I almost let this one slip under my nose! It looks like the Langley Times published one of my letter submissions from last month.
One of the things I noticed in the letter I responded to is how misinformed some TransLink critics can be on who did what. I could explain more, but the best explanation would probably be to read my letter:
Editor: I think that Gordon Price is right — whoever set this widespread anti-TransLink agenda has really damaged the state of transit debate in this region.
Particularly, the recent letter in The Times (“TransLink is never satisfied,” Sept. 12) is like many I’ve read before, in that it’s painting a completely incorrect picture of TransLink. If you’ve heard about the .5 per cent sales tax proposal recently, it was brought up by two well-known South of Fraser transit advocates — not by TransLink. TransLink’s board has never requested a sales tax of such calibre for transit.
The .5 per cent sales tax proposal was first brought up earlier this year by a group of people we have previously elected to lead us: our mayors. The Regional Mayors’ Council has been very vocal in trying to ensure that transit investment in this region can move forward.
Why is that? Because they know that investing in transit is the most efficient way of providing needed new transportation options for a growing population….
My doubts began while I was in the middle of a long research session, constructing what became one of my first popular posts on this blog – an article comparing Vancouver’s transit fares with those of Toronto and Montreal’s.
As part of my research being done while I was putting together that article, I was also having a look through Shirocca Consulting’s TransLink efficiency review, which can be accessed on the CAW111 site at [CLICK HERE]:
One of the interesting things that I found in this review is that efficiency is defined:
However, Ctrl + F the document, or visually scroll through it all you want; but no matter what you try, you will not find a place in that document that mentions “Operating cost per revenue service hour” except the box on that page.
Meaning, TransLink’s cost efficiency is simply not measured: it is not part of this review, and there should be no way anyone can say anything about it. Service effectiveness (Revenue passengers per revenue service hour) was not measured either.
I would think that a proper audit would have taken both of these important figures (as it so declares) into account.
How “efficient” is TransLink anyway?
Having a look at TransLink’s financial and performance reports, looking at reports from other agencies, and arranging the numbers so you could make a comparison between the agencies, I was not only able to measure these numbers from TransLink myself – I was able to compare them with other transit agencies serving major cities in Canada.
TransLink is far more efficient, in terms of pratices leading to provision of transit service per operating cost dollar, than both Toronto and Montreal.
This is how TransLink compared with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC):
And this is how TransLink compared with the Société de transport de Montréal (STM):
(note: service kilometres were compared as Montreal does not provide service full service hour data)
Some anti-TransLink advocates have not wasted any time to point unsuspecting readers to this chart:
And indeed, a first look at this chart made me want to cringe. At $3.92 per revenue passenger, conventional transit provision per revenue passenger with TransLink is more expensive than other Canadian transit agencies.
Firstly, I think that this is a terrible way of measuring cost effectiveness.
While TransLink’s conventional transit costs approximately 40% more per revenue passenger than the TTC’s, TransLink also provides 22% more service hours for every dollar it spends on operating transit (see earlier chart). This chart does not normalize the data for TransLink’s superior cost efficiency, and so the “cost effectiveness” value is not correctly measured. When normalized for cost efficiency, TransLink’s conventional transit costs only 14.75% more per revenue passenger than the TTC’s, a far lower difference than is portrayed by this chart.
Regardless of normalization, “cost effectiveness” is fundamentally different from “cost efficiency” (which is something we don’t even have to worry about).
Cost efficiency is a constant value affected by the competence of executives and practices within an individual organization; in other words, refer to this value to find out whether TransLink is doing great or not, and use this measurement when comparing transit agencies with each other. Cost effectiveness, on the other hand, has nothing to do with administration pratcies or costs within TransLink. It is something that can be affected by outside factors within transit agencies’ serviced city/metropolitan areas.
It should help to remember that TransLink is unique in that it’s one of the few single-metro-agency setups in Canada, and services the largest transit service area of any transit agency at about 2 times that of Toronto’s TTC (note: while Greater Toronto is much larger than Metro Vancouver, Greater Toronto’s different cities are serviced by different transit agencies).
