In a city like Vancouver, which boasts the 7th highest gas prices in North America and one of highest costs of living in the world, a good public transportation system is vital. That’s why Translink has invested so heavily into the Canada Line, new buses, and a host of other improvements.
Theres just one problem: making all of that money back. Despite Translink’s $1.4 billion dollar budget, the company struggles to break even, largely because a lot of people don’t actually pay. It’s estimated that only a tenth of Skytrain and Canada Line riders actually pony up for their fare. As for buses, take the 99 B-Line sometime and watch how many people go through the back door. How many of them do you think actually have passes?
It’s not that all Vancouverites are naturally stingy. Translink’s fare prices were recently raised, and will be climbing even higher within a year or so. A lot of riders don’t feel the price is fair, and choose not to pay. Translink hasn’t done much lot to combat these problems. There’s hardly any security at most Skytrain and Canada Line stations. You don’t even have to jump a turnstile, à la NYC.
There are also structural issues, largely caused by the fact that Vancouver is a really, really annoying city to provide transit for. There are massive suburban areas, bridges, chokepoints, heavily alternating ridership rates, and, outside of the city’s core and a few other regions, relatively low population density, which means you have less people riding to go a farther distance. That adds up to more expenses and less income. TransLink tries to make this back with multi-zone fares, which means that if you are travelling in more than one ‘zone’, you have to pay an extra $1.25 (a dollar for concession passes). But what does this mean if you only live a few blocks out of a given zone, or get confused as to what the zones are? Even current mayor Gregor Robertson was hit with a whopping $173 fine for mistakenly travelling in two zones on a one zone pass back in 2007.
Plan B: The Compass Pass
So, how does Translink intend to pay off their losses? By completely renovating their payment system with the “Compass Pass.” In late 2013, Translink intends to replace all of its existing passes with the Compass Card, an electronic card that can be swiped every time you enter or exit a bus, skytrain, or other transit vehicle. That means no more tickets; you just swipe, get in, swipe, get off. The card, which can be pre-paid with any existing pass or just loaded up with cash, will automatically be charged based on where you get on and get off.
The card saves money because it helps Translink set up stricter payment methods, makes the system more efficient, and makes loading passes a lot easier. Furthermore, the cards are cheap, chic, easy to carry, and not something most people would lose. Similar programs have already been launched in San Diego, and more recently in London’s Tube system, where it has been met with huge success. Translink says that the pass will simplify the system, save costs, and let them protect people’s purchases better- each card can have its information protected by Translink if lost.
However, there are some major concerns about the card. Namely, how easy it would be to duplicate, hack, or modify them and then sell them for profit. Translink already sees a huge profit cut (up to $15 million) from false U-Passes, which almost caused it to shut down its U-Pass program back in 2011. With the Compass Pass, it’s expected that similar frauds will start to happen in even greater frequencies.
Theres also the massive factor of human error that you have to account for in, well, any electronic device. What if someone forgets to swipe when leaving the bus, or doesn’t understand the system? The result is a whopping $3.75 3-zone ticket fine, even if you were just riding for a couple of minutes. And what happens if a scanner breaks? How can it process the charge properly? What if there was a fire or sudden data destruction? Electronics could bring just as many problems as the current passes.
Its not clear how exactly Transit intends to introduce it, either. They are currently in the process of having beta testers use it on their buses, but depending on how those trials go, we could see gradual integration or have the entire system revamped in a week or less. Translink definitely needs to find some way to cut down its expenses and put its books back in the black; it’s just not clear if Compass cards are the way to do it.