Below the Radar Transcript

The Trip Diary: A City in Transit – with Peter V. Hall

Speakers: Steve Tornes, Dr. Peter V. Hall

[Original theme music]

[Original theme music fades]  

Steve Tornes  0:20 
Hello, listeners. Welcome to The Trip Diary, a Below the Radar podcast series that examines movement in urban space. I'm Steve Tornes, with SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement. In the before times, I graduated from the SFU Urban Studies program while doing research on the Vancouver Bike Share program, and Employer-Based Transit Subsidies. Over the course of this series, we will explore how different commute modes impact daily life, and why we need to think about transportation in our urban design. The trip diary was recorded on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

[Sound of Skytrain pulling up, and doors opening]

Steve Tornes 1:14
I don't think I could ever give up on public transit. When I'm not listening to podcasts, I sit and read. Transit feels productive to me in a way that cars never do. When I read, I don't worry about parking, or congestion, or being cut off. For me, commuting is a moment when I can pause life. 

[Sound of Skytrain Jingle]  

Steve Tornes 1:36
Driving is not sustainable. We can't keep driving everywhere. But if we don't make the mode shift feasible or accessible, not enough people will make the change. Today, we will be talking with Dr. Peter V. Hall. Peter and I, as well as many others, including Karen Sawatzky and Jordan Booth, were part of a study looking at employer-based transit subsidies. We will be discussing the factors that encouraged people to switch from driving to public transit. Compared to our last episode on equity, this research is quantitative and numbers-based. And yet, even though it involves big data, it still cares deeply about equity. I hope that this episode can help provide another way to look at research and what we should be advocating for in our workspaces.

[Sound of Skytrain doors closing and then taking off]  

Steve Tornes 2:37
Hi, and welcome aboard The Trip Diary! It's great to have you here, Dr. Peter V. Hall. Peter is professor of Urban Studies, his areas of research include port cities, community, and local economic development, and, I guess now, employer-based transit subsidies. Peter, we've known each other for a few years now, we worked on this employer transit subsidy study together, and you were one of my professors when I was in Urban Studies. So, it brings me great joy to be able to turn the tables and ask you questions. But first, how are you?

Peter Hall  3:10 
Oh, Steve, thanks very much. I gotta tell you, it gives me great pleasure to have you asking me a series of questions. I hope I can answer them. Like everyone else, just really glad that we're moving forward out of the pandemic, and that we can actually turn back to important questions such as, "What are we going to do with transit?" And, "How do we support the use of transit and the mobility of people in our society?

Steve Tornes  3:36 
So Peter, you were the principal investigator, and I was a research assistant. For this project, there were three waves of surveys over the course of a year, with almost 900 survey responses, each wave. There were seven hotels, which were paired, and which included a control group. So, this study was a huge undertaking. So let me ask you, what was the study trying to understand? What was the study design? And why was this research method chosen?

