No credit for TransLink – 4: Rising efficiency

No credit for TransLink – 4: Rising efficiency

No Credit for TransLink - A blog series on darylvsworld.wordpress.com. Original photo: CC BY-SA Lisa Parker, flickr

TransLink has released the 2013 year-end financial & performance report, and the numbers in terms of TransLink’s financial situation are looking pretty tasty.

In spite of wide, dubious claims of “taxpayer waste” and awards that were given based on such claims, TransLink managed a surplus last year of almost $50 million, helping restore a reserve fund that has been largely dipped into in the past few years in order to maintain service levels. Revenues increased by 1.6% while expenses were reduced by 1.7%. This happened despite some major introductions in 2013 such as the 96 B-Line rapid bus in Surrey.

Here’s one extremely interesting line in the new report:

Operating cost per service hour in 2013 at $143.55 is 6.3 per cent lower than budget.

I reported last year that TransLink’s operating cost efficiency already surpasses Montreal’s and Toronto’s transit systems. It looks like this is getting better.

There was one more interesting line for me, in 24 Hour newspaper’s report on the matter:

In terms of service cuts, Expo and Millennium SkyTrains did have weekend mid-day frequencies reduced by one minute, but that won’t continue, she added.

In 2013, weekend SkyTrain service frequencies shifted from 6 minutes on individual lines and 3 on combined portions (Columbia-Waterfront, Bridgeport-Waterfront) to 7/3.5 minutes. This is something I campaigned against in 2012 (resulting in a presentation to the Regional Mayor’s Council) contending that savings could be offset by decreased revenue as ridership drops with rider discomfort.

And, indeed, riders weren’t enjoying the reduced service. There was little impact to be had on Sunday…. but on Saturday, it was easy to find yourself passed up if a smaller 4-car Mark I train pulled into the station. Strollers and cyclists faced limitations in boarding trains, and it really did “feel like rush hour all day”. I ended up sending numerous complaint forms myself over Saturday SkyTrain overcrowding, probably among many as complaints per 1 million riders went up this year. Thankfully, due to other efficiencies that have been found in the system, this is going to be over soon. Hooray!

An overcrowded platform at VCC-Clark SkyTrain station. SkyTrain service cuts during all off-peak hours were among some of the "efficiency" recommendations in the recent TransLink audits.
An overcrowded platform at VCC-Clark SkyTrain station. SkyTrain service cuts during all off-peak hours were among some of the “efficiency” recommendations in the recent TransLink audits.

The amount of boarded passengers across the regional transit system dropped 2.2% this year. I could contend that reducing SkyTrain weekend frequencies might have had to do with this, but it’s important to remember that there were two fewer business days than 2012 (2012 was a leap year, and Family Day was introduced in 2013). Farebox revenues nevertheless increased, and at 7.3% this appears to be in line with the average fare increase rate (cash fares rose in January for the first time in 5 years); much of this increase was in shifts to prepaid fares (less cash fare payments! yay!), indicating that riders are choosing to commit to more regular transit use.

See also: No Credit for TransLink – 2: Where are the good stats?

Here’s to hoping more media agencies take notice and give TransLink deserved credit for following up with audit demands.

Cost-cutting measures such as optimization of bus routes and new software upgrades for SkyTrain have helped put TransLink in the black, according to its annual report.

TransLink chief financial officer Cathy McLay told 24 hours on Wednesday the transit provider had a surplus of $47.9 million at the end of 2013, an amount that’s been added to its “safety net” totaling $342.7 million.

“We’re particularly proud this year,” she said.