With TransLink in such a unique position not had by many other transit agencies in Canada of having to provide for the entire region, a lot of the transit it must provide is not cost-effective transit by default. This can be illustrated by the varying cost-per-boarding values of bus services in different areas of Metro Vancouver. I took the data from TransLink’s transit system performance review and compiled it in this chart:
The highest value here is obviously the central and most dense area in this region: Vancouver, with a cost per boarded passenger of just $1.08. The three bottom areas – the Northeast sector, Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows, and South Delta – are among the farthest-out areas of Metro Vancouver, and the only three areas that do not have access to a regular SkyTrain rapid transit service.
The equivalent areas in Greater Toronto (i.e. the York Region, Mississauga, Hamilton) are simply not serviced by the TTC – they are served by their own transit agencies (YRT, Mi-Way) with a cost effectiveness that is not measured in the Shirocca report.
Are people not getting the right picture of TransLink as our transit provider?
It is very questionable whether people are getting the right picture of TransLink as our transit provider.
It doesn’t help that many opinions on TransLink efficiency and the apparent need for Translink to improve are being based on a horrible, incomplete audit that does not measure and compare all of TransLink’s efficiencies. The Shirocca Consulting review is extremely questionable, and readers never get the big picture: apart from the missing measurements I pointed out earlier, only 4 other cities were ever used in the comparisons, even though the numbers supposedly came from a CUTA fact book that measures all Canadian transit agencies.
It doesn’t help that TransLink is currently running financial deficits that are eating into a reserve fund every year, no thanks to the unwillingness of senior government levels and the TransLink commissioner to approve and provide additional transit funding. (The promises were made back in 2010 and no action has been taken since).
It doesn’t help that this is happening, even though TransLink may very well be one of the most cost-efficient transit operations in Canada, and it doesn’t help that nobody realizes that because one of the biggest audits of TransLink efficiency did not bother measuring the fact.
What is the solution then?
The solution to TransLink’s cost effectiveness problem is, contrary to what popular anti-TransLink advocates like the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation’s Jordan Bateman and some bloggers at Rail for the Valley say, the opposite of what has been suggested: approving more transit funding for TransLink (such as a regional sales tax for transit), thus allowing more transit expansion in Metro Vancouver.
I’m sure that what these advocates want in the end is a more cost-effective transit service in Metro Vancouver; however, by believing the doctrine of TransLink inefficiency and believing that the only way to solve the low cost-effectiveness of TransLink’s services is by rejecting funding for TransLink and voting “no” in the upcoming 2014 transit referendum, these advocates are taking an incorrect position in the “fund-transit-or-not” debate.
Transit cost-effectiveness only goes as far as an area’s land use patterns and locations can take it – and as evident in the above chart, the worst areas are in the outermost areas and have the most suburban, automobile-oriented land use patterns that prevent transit from being cost-effective.
But, improved transit can also bring better land use, and one of the greatest examples of this in action is our SkyTrain rapid transit system, which has been blamed for why there is currently a reported boom in office tower construction in Metro Vancouver.
My suspicion is that the Northeast sector, at a cost of $1.92 per boarding and thus the third worst for cost per boarding in Metro Vancovuer, will improve significantly as the introduction of the Evergreen Line SkyTrain in 2016 brings with it higher transit ridership typical of introducing a fast and reliable service, denser and more transit-oriented land use, and bus patronage on routes approaching the SkyTrain line and the densified hubs around the stations.
It is big projects like these, which will require a lot of funding, that will do the most in solving the problem of low cost-effectiveness of TransLink services. All we need now is a willingness from these transit cost-effectiveness advocates to acknowledge this fact and revise their positions on TransLink and transit, and Metro Vancouver will be all set on a path to become a world leader in transit cost-efficiency, cost-effectiveness and planning choices.
It’s just too bad that everyone seems to believe that TransLink is the opposite and headed in that general direction.
Sadly there will be an anti-TransLink vote, even by people who favour additional funding for transit. Some will choose a non-TransLink supported idea just to spite them while others will switch to the “no” side. Unfortunately TransLink has been the victim of bad propaganda for the last 20 years and a significant number of people believe it needs to be reformed or scrapped despite numerous audits showing that it’s actually doing a good job. The people in BC never let facts get in the way of ideology.
Sadly, he is correct.
Votes in the upcoming Metro Vancouver transit funding referendum will be filled with the votes of people who may want transit expansion, but don’t want TransLink. These people want a Metro Vancouver transit future where the only service expansions will come through finding of additional “efficiencies” in TransLink, or the scrapping of TransLink altogether in favour of a different agency. A referendum, thanks to its ability to define a direct result, is dangerous in that it can be easily seen as a tool for these people to “get their revenge” on TransLink.