Peter Hall  4:08 
Yeah, Steve, as you probably remember, we were essentially trying to see what would happen when employees in an industrial sector that is crucial to the post-industrial economy, what happens when employees in that sector, in that industry, are given a transit subsidy at different levels, and in particular, what happens to their commute behaviour, but also what happens in the workplace, what happens in their lives, and what potential benefits might come from a subsidy? Because of course, any kind of transit subsidy cost someone something. We had four hotels where they had a subsidy before the study began, and we matched those up into two pairs. And in each pair, we had one hotel that we kept at the original subsidy, pre-study, and then we had another hotel where we increased the subsidy. And then we had three hotels where they had no subsidy before the study, and we left one of those hotels at zero subsidy, and then we moved the other two hotels up by differing amounts of subsidy. And so, having essentially three pairs of hotels, plus an additional comparison hotel, gave us the possibility to, through comparing what happened, one hotel where there was no change, and a comparison hotel where there was a change of a different magnitude, what happened to the travel behaviour, and that was the purpose of the survey, was to look at the travel behaviour. And we did the first survey in September, we then applied the subsidy in some of the hotels, or the additional subsidy. And then six months later, we surveyed folks again, and then one year later, we surveyed folks for the third and final time, the bigger goal of the study was trying to estimate this effect and to confirm that, in fact, behaviour did change. It's not obvious that giving people a subsidy on their transit will necessarily change their behaviour, and the study did show that there are some people, you could give them free transit, and they probably still wouldn't take it. When we first started talking about the study with the different study partners, and the four groups that I mentioned, the hotel union, representing the workers, the employers, the city, and the Translink, when we first started talking about this study, we did look very hard at whether we could do the study by using only Compass Card data. In the end, we did make use of Compass Card data, so that's anonymous data on people's travel behaviour. And that certainly was a rich source of data, it did reveal some things that we didn't know going in. But of course, the Compass Card data only tells you about the people who take transit, it doesn't tell you about the people who are not taking transit. And it's complicated to match that transit, Compass Card data up to the characteristics of individuals. So, one reason for doing the survey was to really get an understanding of the people who are giving us the answers. So, we could ask them, for instance, about whether they had obligations to drop kids off on the way to work, or, you know, whether they had access to a car, regardless of how they commuted, and so on. So, it's very hard to get a hold of that kind of data in any other way than actually just asking people questions and recording their answers. We applied, the subsidy, we relied most heavily on the questionnaire surveys, which, as you noted in the introduction, we got really good response rates on. We did supplement all of this with some interviews with key people within the hotels. We did supplement this by having a look at the parking situation around each of the hotels. We did supplement this with, as I said, the Compass Card data from TransLink. So there were other pieces of data that helped to flesh out the picture. But again, the core is, you know, asking people, who are you, what's going on in your life? How happy does this make you? Or, how sad does this make you? I guess?

[Sound of people boarding and leaving a bus]

Steve Tornes 8:14
So, you talked about the generosity of the hotel management, as well as the union. So, on that note, who were the social actors that pushed for the study, and how did it influence the study design? Or in other words, how does this study an example of applied phronesis help promote knowledge exchange in the community?

Peter Hall 8:35
Great, great question. The, I think I mentioned, there were four hotels that had a subsidy before the study. And in those hotels, what happened was, they used to be a 15% transit subsidy, that was part of the tax policy in Canada, it was eliminated. And so when that happened, the employees in those hotels went and bargained and said, "We want to make this part of our compensation." I mean, think about that for a moment: that is a group of employees saying to their employer, "We want to make a subsidy that only some of us will make use of. We want to make that part of the total compensation package of the hotel, that the employer has to pay." So there's people within the union, saying that this is a social need, the union makes it part of the priority for bargaining. The employers were interested in the study, to understand what the uptake would be to understand whether there were any benefits from transit subsidy that went beyond just, you know, purely, "how do we divvy up the compensation?" And I think through the study, also started to appreciate some of the savings they could have on the parking side, not having to provide parking or subsidized parking. So, they were a social force behind the study. City of Vancouver had an interest in the study, City of Vancouver as you know, is a leader in trying to move away from automotive transportation, supported also by TransLink, TransLink has a direct incentive to try to encourage the use of their transit services. Transit in the case of hotel employees, I think our findings, TransLink were very interested in understanding counterflow commuters; would there be people who would take transit, the opposite direction, first thing in the morning instead of travelling into work in the city would who might be encouraged through such a subsidy to get on the transit and go in the opposite direction? That was something that TransLink were very interested in. I think our findings show that a pretty substantial chunk of hotel employees commute seven-to-three, or six-to-three. So they come a little bit earlier than the office workers, but they do tend to go into the city in the morning, the largest groups of employees that are taking transit. So, a lot of forces came together to make this possible.

Steve Tornes  10:55 
One thing that I really liked about this study is that it was not simply pursuing knowledge for its own sake, it was also trying to answer questions that were being asked by people in the community, that would make an impact in their collective bargaining between union and management. So, that is just something that I really appreciated about this study. So we talked about all these different social actors who had different goals that they wanted from the study. So, what were the overall findings of the study as it related to those goals?

