Was TransLink audited correctly?

What is “transit efficiency”?

My doubts began while I was in the middle of a long research session, constructing what became one of my first popular posts on this blog – an article comparing Vancouver’s transit fares with those of Toronto and Montreal’s.

As part of my research being done while I was putting together that article, I was also having a look through Shirocca Consulting’s TransLink efficiency review, which can be accessed on the CAW111 site at [CLICK HERE]:

One of the interesting things that I found in this review is that efficiency is defined:

From Page 21 of the Shirocca Consulting TransLink Efficiency Review

From Page 21 of the Shirocca Consulting TransLink Efficiency Review

However, Ctrl + F the document, or visually scroll through it all you want; but no matter what you try, you will not find a place in that document that mentions “Operating cost per revenue service hour” except the box on that page.

Meaning, TransLink’s cost efficiency is simply not measured: it is not part of this review, and there should be no way anyone can say anything about it. Service effectiveness (Revenue passengers per revenue service hour) was not measured either.

I would think that a proper audit would have taken both of these important figures (as it so declares) into account.

How “efficient” is TransLink anyway?

Having a look at TransLink’s financial and performance reports, looking at reports from other agencies, and arranging the numbers so you could make a comparison between the agencies, I was not only able to measure these numbers from TransLink myself – I was able to compare them with other transit agencies serving major cities in Canada.

The result?

TransLink is far more efficient, in terms of pratices leading to provision of transit service per operating cost dollar, than both Toronto and Montreal.

This is how TransLink compared with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC):

Operating cost per service hour: TransLink vs TTC

And this is how TransLink compared with the Société de transport de Montréal (STM):

(note: service kilometres were compared as Montreal does not provide service full service hour data)

Operating cost per service km: TransLink vs STM

This data was collected and calculated from:
  1. TransLink’s 2012 financial & performance report and 2011 financial & performance report
  2. TTC’s 2011 annual report
  3. A TTC Service change paper that reveals service hour splits per transit mode
  4. STM’s 2011 activity report
  5. STM’s 2012 annual financial report and 2011 annual financial report

Why are we so worried about TransLink then?

Some anti-TransLink advocates have not wasted any time to point unsuspecting readers to this chart:

From the TransLink Efficiency Review by Shirocca Consulting

From the TransLink Efficiency Review by Shirocca Consulting

And indeed, a first look at this chart made me want to cringe. At $3.92 per revenue passenger, conventional transit provision per revenue passenger with TransLink is more expensive than other Canadian transit agencies.

Firstly, I think that this is a terrible way of measuring cost effectiveness.

While TransLink’s conventional transit costs approximately 40% more per revenue passenger than the TTC’s, TransLink also provides 22% more service hours for every dollar it spends on operating transit (see earlier chart). This chart does not normalize the data for TransLink’s superior cost efficiency, and so the “cost effectiveness” value is not correctly measured. When normalized for cost efficiency, TransLink’s conventional transit costs only 14.75% more per revenue passenger than the TTC’s, a far lower difference than is portrayed by this chart.

Regardless of normalization, “cost effectiveness” is fundamentally different from “cost efficiency” (which is something we don’t even have to worry about).

Cost efficiency is a constant value affected by the competence of executives and practices within an individual organization; in other words, refer to this value to find out whether TransLink is doing great or not, and use this measurement when comparing transit agencies with each other. Cost effectiveness, on the other hand, has nothing to do with administration pratcies or costs within TransLink. It is something that can be affected by outside factors within transit agencies’ serviced city/metropolitan areas.

It should help to remember that TransLink is unique in that it’s one of the few single-metro-agency setups in Canada, and services the largest transit service area of any transit agency at about 2 times that of Toronto’s TTC (note: while Greater Toronto is much larger than Metro Vancouver, Greater Toronto’s different cities are serviced by different transit agencies).

Metro Vancouver vs. the City of Toronto. TransLink services the entirety of metro Vancouver, while Toronto's TTC services just Toronto.

Metro Vancouver vs. the City of Toronto. TransLink services the entirety of metro Vancouver, while Toronto’s TTC services just Toronto.

With TransLink in such a unique position not had by many other transit agencies in Canada of having to provide for the entire region, a lot of the transit it must provide is not cost-effective transit by default. This can be illustrated by the varying cost-per-boarding values of bus services in different areas of Metro Vancouver. I took the data from TransLink’s transit system performance review and compiled it in this chart:

TransLink Cost per boarding by service area

The highest value here is obviously the central and most dense area in this region: Vancouver, with a cost per boarded passenger of just $1.08. The three bottom areas – the Northeast sector, Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows, and South Delta – are among the farthest-out areas of Metro Vancouver, and the only three areas that do not have access to a regular SkyTrain rapid transit service.

