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.
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.
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.