No credit for TransLink – 2: Where are the good stats?

No Credit for TransLink - A blog series on darylvsworld.wordpress.com. Original photo: CC BY-SA Lisa Parker, flickr
Aaron Meier (@aaron_meier) – Feb 14

Friend told me that@Translink is more expensive than other cities. Time to remind people of the graphic by @daka_xhttp://goo.gl/NbHnB5

Aaron Meier on Twitter sent out this tweet a couple days ago, referring to a write-up I did last year on TransLink’s transit costs (see: Transit is More Affordable in Vancouver (Infographic)), which looked at what were the fares across the transit systems covering 3 major Canadian cities. Overwhelmingly, I found that TransLink gave you a better deal and could get you further for less, when the zone system and fare payment variables are fully taken into account.

To this day, that article has been one of the most popular on my blog – overshadowed only by write-ups containing even more compelling stats reveals having to do with TransLink that I published last fall (see: Was TransLink Audited Correctly?).

From Infographic: Transit is more affordable in Vancouver
A snippet from Infographic: Transit is more affordable in Vancouver. More infographs and info at [CLICK HERE]
Positive stats like these could be making all the difference in how we perceive our transit system and our transit authority (TransLink), but they aren’t going around in the discussion circles. Instead, our perceptions about TransLink have been more often defined by convoluted stats that those who hold an anti-Translink agenda might twist to suit their wishes.

When I published my first and very popular “No Credit for TransLink” write-up, another regional issues blog – Price Tags, the blogging outlet of the very vocal SFU City program instructor, Gordon Price – was helping me build momentum on the issue at about the same time, having published The TransLink Hate-On: No Credit a few days after my feature focusing on the media’s TransLink treatment. A number of other articles focusing on where TransLink can be positively credited followed up on Price Tags, so I’ve been paying close attention to the site for the last few weeks.

Today, my attention was directed to a new post that came out just today featuring some very important statistical information from Peter Ladner (twitter: @pladner), a person I remember to have written a very good letter denouncing the province’s TransLink referendum proposal (which I was opposed to as well) last fall.

I highly suggest that the rest of you read up on this and enlighten yourselves. I think this is really important information worthy of sharing on at least a few other blogs out there. See below…

Ladner Letter – 1: Is TransLink a success?

February 15, 2014 on Price Tags

I don’t want this to get missed.  Peter Ladner’s comment in the post below:

My letter to the Sun in response:

TransLink’s biggest failure is in selling its remarkable success. It astounds me that your recent article on TransLink, loaded as it was with financial facts and figures, missed the most important question: after all these funding and governance issues, has TransLink been a success?

Since 2006, the shift of trips to transit in Metro Vancouver is unmatched in North America. s number of transit trips per person per year.

We have more than three times as many transit trips per capita as Portland, which is the #2 city in the 2.0-2.6-million population peer group in North America.

Among all cities in North America, Metro Vancouver is third, behind only New York and Toronto with their heavy rail subways, for transit trips per person per year. We’re ahead of Montreal, Boston, and Washington D.C….

[CONTINUED – READ MORE on Price Tags]

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: TransLink didn’t propose .5% sales tax

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….

[READ MORE – Langley Times]

Scrutineers are putting TransLink through too many zero-win scenarios

Looking forward inside a Vancouver transit bus. Photo: CC-BY-NC-ND Flickr: Cyprien
Looking forward inside a Vancouver transit bus. Photo: CC-BY-NC-ND Flickr: Cyprien

Scrutineers are putting TransLink into so many zero-win scenarios that it is starting to become absurd.

A growing petition has been launched against the TransLink decision (not that it was a recent decision, as this condition has always been a part of the Compass fare payment program and others have pointed it out earlier) to save $25 million in equipment costs and require extra fares for those who want to go from bus to SkyTrain and use cash fare on the bus. The issue received releases by several media outlets earlier today and has garnered a lot of attention and lashing.

But, I personally reckon that a large number of the people who are signing the petition can, in fact, afford the $6 deposit for a Compass Card (the key to being able to transfer from bus to SkyTrain without extra fees – and with fare discounts, even), and are signing for the sake of hate feelings against TransLink. (After all, how many low-income and homeless people – i.e. people who would really lose out and have a real reason to complain (not that they will, as arrangements to accomodate them are being worked on) – have a computer to access the site and sign?)

