, so a few random observations:
    * First, lots of new highways since I last visited Vancouver. Coming from Portland (less than 500km away) with children, I did drive up rather than take the train (were it just my wife, Cascades all the way)–and I did notice the significant road improvements. On the plus side, plenty of bus lanes, particularly around notorious bottlenecks (both approaches to the Lion’s Gate Bridge, for instance). OTOH, there seems to be an entirely new highway (not quite a freeway, but close) running along the south bank of the Fraser River between Delta/Richmond and Langley.
    * I didn’t pay much attention to local media/politics, but did visit a couple of friends. Both complained quite a bit about TransLink. Both live in Coquitlam (a suburb 20-30km away from downtown Vancouver, depending on what part of the city you live in). The complaints from both was that TransLink service didn’t adequately replace a car. This is a good sort of complaint for a transit agency to have–someone likes the service and wants more, as opposed to someone wants it to go away and have more roads instead–but still a problem. Vancouver has become an income-segregated metropolis, with many middle-class people (who don’t own legacy homes before the real estate market went nuts in 2004, when Vancouver was awarded the 2010 Winter Games) unable to afford to live in the city. And outside the city of Vancouver itself (and the SkyTrain corridors), TransLink service isn’t all that great. Keep in mind that until you get south of the Fraser or east of the Pitt, Vancouver suburbs are not low-density sprawlvilles. The claim that TransLink neglects the suburbs is one I’ve heard before.
    * Probably the hardest place to get around of anywhere I visited on my trip was Richmond. No. 3. Road has the Canada Line running down, and all sorts of towers in the immediate vicinity. But still–the place crawls with cars, there isn’t enough parking despite plenty of it. One of my friends (who is Chinese; Richmond is the heart of Vancouver’s Chinese community) referred to it as a pain in the ass.
    * Comparing Vancouver to Portland is fascinating, in many ways, many of them not flattering to my hometown. As Alon notes, SkyTrain provides a far higher standard of service than MAX (being driverless, having <2 minute peak headways on some lines, and complete grade separation). Despite having nearly the same metro area populations (2.4M for Vancouver, ~2.2M for Portland, including Vancouver WA and its environs), Vancouver feels like a far larger, more cosmpolitan (and richer) city, though the past decade has been very good to Portland. Vancouver is, of course, geography-constrained, and has high-rises all over the metro area; in Portland they are rare outside of the central city. Portland's ability to sprawl is limited only by politics, not by geography.
    * One positive comparison for Portland: TriMet is, if nothing else, cheaper than TransLink. US$2.50 will get you a ticket from anywhere to anywhere in the TriMet service area, and frequently will cover the return trip (tickets are good for 150 minutes after first boarding, with no limits on direction-of-travel). TransLink single-use tickets range from C$2.75 for a single-zone ticket to C$5.50 for a 3-zone ticket, and good only for 90 minutes. TransLink adult passes are more competitive to TriMet's prices (US$100 for TriMet, C$91-C$170 for TransLink); TriMet has much lower prices for seniors and students. (Current exchange rate: US$1.00 = C$1.27; though the greenback has risen sharply against the looney in the past month).
    * One other note, relative to the politics. TriMet hit a nadir in its public standing about two-three years ago. Service cuts brought about by the US recession, coupled with new rail services opening at about the same time (including a poorly-performing commuter rail line that continues to be a bit of a black eye), coupled with several years of acrimonious labor relations, coupled with a few other PR fiascoes, brought public perception of TriMet way down. The agency is finally starting to recover: labor peace has been achieved, service cuts are being restored (though not yet completely), the Orange Line is coming in on time and under budget. Translink might be entering into a stormy period of its own. Often times, the proposed "cure" for underperforming public agencies is to cut their budgets, under the belief that the resulting fat-trimming will improve efficiency and root out waste; but like medieval blood-letting, this often doesn't work.