Peter Hall  11:27 
So, we certainly did confirm that a transit subsidy is able to shift the behavior towards more transit use, and this is in a population that has already had a pretty high level of transit ridership. Certainly, it was able to shift. And the bigger the subsidy, the bigger the shift, we were able to show that. We certainly did identify some of the structural constraints on how far that can go. Different populations, who probably, it would be very difficult with our current patterns of land use and transit provision, and reliance on the automobile, be very difficult to change their behaviour, where subsidy alone might not do it, might not move them. So both the potential to move, but also some limitations. The hotel union and management, as we were concluding the study, went into a round of bargaining, it became pretty contentious over some other issues, not about transit. When those rounds of bargaining were settled, they actually did increase the transit subsidy at some hotels; there were there was a hotel where they previously didn't have it, where they adopted a transit subsidy. There was a lot of progress there. It's absolutely the case that, you know, a lot of that good work has been derailed by the pandemic. But yes, we were able to move the dial there. And I'd like to think that some of the findings about the social distribution, the equity of who gets to participate, who gets to benefit from the subsidy, from such a subsidy. I think that has been influential in informing some of the work that's going on in TransLink, as they turn more of an equity lens on some of their infrastructure and service provision planning.

Steve Tornes  13:15 
So, I interviewed Lori MacDonald last week, and she had a very similar criticism: she said that a concern that she had about trip diaries is that they really only focus on office workers, that it doesn't really capture the workers who come before a certain time or after a certain time, and it doesn't capture their relationship with transit.

Peter Hall  13:35 
Absolutely. You know, trip diaries have their place in understanding, you know, transit behaviour, travel behaviour, you know, I wouldn't want to knock the value that they provide. We opted to go with a very simple form of trip diary, focusing on the commute to work, because that was the centrepiece of our investigation. And so we gave up on some of the final levels of detail that you would get in a traditional trip diary survey, because it was more important to us put a sort of emphasis on some of the home-work life issues that might influence subsidy uptake. And you know, that's the kind of trade-off you have in any questionnaire. But yes, your comment speaks to the sample issue and who we pay attention to. And it's, I think it is absolutely true that those studies do struggle to really tell us enough about all the whole diversity of transit users.

[Sound of bus when they lower the door for easy access]

Steve Tornes  14:30 
So now, just moving to some of the more technical aspects of the analysis of this study, just really the parts that I find interesting. And there might be a bit of whiplash going from one topic to another, but...

Peter Hall  14:44  
I hope my memory's up to this.

Steve Tornes  14:46 
So: what are commute mode scores?

Peter Hall  14:50 
Oh, my goodness, commute mode scores. So, that was an attempt to try and create a kind of an index or a metric that would give us a handle on who was more likely to take a particular mode of transportation. And so it was a, I mean, at one level, you can think of it as factor analysis, trying to identify the variables that would be most likely to predict if someone was to drive a car. Well, do they have access to a car, and how far away do they live? And, alternatively, how many times do they have to change seats, if they were to take transit instead? And so, we did a similar kind of thing for walking, for commuting by transit, and so on. And that was really, ultimately the most, I think the most useful insight we gained from that is the, what is the percentage of the workforce, that's probably never going to take transit? Either because they're just so overwhelmingly likely to drive, or conversely, overwhelmingly likely to walk or bike. So that's what that was! Well, I hope that was, you started with the hardest one.

Steve Tornes  16:03 
it was definitely one of the trickier ones. So, if someone got more than a score of two, then it was over 50% of the participants would have fallen under that mode. So the four factors for each one: active mode, if they were male, downtown residents had no kids at home, non-regular shifts. If they had at least two of these attributes, at least 50% of them would have been using active modes like walking or cycling. Transit mode: Zone Two residents, no stops on commutes, regular shifts, leave home and return between 6 am and 9 pm.

Peter Hall  16:44 
Yeah, I'll just stop you there. I mean, there's a bunch of stuff going on in those factors. So, Zone One, in Vancouver includes people who can easily take active transit. So, and Zone Two is well-provided with transit. In North American terms, Zone Two is really well-serviced. Zone Three, not so much. And then that travel between six and nine is also when the level of service is the highest. So yeah, that really speaks to questions of service level and infrastructure design, and so on. Yeah. Anyway, sorry to interrupt you.

Steve Tornes  17:22 
No worries, you're predicting my next question after this.

Peter Hall  17:25 
Oh, Okay.

