REALITY CHECK: Lack of cash-fare SkyTrain transfers does NOT double transit fees

A working compass card reader on a TransLink bus. Photo: CC-BY-NC-ND · Steve ·
A working compass card reader on a TransLink bus. Photo: CC-BY-SA-NC Flickr – · Steve ·

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you may have seen my articles last night on the TransLink bashing as a result of the decision to not accomodate for cash-fare transfers to SkyTrain in the new Compass fare payment system. I though it would be only prudent to correct the large amount of misinformation that’s out there regarding the issue of what has been perceived as “double transit fees”.

Information is fully sourced, and links to sources are added where accuracy may be unclear to readers.

1. This affects every rider who transfers from bus-to-SkyTrain.

False. The limitation affects only riders who pay by cash when obtaining a traditional bus ticket. The TransLink media statement on this issue states that an estimated 6000 riders presently arrange to pay cash when obtaining a bus ticket and use that ticket on the SkyTrain. Other riders use FareSavers or monthly passes (or will use the Compass Card in the future).

2. The lack of bus-to-SkyTrain transfers will always double fees for the estimated 6,000 daily riders affected.

The ‘6000’ number on TransLink’s media statement describes the estimated number of riders who PRESENTLY arrange to pay bus fare by cash fare and then use that ticket transfer onto SkyTrain. This does not mean that there will be 6,000 riders paying double transit fees, or that TransLink stands to gain about $6 million in extra revenue a year as a result as some have said.

No matter whether the number is 6,000 or not, It is likely that many of these people will approach the solution that TransLink has given:

TransLink has stated constantly, including in their official media release, that this only applies for those who pay cash for a traditional bus ticket and then want to ride the SkyTrain. This does not apply to those who have obtained a Compass Card – which the majority of the region is expected to use – to pay fares. Those who use the Compass Card can transfer without double fees, and will also get discounts if they “store value” onto the card (i.e. load money onto the card before boarding transit).

A Compass Card can be obtained for a one-time $6 deposit at many locations, including on-the-spot at Compass vending machines around the metro. This $6 deposit is repaid over time, as fares paid by stored money on the Compass Card are discounted over usual cash fares.

3. Low-income and homeless will be affected by this decision.

Low-income and homeless people who may have trouble obtaining and making regular use of the fare-card transit system would certainly be affected by this if nothing else is changed, as the Compass card does require some level of computer access for those not near a Compass vending machine and also may involve bank transaction fees.

However, there have been proposals to address transit issues for the homeless and low income. TransLink spokespersons have previously (before this issue came up) stated to the media that they are aware of how the introduction of Compass affects low-income individuals, and are working on strategies to address this (The Globe and Mail)

4. This will affect how tourists use the Metro Vancouver transit system.

Commenters have expressed concern about how this affects tourist use of the Metro Vancouver transit system, because it is alleged that tourists would pay more due to the transfers and may be discouraged from using the system.

However, tourists will be able to obtain compass cards or tickets for their use during their stay. This is stated in the Compass Card F.A.Q.: Compass cards or tickets are vended at the 420 new ticket vending machines located at stations and strategic points around the system, including the YVR-Airport Canada Line SkyTrain Station (as with all SkyTrain stations) and at BC Ferries Terminals. These vending machines vend compass cards for adults only, but do vend compass tickets for both adults and children (concession fare) which can be used as day passes.

Websites and resources on Vancouver tourism are likely to update themselves to contain info on how to obtain and use a Compass Card, in the same way as they provide information to a tourist in Tokyo, Japan for obtaining and using a “Suica” or “PASMO” card.

5. The compass card system offers absolutely no flexibility for students and others who have no credit card or online payment methods

Some commenters have been worried that students and those who have no credit card (therefore cannot use Compass) will be restricted to double fees for bus -> SkyTrain trips as a result of this. This is the result of a misinterpretation of how money is spent via Compass. Compass cards have a number of payment options: loading and reloading Compass Cards at:

  • 1 of 420 Compass vending machines (cash, debit, credit)
  • Online (debit/credit/etc)
  • By phone
  • Walk-in centres at Stadium/Chinatown Station, the Metrotown FareDealer office or at the downtown West Coast Express office

Students who do not have a credit card can still use Compass and pay by cash at a Compasss vending machine, if a payment arrangement through a parent or guardian is not possible. Since payment is by preload, a student can arrange to pre-load a significant amount of cash (amounting to single fares, day passes or monthly passes) initially for future use at any time later, and not have to come back to a TVM constantly. Other payment options will not be restricted to credit.

6. The tracking feature of Compass Cards could compromise your personal security.

Some commenters who wish to opt-out of the Compass Card program for reasons of the fact that each card is being tracked by TransLink during use do have reasons to be concerned by the reality of double fees for transfers. However, TransLink has explained on their F.A.Q. page that they cannot track any particular individuals, as no personal information is encoded onto the card. The electronic chip on a compass card carries only a unique card number and the fare product or value stored onto the card. Therefore, it is not possible to compromise your personal security. In other words, you’re anonymous and so is everyone else.

