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It’s time to talk about transit fares

Regular blog readers have been asking about this for years and we’re super excited to announce we’re looking at our transit fares again!

Over the years, the transit system in Metro Vancouver has grown into a diverse and expansive network that now provides nearly one million rides every day. But since 1984, one thing hasn’t changed much.

With the rollout of Compass, we now have new tools to create a fare system that provides a better customer experience.

What do you like about the current fare system? What would you change? As part of the first of four phases in the TransLink Transit Fare review, we want to hear what’s important to you.

As you know, our current fare system is made up of six core components that determine how much you pay to use transit in Metro Vancouver.

In the Fare Review, everything is on table — don’t take anything for granted and get ready to share your opinions.

Take the survey between May 24 and June 30, 2016 at translink.ca/farereview [1] and have your say on how to improve the transit fare system.

History of Fare Systems

As noted in our 125 Years of Transit [2] series, Vancouver’s first public transit vehicle was an electric streetcar that rolled down Main Street for the first time in 1890. Soon, it was transporting Vancouver’s early residents and visitors along nine kilometres of track throughout the city. A few months later, an expansion line was opened to New Westminster.

From its earliest days, public transit in Metro Vancouver has focused on crossing municipal boundaries to connect the region. After nearly 100 years of experimenting with zones and boundaries, in 1984 a three-zone fare structure similar to the one we have today was created. From one flat fare for all trips to over 100 fares to choose from, our transit system has tried it all.

1958: 100 Fare options

1958: An 11- zone system is introduced with 100 different fare options based on where your trip starts and ends [3]

1958: An 11- zone system is introduced with 100 different fare options based on where your trip starts and ends

In 1958, the transit system covered a much smaller area than it does today. Transit service was available in only Vancouver, North Vancouver, Richmond, Burnaby, New Westminster, and a small section of Coquitlam. This area was divided into 11 fare zones that combined in different ways to offer over 100 distinct fare options.

The price of a fare in 1958 was based on both the start and end points of a trip and the amount of distance between those two points.

In general, the price increased with the number of zones crossed. The price of a fare was related to the amount of distance travelled, but other factors also came into play.

Direction mattered. The trip leaving home could cost more than the return trip because of the direction of each trip, and zone boundaries were inconsistent.

Vancouver, for example, was a single zone while Burnaby was divided into two zones. Travel that took place within only one zone varied based on which zone it was. Transfers were based on geography, so transit riders were required to pay an additional fare if they decided to take a different route, travel extra distance, or when they wanted to return home.

Looking at the 1958 fare map today, one thing is immediately clear: it is complicated! Nothing about this system is simple to use or understand.

The fare structure in 1958 was intended to be fair. It is a good example of a system that captures the user-pay principle: everyone pays according to what they use. Fare prices increased with the number of zones crossed so that fare prices were tied to distance travelled. The high degree of detail that makes this system so complicated also makes it very precise.

The good intentions of this system were buried beneath layers of complication that may have negatively impacted efficiency. A complicated system can increase the time needed for each rider to identify and pay for the right fare, which would slows things down for everyone when this happens at the front of a bus. The lack of flexibility in the way fares were structured meant that riders who changed their minds or purchased the wrong fare would need to purchase another one to correct the mistake.

1965: Two Fare Options

1965: A 4-zone system is introduced with only 2 fare options: valid for a single zone or the entire area [4]

1965: A 4-zone system is introduced with only 2 fare options: valid for a single zone or the entire area

It may come as no surprise that after seven years with a fare system as highly complicated as the one from 1958, the next fair system introduced made one big change: it was simpler.

In 1965 a new and simpler fare system was introduced. The 11 zones that had existed were redrawn to four, and transit riders could purchase one of only two fares available: a Single Zone Fare, which allowed for travel within one zone, or an Area Fare, which allowed for travel that crossed any number of zone boundaries. Changes were also made to make transit more affordable for students by expanding the student discount.

This option was much more simple to use and understand than the previous system. However, some felt this simplicity came at the cost of fairness. For example, someone who wanted to travel a short distance that crossed a zone boundary was required to purchase an Area Fare for the same price as someone else who took a long trip that covered a greater distance and crossed multiple zones.

1976: The Common Area

1976: A Common Area is introduced for short trips that cross a zone boundary [5]

1976: A Common Area is introduced for short trips that cross a zone boundary

In 1976, a new fare system introduced a solution to those short trips that crossed a zone boundary were charged the same fare as a long trip that travelled through multiple zones.

This new fare system divided the region into just two zones: Zone A and Zone B. Between Zones A and B was a Common Area, which was tacked on as an extension of the zone where each trip started.

For a trip to be charged a two-zone fare, it would have to start in one zone, cross through the Common Area, and end in the other zone. This was an attempt to make the zone boundaries less rigid. However, as the next example illustrates, decreasing the total number of zones can often mean that those who travel the shortest distances pay the most for what they receive.

1981: One Flat Fare

In 1981, a new system was introduced that eliminated fare zones and charged just one Flat Fare for travel anywhere on the system. Discounts remained for children, students, and seniors. Ninety-minute transfers were introduced to allow for adequate time to complete a trip on the transit system that now covered more area than ever before. For frequent users of the system, such as commuters, a new monthly pass was offered. The pass was priced at the equivalent of 40 trips per month, equal to 2 trips per day, Monday to Friday.

A Flat Fare system is one of the simplest forms of transit fares. With the exception of a few types of riders who receive discounts (students, children, and seniors), everyone pays the same fare regardless of the distance or direction travelled. The monthly pass made things even simpler for frequent users by providing an option to pay just once per month. This was the simplest fare system Metro Vancouver has ever seen.

Some felt that the simplicity of that Flat Fare came at the cost of fairness. When only one fare price exists for transit, the price set is an average price. As a result, transit riders taking shorter trips end up subsidizing those longer trips taken by other riders.

1984: 3-Zones+

1984: A 3-zone system is introduced (a simplified version of which we still use today!) [6]

1984: A 3-zone system is introduced (a simplified version of which we still use today!)

In 1984, zones were reintroduced along municipal boundaries. This was intended to address the fairness concerns of the Flat-Fare system of 1981 and linked prices more closely to distance travelled.

These zones were in effect only during Peak Hours, those times of the day when transit is the busiest. To increase efficiency, an off-peak discount was introduced in the early morning, middle of the day, and late evenings, to encourage flexible transit riders to take trips at less busy times of the day when each additional passenger costs the system less.

Today: 3-Zones

Our current system we're all familiar with. [7]

Our current system we’re all familiar with.

Today’s fare system is a simplified version of the 3-zone fare structure introduced in 1984. Zones 2A, 2B, and 2C were combined into Zone 2, a change that also took place by combining Zones 3A and 3B into Zone 3. This made the system less complicated, easier to understand and helps transit riders predict their fare price in advance. The mid-day discount was also eliminated in 1997. With the exception of these two changes, the system remains largely the same. Based on our discussions of trade-offs gleaned from historical examples, where do you think this system excels and where could it improve?

The transit system in Metro Vancouver in 1984 was essentially a network of buses and the SeaBus. Skytrain was two years away from completion and the West Coast Express and Canada Line were still far-off dreams. The system has grown, but the 3-zone fare structure has remained the same. Does this structure work for travelling on our system today? Or is it time to take a fresh look at how we determine transit fares? What change should we consider to improve the customer experience, make transit more efficient and help increase transit ridership?

Author: Sarah Kertcher/Robert Willis/Tabrina Clelland (History of Fare System)