The benefits of employer-subsidized transit

What researchers have to say about how cities benefit when businesses cover the transit costs of their employees

(Kristen Frier)

Researchers from Simon Fraser University hosted a webinar in December to discuss a study that explored how hotel workers’ commute in downtown Vancouver can be affected by transit subsidies provided by their employers.

The study was done in partnership with the City of Vancouver, TransLink, Unite Here Local 40, the hotels, and workers who took part in the study.

Urban Studies professors Dr. Anthony Perl and Dr. Peter Hall led the study which found that, in many ways, employer-based transit subsidies can benefit employees in the long run, and according to Hall, this is because of how convenient the subsidy program is for the workers.

According to Hall, the hotel business was an ideal sector to focus on because hotels are a good place to “get a group of people who cover a range of service occupations.” Hall says the partners in the research wanted to understand the possibilities and limitations of transit subsidies, and that “it gave some people who hadn’t thought about it before a reason to experiment, and to try it out.”

The implications of the research point out how employer-based transit subsidies can support the growth of social equality, and help with “improving livability as well as providing various benefits to those employers and participating employees.”

Hall points out that people who take transit are more likely to be renters, living with kids, and having lower wages. He adds that if they are equity-seeking groups then having a “redirected benefit” that goes towards transit has a “positive implication for equity.”

New York City and Washington, D.C. offer employer transit subsidies, and have a requirement for any employer with “20 or more employees to offer qualified pre-tax transportation benefits to their workers.”

An employer transit subsidy could help the residents in Vancouver specifically, which has the fourth highest costs of any Canadian city for public transit. Toronto was ranked number one, with Calgary ranked as number two, and Winnipeg at number three.

Kwantlen Polytechnic University Geography and Environment instructor David Sadoway says that employer-subsidized transit is “absolutely essential.”

When it comes to free and affordable transit, Sadoway says, “One of the things that I think both the transit managers and advocates of transit can agree on is you’ve got to come up with ways to attract large numbers of people.”

While this study focuses on employer transit subsidies for hotel workers in Vancouver, Sadoway brings attention to the transit system and transit affordability in Vancouver.

Vancouver has been rated as having one of the best transit systems in the country, with consideration given to things like the frequency of transit vehicle availability, and distances between stops.

Despite this rating, it seems Vancouver still has a ways to go if it wants to get better.

Having lived in many parts of the world like Taipei, Hong Kong, and Singapore, Sadoway says that many other countries have a much better transit system and that Vancouver has fallen behind globally, when it’s not being compared to other cities in North America.

“People have vetoed things on funding transit. There was a referendum on transit funding a few years ago that got shut down, and then, you know, … anything on tolls gets shot down,” Sadoway says. “So it’s really hard to fund transit, you need to have, like the stars in alignment.”

Since the SFU study was focusing on transit subsidies and how they affect ridership in a pre-COVID setting, there is no data in the study that shows how transiting was affected by the pandemic.

The pandemic took a heavy toll on transit ridership numbers, with TransLink reporting a ridership of 16.54 million in September — less than half of the 39.63 million ridership the company saw in September of 2019.

The data shows that TransLink’s bus services are being used the most by the public, while the sea bus is being used the least.

The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a shift away from using transit in favour of using personal auto transportation, Sadoway says, and that the rise of auto users could pose congestion problems for Vancouver because of its limited number of roads and bridges.

“Our transit is underfunded. We should be building more of the network. We should be building more SkyTrains. We don’t have any light rail transit … we haven’t had the funding for it,” Sadoway says.

Depending on the city, Sadoway says about 10 to 25 per cent of Canadians use public transit, and more people use transit in the city of Vancouver than in the suburbs.

Incentives like faster, better, and efficient transit systems can help to garner a higher percentage of transit ridership. But Sadoway says there is a lack of a strong collective push for implementing these things on a large scale, and that investments in transit should be seen as investments in other areas like limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s the kind of insurance for more livable cities, more walkable and healthier cities, less cars on the road, etcetera,” he says.

“Public transit should be free because … it’s actually benefiting on so many levels. People are not investing in private cars. It’s an investment in many other things like air quality.”

In 2019 KPU signed a letter committing to carbon neutrality. One of the ways they could achieve that is through offering similar transit subsidies for employees.

“Let’s say employees have discounted or free parking as a privilege right now. You could also do the same for transit,” says Sadoway, adding that the university, unions, and TransLink can come together to offer transit benefits for the faculty members in the same way that TransLink offers a discounted U-Pass for university students.

However even if this happens, Sadoway points out that it might be hard to get some people to leave the cars for public transit.

“Research has shown us the hardest thing is to get people to not use cars. Because a lot of people like that little bubble, and it’s comfortable,” he says, pointing out that there also may be other reasons why many people might prefer to stick to their personal vehicles.

“There are equity issues, because some folks … who travel by wheelchair, for example, or people who have other accessibility issues, or other special needs issues might only prefer to take cars,” says Sadoway.

Women and people of visible minority might not feel as safe taking transit as others if they have experienced harassment.

Nonetheless, when it comes to having a transit that benefits communities, Sadoway says universities like KPU could invest in working with TransLink to encourage more ridership.

“If the university could somehow help incentivize it for their employees, their thousands of faculty, their hundreds of workers and thousands of students — if the university could do something to push TransLink, that would be good as well,” he says.”

“I think we need some creative ideas, and a lot of it has to do with improved funding for transit, and that starts with government.”