7. This is another TransLink “cash grab”

This was addressed above. The allegations that this is another TransLink “cash grab” move came from the number crunching that lead many to believe that TransLink stands to gain about $6 to $10.5 million in extra revenue per year as a result of double fees (This calculation comes from how much each of the 6,000 daily riders who pay cash fare on the bus and then transfer to SkyTrain pay a year) However, as it was stated, the ‘6000’ number describes the estimated number of riders who PRESENTLY arrange to pay bus fare by coin and then transfer onto SkyTrain – not the amount of people who WILL end up being inconvenienced.

In fact, if all of the estimated 6,000 people presently arranging to use cash-fare SkyTrain transfers were to obtain Compass Cards (therefore avoiding the double fees), TransLink would LOSE significant fare revenue – as each one of those 6,000 people qualifies for potential 15% discounts if they pre-store their fares on their Compass before use.

8. The Compass system could have been configured to get around this from the very start

A few people have claimed that the Compass system could have been configured to get around this from the very start. One commenter on the Georgia Straight comments:

When they ordered the new gate system, they could have specified to the contractor to provide a reader system that was compatible with the existing reader/writer system. It wouldn’t have cost anymore because the old reader system is already in existence and it would have been simply a matter of interfacing with the new gate system.

Another top commenter on the petition page says:

While I understand that upgrading all the buses to hand out Compass-card compatible tickets is cost-prohibitive, how difficult and expensive could it be to equip *one* gate at each station (preferably the handicap gate) with a reader that can take the existing bus transfers?

However, these would come with complications and costs of their own.

Compass equipment is expected to completely replace older equipment in time. The first suggestion suggests using the old technology with fare-gates. However, that would reduce the cost effectiveness of the entire project, because it removes the benefits that are brought by Compass’s particular technologies. Utilizing fare-gates with the traditional system would not allow for cash to be stored in the cards, saving significant paper waste generated by the existing paper passes as they are not reusable (saving paper waste is a significant value of the Compass project). As well, it would exclude the possibilities with NFC (near-field communication) technology; for example, NFC taps could potentially enable smartphones to tap on and off rather than cards; NFC could allow the cards to be used at vending machines and stores, as is done in Tokyo, Japan; and, most importantly, NFC results in the trip tracking that will be a key benefit to Compass in that the tracking of all transit trips ensures that service changes are based of data rather than speculations for the first time. This represents a significant portion of the value of the Compass system, is not possible through the current technology.

The second suggestion would also incur significant extra costs, for several reasons. For one, equipping only one gate would not be possible as tampering with a single gate would remove the alternate option. Secondly, riders exiting the SkyTrain station cannot “tap out” with a traditional fare ticket in the same manner as all other SkyTrain riders carrying NFC-enabled cards or tickets, leaving another issue to address. It would also create complications at the busiest stations as people scramble to find the correct gate to use, and may need to walk across an oncoming crowd to reach that special gate. From a logistics perspective, it’s not ideal.

Other suggestions have pitted having a separate machine at SkyTrain stations to take old paper transfers and exchange them for a Compass-compatible card. However, that would still have a cost: according to TransLink spokesperson Derek Zebel in a recent article on 24 Hrs, installing machines at SkyTrain stations that would take old paper transfers and exchange them for a Compass-compatible card would have cost at least $9 million.

9. The creator and supporters of this petition have legitimate personal reasons to complain and stand to be actually inconvenienced by this.

If there is anything suggested by the response on the petition page and on Twitter, it’s that the supporters of this petition (and its creator) are just doing this to express hate feelings against TransLink, and do not stand to be actually inconvenienced by this.

Think about it – the people who actually stand to be inconvenienced and have legitimate reasons to complain are the low-income and the homeless, but many of these people may not have access to a computer to readily sign this online petition.

10. Anyone stands to lose money or pay fees from this at all.

If everyone made the proper arrangements such as obtaining a compass card, applying for any low-income assistance programs, or arranging to obtain a compass card upon arrival at the airport or ferries as a tourist, no one would pay double transit fees at all. That’s right. No one.


I must state how much I admire TransLink for being able to stand through this without losing control of anyone within its organization, because it seems a lot of people aren’t willing to listen or read up first.

I would like to thank Laila Yuile for assisting me (sort of) in the creation of this. We had a debate on Twitter on the matters that applied to this issue, which gave me incentive to find the information needed to address concerns and, eventually, put this together.

I recommend people who have finished reading to also read two viewpoint articles I have released on this issue:

  1. On how this improves transit on-timeliness region-wide by encouraging the use of Compass Cards and getting people to abandon paying by coins
  2. On how this is yet another example of TransLink being given a no-win scenario, which affects our transit future

And feel free to contact me if I have missed anything.