 [READ MORE – 24 Hours Vancouver]

Big savings in 2013

  • Service optimization: $1.5 million
  • Not ordering 66 buses and associated parts: $2 million
  • New park and ride revenue: $100,000
  • Reducing weekend SkyTrain service: $390,000
  • Using community shuttles on low-frequency routes: $411,000

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

No credit for TransLink – 3: Growth investment

No credit for TransLink – 3: Growth investment

No Credit for TransLink - A blog series on darylvsworld.wordpress.com. Original photo: CC BY-SA Lisa Parker, flickr

Introduction

There were a few other people with me in the waiting room at Surrey’s (old) city hall on January 15th. I was waiting to present to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on the missing 156 St Rapid Bus Stop and a few other were sat with me, which compelled me to start a discussion on matters of transit.

This was where I first heard a concern about the expansion and usage of the South Surrey Park and Ride, hearing that the new lot wasn’t being used effectively and also hearing that the new park-n-ride fees had something to do with it. Earlier in the day I had passed this park-n-ride lot on the commute to city hall from my university in Richmond. Looking at the facility from the windows of my 351 bus, I did indeed notice that the newly expanded portion was sitting there largely unused – and this was at 1PM on a Monday, when commuters using the lot had parked there to ride to their jobs.

South Surrey Park and Ride's Expansion Lot. CC-BY; Photo credit: Tay.Freder on Flickr
South Surrey Park and Ride’s Expansion Lot. CC-BY; Photo credit: Tay.Freder on Flickr

So, I’m sure there were a lot of people in Metro Vancouver who raised their eyebrows and turned their heads this week when the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation – an avid and frequent critic of TransLink – awarded TransLink with a “Teddy Award” for wasteful spending over this issue.

TransLink takes a Teddy Award for wasteful spending for building an empty $4.5-million parking lot

BY GORDON MCINTYRE, THE PROVINCE  – FEBRUARY 27, 2014

Like the hospital with no patients in the old British comedy Yes Minister, like the “road to nowhere” in Alaska that leads to a non-existent bridge, TransLink can boast of an expensive tax-funded project that isn’t used, too.

It’s a vacant lot. The problem is, it’s also a parking lot, a lot no one parks in, and it cost $4.5 million to build.

“Aren’t there better ways to spend that money?” Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, asked. “I’ve been here four times during workdays and there has never been a car here.”

(READ MORE – The Province)

Did TransLink sit still? Not at all. And, they were correct in stating that the $4.5 million expansion was funded by the provincial government in its entirety, with TransLink in charge of only the operations and maintenance. I think this was a great defense and really all that they needed to do – but CTF’s Bateman doesn’t believe it. Accusations on TransLink have taken the media and public by storm as media agencies rushed to report on the matter.

Seeing the empty new park-n-ride lot for myself demonstrated to me that the model with which TransLink is approaching park-n-ride users is not currently working, and in this regard the CTF may have a point. However, I also think that they are wrong in two regards: 1. that the expansion of this park-n-ride facility is an impractical and wasteful decision at the end of the day; 2. that TransLink should be chastised for this apparent “waste”. I think that TransLink made a great decision to allow the park-n-ride expansion a priority while the funding was available from the provincial government.

South Surrey Park and Ride's Expansion Lot. CC-BY; Photo credit: Tay.Freder on Flickr
351 buses at Bridgeport Station wait to depart for South Surrey Park & Ride. Photo credit: Flickr – Stephen Rees

So, to introduce the third installment in my “No credit for TransLink” blog series, let me tell you what’s wrong with the CTF’s rationale for the Teddy Award given to TransLink:

Part I: A reality check

I think one of the things that really helps us get the correct picture about issues like these is to get a view of how something began and progressed. To aid readers, I have created a timeline graphic that shows this park & ride issue from start to finish. Pay attention to the dates and ordering of events.

South Surrey Park & Ride Expansion - From then to now

I don’t think anyone realized this, but the park-n-ride expansion itself was announced by the B.C. Government as part of a $60.5 million highway improvement package on October 12, 2012 – an expansion commitment was made after TransLink’s proposal to start charging fees across all parking lots in the region, which was part of the draft 2013 base plan being discussed in September.

