Fare enforcement on Metro Vancouver’s public transit buses has been suspended for the past six weeks to allow for a rear door-only boarding policy that has largely discontinued the use of the front door.
The policy was put in place for health safety reasons that reduce bus driver interaction with passengers, effectively promoting physical distancing. There are some exceptions to the rule, specifically those who need the front door’s accessible ramp such as strollers and individuals in wheelchairs.
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But there have been increasing calls for TransLink to resume fare enforcement as a way to narrow its revenue shortfall gap, which is currently at $50 million per month after last week’s significant service cuts and layoffs — down from $75 million per month.
During last week’s virtual Mayors’ Council meeting, Geoff Cross, vice-president of transportation planning and policy at TransLink, said the portion of the revenue gap as a result of free bus rides is not as large as some people might think.
He said many bus riders are still paying for their fares at some point along their multi-modal journey, as they are also using services like SkyTrain and SeaBus where fare enforcement is still in practice.
Others already have a monthly pass or the provincial government’s subsidized annual BC Pass for the elderly and individuals with disabilities.
He also suggested many of the remaining 75,000 people who still use public transit every day were already regular riders prior to the pandemic. Based on a recent TransLink survey, eight in 10 of these riders are making essential trips, four in 10 are essential workers, and one in 10 are current users who do not have any options to get to and from work.
With these considerations, and given that bus ridership is currently under 20% of normal levels, the impact from reinstating fares on buses is low.
The far larger fiscal problem when it comes to buses likely relates to the altered operational measures to allow for onboard physical distancing. “Full” buses are running almost empty with the currently permissible bus capacities — 50% seating capacity and a ban on standing capacity. Operating costs are exceptionally high due to this physical distancing capacity and the need to run more buses to make up for the lost capacity and reduce pass-ups.
But with some form of physical distancing expected to continue through 2021, until a vaccine for COVID-19 is ready, free fares on the bus system is not a practical long-term solution during the pandemic and recovery phase.
TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond says Coast Mountain Bus Company is working with the labour union and keeping its eyes on other public transit systems around the world for the best practices of safely allowing front door operations and the reinstatement of fare collection.
“We’re looking at what tools we could put in place to basically reopen the front door of the bus, and that allows us at that point to resume fare collections on the bus,” he said.
“The key is to make sure we protect the health and safety of our bus operators, and that is a key concern of ours and the labour union.”
Early on in the crisis, TransLink increased the pace of the installation of bus driver shields as a health safety measure that helps protect drivers from respiratory droplets.
These shields, originally designed to protect drivers from physical assaults, became a design standard for TransLink beginning in 2017, with all new buses arriving with their shields already installed. On the existing buses, prior to the pandemic, gradual work was being performed to install shields on older vehicles.
Currently, TransLink is on track to see a revenue shortfall of up to $680 million for 2020 and $885 million for 2021. The full fiscal impact stretching over several years could be up to $3.25 billion, more than the cost of the full SkyTrain extension to Langley.