It costs just a $6 deposit to be able to transfer from bus to SkyTrain without extra fees
It costs just a $6 deposit and being at one of 420 vending machines to have this card and be able to transfer from bus to SkyTrain without extra fees

I also reckon that many of these same people who are signing this petition are taxpayers – taxpayers who are saving money because of this arrangement – and that many of these same people would kick, cry and scream in much the same way if TransLink had indeed decided to spend the $25 million just to get compass-compatible single ticket readers on buses. We would certainly see comments from prominent voices on TransLink taxing choices, such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s Jordan Bateman, who is awkwardly quiet and speechless as of today’s news.

Now, this is all just speculation, but the hypocrisy from these members of the public would be staggering if it can be proven.

This is just one of many times that TransLink has had to go through a no-win scenario to public scrutiny.

Just earlier this year, TransLink was being grilled for the provision of free coffee to its employees. However, it doesn’t take a lot to know that TransLink is probably not the only agency in North America and the world that provides free coffee to its employees.

I don’t understand how an upcoming referendum on transit expansion that absolutely must be won is going to be, if this is the kind of attitude that is going to come from scrutineers. No matter what happens, TransLink is in a position where it can garner a lot of hate and anger. It’s like how some bloggers like Gordon Price have said – TransLink has become a “whipping boy” for authorities like the provincial government.

An overcrowded platform at VCC-Clark SkyTrain station. SkyTrain service cuts during all off-peak hours were among some of the "efficiency" recommendations in the recent TransLink audits.
An overcrowded platform at VCC-Clark SkyTrain station – something that could become a regular sight of a referendum on transit funding is lost.

Heck, in tomorrow’s Surrey Leader, there’s going to be a newsletter called ‘Cast-off’ buses geared for Surrey riders, written by a Fraser Heights resident, who dislikes the use of full-size buses on the route #337 Fraser Heights. It’s a very short-sighted opinion, as the writer does not realize that the 337 is the fastest growing bus route by ridership growth in Surrey (according to: TransLink bus performance data), and does require the capacity of full-size buses in order to prevent pass-ups and accomodate standing-room only buses during the peak hours (I know this first hand as I ride #337). I’m hoping that my response to this makes the next issue.

I’ve said for a long time now that we must collectively reject and abandon the idea of a TransLink referendum because of TransLink’s spoiled brand.

And, according to my reading subscription list, others have recently been mirrorring my concerns.

How will anti-TransLink vote influence transit referendum?

Looking forward inside a Vancouver transit bus. Photo: CC-BY-NC-ND Flickr: Cyprien
Looking forward inside a Vancouver transit bus. Photo: CC-BY-NC-ND Flickr: Cyprien

Also featured on: Metro604

A comment on the recent Price Tags article on the upcoming November 2014 TransLink Referendum (TransLink Referendum: Can It win? What do we need to know?) strikes a chord on the instruments of an upcoming transit expansion funding referendum. Commenter “David” posted:

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.

An overcrowded platform at VCC-Clark SkyTrain station. SkyTrain service cuts during all off-peak hours were among some of the "efficiency" recommendations in the recent TransLink audits.
SkyTrain service cuts during all off-peak hours were among some of the “efficiency” recommendations in the recent TransLink audits. Photo: CC-BY-NC-ND Flickr: Andrew Ferguson

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.

With a referendum on transit funding, we just won’t know.

Pictures from TransLink of mockup Mark III Skytrain vehicle
On the top is a next-generation Mark III SkyTrain vehicle, a product we will see with the coming of the Evergreen Line and perhaps again if more SkyTrain expansions are approved in Metro Vancouver.

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.

REALITY CHECK: Debunking more myths of TransLink “inefficiency”

NOTICE: This article has been superseded by the new, updated data in my latest write-up: Referendum Myths: TransLink Inefficiency [LINK]

From the TransLink Efficiency Review by Shirocca Consulting
From the TransLink Efficiency Review by Shirocca Consulting
Smashing, isn’t it?

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.

SkyTrain in Burnaby, looking towards Vancouver
SkyTrain in Burnaby, looking towards Vancouver

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.

infographic

(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.

Operating cost per service hour: TransLink vs TTC

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.

(Numbers taken from the Translink financial & performance report, TTC annual report, and another TTC paper revealing service hour splits per transit mode).

Transit is more affordable in Vancouver (Infographic)

SkyTrain in Burnaby, looking towards Vancouver
SkyTrain in Burnaby, looking towards Vancouver

A few days ago I was speaking to a good friend and a colleague of mine, who really wasn’t a fan of TransLink. I noticed that much of that judgments seemed to come from his experiences as a transit rider, and from a generally negative shadow that has been/is being cast over TransLink by many institutions and groups – the media, politicians, and – of course – public transit users from all over Metro Vancouver. It’s a perception that can affect the most important choices that will make or break the hopes of many people who are pining for better transit, especially if the B.C. Liberals happen to win the upcoming provincial election and subject future TransLink funding to a referendum in which there is a status-quo option (my response to that at [CLICK HERE]).

