Getting commuters out of cars and into buses a priority for Translink
Once again, it's time for ... Amazing Facts!
Policy wonks near and far will be salivating over some stunning stats released by UBC, demonstrating the amazing success of transportation demand management, particularly the U-Pass program.
Some background: the University of B.C. is a small city of about 60,000, and it's growing fast. Not only is it building thousands of new housing units but the student population has increased 20 percent since 1997. Back then, the University and the GVRD agreed to a planning process that required an actual reduction in the number of single-occupancy vehicles driven to the campus - on the order of 20 percent - to be offset by a dramatic growth in anticipated transit use.
As one involved in the process, let me confess: I didn't think they had a chance of making it. TransLink, after all, expected that even after spending many millions, it would be lucky to keep the same market share for transit. And there was no way we'd see a reduction in the number of cars on the road.
So guess what happened? Daily automobile volumes to UBC are down 12 percent. Transit use exploded: up 139 percent over six years, up 53 percent in just one year. The commuter parking supply has dropped by a quarter. These are numbers seen nowhere else in North America - who knows, maybe the world.
So how come? One big reason is a little card that students get (whether they want it or not) when they pay their student fees at UBC and SFU. For the bargain price of $20 a month, they have access to the entire transit system, all zones, for their entire eight-month term. By comparison, a three-zone Farecard would set them back $120 a month. More importantly, U-Pass creates the same illusion we get with our cars. Because no money has to come out of pocket at the time the trip is taken, the next trip always seems to be free. And we love free!
And we love convenience - which is why the car traditionally trumps transit. This also explains one of the unanticipated oddities in the UBC results. Yes, the number of vehicles overall is down by 12 percent - but single-occupancy vehicles have dropped by only 2 percent. So what happened there?
Turns out that U-Pass and the success of the B-Line services resulted in a massive transfer of students out of carpools. Over 14,000 shared trips shifted to transit. As one student explained: "The bus is a big carpool that leaves every few minutes, all day long."
That combination of cheap fares and frequent service saw 7,500 fewer cars heading to UBC each day than in 1997 - a greater reduction than the original target would have achieved - even though the drop was primarily in high-occupancy vehicles. Ironically, those who chose to drive (and were prepared to pay higher parking fees) had less congestion to deal with.
Here's another irony: the very success of the program is making TransLink nervous. Now everyone wants a U-Pass: faculty, staff, other colleges around the Lower Mainland - and of course they want more frequent service to go with it. And that means more money-losing operations, even with the increased ridership.
With the approval of the Canada line, TransLink will have loaded up its debt obligations significantly, along with the risk that it will get the forecast ridership. If not, the board will be looking for money from other operations, which is what makes the critics of big-buck rapid-transit nervous. TransLink may end up not properly funding the part of the transit system that has actually proven to get people out of cars.
That's a point worth emphasizing here: U-Pass and express bus systems have proven to work! This is no longer a hope-over-experience experiment, that somehow transit will get us to the sustainable city the planners all promise but can't deliver. This time, they delivered.
In the City of Vancouver, for the first time in memory (maybe the first time ever), the number of registered vehicles has gone down. As fellow BIV columnist David Baxter notes: "It's possible to think about living in Vancouver without a car." U-Pass played a critical part, in addition to better land use, higher densities and more transit service - exactly the formula that UBC is following with its plans for University Town. By 2021, it expects to reduce vehicle use by about a third over the trend.
What was once a target that would have amazed the sceptics is now seen to be a reasonable, reachable goal. Which is the most amazing thing of all.
- Post by Gordon Price. He is Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University. He also writes, teaches and consults on urban development and planning. He served six terms as Councillor for the City of Vancouver, from 1986 to 2002, as well as on the board of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (now Metro) and TransLink, the regional transportation authority.
This column was originally published in Business in Vancouver.
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