Steve Tornes  17:28 
Auto mode: have access to auto, live in a frequent service area with low frequent transit network score, stop to make drop-offs on way to/from work. Two or more transit segments. So yeah, are there any implications of these scores?

Peter Hall  17:46 
Yes, there are implications, they really do help us understand the importance of the transit provision at the place of residence. Yeah, we have, we have a frequent transportation network, which guarantees a certain level of service, and being in close proximity to that really increases the chances of taking transit. Of course, the challenge for city makers, whether they're on the planning land use side or on the transit side, is that many of the places that have the lowest level of service are also the places where people can afford to get their own home. And so, of course, you know, individuals are making that trade-off, policymakers are making that trade-off. And that's particularly pressing in the Lower Mainland, where house prices are so extreme. Those indicators are a lot about the design and operation of the transit system. They are also about the underlying housing market and the effect that that has on people's options and choices.

Steve Tornes  18:48 
So, you've already answered this question, but you're free to expand upon it if you want. If we made transit free, does this study think that everyone will become a transit user? You already said no. But who wouldn't make the commute shift, and why?

Peter Hall  19:04 
Yeah, you know, again, people who live very far, and people who live very near, people who have access to automobiles, people who are provided with cheap or subsidized parking, people who have complicated commutes, whether the complication is because of the hours that they work, you know, people who have shifts ending at 2 am, generally, we found are either walking & biking home, or they're driving home. And people who have complicated commutes in the sense of having family and other obligations that cause them to have multiple destinations. Otherwise, if someone has something complicated like that, they need to get somewhere remote for a second job, or to study, or for a family obligation. It doesn't take too many transit transfers for someone to want to drive instead.

Steve Tornes  19:57 
What were some of the different barriers for a subsidy uptake? And I know that there were a huge range of possible barriers, some based upon how the subsidy was delivered, some with the transportation system itself. But could you describe some of the different barriers? Why would people not take up the subsidy, and was there an extra component to it?

Peter Hall  20:19 
Some of this is just knowledge, and awareness of the program, and, you know, thinking about it at the right time, and having it presented to them in the right way. One other important kind of barrier to uptake is that this benefit, as it was originally bargained for between the employer and the employee group, the union group, was seen partly as a benefit of seniority commitment to the job, and partly as a kind of a benefit that the employer might have not wanted to offer immediately. So, from both employer and the employee side, there was a sort of a bit of hesitancy about making this available on day one to employees. And we have some indirect evidence, I'd say, it's not a very easy thing to demonstrate, really rigorously, but we have some evidence from the study that it probably would be really advantageous to make the subsidy available to employees on day one. That's good for equity issues, because younger people and people entering the labour market, the local labour market for whatever reason, they tend to be disadvantaged by having to wait in some cases a year before they qualify for the subsidy. But also, we think that's good policy, because it locks their behaviour in from day one, it gets them right in transit from the first day. So, there's both an equity and a policy efficiency or argument, there. Other reasons for lack of uptake of the subsidy, there are certain categories of people working in the hotel industry, who might not get enough hours to make it worth their while committing to a monthly transit pass. And so the subsidy, the subsidy does make, you know, incentivize that, it does make it more attractive. But it's still true: if you're not writing transit 20 times in a month, it's not worth getting a monthly pass product. If you're not riding transit, 18 or 17 times a month, it's not worth getting a transit pass, even though it comes with a 15% subsidy. So, if you're only working 10 days in a month, and that is the case, you know, this is a seasonal industry, you know, there are periods of boom and bust. It's not always actually a rational decision for someone to pick up a transit pass. So that's another kind of barrier with clear equity issues and implications.

Steve Tornes  22:55 
Can I jump in here? Just to go back to one of your earlier points, where you talked about locking in transit behaviour? Would you say that it is more when you start a new job, you still haven't solidified what kind of commute you will do? Or is it, in addition, or maybe separate from someone who has been driving for so long, that getting them off driving to transit is now much harder? Like, has it already been locked in that way?

