Free Transit Day on statutory holiday decision a blessing for capacity concerns

Dec 19 2017, 11:24 am

On Tuesday, TransLink announced it would be designating Monday, August 4 as a Free Transit Day to show customer appreciation after a recent cluster of disruptive SkyTrain system failures.

However, the offer fell to a social media furor as the date also coincides with B.C. Day – a statutory holiday when far fewer people need to commute to work and school.

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Many have called TransLink out on its decision to not free transit on a weekday when more of its customers can benefit from the offer.

However, it is not the first time that TransLink has offered a Free Transit Day. Aside from the annual free transit period on New Year’s Eve, there have been at least two other special Free Transit Day bouts since the authority was first established by the B.C. NDP government in 1998.

The most recent Free Transit Day was a semi-free event held nearly five years ago to celebrate the opening of the Canada Line. On Monday, August 17, 2009, the public was invited to use the Canada Line fare-free on its inaugural day of service and it was expected that just 50,000 would ride the line during its opening hours from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Instead, beyond the wildest of expectations, more than 30,000 passengers were recorded in the first three hours alone: the unexpected demand also meant city block long lines outside stations with waits exceeding 2 hours. By closing time at the end of the short eight hour fare-free period, over 82,000 passengers had experienced the novelty.

The other instance of Free Transit Day was in 2001 following a long and painful union strike that spared SkyTrain but completely shut down transit bus and SeaBus services. Provincial legislation ended the strike after it lasted for 123 consecutive days, and TransLink offered three days of free transit service to bring back its loyal riders.

The free transit period began on Tuesday, August 7, the first day transit service resumed. But there were mixed reactions over the three weekdays of fare-free service given the long lines that formed outside SkyTrain stations. Trains were packed and frequently delayed due to various problems revolving around overcrowding, and buses were filled to capacity even during off-peak hours.

Essentially, the entire system fell to a crawl during the first three days transit returned.

This was also during a time when interest and demand for public transit was much lower: Metro Vancouverites were much more dependent on driving their own automobiles even in the early-2000s. Public transit culture did not begin to flourish until the opening of the Canada Line made the entire SkyTrain and bus network much more accessible and efficient to use.

TransLink was unable to provide comment on why it chose a statutory holiday for the upcoming Free Transit Day, but either way history shows it is highly unlikely the already strained and underfunded public transit infrastructure possesses the excess capacity needed to accommodate fare-free weekdays when normal demand is so much higher.

Amidst mounting criticism that TransLink is “cheap” with its decision, which could very well be financially motivated, there is significantly less risk of something going terribly awry again on B.C. Day.

Canada Line fare-free opening day lineups outside Waterfront Station on August 17, 2009.

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Featured Image: Buzzer Blog