Answering my own questions since 2001

Translink’s creative U-Pass math

Today I encountered this story about lost, stolen, resold and fraudulent transit passes for university students. In it, Translink claims to be “losing as much as $15 million…prompting officials to threaten to cancel the student program if the problem persists”:

About 80,000 U-Passes were provided to students this year at the University of B.C., Emily Carr University, Simon Fraser University, Capilano University, Langara College and Vancouver Community College at a discounted rate of about $30 per month.

TransLink estimates it loses between $7.8 million and $15 million every year from lost, misplaced, stolen or resold U-Passes. In an average year, about 11 per cent of U-Passes are lost, either by students or in the mail, and are replaced. If those passes were used for three-zone travel, the value equates to $9 million a year.

At the same time, about five per cent of students who register for school and receive a U-Pass drop out and do not return the passes, which are potentially worth a total of about $6 million. Another $2.4 million is lost as two per cent of U-Passes sent to schools for distribution are unaccounted for, Hardie said.

Can anybody spot the holes in Translink’s logic here? First, clearly only a fraction of all trips cover three zones. I asked on Twitter, but neither Translink nor their spokesperson provided a response (despite replying to a query a few minutes earlier).

So it’s highly disingenuous of Translink to even claim (and, I should add, for Kelly Sinoski to report without skepticism) the $9 million figure. Plus, we can be confident that not every lost pass is fraudulently used. Surely most of them are permanently lost or disposed of by the honest, the disinterested and, most of all, cars owners.

Additionally, students pay a replacement fee when they lose and request a new pass. Are any of those dollars passed back to Translink? If not, why not?

Transit-happy dropouts?

The same questions can be asked of the students who drop out. 5% of the 80,000 students equals 4000 people. If we divide $6 million by 4000, that gets us $1500 a student. Even if every student was spending eight months traveling three zones, the total cost would be just over $1200 each (a three zone pass is $151). Why the extra $300? Also, we’ve already established that most trips aren’t three zone passes.

Wikipedia tells us that the U-Pass accounts for 42% of trips to UBC, and 88% of students use the U-Pass to get to SFU. Are students who drop out likely to use their passes at rates than those? I doubt it, because both UBC and SFU aren’t exactly in the centre of the city. The true number is probably less than half of Translink’s claim of $6 million.

Additionally, why are there 2% of passes unaccounted for? What happened to them? Why isn’t Translink holding itself and its partner schools to a higher standard than that, if the issue is such a critical one?

There’s also a final assumption that underpins all of Translink’s numbers: that every person who uses an illegitimate (lost, stolen and so forth) U-Pass would otherwise buy a monthly pass. Surely that’s false. It’s hard to say what an accurate number would be, but it sure isn’t 100%. It may not even be 50%.

Tens of thousands of dollars

The article also emphasizes the impact of resold U-Passes. It’s notable that two years ago, Translink spokesperson Ken Hardie didn’t seem concerned about the issue:

Hardie said it’s hard to quantify how much the company is losing to U-Pass reselling.

“We really couldn’t put that much of a price on it,” he said. “To do that, we’d have to know who’s doing it.

“Anecdotally, though, we would say it’s maybe in the tens of thousands of dollars. But it certainly, it isn’t the kind of thing where you’d want to run out and buy a whole bunch of extra police officers to enforce.”

I asked Mr. Hardie about that as well, and here’s what he said:


@dbarefoot – Thanks for the link. Two years ago, we weren’t seeing as many signs of misuse and now we’re about to add 60,000 more students.less than a minute ago via TweetDeck Favorite Retweet Reply

In short, Translink has done themselves and their ridership a disservice by promoting silly theoretical thresholds and false equivalencies around this issue. They’ve shamefully hidden behind the phrase “up to” when they have access to many of the numbers I’m missing here. They could offer a much more accurate, less sensational version of the facts. It’s a pity that they’ve opted to do otherwise.

It’s also a pity that the Sun’s Ms. Sinoski didn’t delve deeper into Translink’s claims, or at least approach them with a little more skepticism.

Reddit was helpful in researching this article.

15 Responses to “Translink’s creative U-Pass math”

  1. Oana

    Good analysis, Darren. I was similarly skeptical to read this in the news yesterday, having been involved in the initial implementation of the program at UBC.