Sometimes egregiously bad propaganda, such as the recent wash on TransLink for providing free coffee to employees (let’s face it, TransLink is being singled out wrongly – it’s probably not the only transit management agency that does this), has been all over the local media for the past several years. In many ways, it has already had its effect on TransLink; as in recent years TransLink has indeed been put through a lot of scrutiny, and then through audit after audit.
The ironic thing is that many of these audits found TransLink to be a well run company doing a good job. One audit on TransLink efficiency stated that TransLink’s funding formula is the “best in Canada”, because it has allowed it (TransLink) to maintain transit expansion during the recession whereas others across the country were cutting service; its progress report has noted that TransLink has an interest in pursuing efficiency and has has made significant progress in taking initiative. A later review of its governance system, while noting that TransLink’s system is unique in the world, found that it is still seen as “state of the art” internationally.
However, these audits were also successful in fulfilling their main purpose – to be audits. While they found that TransLink has not been doing badly, they also found that changes can be made, and in those changes there are those opportunities to make TransLink’s efficiency “better”.
Because of bad propaganda, there are a lot of people and groups in Metro Vancouver who hold TransLink to absurdly high expectations of efficiency; and, so long as there are absolutely any potential “inefficiencies” in TransLink, even if a “solution” to that inefficiency is a reduction in service or an unreasonable impact to management (as were some of the recommendations in these recent audits), there will be an anti-TransLink vote.
Look around: the results of this bad propaganda are everywhere. An online news article that has to do with transit expansion in Metro Vancouver will often yield a number of comments made by folk who will oppose transit expansion just for the sake of TransLink being in charge.
Article after article, editorial after editorial, letter after letter, and decision after decision, bad propaganda has probably already dealt its damaging blow to the future of the Metro Vancouver transit system, and there might not be much that can be done about that.
As I was looking at how referendums on funding (especially transit funding) have been done in other cities like in Los Angeles and Seattle, as pointed out by some others, it hit me that those referendums have always focused on just one-matter at a time.
In essence, what I’m saying is that when Los Angeles decided a sales tax on transit, only a sales tax was decided that day. A proposal to extend that sales tax by another few years (Measure R) was put to the test in a separate referendum (where it lost). The same has occured in Seattle, and the same in other American cities that have put transit funding decisions to referendums. There was not ever an instance where more than one option was decided at a time.
What the B.C. Liberals have proposed to do in Metro Van is not going to be simple like this at all.
With a single matter, it is not difficult to inform the voter on what that funding means for him/her as a taxpayer, and exactly what will be built out of that funding if it passes. Perhaps that is why it worked so well in Los Angeles and in Seattle.
In Metro Vancouver, we don’t know what the referendum question will look like. However, in this referendum, we may be required to decide between a multitude of options (at least, if anything former minister Mary Polak said before the elections holds true, save for the no status quo part – there will be a status quo option), which is completely different from how the same decisions were made in the numerous cities in the UNited States. With a multitude of options, not only does informing voters require far more effort (because voters will need to know what each option will mean), but it will also be impossible to make promises out of this referendum.
Because there will be no way to be certain how many of those options will pass and how many won’t (or if any will pass at all), there will be no way to know how many projects will be able to proceed; and – for however many that do – that still leaves the debate of which one will be built first/at all. So, that opens up the possibility that some parts of the region will be simply left out. But, we won’t know which – and I think that in particular will leave some of us very worried.
So, there’s another key problem I have with a referendum on transit funding. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to inform people which payment option will pay for what improvement. We just won’t know.
The future of transit funding for Metro Vancouver hinges largely on a referendum scheduled for next fall. The use of a referendum to decide TransLink funding, at all costs and utilizing all effort made possible by activists and our leadership, is a policy that has to change.
Let alone the fact that a referendum will delay all decisions to November 2014 (and result in no progress and the status quo until then), below are three reasons why a referendum is not an acceptable, fair and equitable method of deciding the transportation future of Metro Vancouver.