[CLICK HERE TO VIEW INFOGRAPHIC – INTERACTIVE]

There are a few things I know about TransLink, however, that many others don’t – things I have found out through spontaneous or targeted research sessions. So, I decided to tell him one thing I knew about how TransLink’s fares and affordability compare with the rates in other cities in Canada. It took me several messages on Facebook just to get the message to him about what the facts were in terms of fares, but by the end he was quite satisfied with what he was hearing.

I’ve never really tried to get this knowledge out to the public in a big way before, and I don’t think too many people are like him and would be willing to read long messages for me for 20 minutes straight. So, I’ve decided to try something new and different. Inspired by a recent series of Infographics that have concerned similar topics on the Metro604 website (former Civic Surrey)…. here is something that everyone can read at their own pace.

Surrey Now: Low tax rate adding to city’s strain (editorial)

Guildford Rec Centre. Photo: Wikimedia Commons - Leoboudv
Guildford Rec Centre. Photo: Wikimedia Commons – Leoboudv

This is probably the best editorial or article about Surrey that I have read in the local papers lately, because I think that the points and the pains that have been mentioned are absolutely correct, and are legitimate concerns that need to get more attention.

I’ve had a feeling that spending limits have been a part of what I perceive as a city-wide infrastructure shortage on many fronts. Many new growth areas are so far from existing services because they haven’t been serviced with new ones, and many of our services (i.e. roads… sidewalks anyone?) are crumbling and underbuilt. I’ve pointed it out a few times in other newsletters and I’ve been hoping for more people to bring it up to light. I guess that with this excellent editorial by Surrey Now’s Michael Booth, the battle can begin.

I submitted a follow-up newsletter response to this editorial that points out how low taxes have created spending limits that are affecting our young population. I hope it gets published.

By Michael Booth, Surrey Now April 11, 2013

In the world of politics, nothing turns off voters like the notion of raising taxes.

The very notion of giving more of our hard-earned money to government at any level evokes a reaction not unlike a small child encountering a large bug – shrieks of terror followed by a determination to squash the source of the anxiety.

And woe be unto the politician who has the temerity to suggest a hike in the tax rate may be a prudent move to address a given fiscal problem. Such a statement inevitably brands the poor soul with a stigma that makes Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter look like a participation ribbon at an elementary school’s sports day. The day after the next election, voters can observe the crows picking at the desiccated corpse of the offending suit’s political career.

These thoughts come to mind after reading Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts’ latest State of the City Address, which she delivered last week.

Watts heads the Surrey First civic political party, a group that holds every single seat on Surrey city council.

In keeping with the party’s title, Watts’ speech is littered with rah-rah, civic-booster language, including such delightful terms as state-of-the-art, world class, culturally vibrant, brightest minds and, of course, “the largest construction and investment plan in the city’s history.”

New civic plans include renaming a stretch of King George Boulevard (last year it was King George Highway, but hey, signs are cheap) as Innovation Boulevard and investigating the expansion of a Canarie fibre network from SFU to Surrey Memorial Hospital.

What’s a Canarie fibre network you ask? Well, it’s not a carrier pigeon network using canaries. Nope, it’s an “ultra high-speed fibre optic digital infrastructure” that is “highly coveted in the health technology and research community.” Nothing but the best for Whalley.

The city also wants to “leverage new opportunities in the arts and culture sector” as well as foster growth in the aerospace industry. On top of all this, Surrey will strive for improved transit service with a light rail transit system, create “significant infrastructure projects” such as the new city hall, two new swimming pools, a new community plaza and a “district energy system” in City Centre (ie: Whalley).

And don’t forget the new walking and cycling trails that will link up the 8,000 acres of parks in the city.

Now juxtapose these grandiose plans with a niggling little phrase mentioned in passing near the start of the mayor’s speech: Surrey has the lowest residential taxes and second lowest business taxes in the region.

Now I’m no math wizard, but something has to give here…..

[CONTINUED – READ MORE AT THE NOW WEBSITE]

Michael Booth can be reached at mbooth@ thenownewspaper.com

© Copyright (c) Surrey Now

LETTER: Support a regional sales tax for transit

Canada Line
Photo credit: Flickr – Richard Eriksson

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.

Yes, we should tax for transit

Seen in: Surrey Leader

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.

Daryl Dela Cruz, Surrey