Low density neighbourhoods prove costly for TransLink

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


nowhere bus
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.


Yes the "build and they will come" mentality isn't working for Translink, although I applaud them for trying.

On the other hand to we continue to punish the car-culture types with increasing gas and road taxes, and cut their transit services? Tough call, I don't really have an answer.

So the CG reveals outrages governance issues and overspending at the highest levels, and all you can manage is to point out the obvious on low usage routes, which have been switches to community bus over the years.

And the powerful 'Bus Drivers Union' lobbying for more routes. What a joke.

We need to stop subsiding sprawl and motordom, then Translink might stand a chance..

I too think it is important to highlight the cost challenges of low density development. Sure, it's just one of a number of issues. But we continue to plan new subdivisions without any regard to whether the design and density will support bus service. While I am not optimistic that we will rectify the problem in the short term, one small step might be to increase development densities (in US, some single family developments are up to 18 units per acre) and plan for community shuttle buses, with bus stops clearly identified on neighbourhood plans. It would be a start.

Good points in this piece. On one end, TransLink is relentlessly scrutinized by the Province, while at the same time it's the Province that is locking this region into a highway-oriented pattern through its over-riding commitment to freeway building, which of course undermines TransLink.

On the other end, municipalities criticize TransLink and play tug-of-war over service and planning priorities, while continuing to approve office parks and subdivisions that will likely never support transit, and then complain about poor service.

Perhaps following this governance review, TransLink will see its mandate re-formed so that it can concentrate on offering the best possible services in the areas that are designed and developed in ways that support transit, planning for service to areas that will definitely be shaped by transit in the future, all without the burden and expense of serving low density areas where transit is a losing proposition.

At least some of this discussion depends upon how transit is perceived as a government service. If the goal is to provide sustainable mobility that reduces congestion and moves large volumes of people effectively and efficiently between town centres and along key corridors, the solutions are vastly different than if the goal is to ensure minimal mobility for those too young, old, or poor to own a vehicle.

Perhaps the provincial ministry of social services, or municipalities (who approve low density subdivisions/ office parks/ retail) could take non-viable routes over as a welfare measure, leaving TransLink to concentrate on offering competitive, sustainable mobility. Of course, this worldview should be accompanied by appropriate compassion and the willingness of municipalities to allow for transit-oriented increases in density/supply.

D, very good assessment of the current land use/transit issues facing the transportation system in the region.

Bait and Switch, what "outrageous" governance issues are you talking about, exactly? With reference to BC Ferries? Not a Crown Corporation, since Hahn's tenure it has been able to get customer satisfaction levels up over the 90% mark, buy the right equipment without political interference or special interest group pressures (oh, that TransLink were so lucky), and maintain a labour atmosphere that is conducive to putting travellers first. I dare says it has saved the taxpayers of BC tens of millions of dollars over the last few years.

With regard to TL, while running multiple operations can put too many execs into seats, the C-G noted that TL has made strides to get admin costs under control while developing strategies to control operating costs. I also submit, since New York has seen fit to steal the CEO away, that they must think him competent and up for the task of running a much larger transit system.

To suggest that governace at TL is "outrageous" is stretching it. In fact this so called "hand picked" board was in agreement with what past boards (eg the region's Mayors) recommended: that after nearly two decades of little transit build-out and with a region that had expanded exponentially in all municipalities, TL should carry on and develop the infrastructure and expansion of services that those past boards had voted on in 2004. D, I do agree that some of those munis have to rethink how transit will efficiently serve their areas. 1800 sq. kms is a pretty bloody big catchment area...

Yes, they went ahead then in 2004 without a way to pay now (and Daniel, if you truly believe the C-G's report, which painfully went out of its way to excuse Canada Line as not being part of today's funding problem, I have a bridge or two I wanna sell you. CL will cost TransLink tens of millions a year for some time---the bills have come due, and they must be paid...which takes a large chunk out of the $130 million the Mayors' Council approved a few weeks ago).

Thus the ask for new, sustainable funding to pay for all that which had already been built or bought over the last 5 years seems a rather responsible move to me. Can more efficiencies be found around transit and admin? Sure. But the whole region needs to keep wrestling with the land use/effective service delivery model before this puzzle is solved. And the province needs to figure out that the munis can't do it on property tax alone.

By the way, if there is not the density for transit South of the river, just what density is needed for buses?; LRT?; SkyTrain?

If there is not the density for these modes, just what density is needed.

Talk to transit experts outside of Vancouver and the same conclusion rings through - we have built a metro system on routes that do not have the ridership to support them.

Metro (SkyTrain and RAV/Canada line)needs at least 400,000 persons per day to justify construction; LRT can economically operate with traffic flows of 2,000 to 20,000 persons per hour per direction; buses can happily operate with traffic flows of about 50 persons per hour per direction.

So it's not really density that makes transit affordable to operate, rather traffic flows and here lies the biggest problem for TransLink: Despite now over $8 billion invested in metro, Trans Link can't show a modal shift from car to transit.

TransLink's problems are not about density, rather a very poor transit system, operating a very expensive metro system that can't seem to attract the motorist from the car.

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