Peter Hall  23:23 
Yeah, there's a little bit of research suggesting that when people make life transitions, for whatever reason, they're more open to changing things such as their transit behaviour. If I'm working in restaurant Am and I go next door, and I work in restaurant B, that's not a life transition, probably. But to some extent, every new job is a little bit of a life transition, or at least there's a potential there. And so if you're arriving at a new job, and the first thing you get is a parking pass for a month, and you drive for a month, you know, you have to figure it's gonna be harder to a year later say to someone, "Oh, okay, well, no, now here's a transit pass, start riding transit." It's partly about the transition and the period that they're in.

Steve Tornes  24:12 
Well, that got me thinking, are we currently in a moment of great transition with the pandemic? Lots of people are now working remotely.

Peter Hall  24:20 

Steve Tornes  24:22 
If offices do ask employees to start coming back to work, in a way, this is an opportunity to change travel patterns, through compensation packages, which can include transit subsidies.

Peter Hall  24:35 
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Great, great question. So, I think the study gives hope for thinking about the current condition and some ideas to go forward. But one of the places where we just don't know enough, and where, again, some more kind of social change, policy change research is needed, is really thinking through what the transit system looks like, and what transit pricing structures and subsidy structures and product structures look like for people who are only commuting few days a week, you know, not doing nine-to-five, Monday to Friday. Because the past products, so those are the monthly prepaid transit packages that you can purchase in Vancouver. It's the same in many, many parts of the world, not everywhere, they really are predicated on a pretty stable, predictable monthly pattern of commutes, and if we're moving towards a much more fragmented set of work patterns, that's going to raise challenges. As I say one of the predictors of not taking off the transit subsidy was an unpredictable work schedule. And so, we do have to wrap our heads around the less predictable work schedules that might be with us off to the end of the pandemic.

[Sounds of passing cars]

Steve Tornes  25:51 
So, one of the findings that really surprised me was that 47% of those who added transit to their commutes reported reductions in their stress levels and that 94% of those that stopped using transit reported the same or increased levels of stress. Society, I find, usually pushes a car as the ideal form of transportation. It's often seen as a rite of passage for adulthood. But that finding suggests to me a new way to look at transit and our relationship to transportation. Why do you think that there was a reduction in stress for new transit users? And what are your thoughts in general, when it comes to this finding?

Peter Hall  26:30 
What we think is going on there is to do with predictability of the commute, because that was also something that improved as people adopted the subsidy and moved to transit. You are taking a source of stress out of your day by not driving. And yeah, again, I think I think it has to do with the predictability of the commute, not having to find parking when you get there, not having other obligations put onto your trip, such as picking someone up or picking something up that kind of thing. You know, again, this is where the pandemic starts to challenge the limits of what we can say about the world that we're now in, because it's probably true, that transit is more stressful for people who are worried about COVID right now, and although the research tells us that transit is safe from a COVID perspective, I, you know, I can get that people are concerned about being in a crowded space, and so on. So, it was a very intriguing finding, I'm really glad we asked questions about that, and started to gather some insights from that, you know, that's, that's not going to be the silver bullet to convince people that they should all get on transit right now. [laughs]

Steve Tornes  27:40 
What was the effect of parking on the research? Did you expect it when the study proposal began? And how did it affect the study design,

Peter Hall  27:48 
The parking issue was flagged by the city because they've been thinking about parking provisions and norms and expectations from developers. The design of the study that we ended up with, with really these three pairs plus one hotel, didn't give us as many points of comparison as would have been ideal; we'd wanted to really come up with well-controlled, rigorous findings around parking. We did in the end, systematically review the parking around all of the hotels, and certainly there was a well-established pattern. Where the parking issue came up most prominently was actually from our interviews with the employers, and where they, in our interviews, and as we probed them about the way they think about transit and the transportation of their workers in general, they started to reveal some really interesting patterns of parking provision. There are a couple of these hotels, where parking is really scarce, and it becomes a status symbol, and something that's given to very few people and is expensive, and so on. And there are other hotels, where it's because of where they are in the city, or because of odd decisions that were made in the 1960s, about how many parking spaces to put in the building, they're actually a little bit trapped and having a surplus of parking. And if you have a surplus of parking, it's very easy for an employer to, you know, provide it at a subsidized level to the employees. It's revenue they don't get otherwise. And there's certainly one hotel I'm thinking of that particularly has this choice. And, you know, so it's to their credit that they are a hotel that has a transit subsidy because the marginal cost of them providing parking is very small for a bunch of just odd historical reasons. So, it was flagged in the interviews, and it was clearly something that our hotel partners were thinking about actively, and were asking themselves through the study, "Should we be doing this? Should we be giving subsidized parking? Is that the employee request we should listen, to or should we keep listening to the folks who are saying give us a transit subsidy?"

