Saturday, June 18, 2016

Transit with a Growing Family

We are blessed to live in a city and region that has good transit service available.  However, as I’ve levelled up in adulting, going from Single to Married to having now Three Children, how I use and what I value in transit has changed with me.  Taking kids on transit brings a whole new set of issues that were not a concern before I had kids, and unfortunately the sum of those issues ultimately drove me away from using transit as a primary transportation method. 

As a single and newly married bloke, I was carless.  Over the last eight years, we’ve gone from zero to three kids and back and forth between zero and one cars (about four years each).  During my seven months in hospital, my wife was a single mom with three kids (including a one-year-old) and no car.  We chose where we lived in Vancouver and New West in large part due to access to transit and to be within walking distance of many services we use.  So we’re not a family that looks at transit and says “no way!”  We’re a family that has tried it for years, and eventually said “fuck it.”

While there are many things that have gone into our decisions on transportation, for sake of discussion I’ll break them into cost, convenience, and ‘other stuff.’ 


While transit in Metro Vancouver is very economical as a single adult, it gets relatively less so as your family gets larger.  Kids under 5 are free.  That’s fine, but as soon as you want to take your kids to school on transit you need to pay up.  They do get a reduced fare, and can travel all three zones at that price, but it’s not an insignificant expense, particularly as you have more children. 

For example, the cost for transit passes for our family would be $230, soon to be $280.  That includes the freebie three zone pass my wife gets.  Additionally, if we’re primarily using transit and going carless, there are other costs for cabs, car rentals/car shares and other such, for us around $125-$150 per month.  Overall transportation costs: $350-$400 per month. 

Running a car full time costs us $350 a month, all in.  That covers most of our transportation needs – commuting three days a week, activities, occasional road trips to the interior and so on.  We do use transit for some things, which is maybe another $50 per month in tickets.  So total transportation costs of ~$400 per month.  So by going primarily transit, it doesn’t save us much if any money.  It’d be even worse if we had to pay for my wife’s pass.

Convenience - Can I Get There?

While transit service overall is good in Metro Vancouver, depending on where specifically you want to go it can range anywhere from terrific to terrible.  Downtown New West to Downtown Vancouver?  Terrific!  Fleetwood to Poco?  Terrible. 

Then there’s going somewhere not within the transit service area.  If you’re hitting one of the main lines in the Fraser Valley, transferring over to FVRT can sometimes work.  But anywhere else it becomes highly impractical.  Going to Victoria?  That can work if you’re heading to Sidney or central Victoria.  The kids love riding on the double deckers.  Nanaimo or the Sunshine Coast?  It’s fine until you get off the ferry on the other side.  That can work great for adults.  But two adults and three kids typically means we need two cars to meet us, and we’re dragging three carseats along the whole way.

If I want to visit friends in Mission, it’s over two hours on four busses.  And that’s only where the busses go, while they run.  Want to explore some of our incredible provincial parks?  The North Shore can be done, but that’s about it.  Car rentals/shares offer alternatives here, but multi-hour trips start driving up that side of the cost equation pretty quickly. 

Convenience - Timing/Flexibility

Timing can be an issue for short trips and long.  Suppose we wanted to hit up Mongo Bongo in Uptown for dinner.  By car it’s a 10 minute drive each way, free parking, we can enjoy dinner at our own pace and have a nice time. 

Transit:  25 minutes each way (remember, there’s kids involved) and $6.25 to get there.  Once we’re there, we need to decide.  Do we press to finish dinner quickly, run outside to catch the bus downtown just before our transfers expire (hope it’s on time!).  Or do we eat dinner at a relaxed pace and spend another $6.25 to go home? Tight connections are far more manageable as an adult than with multiple kids.  

Multiple stops on one trip.  This is a huge issue for us, and I believe is a big part of what pushes people to drive their kids to school, especially in the suburbs. It’s not the getting the kids to school that’s the issue, it’s the where the parents are going next that makes the decision. 

When we moved to Quayside, our kids went to John Robson.  I could walk them there in 15-20 minutes, back to the skytrain in 5-10, and take the train and a bus to work in another 25.  A 45-55 minute commute.  Not my ideal, but workable. 

Then things changed.  First our school moved to the other end of downtown.  Then Translink extended my bus route 10-15 minutes each way.  Now a 45-55 minute commute became nearly an hour and a half.  I could reasonably walk or bus my kids to school.  I could reasonably transit to work.  But when trying to combine the trips it became unworkable. 

After school has the flip side of this – picking up the kids is fine, but trying to combine that with after school activities or appointments becomes a logistics planning exercise. 

Other Stuff - Accessibility

If you’re taking a bus or train during a busy period, good luck trying to keep your kids contained.  Getting a few seats together, for at least the littlest ones?  Maybe if someone is kind enough to offer up a spot for you.  But for seven months my wife would be taking the train downtown during rush hour and have to pack our one year old (at the time) in her arms. 

Accessibility can be an issue in certain areas.  While we lived in Uptown, we would regularly take the 155/156 buses.  At the time we had a newborn and a two-year-old and often used a stroller.  Given the ridership of those routes, the accessible seats were frequently taken up by older people with walkers, wheelchairs or scooters.  I don’t begrudge them those spots at all, but when we’re regularly getting passed by because we can’t fit on the bus with our kids, transit becomes less attractive. 

