TransLink is switching to a one-zone fare at all times on buses as the solution that will allow it to roll out its long-delayed Compass card to the entire transit system.
It means a price drop of at least $1.25 for regular riders who now pay for two or three zones on certain bus routes that cross zone boundaries.
Passengers on the 351 bus from White Rock/South Surrey to Bridgeport Station in Richmond, for example, will pay $2.75 for an adult weekday fare, effective Oct. 5, instead of the $4 two-zone fare right now. If they continue on to Vancouver via Canada Line they’ll pay a total of $4 instead of $5.50 previously for three zones.
The same applies to riders of the 555 from Langley over the Port Mann Bridge to the SkyTrain in Burnaby.
And passengers will pay less on several other routes spanning at least two zones, including buses that cross North Shore bridges, that connect Surrey and Delta to Richmond or New Westminster, or that link the Tri Cities or Maple Ridge to SkyTrain.
TransLink will also abandon the planned Compass card tap-out requirement on buses.
That was a major headache for launching the smart card payment system because tests found many passengers forgot to tap out on buses and were then charged the maximum three zones when they only travelled one.
Bus service also stood to be crippled by delays on busy routes if every exiting passenger had to tap out, particularly if provider Cubic failed to improve slow card detection rates of the Compass readers on buses.
The change also addresses the fact bus riders on multi-zone routes would have been able to cheat the system and pay only one zone by tapping their card on the exit reader early without leaving.
The end of the zone system applies only to buses. SkyTrain, SeaBus and West Coast Express passengers won’t get a break and they’ll still have to tap out.
Multi-zone bus routes are relatively scarce – 80 per cent of riders move only within one zone and won’t see any savings.
But there are concerns the elimination of two- or three-zone bus fares may result in worse bus congestion on certain routes.
Buses that cross bridges like the Ironworkers Memorial or Port Mann will suddenly be cheaper to take than boarding a SeaBus or SkyTrain.
Cathy McLay, TransLink’s chief financial officer and the incoming acting CEO, said TransLink is not projecting any net drop in revenue from giving up the extra zone charges because more bus riders will be attracted by the fare break.
“We think it will all balance out – the increased ridership will cover off any loss,” she said.
But McLay was unable to say whether or how TransLink will put on more buses on routes that could see higher volumes.
“Unfortunately, with the No plebiscite, there is no increase in transit services,” she said.
The changed bus fare system is billed as temporary pending a fare policy review and a possible eventual move to distance-based transit pricing.
There are no plans to increase one-zone bus fares, McLay said.
TransLink’s Cathy McLay answering questions Thursday. Jeff Nagel / Black Press
TransLink says it will begin activating Compass vending machines later this month at SkyTrain stations and SeaBus terminals.
They’ll initially sell single-use Compass tickets, but actual Compass cards will be available via the machines by late October, and by November in retail outlets, walk-in centres and by mail for those ordering online or by phone.
As for when fare gates will actually close and secure the system, that could be months longer as TransLink waits for riders to use up pre-paid FareSaver tickets, which will no longer be sold next year. The gates were originally to be operational by fall of 2013.
The base Compass fares will be the same as FareSaver pricing, with options for passengers to buy other options like a day or month pass.
One downside to abandoning the tap out on buses is TransLink will lose some of the benefit it was counting on from the $194-million smart card and fare gates system – accurate locations and times of the start and end of each trip so planners can more precisely match route service levels with demand.
But Compass program vice-president Lloyd Bauer suggested much data will still be useful because analytic systems can infer where passengers exit in many cases.
Compass cards are already in use by special pass holders, students with U-Passes and West Coast Express riders.
Bus passengers have long paid only one zone fares at off peak times after 7 p.m. weekdays and on weekends and holidays.
Some bus riders may save $554 a year from Surrey, $948 from Coquitlam
How much will riders save if they regularly take a three-zone trip that will soon cost only two zones?
A regular three-zone monthly pass user now pays $170 a month but will be able to instead buy a two-zone month pass for $124 – a $46 saving that adds up top $552 per year.
That’s the scenario for many commuters to and from Vancouver from South Surrey by express bus and then the Canada Line, or from Langley via the Port Mann 555 express bus and then SkyTrain.
A South Surrey or Langley rider whose destination is currently a two-zone trip away – such as Richmond or Burnaby – will soon be able to buy just a $91 one-zone month pass, saving $33 or $396 a year compared to the cost of a $124 two-zone pass.
Similar savings can be had by frequent riders of various bus routes between Surrey/North Delta and either New Westminster or Richmond, or from Maple Ridge to SkyTrain in New Westminster.
But the biggest winners from the elimination of zone pricing on buses are likely regular riders of the 160 bus from Port Coquitlam Station to Vancouver or the 190 from Coquitlam Station to Vancouver.
Those are two of only three routes in the region that traverse three zones, so regular riders on those routes who now pay $170 for a three-zone monthly pass will see that cost cut to $91. That $79 a month saving adds up to $948 a year.
Explore the history of the Compass card issue by navigating left or right in our interactive timeline above.Mobile device users can also view the timeline here.