1. Neglects the youth
I have previously talked [CLICK HERE] about how the decision to decide funding by referendum neglects the voices of one of the most transit-needy groups in Metro Vancouver: youth transit users under 18. This is one of the reasons that a referendum is not fair for all people in Metro Vancouver. The youth are one of the most transit-dependent groups, but have no say in their transit future.
Youth transit users have to rely on the potentially ignorant votes of the rest of the population – and may be disadvantaged significantly by the results. This can have a cascading effect on the future of society, as youth who are neglected from transit options are neglected from options that they need to get to school, and eventually to work opportunities.
2. Voters ill-informed about TransLink
Votes can be influenced by simple and silly things, which is another reason that having a referendum to decide TransLink funding is unacceptable. The general population is not well-informed about TransLink and this matter, and can be influenced by reports that are misleading.
I have heard from a number of people who have decided they will vote no to all types of funding for single reasons that have to do with silly things. For example: there may be a number of people who would reject more TransLink funding because they had read the numerous recent media articles scrutinizing TransLink for providing free coffee to its workers, and perceived this action as a waste of taxpayer money. These articles mislead people, because they implied that TransLink is the only agency doing this, whereas TransLink is likely not the only public transit agency or public sector agency in North America that provides free coffee to employees.
By the words of Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart, “We’re asking the public to make wise choices with cumbersome information.“
3. Voters ill-informed about the consequences
Many voters who will say “no” also do not know about the consequences of rejecting additional transit funding. Investing in public transit is one of the most efficient ways of spending money for transportation. Not investing in transit means more money has to be invested in upgrading alternate systems such as roads, because neglecting transit funding will neglect many people from being able to utilize their transit options. Additional congestion caused by a lack of expanded transit infrastructure has a cost to the economy that most people won’t realize when they enter the referendum polls.
TransLink funding decisions are best decided by our leadership (i.e. Mayors, MLAs, etc.) and not by the general population in a referendum, because our leadership has a better understanding of why more transit funding is needed, where to implement it, and what are the consequences of neglecting it.
A referendum on TransLink funding neglects the knowledge had by our leadership, and entrusts people who may have no idea about the consequences to shape regional results.
I feel as if this graph was designed to make you think TransLink is inefficient and it sucks. The first time you see it, there’s obviously something TransLink is doing that the other transit agencies being compared aren’t, because the operating cost per revenue passenger is much higher than all of these other transit systems.
The first time I ever saw this graph was on a post on the Rail for the Valley transit advocacy blog that featured Eric Chris: a Point Grey, Vancouver resident and transit critic who often likes to grill TransLink on what he thinks is its “inefficiency”. Numbers like this have the power to cause a lot of controversy in the media world and really shape public opinion on a particular thing.
This number, however, is a deceiving comparator. Something is missing. In fact, a lot of things are missing.
A few days ago, I completed work on an infographic [CLICK HERE] that explored transit affordability in Vancouver from a fare-payer’s perspective, and compared it to the transit systems in the two other major Canadian cities – Toronto and Montreal. Through the creation of this infographic, I also managed to find some important numbers that effectively offset the critical numbers in the Shirocca report that have been consulted by critics of TransLink.
When you consider the amount of bus service hours that are provided per passenger revenue dollar in fares, TransLink significantly outperforms Toronto and Montreal in this regard.
It’s also true that TransLink transit has a high operating cost per revenue passenger, but this is what outbalances it. It’s not that TransLink is inefficient with its money; it’s just that TransLink provides more transit service per revenue passenger than other transit agencies.
TransLink provides 11,416 bus service hours per $1 million in fare revenues, in addition to providing twice the rapid transit length per $1 million. This is 52% higher than the 7494 bus/streetcar service hours per $1 million in fare revenues provided by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). By comparison, TransLink’s operating cost per passenger of $3.92 is just 40% higher than TTC’s cost of approximately $2.80. When all rapid transit service hours (Toronto Subway, Vancouver SkyTrain) are considered for a proper comparison of all transit services in terms of service hours per passenger revenue dollar, TransLink wins by a huge margin of 72%.
If anything, that means that TransLink is actually the far more efficient of the two to the fare payer. TransLink provides 72% more transit service hours per revenue dollar, at just 40% more operating cost per revenue passenger.
(I’d have put Montreal into the comparison as well, but Montreal’s STM does not report the amount of service hours provided by its metro – just service km; which makes it worse because Toronto does not report the amount of service km provided by its subway. Darn transit agencies and different reporting standards.)
