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TransLink 101: What’s the deal with fare zones?

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For February 2013, we’re going back to basics with TransLink 101—a series explaining TransLink and its work!

translink metrotown graeme brown

Graeme Brown, TransLink planner, at Metrotown Station!

Have you ever wondered why we have fare zones on our transit system? As part of our February TransLink 101 series, Graeme Brown, TransLink planner extraordinaire, helped us shed some light on what fare zones are, why we have them and what they could look like in the future!

But first, here’s a bit about Graeme:

  • He has been working for TransLink since 2005.
  • He started as a Planning Assistant, primarily in bicycle planning.
  • His favorite part of his job as a Planner is hashing out complex problems through discussion, friendly debate, and lots of whiteboard sketching!
  • He knows a lot about fare zones and shared his insights below…

What is a fare zone?

Current 2013 fare zone map

Current 2013 fare zone map

The idea behind fare zones is to charge people according to the distance that they travel. Shorter trips are less expensive to serve because they require less fuel, less operator time, and other resources. So in order to make the price reflect the cost of service provision, they are priced lower than longer trips. By pricing transportation according to the distance travelled, the idea is to ultimately encourage people to make smart travel and locational decisions.

So, fare zones help determine the price paid by transit riders for their trips. Typically, customers are charged according to the number of fare zone boundaries they cross during a trip, i.e. more crossings equals higher fares.

In Metro Vancouver, three fare zones that encompass all the cities in our region. The boundary for zone 1 traces the border of the City of Vancouver, and the boundary between zones 2 and 3 run along the outlines of the cities of Richmond, New Westminster, Burnaby, and the North Shore.

Who else has fare zones?

Lots of other public transportation companies around the world have fare zones. To list a few:

Around the world, some systems have a large number of small zones (for example Metlink in Wellington, New Zealand, and Copenhagen Metro in Denmark), while other systems have a ‘flat fare’ system, with no zones at all (like in many small communities in BC).

In some large cities, there may be different transit operators in the various communities, and transferring between these services is not always free. In such cases, the service area boundaries act like zone boundaries, so even if each operator has a flat fare system, customers may be charged more for longer trips.

When are fare zones in effect?

In some systems, fare zone boundaries are in effect at all times, while in Metro Vancouver, fare zones are only in effect weekdays from the start of service until 6:30 PM. Weekdays past 6:30 PM and on weekends and holidays, one-zone prices apply across the region.

Where did fare zones in Metro Vancouver come from?

The complicated set of fare zones from 1958! Click the picture for a much larger version.

The complicated set of fare zones from 1958! Click the picture for a much larger version.

TransLink’s existing fare zone structure has been relatively unchanged since 1984. During that time, the size of the service area has increased (by about 40%!), to include municipalities to the east, and travel patterns have changed significantly.

But looking back through old Buzzers, it’s clear that fare zones have long been a feature of Lower Mainland transit travel! Here’s a taste:

  • This 1984 Buzzer heralds the launch of the new fare zones, a return to the system “similar to the one in 1976.”
  • This 1976 Buzzer presents a new fare structure, announcing only two major zones instead of the previous 11!
  • Here’s a 1964 Buzzer announcing the creation of four zones: the Western, Eastern, Northern, and Southern zones.
  • This 1958 Buzzer outlines a seriously complicated fare zone system involving 4 zones and “Richmond East” and “Richmond West” sections.
  • This 1954 Buzzer shows fare increases and how they relate to different zones.
  • This 1952 Buzzer has a small map of the Burnaby and New Westminster fare zones.
  • And this 1950 Buzzer demonstrates the introduction of transfers and includes some references to the zone system of the time.

What does the future of fare zones look like?

In the next few years, TransLink plans to conduct a comprehensive fare policy review. Among other aspects of fare policy, the review will consider revisions to the distance component of the fare structure. It will explore options such as:

  • Changes to the zone boundaries.
  • The addition of more zones.
  • True ‘distance-based’ pricing, where customers are charged according to the actual distance of their trip rather than the number of boundaries they cross. Cities like Tokyo have already implemented a distance-based fare structure: Tokyo Metro.

Comments and questions?

We hope you found this post informative! Again, this is part of our special TransLink 101 series. If you have any questions, please share them in the comments!


19 Comments

  • By Braden, February 28, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

    I hope you just get rid of the fare zones and use the compass card technology to charge people for the exact distance they travel. That would actually make sense, whereas with the current system, there are things that don’t make any sense, e.g. a long skytrain trip from Waterfront to Marine Drive is cheaper than travelling one stop from Marine Drive to Bridgeport.

  • By Cliff, February 28, 2013 @ 1:35 pm

    The fare system has been flawed for quite some time now. I shouldn’t have to pay for two zones to go to Lougheed Town Centre from Coquitlam via Braid Station. The alternative is a winding tour of the city or a transfer that requires me to wait an excessive amount of time at Lougheed and Brunette.

