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Gas prices boost transit demand across province

Whistler ridership still tops in Canada



With gas prices recently hitting the $1.50/litre mark, a growing number of Canadians are leaving their cars at home in favour of public transportation.

Nationally, transit ridership increased about three per cent from April 2007 to March 2008, which Steve New, senior vice president of B.C. Transit, said can be partly attributed to rising gas prices. In B.C., the increase in ridership during the same period has been eight per cent.

Although B.C. Transit has increased service by about seven per cent during that period, adding new buses and trains, it’s still a significant increase.

“More people are taking transit for a number of reasons, including the fact that we’ve increased service across the province,” said New. “But there has certainly been anecdotal evidence from our passengers and surveys that people are turning to transit as a result of the high cost of travel in a personal vehicle.”

B.C. Transit is a Crown corporation that manages transit systems across the province, with the exception of Greater Vancouver and Victoria which are managed by TransLink. According to a recent CBC report, TransLink has seen ridership increase to the point where they are selling out of monthly passes and are printing more to keep up with demand. They are also proceeding with plans to add 94 more buses to their fleet this year, and 94 SkyTrain cars in 2009.

New says there is still capacity in most public transportation systems outside of the Lower Mainland to handle the demand. The one exception is Whistler, where ridership numbers are the highest in B.C. and among the highest in Canada.

“In B.C., Whistler remains on top, as on average every hour a bus is operating there are 41 passengers on board. Comparing that to TransLink — and this number is a year old — there are just over 32 passengers,” New explained. “There is room on those buses and nobody is getting left behind, which I understand is sometimes the case in Whistler.”

Whistler has recently seen an incremental increase in service, with ridership numbers up about one per cent during the last fiscal year. There were some problems with the aging bus fleet during the winter, but replacement buses were brought in to pick up the slack. A new fleet is expected to arrive in 2009, including 20 hydrogen buses — the world’s first hydrogen bus fleet.

New says it’s harder to attribute any increase in Whistler ridership to gas prices, given the already strong ridership habits of the community in general, and the Valley Trail system in the summer months.

“The influence of higher fuel prices is not as evident as we’re seeing in other communities, but it is probably a factor for many riders — especially with riders using the Squamish and Pemberton commuter bus services,” he said.

According to the municipality’s Emma DalSanto, the number of people using the Squamish-Whistler commuter service during the summer is so far about 80 per cent of the load during the winter months — about what they predicted when Squamish, Whistler and B.C. Transit decided to run the service through the summer.

As for the recent jump in gas prices — more than 30 cents a litre since February — DalSanto says it will be interesting to see how ridership may be affected when they compile their next report for B.C. Transit. With added service — the continuation of the Alpine Meadows only and Emerald Estates only buses in the morning, additional night service to Tapley’s Farm, and an extended Whistler Express bus service through the spring — DalSanto expects numbers to be up slightly.

“Every time we’ve increased capacity we’ve seen an increase in ridership to go along with it,” she said.

The Whistler and Valley Express (WAVE) service increased its fares on June 1 to help absorb growing operating costs, including the increased cost of fuel. New says fuel prices are a concern for transit systems province-wide, and that fare increases should be expected.

“For this year alone, as an example, the budget forecast we made only a few months ago was averaging a dollar for a litre of diesel for the upcoming year,” he said. “Now we’re seeing prices in the $1.30 range. The fluctuations in the market no longer favour the system we’ve used in the past of buying futures, hedging on the price fluctuations in the market to get a lower price than you would see at the gas pump. Now futures are much higher than pump prices, and now we’re weathering all the volatility in the diesel fuel market. We still get an advantage for buying bulk, given the 21 million litres we purchase a year… but fuel is a big part of our operating costs and those costs are going up.”

WAVE will be doing its next official ridership count in August.