This was a sudden announcement by the B.C. Government. The minutes for meetings of Surrey’s Transportation and Infrasructure Committee and other relevant reports that were made approaching the announcement suggest not only that the expansion was not being discussed until about the time it was announced, but also that TransLink was looking to alleviate the overcrowding issue in South Surrey through other means.

Shortfall 1: No communication

While TransLink had been studying the expansion of the park and ride back in 2010, this wasn’t the solution TransLink was looking for in July 2012, just as TransLink was beginning to tow cars out of the park-n-ride in order to deal with its overuse. At the time, TransLink contacted Grace Point Church, a nearby church on 34th Ave and King George Blvd that is served by stops for the same routes that pass through the park-and-ride.

As the Church parking lot is of course largely disused on weekdays, it represented an opportunity to service riding passengers on South Surrey buses. TransLink would have required a temporary use permit and to install revenue machines on the lot to operate it as an extension of South Surrey’s Park & Ride.

Grace Point Church in relation to the Park and Ride
Grace Point Church in relation to the Park and Ride

The plan was to begin negotiating the temporary use permit in the fall, but by then it had been made unnecessary with the provincial government’s announcement of a park and ride expansnion, as part of a highway improvement project that would have also added many interchanges to the area.

Any solution would have appeased many residents in the area and Surrey’s Citizen’s Transportation Initiative (CiTI), who had been advocating for a solution to address park-n-ride overcrowding. However, CiTI did not specify that it had to be an expansion of this lot – rather suggesting that new park and rides were necessary.

What this showcases is that the direct expansion of the park-n-ride really wasn’t in the interests of TransLink or any stakeholders at all. There appears to have been no communication with TransLink on whether other solutions were possible, no consultation with the public, and no prior communication with the City of Surrey. Mention of the park-n-ride’s $4.5 million expansion did not show up in the city’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee discussions and minutes until October 15 – 3 days after the province’s announcement.

Shortfall 2: Surrey’s failed anticipation and action

Expanded South Surrey park-and-ride lot loses patrons after $2 fee added

BY KELLY SINOSKI, VANCOUVER SUN  – JANUARY 15, 2014

Surrey city officials are poised to impose parking restrictions around the South Surrey park-and-ride lot, following complaints that drivers are clogging local streets to avoid a $2 parking fee at the lot.

Coun. Tom Gill said the issue will likely be raised at the transportation and infrastructure committee Monday and will probably involve posting ‘no parking’ signs around the area.

The city has shied away from Vancouver’s practice of having permit-only residential areas, he said, and likely won’t adopt that here.

“We are looking at a new strategy,” Gill said. “I would suggest we’re going to be forced to look at some sort of parking restrictions on the side streets given the demand.”

[READ MORE]

The issue of the park and ride’s underutilization was paralleled by resident complains that local streets near King George Blvd were being used as free “park and ride” spots, a major shortfall that had not been anticipated by the City of Surrey. As reported by the Sun’s Kelly Sinoski, Councillor Tom Gill suggested that the issue woud be raised at the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting during which I was in attendance.

This didn’t happen. Meaning, this issue for now remains unresolved.

In conclusion, we’re pointing the blame finger in the wrong direction.

The park-and-ride fees were put into place at about the same time the park-and-ride expansion opened – but this had little to do with the underutilization of the new parking lot. The fees were actually in place over a week before the expansion opened and the decision making process that resulted in the fees neither had to do with the expansion, nor did it target that park-and-ride exclusively.The CTF’s Teddy Award also completely fails to consider municipal-level issues that have not yet been solved.

It’s clear that TransLink had no responsibility in the current situation facing South Surrey commuters, and the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation does not have a suitable rationale for giving TransLink a “Teddy Award” for taxpayer waste over this situation. The Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation should revoke this award, apologize to TransLink, and make a statement to the public about its mistake.

The Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation should revoke the municipal Teddy award given to TransLink, apologize to TransLink, make a statement to the public about its mistake, and reassess its criteria for future Teddy Awards ceremonies. (darylvsworld.wordpress.com)

Part II: Bad coincidence, or growth investment?