    It’s actually cheaper and far more convenient to drive compared to transit out here or at least to park in a residential neighbourhood around a SkyTrain station. It’s not until Vancouver proper or along the SkyTrain where using transit is both feasible in value and convenience.

    While distance based fares would arguably provide better absolute value over the current system when it comes to short trips, this doesn’t take into account the value of people’s time. Transit service becomes outright inconvenient the further out you go. Why wait an hour to save a dollar? My time and most everyone else’s is certainly worth more than that. This is the problem we have under the current system and something that won’t change under a system that could make transit cheaper locally out here. A distance based fare also has the capability to make things worse for residents here as going to Vancouver is one of the longest typical trips done on the system.

    If a distance based fare is to be instituted, it must be done carefully to not disenfranchise the existing few users the suburbs have. Distance based fares need to be able to compete against owning a vehicle. Why pay more to spend more time to use transit?

  • By Cliff, February 28, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

    Fare zone 1 actually encompasses one additional ‘entity’: The University Endowment Lands. Although we all tend to think of it as being part of Vancouver, it’s actually a separate unincorporated jurisdiction jointly managed by the province and UBC. Policing there is even handled by the RCMP and not VPD.

    Ah, what do you expect? We’re sticklers for details here. :p

  • By Graham, February 28, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

    What confuses me still is why North Van/West Van and that area is a two-zone price. Given the reasonable proximity between it and downtown Vancouver, It seems illogical for a 15 minute SeaBus ride to cost so much (especially for some people I know who are low-income but need to make the trip frequently between the two.)

  • By Kyle, February 28, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

    In Copenhagen, the fare structure is more and smaller zones, but you can travel through multiple zones. This is how it would look like in vancouver: http://urbanowism.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/a-look-at-metro-vancouvers-fare-structure/

  • By Eugene Wong, February 28, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

    Distance based fares are extremely unfair, and make no sense.

    Let’s put computer activated locks on everybody’s doors, and only unlock some every minute, and the rest can unlock every 1 hour. Yours will unlock every hour, and you will pay the same price.

    That’s the way that transit is. The distance is a penalty for some, and it makes no sense that they pay by the distance. If the service costs more, then pay more, but distance is such a small cost.

  • By Eugene Wong, February 28, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

    By the way, Lougheed, Braid, and Saperton should be both Zone 2 and 3. I was very surprised to discover that.

  • By Sheba, February 28, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

    For the short term I’d like to see zones 1 and 2 combined – it would make far more sense.

    I’d also like to see the old rush hour times in effect, weekdays from start of service until 9:30am and then from 3:00 – 6:30pm. One of the easiest ways to convince people to change their schedule away from riding during the rush hour crush is to make mid-day riding cheaper.

  • By Cliff, February 28, 2013 @ 11:20 pm

    @Euegene

    I know, right? I was even thinking they could install a zone 3 only machine at Braid and Lougheed Stations. And it wouldn’t even be needed with the sheer number of buses available at those stations to sell you a zone 3 ticket.

    And let’s face it, there’s lots of people already doing it without paying, so there’s nothing to be lost by changing it. It’s even making people traverse the incredibly unsafe Brunette overpass so they can avoid paying for two zones.

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano - Buzzer Editor, March 1, 2013 @ 7:30 am

    Hey Eugene – where did you see “Lougheed, Braid, and Saperton should be both Zone 2 and 3″? I know Wikipedia had some errors on the zone listings along those lines—but they’re all actually located in zone 2.

  • By Eugene Wong, March 1, 2013 @ 10:02 am

    @Jhenifer

    Really?? I thought that I read it on Translink’s site. I guess that I am wrong. I just remember thinking, “Wow. I can’t believe that I have been doing it wrong for so long.”. Maybe I discovered that Lougheed’s bus exchange and the bus stops north of it were 2/3, and then maybe my memory changed over time. I’ll let you know if I find it.

    Thanks for the clarification!

  • By Eugene Wong, March 1, 2013 @ 10:07 am

    @ All

    I just read a bit by Jarrett Walker about cities funding transit, that might be useful for us.

    “…as long as the transit agency sets a price for an unlimited ride pass — with appropriate discounts for bulk purchasers — anyone can buy those passes for anyone. Universities can buy them for their students, companies for their employees, and as in Tallinn, cities can even buy them for their citizens. Any other entity can also buy them for any group of people it cares about, yielding possibilities that we can barely envision now.

    Is this realistic in an age of austerity? It depends on what the alternatives are. The alternatives may include building wildly expensive parking, or losing out in a competition for the best people.”

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano - Buzzer Editor, March 1, 2013 @ 11:43 am

    Eugene: A clarification! I’ve done a little digging now and it seems that Lougheed’s bus loop (and the area on North Road above it) has some exceptions because it’s right on the border between Coquitlam and Burnaby. So it is zone 2/3, or what’s called a “common zone!”

  • By Cliff, March 1, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

    For practical purposes, the Lougheed Station SkyTrain platform is zone 2 only (although, I suppose if you’re using it as an overhead walkway, then a zone 3 fare should technically be fine).

