Kevin is an experienced executive with a career built in the public transportation industry.
Prior to joining TransLink, Kevin was General Manager of King County Metro Transit serving the Seattle metropolitan region. At Metro, he oversaw a mix of transit modes, including buses, trains, vanpools, paratransit vans, as well as approximately 5,000 employees. In his 12 years tenure, he helped to grow ridership by 44 per cent and launch the ORCA Card, as well as light rail, streetcar service, and several bus rapid transit lines. Kevin was also part of three successful votes on transit funding.
Prior to Metro Transit, Kevin was Vice-President of Operations and Development at Pierce Transit in Tacoma, Washington. Before relocating to the West Coast, Kevin acted as Chief of Operations Planning for New York City Transit which included bus and subway operations. Earlier in his career he served as Deputy Director in Mayor Koch’s Transportation Office and Assistant Commissioner for the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission.
Kevin has a master’s degree in public administration from New York University. He is a member of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Board of Directors and the first chair of the organization’s Sustainability Committee.
Transcript of Kevin Desmond’s Presentation
You could probably come up with a number of different metaphors about managing a public transportation system. Whether it’s here in Vancouver or where I started my transit career in New York or my prior position in Seattle, it’s always messy.
When I talk to mayors here, certainly when I first got here, they were very focused on governance. Some people say that TransLink has to have the craziest governance model of any transit system or transportation organization anywhere on the planet. It’s just not true. Every single metropolitan region that I’m familiar with, at least in North America, has its own cockamamie way of governing its transportation. This is just our way of doing it.
It’s a complex environment. I’m actually up for a challenge and that’s one reason I took this position. The governance and the scope and all of those competing demands are really a part of the task. If you’re into public policy and problem solving it’s kind of interesting. Sometimes it’s aggravating and sometimes it’s incredibly frustrating but if you do it well and figure out how to be a consensus builder you can really make things happen. Perhaps that might lead into a thing for some of the conversation here this morning.
I’m just going to give you a quick lesson on who we are.
TransLink is a large complex organization. At the end of the 1990s its creators and founders had a vision for an entity that could be the integrated transportation planner for the Lower Mainland stretching in the way that was described throughout our geography as well as an integrated provider of transportation services. The most prominent service is SkyTrain, as well as the ubiquitous bus system, the beloved SeaBus, the West Coast Express and our Handy DART service for people with disabilities. As well, we have a police department that was formed earlier in the prior decade. We also have a responsibility for major roads and bridges in this region. I will talk about the Pattullo Bridge and what’s going on with the bridges later.
We co-manage what we call the major road network with the cities throughout the region. They are still largely responsible for it and I wouldn’t say that TransLink, since it was created in 1999, has pulled all of the program and policy levers on the so-called MRN program but it is part of our responsibility and power. That comes with a pretty significant capability to plan out, influence and importantly, fund pedestrian and biking facilities throughout the region. We have our tentacles in a lot of issues and that was really what the creators of TransLink had in mind. Even to this day, while I think there are some imperfections in the model and there are always issues between different levels of governments, I think that a lot of the results of the creation of TransLink have borne a lot of fruit for this region. As such, what we represent and accomplish in partnership with the province, the cities, the federal government and community groups is absolutely fundamental to the ongoing economic success of this region and the ongoing high livability and quality of life in this region.
That’s very meaningful to me and it’s very much a part of the DNA of TransLink.
Some current events and what’s going on with Translink.
2017 was a huge year for TransLink given how we ended 2016 with the mayors and our board approving a year one investment plan and the opening of the Evergreen Line. We were able to start off 2017 with a whole bunch of momentum that is bearing fruit.
In our industry, and I learned this from way back, we have stats. Man, do we have indicators. We have key performance measures and efficiency effectiveness indicators all over the place. There’s an interesting debate in my industry about how to best measure the value of public value. How public transit is returning investment back to its region and taxpayers.
At the end of the day to me the fundamental indicator was ridership. It’s our product, we’re selling something. McDonald’s measures how many Big Macs they sell. That’s the way you can underscore your success. Well, ridership has always been important to me in every single transit agency that I’ve worked in. In 2016 ridership grew by 4.5 percent. Last year ridership grew by 5.7 percent and even through February of this year ridership is up over a little bit more than 6 percent. In our region that represents 407 million boardings which is 22.5 million more boardings than 2016 which was in itself a record year.
Importantly, something different is happening in this great region. In 2016 and 2017 virtually every metropolitan area in North America was either seeing stagnant or declining ridership. When I go to conferences put on by the American Public Transportation Association, which is are major industry group, everyone is talking about what’s going on with ridership. Why is ridership declining? Well here in the Vancouver region and the Seattle reason, for reasons that are probably fairly similar, we’re seeing incredible robust growth in ridership. What’s generating that ridership? Certainly the economy has been strong, employment growth has been strong, and the service increase that started with the Evergreen Line intensely last year as well as the Compass program.