I don’t think that it’s viable to see this as a waste of taxpayer’s money, and there are good reasons for this. At the end of the day, there are two ways in which you can properly view the decision to expand the South Surrey Park & Ride while charging fees on it.

Morgan Crossing: Original image posted on Metro 604

This is a picture of Morgan Crossing. It is the built-out centerpiece of Surrey’s Grandview Heights NCP (new community plan) and features a center where residents of the area can access retail and services. Accompanying this centre is a set of medium-density apartments: the center is largely built as mixed-use development, with shops at street level and condominiums up above it. There’s a lot of population in this newly developed area of South Surrey.

Grandview Heights Map

This is a picture showing the extent of the city’s Grandview Heights NCP.

Grandview from the sky, May 2013 - Google Earth

And this is a picture showing how much of it is actually built. (Google Earth – May 2013 image)

As I was mentioning, you can see the expansion of this park-and-ride and implementation of parking fees as a bad coincidence. Or, you can see it as a growth investment to accompany one of the largest community build-outs in Metro Vancouver.

I think we should give the decision-makers some credit for anticipating high growth in this area and increased demand for transit, especially as the coming development increases congestion on Highway 99 (that expanded Massey Tunnel or Bridge is at least 10 years out!)

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

No credit for TransLink – 2: Where are the good stats?

No credit for TransLink – 2: Where are the good stats?
No Credit for TransLink - A blog series on darylvsworld.wordpress.com. Original photo: CC BY-SA Lisa Parker, flickr
Aaron Meier (@aaron_meier) – Feb 14

Friend told me that@Translink is more expensive than other cities. Time to remind people of the graphic by @daka_xhttp://goo.gl/NbHnB5

Aaron Meier on Twitter sent out this tweet a couple days ago, referring to a write-up I did last year on TransLink’s transit costs (see: Transit is More Affordable in Vancouver (Infographic)), which looked at what were the fares across the transit systems covering 3 major Canadian cities. Overwhelmingly, I found that TransLink gave you a better deal and could get you further for less, when the zone system and fare payment variables are fully taken into account.

To this day, that article has been one of the most popular on my blog – overshadowed only by write-ups containing even more compelling stats reveals having to do with TransLink that I published last fall (see: Was TransLink Audited Correctly?).

From Infographic: Transit is more affordable in Vancouver
A snippet from Infographic: Transit is more affordable in Vancouver. More infographs and info at [CLICK HERE]
Positive stats like these could be making all the difference in how we perceive our transit system and our transit authority (TransLink), but they aren’t going around in the discussion circles. Instead, our perceptions about TransLink have been more often defined by convoluted stats that those who hold an anti-Translink agenda might twist to suit their wishes.

When I published my first and very popular “No Credit for TransLink” write-up, another regional issues blog – Price Tags, the blogging outlet of the very vocal SFU City program instructor, Gordon Price – was helping me build momentum on the issue at about the same time, having published The TransLink Hate-On: No Credit a few days after my feature focusing on the media’s TransLink treatment. A number of other articles focusing on where TransLink can be positively credited followed up on Price Tags, so I’ve been paying close attention to the site for the last few weeks.

Today, my attention was directed to a new post that came out just today featuring some very important statistical information from Peter Ladner (twitter: @pladner), a person I remember to have written a very good letter denouncing the province’s TransLink referendum proposal (which I was opposed to as well) last fall.

I highly suggest that the rest of you read up on this and enlighten yourselves. I think this is really important information worthy of sharing on at least a few other blogs out there. See below…

Ladner Letter – 1: Is TransLink a success?

February 15, 2014 on Price Tags

I don’t want this to get missed.  Peter Ladner’s comment in the post below:

My letter to the Sun in response:

TransLink’s biggest failure is in selling its remarkable success. It astounds me that your recent article on TransLink, loaded as it was with financial facts and figures, missed the most important question: after all these funding and governance issues, has TransLink been a success?