  2. filmgoerjuan

    When a school signs on to the U-Pass program, all students are *required* to pay for the U-Pass, irrespective of whether they use it or not. I wonder what the numbers of paid for but unused (or used minimally) passes would look like. Somehow, I suspect that the whole system, including misuse and passes sold to non-students still works out to make financial sense for Translink.

    Frankly, the numbers being bandied about here remind me of the tactics used by the RIAA & MPAA and others: maximize the numbers to the nth degree to make them sound more dramatic than the reality.

  3. Ryan Cousineau

    Any estimate of losses from these missing transit passes is going to be highly notional, if only because leaving aside all other assumptions, both the price of a transit trip (depending on time, distance, and whether you buy faresavers, passes, or pay at the farebox) and the cost of providing the marginal transit trip are variable.

    Also, I see That Vancouver Sun article attributing the range “$7.8-15M” to Translink, but choosing editorially to run with $15M in the headline. I think either number is big enough to be worth attention.

    The $9M is one quick, fairly notional estimate of the lost farebox cost of the missing passes. They could have cynically priced them out using the single-trip fare price, but they didn’t. You also haven’t accounted for the idea that the owner of a stolen pass will almost certainly make more trips than they would if they didn’t have a pass, and ultimately there is a marginal cost to Translink to carrying passengers (though it’s not trivial to calculate).

    As for the 2% loss figure, part of the reason for this news coming out is because Translink is using it to pressure its partner institutions to be more accountable. I can’t say more, but there is more.

    The U-Pass experience is driving Translink to a more secure model for them, by the way: it’s going to take a while, but the passes will eventually include the owner’s photo, among other measures.

    I think you may owe Translink an Emily Litella here: you appear to be unhappy because they submitted a plausible, fairly vague estimate of the cost of U-Pass fraud, and the Sun ran with the high end estimate in the headline.

  4. Todd Sieling

    Darren I can always count on you to do the math that other people shy away from. This is an excellent analysis and I can’t agree more that it’s disappointing to see smoke and mirrors games coming out of Translink.

  5. jmv

    This article seems to obfuscate who the real bad guys are in this story, aside from the actual fraudsters. Translink? The Sun? Craigslist? Pick your favourite.

    The dollar amount may be a dubious figure, but if Translink noticed the reselling fraudulent U-passes ‘trending’ on Craigslist and elsewhere, I think it could still make for a newsworthy story, with a different spin.

    The threat of ending the program seems like the wrong PR response from Translink, though it does make a good headline, and the article has given lots of folks a sounding board to rant about the topic (see comments).

    The article doesn’t mention if the passes need better watermarking in the interim, before we get smarter cards.

    Furthermore, continuing to pressure Craigslist for help seems to me like missing the point; do we know Craigslist to immediately respond to emailed interview requests? And what’s stopping Translink and/or anyone from flagging the resale of Upasses? Isn’t that how flagging works? That anyone can do it?

    If flagging doesn’t go far enough, would they simply need to go a step further and email abuse@craigslist.org about the problem? Without an answer from Craigslist, it’s unclear if they are failing to acknowledge the Upass as a prohibited item. Seems to me a case could be made that these passes fall in the Prohibited Items list under one of the items below:

    http://www.craigslist.org/about/prohibited.items

    False identification cards, items with police insignia, citizenship documents, or birth certificates.
    Counterfeit currency, coins and stamps, tickets, as well as equipment designed to make them.
    Airline tickets that restrict transfer, and tickets of any kind which you are not authorized to sell.

  6. Duane Storey

    I agree, it reminds me a lot of the RIAA arguments. The whole reason the program is mandatory is so they generate the revenue to cover these kinds of issues. Even so, here are a few things I picked out.

    1) When a student drops out, they still paid the original U-Pass fee. Even if they do continue to use it, they still paid for it.

    2) Without data on how many students are reselling passes, I’d have to assume most are lost or stolen. Given that both of those seem like normal real-world outcomes, it seems that Translink should invest in fixing that problem rather than blaming students and/or the universities for it. A system to invalidate lost/stolen cards seems like the way go to.

    Sounds like a short-term solution might be to simply make the cost of a lost/stolen pass the same as a brand new one. That won’t stop students from selling passes to others, but it will mean they get the entire cost of a new pass as well to account from the potential misuse (which may not even happen for a legitimately lost card).

  7. jmv

    This article seems to obfuscate who the real bad guys are in this story, aside from the actual fraudsters. Translink? The Sun? Craigslist? Pick your favourite.

