Bus riders may pay one zone only when Compass arrives

TransLink payment card rolls out this summer to West Coast Express train riders, U-Pass students

  • May. 14, 2015 7:00 p.m.

TransLink will likely abandon its zone system and tap-out requirement for buses and charge all bus riders for one zone only when it eventually rolls out the rest of its delayed Compass card program.

There’s no final date set yet to fully activate the faregates and smart card system, which was mandated by the provincial government seven years ago and supposed to have been operational by fall of 2013.

It’s been bedevilled by technical problems ranging from slow, error-prone card validators on buses to website deficiencies.

But officials announced Thursday they’re taking another step forward by rolling Compass out to all West Coast Express users in June and to all university students with U-Passes by the end of summer, boosting the number of users by September to to 220,000 out of an eventual 850,000.

The biggest roadblocks to a full launch have been the slow read times to tap in and out on buses – slowing down service – and the fear that many passengers will fail to tap out when exiting and be overcharged.

Three quarters of Metro Vancouver bus riders travel only one zone but would be charged the default three zones if they fail to tap out.

Communications vice-president Colleen Brennan said charging for one zone only on buses – effectively forgoing the extra zone charges that a quarter of bus passengers now pay on routes that span two or three zones – appears to be the best way to solve the bus system problems.

Passengers would still be asked to tap out but it wouldn’t be mandatory and they wouldn’t be charged more if they fail to do so.

“The solution that makes the most sense would be to go to a single zone on an interim basis on the bus during peak periods,” Brennan said. “That’s looking like the simplest option that would make it simplest for our customers as well. So that’s the one that we are exploring.”

In any event, it’s not clear how TransLink would have been able to stop bus passengers on two- or three-zone routes from tapping the exit validator early on their trip and paying only one zone that way.

TransLink officials weren’t able to provide an estimate of how much extra-zone revenue might be lost as a result.

But it would presumably mean a transit price break for passengers on multi-zone routes, such as buses between South Surrey and the Canada Line or the 555 from north Langley over the Port Mann Bridge to the Millennium Line. A trip downtown for those riders might drop from the three-zone cost of $5.50 to $4 for two zones.

Optional bus tap outs would erode one of the prime benefits expected from the Compass system – accurate details on the start and end of each trip so TransLink planners can more precisely match route service levels with demand and ultimately shift from the current zones to a distance-based pricing system.

As for the system’s technical performance, Brennan said progress has been made by the U.S. contractor, Cubic Transportation Systems.

“It’s more reliable, the tap speed is faster, it’s more accurate and more reliable than where we were,” she said.

Starting June 8, Compass cards will be handed out to 7,500 West Coast Express passengers and they will be the first actual revenue customers to start using the Compass website to manage their account and load and reload stored value online.

Brennan called that a significant milestone.

By the end of summer all 130,000 students from 10 universities or post-secondary schools who now use paper U-Passes will be on Compass as well, in addition to the 85,000 cards already in use by B.C bus pass holders and TransLink employees.

Brennan said TransLink remains committed to a careful “phased approach versus a big bang” rollout of Compass.

There has been no further increase in the $194-million budget for the smart card and fare gates program, which was originally estimated at $170 million.

Mobile device users can also view our interactive timeline of TransLink’s smart card system here.

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