The equivalent areas in Greater Toronto (i.e. the York Region, Mississauga, Hamilton) are simply not serviced by the TTC – they are served by their own transit agencies (YRT, Mi-Way) with a cost effectiveness that is not measured in the Shirocca report.

Are people not getting the right picture of TransLink as our transit provider?

It is very questionable whether people are getting the right picture of TransLink as our transit provider.

It doesn’t help that many opinions on TransLink efficiency and the apparent need for Translink to improve are being based on a horrible, incomplete audit that does not measure and compare all of TransLink’s efficiencies. The Shirocca Consulting review is extremely questionable, and readers never get the big picture: apart from the missing measurements I pointed out earlier, only 4 other cities were ever used in the comparisons, even though the numbers supposedly came from a CUTA fact book that measures all Canadian transit agencies.

It doesn’t help that TransLink is currently running financial deficits that are eating into a reserve fund every year, no thanks to the unwillingness of senior government levels and the TransLink commissioner to approve and provide additional transit funding. (The promises were made back in 2010 and no action has been taken since).

It doesn’t help that audits into TransLink, such as the one mandated by Christy Clark and the Provincial government, have found millions of dollars worth of described “inefficiencies” that are often a euphemism for service cuts.

It doesn’t help that this is happening, even though TransLink may very well be one of the most cost-efficient transit operations in Canada, and it doesn’t help that nobody realizes that because one of the biggest audits of TransLink efficiency did not bother measuring the fact.

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.

What is the solution then?

The solution to TransLink’s cost effectiveness problem is, contrary to what popular anti-TransLink advocates like the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation’s Jordan Bateman and some bloggers at Rail for the Valley say, the opposite of what has been suggested: approving more transit funding for TransLink (such as a regional sales tax for transit), thus allowing more transit expansion in Metro Vancouver.

I’m sure that what these advocates want in the end is a more cost-effective transit service in Metro Vancouver; however, by believing the doctrine of TransLink inefficiency and believing that the only way to solve the low cost-effectiveness of TransLink’s services is by rejecting funding for TransLink and voting “no” in the upcoming 2014 transit referendum, these advocates are taking an incorrect position in the “fund-transit-or-not” debate.

Transit cost-effectiveness only goes as far as an area’s land use patterns and locations can take it – and as evident in the above chart, the worst areas are in the outermost areas and have the most suburban, automobile-oriented land use patterns that prevent transit from being cost-effective.


Suburban sprawl developments, such as a then-proposed casino complex in South Surrey that I helped defeat back in January of this year, worsen the situation of low cost-effectiveness of transit in Metro Vancouver.

But, improved transit can also bring better land use, and one of the greatest examples of this in action is our SkyTrain rapid transit system, which has been blamed for why there is currently a reported boom in office tower construction in Metro Vancouver.

My suspicion is that the Northeast sector, at a cost of $1.92 per boarding and thus the third worst for cost per boarding in Metro Vancovuer, will improve significantly as the introduction of the Evergreen Line SkyTrain in 2016 brings with it higher transit ridership typical of introducing a fast and reliable service, denser and more transit-oriented land use, and bus patronage on routes approaching the SkyTrain line and the densified hubs around the stations.

Concept: Douglas-Lafarge Lake SkyTrain Station on the Evergreen Line SkyTrain

Concept: Douglas-Lafarge Lake Station on the Evergreen Line SkyTrain

It is big projects like these, which will require a lot of funding, that will do the most in solving the problem of low cost-effectiveness of TransLink services. All we need now is a willingness from these transit cost-effectiveness advocates to acknowledge this fact and revise their positions on TransLink and transit, and Metro Vancouver will be all set on a path to become a world leader in transit cost-efficiency, cost-effectiveness and planning choices.

It’s just too bad that everyone seems to believe that TransLink is the opposite and headed in that general direction.


10 thoughts on “Was TransLink audited correctly?

  1. Spot on Daryl.
    Transit advocates need good evidence to defend themselves against the onslaught of misinformation, and you do an excellent job accumulating and interpreting it.

  2. Good post, but what it means is that Translink is providing more service that is not well utilized than the other comparators. While I agree this is significantly because of the nature of Translinks operating area it is not the whole picture (Calgary also has a similar into the suburbs operating area). That said I believe more service is good and it takes away the chicken and egg issue with transit ridership. Provide it and people will start using it….raising revenues and eventually improving the metrics.

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  8. Service frequency is key to getting more people on to transit. So is expanding service coverage. But until more people start to use the new services, efficiency suffers. To be really effective at shaping growth, high quality rapid transit has to be present as the new development opens. That means running empty vehicles for a while, which always gives public sector critics the willies. But the same is true of freeway construction – and we all love to drive on empty freeways!

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