U-Pass gets people off the road and into transit

Post by Gord Price in

20 comments

u pass bond.jpeg
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.

Follow us on Twitter @CityCaucus. Follow Gordon on Twitter @pricetags.

20 Comments

While this all looks really good, it would be worth looking into how many people actually drive part of the way to UBC, park their single occupant vehicle, say on my street, and then continue their trip to UBC. If the numbers of vehicles actually starting a trip to UBC have not gone down, have we really made any progress? Have we not just "moved" the problem from one part of Vancouver to another?

Money-losing increases in ridership are great as long as the already financially foxholed taxpayers don't fix bayonet. Equating correlation to causation is faulty pedagogy. The rapidly increasing costs of running a car is just one factor of many not cited here. Taxation without repesentation is tyranny.

Translink can't succeed in providing transit to the region when they continue to discount or eliminate fares to every segment of society that whines about it. The U-Pass is a prime example of this. Nothing is free in life, and there's no reason why University students shouldn't have to pay their full fare.

I quite agree. Let's begin by eliminating the massive subsidies provided to car users - provision of roads and parking spaces to begin with, followed by a full accounting for all of the pollution and health problems caused by cars. Then we should get the market to price the cost of subsidies to the oil industry, including all of the foreign policy subsidies. The private car is the most massively subsidized form of transit in widespread use today.

If you think that a hugely expensive but more efficient rapid transit line similar to the Canada Line should be built from Commercial to UBC, have you asked yourself where will the money come from? Tax revenues are hugely scarce these days and there seem to be so many competing demands for funds. Has anyone calculated the difference in cost in constructing large student residences on campus so that the number of people needing public transportation would be considerably reduced. Would that cost be less than the rapid transit line?

I agree. So when do I get to stop subsidizing the private car?You want to drive a car, pay to have private roads built, pay for their upkeep, pay for the oil extraction, cover the externalities (a form of subsidy) and we will all be good.

So once again, Stephen's justification for people not plunking their $2.50-$5.00 fair share of transit comes down to Vision's extremist "War on People who drive Cars".

It's well documented from non-ideological observers that people who drive do pay for all of the infrastructure mentioned, and in Metro, for Translink as well.

Toronto, London, and New York don't accept fare evasion. Why should the taxpayers of Metro?

Let me get this straight: we transfer the burden of paying for commutes to university from private individuals in carpools onto the taxpayer-at-large for free transit. Not only that, but we reduce the tax collected from gas sales to carpoolers and thereby further erode the funding for Translink. And this is considered a "win"?

Only in Vancouver.

The numbers Translink reported are skewed to the extreme. As someone who resides along the bus route to UBC, I can confirm that there are lots and lots of students who drive as close to the campus as possible, usually in single occupant occupied cars, then park their cars along the route and in nearby residential neighborhoods before taking the buses to UBC Is is what you call SUCCESS?
If only Tranlink has done a comprehensive survey, they would find out that the number of commuter vehicles parked along the way on any weekdays to UBC in fact outnumber the residents living in the area.

"It's well documented from non-ideological observers that people who drive do pay for all of the infrastructure mentioned, and in Metro, for Translink as well."

Care to provide some evidence of this claim?

People are forgetting that ALL students must buy and pay for the pass WHETHER they use it or not.

The Thought of The Day

"The 'UBC Lands' - the only other 'poor' community in Vancouver after the 'DTES'... only $ub$dized to the teeth."

The amount of student loan debt, jobless residents, and with no particular bright future ahead in the real workng world, coupled with mega million villas, inhabited by English-less speaking residents with a guttural fear of ghosts and mentally challenged neighbours, the mommy's boy and daddy's girl with the latest Blackberry device talking freely behind their BMW's steering wheel, all while looking for parking...on MY residential street, to the farcically overpaid Kerry's and Jang's visiting professors...are only mirrored by the visions of the DTES, where one could have a cozy, candlelight white top expensive dinner, a Gassy Jack square across from yet another candlelight vigil for the latest overdosed victim.

And yet these two communities are perceived differently, first one as the 'future success', the second as the 'past and present danger' with no truth to any of that whatsoever. Still, the sponsorship money flows freely to the first, no questions asked - gee, God forbid. Forceps-ed out as still-born after still-born for the other, year after year, and all that under a lot of scrutiny, finger pointing and blame.

Call me cynical here, but I have to agree with a previous poster, re. student bodies faking it on the U-Pass, all while filling out residential streets. For every poor student at UBC there are at least two that doesn't need the Transit subsidy, hey, I know of instructors, that cannot afford to go there by car...to teach!

Aah, those satellite kids! I bet they are looking forward to the day when the gentrification in the DTES is complete so they could move in the newest Arthur Erickson signature building and continue to receive their subsidy for being too pretty for the area plus a bit extra for the 'danger' thing. I heard that the Federal Government have asked for a feasibility study,contracted out to UBC, and titled 'From UBC to DTES...by bus on a mere U-pass.'

We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

Jealous much Gliss?

The idea that students should pay full fare ignores the transit culture that's created when you have a generation of people who think transit is a normal way to travel. No longer is the 'loser cruiser' mentality dominant with university students and that translates to fewer cars on the road in the future.

Boohoo, its seems to me that what's being created is a class that doesn't think they should have to pay for transit.

I don't have a problem with providing U-Passes to students, but, I would like to see the use of the passes retricted to class hours. If you want to go clubbing or shopping after hours/weekends, then pony up the cash.

I would also like to see some way of stemming the problem of passes being sold on Craig's List.

When I was in school
I rode the
bus a LOT. I could hardly wait to graduate so I could get the h*** off of them.

I think it is great to encourage transit use, but U-Pass is a victim of its success of making non-transit university students pay for transit using university students. If Translink is losing money from each fare to UBC, where is the incentive to improve service to meet increasing demand?

Shortly after U-Pass was introduced, I was living in Kitsilano. I stopped taking the bus, after being a regular user for years, because I couldn't rely on it to get to work -- the buses kept passing me because they were too full of university students. I started calling the U-Pass the "Pass-U" program because of all the buses passing me by ... perversely, the subsidized student body was receiving better service than a long-time user who paid a full fare!

Did @Reality Check ever respond to your request that the claim that car drivers pay for all infrastructure be documented?

The Thought of The Day

'The day 'boohoo' was born...Three Wise Men left town.'

Boohoo, read my post again. And again. And then, once more.
Until you get it...then we'll talk.

We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

I get it just fine Gliss.

No, surprisingly he didn't Steven.

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