Since 2006, the shift of trips to transit in Metro Vancouver is unmatched in North America. s number of transit trips per person per year.

We have more than three times as many transit trips per capita as Portland, which is the #2 city in the 2.0-2.6-million population peer group in North America.

Among all cities in North America, Metro Vancouver is third, behind only New York and Toronto with their heavy rail subways, for transit trips per person per year. We’re ahead of Montreal, Boston, and Washington D.C….

[CONTINUED – READ MORE on Price Tags]

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

No credit for TransLink – 1: The Media

No credit for TransLink – 1: The Media

No Credit for TransLink - A blog series on darylvsworld.wordpress.com. Original photo: CC BY-SA Lisa Parker, flickr

So, TransLink.

Everyone hates the name, whips them around, and places insubordinate amounts of blame on them for rather small-scale issues; the PR team gets put through no-win scenario after no-win scenario, and the many of us on the sidelines paying attention to the region’s transit issues are starting to become worried, given this public perception may be key in the face of an already-gloomy looking outcome for a transit expansion referendum later this year. In short, TransLink has become a tarnished brand.

It has seemed for a long time that there are few people, if any, out there who are able to see the good that TransLink does or has in place for us (one example: we in fact collectively pay less up-front at the farebox than other large cities in Canada for our transit); and, many times I’ve pointed out many times how twisting of important data creates that inability. However, there are some instances I have noticed, which are not ensured by any sort of twisted data, that just befuddle me and make me wonder what in the blazes is going on.

An example in particular that’s on my mind right now? The Georgia Straight report by Stephen Hui on the recently announced 2014 TransLink service optimization [CLICK HERE].

The writer makes mention of two important points of service optimization (changes requiring consultation, and changes involving service reduction), but completely fails to point out a number of positive changes that were also listed in the TransLink source page:

Additional Changes

TransLink also plans to make frequency and service improvements along busy corridors across the system. These improvements will be implemented over the course of the year during regularly scheduled service changes in April, June, September and December.

Service Improvements:

  • Fraser Hwy. (Surrey/Langley) (502)
  • Scott Rd. and 72nd Ave. (Delta/Surrey) (319)
  • 410 service in Richmond (Richmond/New Westminster)
  • 41st Ave. (Vancouver/UBC) (41/43)
  • 49th Ave. (Vancouver/UBC/Burnaby) (49)
  • Broadway (Vancouver/UBC) (9/99/14)
  • Hastings St. (Vancouver/SFU) (135)
  • Como Lake (Coquitlam/SFU) (143)
  • Marine Dr. (North Shore) (239)

Notice how the first change on the list suggests that a badly needed service improvement on Surrey’s overcrowded 502 route is the top priority. Such a prospect should have come hand-in-hand with cheers, good feelings, and “finally!” letters to the editor; however, the writer does not give any readers the opportunity to celebrate, simply failing to mention these positive service improvements.

It doesn’t come as a surprise for me, because this won’t be the first time I’ve pointed out the Georgia Straight and its authors for what seems to be a biased, anti-TransLink view. And, assuming I am right about such a motive, it’s a very clever move on their part. The writer approaches the topic with neutrality and objectivity, not spinning the article with any obvious viewpoint, but readers are likely to make up their own spin anyway because they see only neutrals or negatives, and do not see the omitted positives.

It’s not just the Straight, either. I’m sure most of you remember the time last year when the media (especially TV media) converged on TransLink for doing as any other company would by providing coffee to its employees.

So, to the media gurus out there with the competence to possibly provide me with an answer… I’d like to ask you a question.

Why is there such a need for TransLink to be seen by the public as the bad guy?

A stopped TransLink articulated low-floor electric trolley. Photo credit: CC BY-SA Flickr: Atomic Taco
Photo credit: CC BY-SA Flickr: Atomic Taco

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.