    The dollar amount may be a dubious figure, but if Translink noticed the reselling fraudulent U-passes ‘trending’ on Craigslist and elsewhere, I think it could still make for a newsworthy story, with a different spin.

    The threat of ending the program seems like the wrong PR response from Translink, though it does make a good headline, and the article has given lots of folks a sounding board to rant about the topic (see comments).

    The article doesn’t mention if the passes need better watermarking in the interim, before we get smarter cards.

    Furthermore, continuing to pressure Craigslist for help seems to me like missing the point; do we know Craigslist to immediately respond to emailed interview requests? And what’s stopping Translink and/or anyone from flagging the resale of Upasses? Isn’t that how flagging works? That anyone can do it?

    If flagging doesn’t go far enough, would they simply need to go a step further and email abuse at craigslist.org about the problem? Without an answer from Craigslist, it’s unclear if they are failing to acknowledge the Upass as a prohibited item. Seems to me a case could be made that these passes fall in the Prohibited Items list under one of the items below:

    http://www.craigslist.org/about/prohibited.items

    False identification cards, items with police insignia, citizenship documents, or birth certificates.
    Counterfeit currency, coins and stamps, tickets, as well as equipment designed to make them.
    Airline tickets that restrict transfer, and tickets of any kind which you are not authorized to sell.

  8. Catherine

    Also worth considering: How much money will it cost to adequately determine genuine losses and then do something about it?

    If it’s less than the cost of changing the system, great. But if not, it’s just another money pit in the name of “improving security”.

    I liked what UVic does: make it your student card.

  9. Eric

    To follow up on Catherine’s comment: at TransLink’s AGM today, the possibility was raised that U-Passes can be combined with the student card, in conjunction with the smartcard roll-out in 2013.

  10. Matt

    The University of Calgary places a small sticker onto each student’s ID Card. Removal of the sticker ruins it, meaning it’s essentially non-transferable (as was intended).

    I tend to agree with filmgoerjuan about the number of unused (or minimally-used) passes. I can’t find any hard numbers on this but anecdotally, I’ve spoken with many U of C students who have a U-pass yet never use it.

    Great post, Darren.

  11. Karen

    Matt,

    AFAIK, The University of Calgary solution is not one that would work here. The issue is that U-Passes are issued, then need to be revoked when students are not in compliance with the rules — such as when they drop their summer class or report a previously-issued one missing and get a new one.

    The TransLink U-Passes have always had student photos printed on them. The real challenge is the fact that students themselves frequent the two busiest routes on the entire system. This mean it would be a logistical nightmare to make people boarding their buses put the pass through the reader to ensure they are active. It’s done through purely visual means, and that is susceptible to the common kinds of fraud mentioned above.

  12. Andrew Kumar

    I think it’s scare tactics so Translink can petition to up the rates on U-Pass’s as a result of this “finding”.

  13. Ken Hardie

    This story would have been so much better if the Sun had run Darren’s analysis and all of your comments. For the record, I have told all reporters the following:

    a) TransLink is NOT going to cancel U-Pass because of the fraud and misuse issue.

    b) Each U-Pass is the equivalent of a $151, three-zone Monthly FareCard and, while the maximum potential value of all unaccounted-for cards is about $15 million, we did NOT assume that all of them were being misused or sold.

    c) Students pay $30 per month for a pass that is valued at $151 — and the only way we can do that is if everybody is ‘in.’

    TransLink and the schools have invested a lot of time and energy to come up with the new U-Pass BC program, and the schools are already committed to helping with tigher management. There is no need for us to put pressure on anyone.

    The Sun article and the swath of media interest that followed reflects a measure of resentment some people have to the sale and misuse of such a highly subsidized pass (don’t forget, TransLink has had to lay on millions of dollars in extra service, and U-Pass revenue does not come even close to covering those costs).

    The media coverage really arose because of our below-the-line attempts to get some help from Craigslist. CBC, the Sun and the Asian media picked up on my Twitter post a month or so ago looking for contacts within Craigslist. It was good to finally receive Craigslist’s support.

    Darren, sorry for not getting back on all of your Twitter Q’s.

  14. Adriana

    I was always under the impression that the cards could be “cancelled” by transit, but in retrospect guess that would require a far more sophisticated card reader that is sync’d to a database of the valid cards.

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