What is transit data (and a bus ride) worth?

October 28, 2014 at 10:15 pm

TransLink, the regional transportation agency in metro Vancouver, BC, is preparing to roll out its Compass Card program, which is intended to replace a variety of fare payment methods on the region’s trains and buses.

Much like other cities which use fare payment technology by Cubic Transportation Systems, the launch has been beset with difficulties, forcing delay upon delay in the $194 million program. Chicago readers will be familiar with every possible complaint in the Ventra program, which is operated by the same company. My own experience with Ventra was fairly positive, but I encountered many times when the card would not scan, took too long to process (leading to delays), or over-charged for a trip. There are also other complaints: the $5 card fee makes it more difficult for social service organizations to assist low-income residents, the $0.75 fare increase for a single ride ticket, and so on.

Compass card readers have been added to all doors on buses.

Compass card readers have been added to all doors on buses.

Compass promised to be even more difficult, requiring users to tap their card when getting on and off of a transit vehicle. This is not as cumbersome when travelling via rail, which tends to cover longer distances, but it is definitely problematic on buses, where egress is sort of like stepping off the vehicle and the station at the same time. There are no turnstiles to pass through or agents to help with any issues with the card. But TransLink would require tapping-off because some of Vancouver’s buses run across fare zone boundaries.

Vancouver regional zone map. Source: TransLink.

I can think of a handful of buses that pass through more than one fare zone, but I personally don’t find it fair that TransLink requires passengers to pay for multiple zones on bus trips. Another city that uses a vast and complex zone-based fare system, London, charges a flat £1.45 for all bus journeys regardless of length or the number of zones traversed. Not only does this eliminate requiring passengers to tap-out, but it is also more fair considering that journeys by bus are, in my Vancouver experience, more prone to getting stuck in traffic and much slower than rail travel.

Gordon Price wrote in August that TransLink should rethink requiring bus passengers to tap-out because it would need to become a habit over time; people would forget to tap-out and be charged a three-zone fare ($5.50) even if they travelled only one ($2.75) or two zones ($4.00) (I’m not sure if the software is sophisticated enough to know, for example, that a passenger on the 99, a bus that travels exclusively in zone 1, could not possibly have passengers travelling between two zones, and therefore only ever charge a one-zone fare even if a passenger forgot to tap-off).

The 99 B-Line between Commercial/Broadway and UBC is the busiest bus route in Canada or the U.S., and permits passengers to get on at all doors to speed boarding. Image via Metro File/Jennifer Gauthier.

If Cubic’s customer service in Canada is anything like the customer service I’ve dealt with in Chicago, this would lead to intense backlash and public criticism, especially when the transit-riding public already complains profusely about rare 10-15 minute train delays. In many North American cities, such delays are called “the morning.”

Tonight, the Vancouver Sun reports that TransLink will likely get rid of the tap-out component for bus riders. The process of tapping the card to pay a fare takes a lot longer than anticipated, leading to delays and frustration among riders. It may also require TransLink to create a single fare for all bus rides, retaining the multi-zone fares for train trips only.

While the customer service aspect of potentially overcharging tens of thousands of passengers and undermining the public’s trust in a transit agency is unquestionably important, I am more interested in why: A) the provincial government believes fare evasion, estimated at $5-7 million per year, is worth the $12 million TransLink will now pay Cubic yearly to operate the system, and B) TransLink believes the rich journey data that can be gathered from requiring tap-on/off is worth the added expense – in dollars and in passenger happiness.

Fare gates at SkyTrain stations have been installed, but remain perpetually open for the time being. Image via CityHallWatch.

I love data analysis and while I’m guessing the sort of detailed journey data TransLink could collect would not be public, it could still use the data to make better-informed decisions in planning transportation services. But there are already other ways of obtaining more estimated data on the number of boardings, the actual length of a bus journey, whether the bus was too full to pick up passengers, and so on that enable TransLink to make decisions without inconveniencing passengers. After all, several other cities around the world provide decent public transportation service without this sort of finely-detailed information, and Vancouver is no exception. While there are certainly public transportation issues to be worked out across the region, I’m not sure if the data from Compass would be very helpful (although I’d love to be educated on what sort of data would be the most helpful).

Regardless of whether or not TransLink ditches the tap-off requirement for buses, I still believe the Compass card system will be better than what exists today: non-reusable single-ride tickets that must be purchased in books of ten in stores, monthly passes that must also be purchased in stores, U-Pass tickets that must be exchanged monthly, and so on. One card to replace monthly passes, and introducing stored value, is a lot easier in the long run even if the change period is rough (just ask a Chicagoan). However, to avoid complicating what has otherwise proven to be an easy way to pay fares, TransLink should ditch the tap-off requirement and move to a one-price fare for bus journeys.