    The fare boundary traces the Brunette River, but was redrawn to emphasize that the SkyTrain does not require zone 3 fare between Braid and Lougheed. The funny thing is that Braid Station is physically closer to the fare boundary than two other bus loops that have this exception. Distance wise, Kootenay Loop and Lougheed Station are both further from the nearby zone boundary than Braid Station is. Go figure.

    North Road from the Brunette River to Clarke Road is zone 2/3. You can go to Vancouver with only a two zone fare along this corridor and drivers can issue single zone tickets for either zone. If you board a bus here, you must check and make sure the ticket you’re issued is for the zone you want to be travelling in.

    The nature of the zoning system we have not also leads to another curious issue. The 160, one of two remaining suburban express routes, is able to dispense every possible combination of ticket (except 1 zone Vancouver tickets) depending on where it’s boarded and where the passenger is going. And in the past, when it made a pickup at Kootenay, it also issued zone one tickets as well. I wonder how a new fare structure will impact a route that has such a long distance to travel and specific stopping procedures like the 160.

    Then there’s also the issue of West Coast Express, Bowen Island, and Handy Dart, which all use fare structures different from the standard 3 zone system we have now. Not to mention the matter of Fraser Valley transit tickets being used to buy add on fares for the West Coast Express, not to mention the impending connections between TransLink and BC Transit; they already have a connector to Aldergrove! How will day passes be affected? Are they currently valid after midnight during X time but before end of service?

    Our system is needlessly complicated and a lot of work is needed to sort all this out. I wonder what the end result will be.

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano - Buzzer Editor, March 1, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

    Eugene, Cliff: Just wanted to add the “common zone” info is indeed on the TL website, as part of the Fare Zone Map page. http://www.translink.ca/en/Fares-and-Passes/Fare-Zone-Map.aspx

  • By Cliff, March 1, 2013 @ 3:47 pm

    The common zone concept is but another example of the complicated structure we have (though necessary given the circumstances). I was surprised to read the lengthy list of exceptions for the 28 route! And travel to North Vancouver still requires the purchase of a two zone fare because of the two stops located on Hastings and on Cassiar. So, in reality, the north shore’s zone is functionally distinct from Burnaby’s and Richmond’s.

    Zone 3 used to be this way, but with the introduction of the 595, travel between Coquitlam/Maple Ridge and Delta/Surrey/Langley is possible without paying two zones. (Possible, I didn’t say easy!) And it’s still not possible with the 555 because its one and only stop located north of the river is located in zone 2 at Braid Station, thus requiring two zone fare, even if the end destination is Coquitlam! This should technically change if and when the 555 is rerouted to Lougheed Station.

    Oh, the common zone info on the website is a little off. The stop located just north of the Brunette River at the 200 block of North Road is zone 2/3. The website says the zone 2/3 section begins at the Highway 1 overpass.

    According to the description for Annacis Island, functionally, a one zone fare purchased there is no different than a two zone ticket purchased in zone 3. The system there sounds complicated for the driver as they would have to manually change the farebox’s zone setting whenever someone wanted a specific zoned ticket.

    Then there’s the little known ‘free-zone’ on the Canada Line between Templeton and YVR! (Very useful if you want to avoid paying for parking at the airport. Just park on Miller at Templeton and ride the SkyTrain in.) Ride just a single station east to Bridgeport and it’s $7.50, more if you’re going to Vancouver.

    It’s currently one big giant logic puzzle that really makes you cock your head when you look at it in detail.

  • By Sheba, March 1, 2013 @ 5:37 pm

    I’ve known about the “little known ‘free zone’” by the airport.

    I remember right around when Canada Line opened I looked online for a friend who thought that everyone who rode to and from the airport would have to pay the added fee (which of course turned out not to be the case). That was when I learned that if you’re staying on the ‘airport island’ that you could ride for free.

  • By Dan, March 7, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    Interesting: When I previously expressed concerns that the Compass Card was likely to lead to Tokyo-style pricing, I was told a couple times this was totally, absolutely not on the radar. (“Oh no! This is absolutely just about efficiency in paying, and tracking usage. We are certainly not changing the fare structure.”) So much for that, it seems. As a former Tokyo resident who has also been to many other distance-pricing cities, my suspicion is that in a few years it will cost the current one-zone fare to travel one or two stops on the skytrain, three or four stations will be an extra fifty or seventy-five cents, and so on up with similar arrangements for the buses. In other words, all but the very shortest trips will cost more than they do now other than where you currently have to cross a fare zone boundary to go just one or two stops.

    Well, hopefully I am wrong, but somehow I doubt it. Certainly, again, the fact that what was previously denied is now being mooted is concerning.

  • By Eric B, March 13, 2013 @ 10:33 pm

    Why does the Braid Station bus loop have fare zone info on top of each of the bus stops? Was it conceivably designed to be a 2/3 common zone?

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