Steve Tornes  29:59 
Peter, you taught me a really fun course, Urban Economic Development. So let me ask you, how can commute modes and patterns affect urban economies?

Peter Hall  30:09 
Ah, okay.

Steve Tornes  30:10 
You can see why saved until last?

Peter Hall  30:12 
That's just a great question! That entire course starts with trying to make sense of something that is so obvious in the history of human civilization, that we don't think about it very much, and that is, why is it that economic activity clusters in these places we call cities? If we look across the landscape, there are, of course, things going on all over the place, people doing things all over the place, but economic activity clusters in cities. That clustering is another way of saying that economic distribution of activity on the planet is uneven, it's extremely uneven. Well, that seems to be a pattern that's pretty hard to break. But it comes with all sorts of other challenges, challenges for the environment, challenges, social challenges, and then challenges for how to efficiently move people around and have them connect up in these places that we call cities. So, we take for granted that economies cluster in places, and we take for granted that those places where economic activities clustering somehow have to work out how to move people around. That's a very long way of saying there is no efficient urban economy that doesn't have an efficient way of moving its people around. It's all very well to say that, you know, it'd be great if everyone could live close to their job and walk to work. But we know we can't achieve that in a modern metropolitan context. And we know that if everyone gets in their car and drives in the same direction in the morning, we're in gridlock, whether it's transit, or something else, we have to have efficient ways of moving people around if we're going to have these things called urban economies. Yeah, great question. There's no efficient urban economy without some way of efficiently moving people. And equitably, I should say that, I should really emphasize that because there is no efficient urban economy that isn't inclusive in the long run.

Steve Tornes  32:22 
Thank you so much for coming on the show, Peter. It's been great talking to you. But it's also been an incredible trip down memory lane.

Peter Hall  32:29 
Steve, thank you so much. And it's just a huge pleasure to talk with you today, and to remember all of your great work on the study. Thank you.

[Skytrain cue: The next station is terminus station waterfront.]

Steve Tornes 32:48
This concludes our second episode of the trip diary. Even though we didn't talk much about it here, we can't overcome or mitigate the effects of climate change without radical changes and improvements to our transportation network. I hope this episode about commute shifts and collective bargaining rights shows a path towards making public transit more accessible. But also, I hope this episode shows a new way to conduct research, not just through his quantitative surveys and Compass Card data, but also through his purpose. This research began with the question by employees, the union, and employers. It was researched with a strong social purpose. Changing commute patterns requires a coordinated effort. It requires coalition building, it requires knowledge sharing. And finally, I also really want to emphasize how free or cheap parking can negate many of the effects of transit subsidies. Parking is not the status quo, it is a policy choice. Thank you to our guest, Dr. Peter V. Hall, and to everyone who took part in the research, including the other researchers, the partners, and of course, the hospitality workers who took the time to fill out the surveys. And to you, listeners, thank you for joining me on this transit subsidy journey, the second installment of The Trip Diary miniseries.

Steve Tornes 34:13
This episode is roughly 35 minutes. This is the same amount of time it takes to go from Surrey Central Station to Granville station, taking the Expo Line across four different municipalities and without any congestion. I hope you enjoyed the commute.

Steve Tornes 34:31
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement. A special thanks to the team that created the: series Paige Smith, Melissa Roach, Kathy Feng, Alyha Bardi, and Alex Masse. Original Music by Alex Masse. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Paige Smith and Kathy Feng. Series artwork by Kathy Feng. Many hands make light work. It has been a joy to work with all of you on this project. Head to the show notes to read up on some of the initiatives and examples mentioned in this episode. Stay tuned for the next installment of this series, about cycling and public space, coming out on July 19.

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
July 12, 2022

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