One great thing about transit in Metro Vancouver is that essentially all the busses are low floor.  High floor buses (257, I’m looking at you) were a pain to deal with strollers (and wheelchairs and other mobility aids), so props to Translink for getting their whole fleet low floor.  That said – Community Shuttles and strollers?  Don’t even bother. 

Other Stuff - Hassle

Stuff.  Packing 2 adults and 3 kids onto a crowded bus is one thing.  Trying to do it with multiple suitcases when you’re going to the airport, or bringing everyone’s car seats for when you get to Nanaimo, or a even just a couple of sports bags and the process becomes exponentially more complicated.  This is one area where the kids getting older has helped somewhat, but has also lead to an increase of lost items. 

People.  Taking kids on transit introduced us to some of the best and worst in people.  We have had countless experiences of our kids engaging with fellow riders, making friends, receiving gifts (careful with this – it can be really sweet or really creepy depending on how it’s done) and just incredible kindness from total strangers.

Conversely, we had people who think your kid singing or giggling is an intrusion on their silent morning commute.  People who are outraged a two year old is standing on a seat to look out a window.  And God forbid your child has a meltdown – you will meet several professional parents who know exactly what you need to do (and a blessed few who help settle them down or otherwise support you). 

Weather. A climate controlled car is just a lot more comfortable than a crowded bus in summer, or an exposed transit stop in winter, and kids tend to be a lot moodier about it than adults.  Of course proper clothing and preparation can make it more bearable, but it’s hard to compete with a car for comfort. 

Mental Space:  Here is another area where having kids completely reversed transit for me.  With no kids, I often enjoyed time on transit.  I could get comfy on a seat, drift off in my thoughts or enjoy some music or a podcast.  Taking transit was far less mentally draining than driving. 

Enter children.  Mental space on transit is now mostly consumed with managing said children.  And the space they consume grows exponentially with their number.  There are good days and bad, but with kids a long transit ride isn’t the pleasant, relaxing experience it was before. 

Other options

Car sharing/car rentals.  We do utilize this for some things.  I’ve been a Car2Go member for many years.  Combined with transit, it’s a dandy way of getting around Vancouver.  Until recently, it was just a 2-seater though.  Now between it and Evo there are five-seat one-way options available.  Haven’t had the chance to try out the Car2Go one yet, but I’m keen to. 

Rental cars were a regular supplement to our transit years, and worked pretty well.  That said, I find this option worked best for longer timeframes.  When we were carless, we would sometimes rent a car for trips to the Kootenays, and it was brilliant.  Getting one for a few hour picnic at Rolley Lake was less appealing.   

Human Powered Wheels.  We do make use of bikes, skateboards, scooters and a big red wagon.  For the older kids, a combined bike to school/work could potentially work well on some days, but it’s something we still need to try.  But generally these options tend to replace walking trips as opposed to driving trips. 

What can be done?

None of the issues I raised are deal breakers on their own.  It’s the combination of effects that pushes us away from transit.  If I’m going to get out of my car, I need something better in at least one of these areas.  Why would I pay more for a longer, less convenient, more hassle filled trip? 

The stronger the benefit transit offers in any area, the more likely I am to take it.  Going downtown?  Skytrain is cheaper, faster, and at least as convenient.  It usually wins.  Metrotown – driving’s cheaper, they take the same time, and to me the hassle of parking at Metrotown is worse than the hassle of bringing my kids on the train.  Toss up.  Taking my kids for dinner Uptown?  Driving is cheaper, faster, and more convenient. 

Some things would be improved, through general service improvements.  More buses overall means less crowding and easier connections. 

I don’t mind paying for my kids transit fares in theory, but as the kids and costs accumulate it makes the driving option relatively more appealing, as those costs don’t increase in the same way.  Even small things, like the old Family Pass, would go a long way.  We go to church in downtown Vancouver so this made the skytrain ideal for us. 

Increasing the cost of driving through things like mobility pricing will push the cost equation more in transit’s favour.  That said, it would take a very major increase to get us to shift to principally taking transit just on the cost. 

Similarly, finding a way to get passes into families’ hands would go a long way.  The U-pass program has shown if you give people passes they will use them.  Currently, it’s a vicious cycle.  If we had passes, we would use transit much more often.  But given the issues above, I can’t justify getting passes.  So if we do want to use transit, we need to buy tickets, which are even more punitive farewise. 

During the transit plebsicte, I half-jokingly suggested enacting a major vehicle levy (on the order of several hundred dollars), but including an annual transit pass with this.  I’d still pay to register my car even with such a large fee.  But I’d at least have a pass then, which would get me on transit far more often.   

EngineerScotty had some interesting things to say on this at HumanTransit, particularly on how transit oriented neighbourhoods are often not family friendly and vice versa. 

But overall, there’s no magic bullet.  It’s all the small things that add up together that determines how we travel.  Overall, I think our region is moving in the right direction on this.  Hopefully transit will become more and more attractive as things take hold.

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