  21. MB April 2, 2015 at 10:03 am #

    This was an excellent post followed by very informative comments. Thank you Jarrett et al.
    Scotty, you are completely right about Metro Vancouver’s new highways and bridges. The provincial government has gone freeway mad. I would estimate the total expenditures on the projects within the last decade exceeded C$7 billion in capital costs. This will climb to at least $11 billion if you include the proposed Massey Bridge and widening of the #99 highway, which apparently will equal the new Port Mann Bridge in ridiculously over-engineered design. Add in the debt servicing on all this and we’ve exceeded $15 billion.
    Where’s our referendum on that?
    Perhaps in the face of political expediency, the BC Ministry of Transport has buried the factual evidence that vehicle kilometres travelled are in decline all over the continent, which roughly parallels the build-up in higher prices of fossil fuels prior to the 2005 peak in the production of cheap conventional oil. They are focused on commercial trucking, so they say while ignoring the huge amount of rail traffic in the port. In fact, the multiple car-owning suburban voter has their number even when today’s most affordable price at the pump is 300% higher than the lows of the 90s. The response to higher fossil fuel prices became evident when more people switched to transit, and when industry provided cars with greater fuel efficiency. Today, as widely acknowledged, Gen X-ers, Gen Y-ers and Millennials have record low car ownership rates and a wiser attitude about sustainable urbanism. And revenues from fuel taxes are down.
    We had our greatest test of transit during the 2010 Winter Olympics which peaked at when 2.7 million trips a day in a city with normally 2.4 million people. It was astounding. Today, we have to vote on a mosquito bite of a transit tax while the Port Mann tolls are not keeping up to even debt servicing costs as drivers divert to the toll-free but deteriorating, over-capacity Patullo Bridge and other routes. Some may even be burning more in gas to avoid the equivalent in tolls, their griping getting lot of press after their long free ride while transit riders have always quietly paid nearly equivalent “tolls” on every one-zone trip through the fare box, with a two and three-zone fares exceeding the bridge tolls.
    There are many things wrong with this vote, but the part that sticks in my craw the most is that it is patently discriminatory towards transit riders and to the third largest city in Canada, which happens to generate half of the annual GDP of the province. Though I lay the blame at the feet of Premier Christy Clark for abdicating her leadership responsibilities, I voted Yes because I get that voting No against the premier (or anything else) in reality won’t hurt her one bit. It will hurt transit riders and set back our ability to develop deeper urban and economic resiliency against the huge challenges that lie ahead.

  22. EngineerScotty April 3, 2015 at 5:40 pm #

    Has the province considered tolling any of the other Fraser River bridges (particularly the Patullo Bridge)? If a Massey Tunnel replacement opens and is tolled, would the Alex Fraser bridge (where BC91 crosses the river) also be tolled?
    Also, if Patullo Bridge is seeing spillover traffic from the Port Mann bridge–where is that traffic generally going? Into the city along Kingsway or other streets? Back north to the freeway between Coquitlam and Burnaby? Down Marine Drive?
    Is there any pressure from the province to widen streets (or eek, build freeways) in Vancouver itself, or will the widened 99 simply add more traffic to Oak, Granville, or Knight streets, and/or make the streets of Richmond even more crowded than they already are?

  23. MB April 8, 2015 at 2:55 pm #

    I don’t know what the government plans with respect to additional tolls, but they have wide support among the suburban car-driving public and highway retail business owners.
    Ironically, replacing the badly deteriorated Patullo Bridge is one of the items listed on the plebiscite, so voting No will kybosh that project potentially for several years, or until it collapses. I believe it is owned by TransLink, not the province, as is the new Golden Ears Bridge which is losing toll revenue too. With the GE and PM bridge tolls in effect east of the Patullo, presumably a big percentage of the traffic avoiding tolls is destined for Coquitlam and points east, effectively doubling back. What a waste of energy and time.
    With a few exceptions, the individual cities own their roads, so road widening will have to be approved by local councils. Fat chance in Vancouver which killed freeway expansion in the early 70s (except for the Trans Canada which nips a block or two into Vancouver’s NE sector). It’s part of the Vancouver psyche. Our grid road system works quite well, so there really wasn’t a proven need for ideaologically-driven freeways to begin with. There is a deeply ingrained tendency for Vancouver residents to reject freeways. There are lots more bodies to lie in front of the bulldozers today too.
    It is a point of braggadocio in some planning circles that the set of lights at 70th Ave x Oak St is the first set of lights north of the Mexican border.