TransLink's existing three-zone system for fares is up in the air as it begins a review of options for reform.

Transit fare review opens door to big changes

TransLink seeks advice on how to charge for trips as it launches major review of fares in Metro Vancouver

Should transit riders pay less if service is infrequent in their area? Should fares be tied to ability to pay? Or should a transit trip cost the same amount no matter who pays or where they go?

Those are some of the questions TransLink is asking the public as it begins a major two-year review to reimagine the transit fare system.

It’s the first such review in more than 30 years since the original three-zone fare system was first adopted, and it throws open the potential at least for radical changes.

“No decisions have been made,” said Tim Savoie, TransLink vice-president of transportation planning and policy. “We recognize that any potential changes will directly affect our customers and that’s why we’re asking for input at the very start of this process and throughout each phase.”

Anyone can fill out the survey for the first phase of consultations at www.translink.ca/farereview until June 30. Also planned are stakeholder forums, polls and other events.

The questionnaire sheds some light on the types of reforms TransLink may consider.

It asks if fares should be lower at less busy times – effectively creating time-of-day pricing that could encourage some riders to shift to off-peak times to save money.

Other questions include:

– Whether cheaper fares should be created for very short trips where riders are now reluctant to pay the minimum $2.75.

– Whether reduced rates should be offered to families travelling together.

– Whether three-day or maybe week passes should be also be offered, rather than just day or month passes.

Also up for debate is how far fares should go to cover the system’s costs.

Transit fares generate nearly $500 million a year and any fare structure reform would have to deliver a similar amount if the system is to maintain its current 53 per cent cost-recovery ratio with existing service levels.

The survey asks if “fares should be set to cover a higher share of transit costs.”

Alternatively, it asks if fares should be priced to be competitive with driving, or priced based on the cost of building and operating a service – a high-cost new rapid transit line might then come with higher fares.

Cash fares for a SkyTrain trip are currently $2.75 to ride one zone, $4 for trips across two zones and $5.50 to ride three zones, such as from Surrey to Vancouver.

TransLink has already eliminated multi-zone fares for bus routes that cross zone boundaries — that change was in response to a decision last fall to abandon the Compass card tap-out requirement on buses.

The existing three-zone system is unfair, particularly to riders who have to take short SkyTrain trips across a zone boundary, forcing them to pay for two zones.

The Compass card’s arrival provides real-time data for TransLink and opens up more scope to consider new fare options.