And, what happens when you remove the variable elements of revenue passengers, revenue passenger dollars, and revenue passenger whatever and just compare operating costs with service hours? Cue the fanfare, please.
Funnily enough, that same Shirocca Consulting report defines operating cost per revenue service hour as the primary performance indicator of a transit operator’s cost efficiency (page 22) – but never bothered measuring TransLink’s, and/or comparing it to any other transit agencies. Instead, it uses the graph on the top of this page to describe “cost efficiency”. Why that happened (or, rather, didn’t happen) baffles me, although I suspect it is because many of the agencies (other than Toronto) Shirocca was comparing don’t seem to report those numbers… I know I can’t find them anywhere, and I guess Shirocca consulting couldn’t either.
But, anyway, there you have it. TransLink can provide the same amount of service hours for just 81% of the cost as the Toronto TTC. Alternatively, for every tax and fare-payer dollar, TransLink provides 22% more transit.
So, critics love to bash TransLink for being inefficient as a transit agency. Huh.
I submitted this letter today (EDIT: LETTER WAS PUBLISHED AS OF MARCH 3) to the South Delta Leader in response to an editorial claiming TransLink would “face a mutiny” if it didn’t “shape up”. [LINK HERE]
If you don’t make the right land use planning choices, you are unlikely to get the right transit – and I wanted to point that out, because it seems that a lot of the people I have heard speaking about transit-related matters have not studied the relationship between land use planning and transit planning. It’s an unfortunate but true reality.
I’m all for better transit for everyone, and while it is not my intention to create counter-productivity for the push for better transit in Delta… to put it bluntly, much of Delta (well, apart from North Delta, which like Surrey is actually serviced by very cost-efficient, well-used and not-overused TransLink routes) is a conglomeration of small, far-away and outer-area communities that are difficult to service with quality transit because they were not really designed to be reliant on transit commutes.
Greenfield developments in outer areas of Surrey such as in Grandview Heights aren’t getting the proportionally good transit that taxpayers help pay for either; again, that’s because of land use choices.
The 600 series routes serving Delta are some of the region’s least cost efficient and least productive transit routes. According to a data-set released on Voony’s Blog, they generate a much lower proportion of the region’s bus boardings, despite requiring a higher proportion of the region’s transit service hours. These transit service hours could be spend far more productively addressing pressing needs in other parts of the region like Surrey… instead, they’re rather generously being given to South Delta.
I question whether the real problem with transit in South Delta is a disproportionate return from TransLink…. or is it the choices that have been made in terms of land use planning?
I just don’t see how a small regional sales tax increase to fund transit is a bad idea. We need funding for transit expansion, and a sales tax is not like a gas tax in that the revenue is guaranteed to stay. It’s being used in other cities in North America, and it’s being reviewed as a funding option in other North American cities that need transit. Toronto is one of them.
Some people say that we can’t afford to pay more sales taxes. However, a few years ago, the B.C. Liberals asked us to pay 7% more in sales taxes in a move that introduced the H.S.T. – and, it happened. In April, that’s going to be reversed as a result of a vote by B.C. citizens. That puts the usual sales tax payment back down to 5% GST, and that means there is certainly headroom to introduce a regional sales tax to fund something such as transit.
A regional sales tax for transit is a great idea; it is sustainable and is a popular idea for funding transit investment. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and many other North American cities have already introduced them for this purpose; many more are planning for it.
The current recession has affected every city and every transit agency; Toronto and Montreal cut transit service extensively, and Portland nixed free LRT in its downtown core. In the midst of this, TransLink has largely maintained its region-wide service hour commitment. We should be proud of TransLink’s competence to support the options we still have in place that help us access more jobs and job opportunities.
As the new Japanese government has been leading by example in recent months, we must invest aggressively – especially in public services – to spur demand, get economic growth on track, and provide better quality of life.
We should all support a regional sales tax. Let’s make a show of it: let’s write letters, sign petitions, and spread the word. Let’s not be down there with other cities now facing transportation and economic turmoil because the solutions weren’t in place.
A transportation crisis will be staring us in the face if we do not act on this investment opportunity. When it’s in place, let’s use the revenue to build and support a better transit system for our benefit today, and our children’s benefit tomorrow. After all, the future lives here.