Transit subsidies, downtown commuting and equity

2021, Innovations in Research

The Employer Transit Subsidy Study investigated how transit subsidies affected the commuting choices of workers at downtown Vancouver hotels. Its findings show that providing these workers with subsidies worth 15 to 50 per cent on their monthly transit passes persuaded a significant percentage of workers to leave their cars at home and instead take the bus or SkyTrain to work. The increase in transit-only commuting came with no reduction in walking or cycling.

Transit-only commuting increased by between three and four per cent at the hotels where the experimental transit subsidies were available and increased by less, or even declined, at the hotels where they weren’t. While these seem like small relative increases, they are significant given the high baseline level of transit commuting among the study population (over half of whom were already transit-only commuters when the study began in 2018).

The increases are also significant in view of the challenges to transit commuting facing many of these workers. Many needed to work on weekends or commute at off-peak hours, or had no regular start and end times for their shifts. Less than half of the study population lived in the City of Vancouver, resulting in longer commutes to their downtown workplaces.

Researchers collected all the study data in 2018 and 2019, before the pandemic. Seven participating hotels, along with Unite Here Local 40, allowed the SFU research teams into the hotels at three different times to survey workers about their commuting choices. At the four hotels that are members of the Greater Vancouver Hotel Employers Association, the workers already had an employer-paid 15 per cent subsidy on their transit passes, which was ratified during collective bargaining in 2015.

Few other studies focus on how workers in a specific industry respond to transit subsidies, and none focus on hospitality or tourism workers, who are so vital to Metro Vancouver’s economy. The study was possible by a partnership between SFU, the City of Vancouver, TransLink, Unite Here Local 40, and the participating hotels.

The policy impact of this research was dampened by the pandemic, but the data provides an important baseline for pandemic recovery.

This study found that the larger the transit subsidy offered, the more employees were induced to become transit riders and the more transit-only commuting increased. The increase in transit-only commuting came from a reduction in auto-only and auto-and-transit commuting. Transit subsidy acceptance and effectiveness can be dampened by factors such as the availability of cheap parking, or greater distance between the workplace and rapid transit, leading to some variability in outcomes. Transit ridership and subsidy acceptance were associated with various positive self-reported improvements to workers’ quality of life, including their health, stress levels and commute predictability. These positive quality of life outcomes were achieved without the transit subsidy having any observed effects on work schedules, turnover and performance.

About the project

Presentation at Innovations in Research, April 13, 2021

Peter Hall
Steve Tornes

Urban Studies Program

Transit subsidies, commuting patterns, hotel workers


Peter Hall

Peter V. Hall (he/him/his) is Associate Dean, Strategic Academic Planning, Enrolment Planning & Management and Budget in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, Canada. He is also a professor in the Urban Studies Program at SFU, where he teaches economic development, transportation geography and research methods. He received his doctorate in city and regional planning from the University of California at Berkeley and previously worked in local government in Durban, South Africa. His research examines the connections between port cities, seaports and logistics, as well as community, local economic and employment development. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Transport Geography.

Steve Tornes

Steve Tornes has an inexhaustible passion for all things related to urban planning, data, politics and literature. With a Master of Urban Studies from Simon Fraser University and a thesis on the Vancouver Bike Share Program, they look at the region through an environmental and equitable transportation perspective. Currently Steve is working as a data specialist for NexTech AR, a virtual events company, and as a research associate for a study project, in partnership with the City of Vancouver, studying the effects of transit subsidies for people with low income.

A North Vancouverite on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples, Steve currently sits on the City’s Advisory Planning Commission after having served as Chair of the Social Planning Advisory Committee. He can usually be found at their local library reading (before the pandemic) or getting immersed in some new subject, such as R programming or wildlife photography.

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