Low density neighbourhoods prove costly for TransLink

City Caucus

Posted by Daniel Fontaine

Remote routes are a dead end for sustainable transit: Comptroller General

Last week BC’s Comptroller General released a report on the future of both BC Ferries and the much maligned TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s regional transit authority. For the most part the media focus was on the “exorbitant” executive salaries over at BC Ferries. What got overshadowed were some interesting findings relating to the impact low density suburban neighbourhoods are having on TransLink’s bottom line.

One need only visit Surrey or Pitt Meadows for a few minutes to better understand the challenge TransLink faces. Many of the Coast Mountain buses operating there are doing so at very low capacity. That’s why so many people joke about the fact the bus drivers are transporting air for the better part of their shift. Juxtapose this against the overcrowded 99-B Line servicing UBC. Empty suburban buses are not only costing TransLink a fortune, they are putting in jeopardy expansion plans in more cost-efficient high density neighbourhoods.

As I’ve stated numerous times on the CKNW Civic Affairs Panel and on this blog, low density single family neighbourhood developments are not cost efficient when it comes to transit. There simply isn’t the ridership, as most people who decide to live in the burbs do so because they enjoy the “car culture”. Despite calling for better transit service, many civic leaders continue to approve massive sub-divisions on former pastoral land which is helping to facilitate urban sprawl and further drive up TransLink’s costs.

The problem with low density neighbourhoods is that their residents expect the same level of service as can be found on more high density routes. Ask any suburban resident and they’ll likely tell you they don’t take transit because the service “sucks”. Unlike major routes like the B-Line which run pretty much every minute during the day, their suburban cousins can have gaps of up to half an hour between runs. This “lack of service” is kind of like the chicken and egg syndrome. People want to use transit, but there aren’t enough people to justify more regular service. Therefore, with lower levels of service, fewer people take transit…and so on, and so on.

The Comptroller General’s report clearly lays out the problem facing TransLink if additional low density suburban sprawl continues into the next decade:

The majority of the $130 million structural deficit faced by TransLink is a result of factors other than Canada Line, such as the increase in the operational cost of the bus fleet, particularly into lower ridership, geographically sparse areas.

The CG goes on to state:

We were advised that the expansion strategy created increased operational expenses where additional services were added to less populated regions. Ridership and associated revenue are lower on these routes, yet the cost of operating a bus is relatively constant. Overall, the growth or expansion in operational expenses exceeded inflation by a multiple of 3.5 times.

With the prospect of Surrey one day becoming the most populous city in the region, there is a very good likelihood that suburban civic leaders will soon dominate Metro’s transit agenda. Despite the fact Vancouver’s transit operations actually pay for themselves due to higher densities, decisions on future expansion will rest in the hands of the more numerous suburban mayors.

Rapid transit expansion to UBC? Don’t count on it. More buses on crowded routes such as Main Street or Fraser. Nope. Vote conscious suburban mayors will slowly begin to move services out to areas that simply don’t pay for themselves, thus further exacerbating TransLink’s financial woes. In his recent 24 Hrs column my colleague Mike Klassen touched upon some of the other issues facing Vancouver if it relinquishes its number one spot to Surrey.

The Bus Drivers Union has been very successful at lobbying for the expansion of bus service throughout the region. More bus routes translate into more work for their members. However, with costs ballooning out of control at TransLink, has the time come to look at rationalizing service? It would appear the CG believes so:

…the average cost per rider increased by 20.6% from 2005 to 2008, while the average fare per rider increased by 8.9%. TransLink did not impose an increase of fares between 2005 and 2007 and the fare increase in 2008 did not cover the cost of inflation which had occurred between 2005 and 2008. As well, the additional costs of expansion into less populated regions were not met with equivalent ridership levels to maintain a constant cost per rider. Therefore, the average cost per rider increase of 20.6% was more than double that of the average fare per rider increase of 8.9%.

TransLink’s administration costs have been significantly increasing at a pace greater than ridership and inflation, TransLink‟s administration costs increased by 101% between 2002 and 2008…administration costs have increased by a rate more than double that of ridership and approximately seven times that of inflation.

The recommendations put forward by the Comptroller General are now in the hands of the Hon. Shirley Bond, Minister of Transportation. She now has the unenviable task of turning TransLink around from a perennial money loser, to one that is on a path of financial sustainability. You can expect that the bus ride along the way will get a bit bumpy.

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