Commercial-Broadway Station handles 150,000 journeys. That’s basically boardings of people per day. That’s significantly more than YVR and that’s just one station. I’m sort of a competitive person. I love YVR, they do a great job and have done great with their brand. This region really loves to see YVR succeed because it’s kind of a symbol for the region and yet they pale in comparison to the number of people that we transport each and every day and therefore the importance in the region. I often use that in presentations by way of context.
I always want to point out that over the last 20 years, this is new information released by the Canadian Census Bureau a few months ago, we’ve seen a huge increase in the portion of people who use public transportation daily to commute and we led the country in that increase of the market share of journey-to-work trips and that’s another illustration of the value of the investments that have been made over many years here in our region.
Metro Vancouver ranks 24th for urban metropolitan areas by way population but we rank eighth in transit ridership so we are hitting well above our weight. So again, that is an illustration of the design of our multimodal system as well very much with the intensity of development around our system. You’re probably familiar with the mayors’ plan, the 10-year plan going forward. You’re probably also familiar with the plebiscite in 2015 that now seems long in the past.
This is the current plan that we are working. The phase one portion of this was adopted by our mayors in November 2016 with significant increases throughout our integrated system. Twenty-five by the end of 10 years if it’s fully funded, a 25 percent increase in bus service, 12 new B-Lines, we’re building a new SeaBus in the Netherlands right now that will be here this year. It will allow us to ultimately have 10 minute frequency for much of the day. A significant increase in HandyDART service would be funded. We would be able to purchase a significant number of SkyTrain vehicles both to expand the system and to replace the aging original equipment on the Expo Line. It would allow for additional cars for the West Coast Express and building out the Broadway line and Surrey light rail. There would be additional for funding for the major road network, biking and walking and what we call mobility innovations.
The first phase of the program was adopted in fall 2016. That covers the first three years of the 10-year-plan. So 2017 through 2019. The catalyst for that was the federal Public Transportation Infrastructure Plan known as PTIFP which was announced three days after I started work in March 2016 by Prime Minister Trudeau’s government.
It created a catalyst to get the mayors back together again. Coming off the plebiscite the whole plan was moribund. There was no sense of how this was going to work or where the funding would come from. The federal government provided a catalyst with an initial down-payment of $360 million. That was matched by almost $240 million from the province and the region came up with the rest on the capital side with $700 million. Importantly, it also provided the operating funding to get additional service out and make it happy fast.
One of the things that I brought to the table that I thought was very important for the mayors and TransLink to put forward, which was really not done well in the plebiscite, was to talk about how we are going to put service out quickly. We have overcrowded bus routes, we have overcrowded SkyTrains and we have portions of the region that just don’t have any service. Let’s make a down-payment and frontload some of the investments with service going forward.
Point of fact, we started putting out the additional service in January 2017. That was six months before any of the new taxes and fees that were created to fund the program were even put in place. By that I mean a small property tax increase and a small fare increase both of which took effect in July 2017.
I am proud that we got those services out even before we were generating the revenue. Some of that was due to what I call the dividend from the Compass program. Many of you probably know from reading in the press over the years before Compass was fully implemented probably had a really negative impression of Compass. TransLink was struggling with a lot of negative media. Well, I’m here to tell you that Compass works extremely well and because it reduced fare evasion and changed some of the dynamics about how people interface with the system. It generated additional fare revenue. We were able to put that forward to frontload the system with service increases.
What did we do? We increased Handy DART service last year by five percent. It was probably the biggest increase in terms of dollars and the mobilization required to get service on it. We had to bring in 300 additional bus drivers last year to make that happen.
We have seen a seven percent increase in SeaBus. In fact, we increased SeaBus twice last year: in January and then again in May just before the summer season. We have also seen a very significant increase in SkyTrain service on the Expo Line, the Millennium Line and the Canada Line. As I said, much of that has helped to drive ridership increase.
In addition to putting service out on the road we have a very active capital program. We have the assets needed to continue to deliver additional service. In total we replaced 391 vehicles last year. This includes both HandyDART and fixed route buses.
A couple of weeks ago we made an announcement with the premier about purchasing 56 additional SkyTrain cars and 24 Canada Line cars. The first of the new SkyTrain cars will be here this fall and they will roll out during the spring and summer of 2019. The Canada Line cars will begin to arrive sometime in 2020.
This will help to provide more capacity and relieve crowding in the system. We’re all looking forward to those care getting here.
We also have three mega projects.
One of them is the Pattullo Bridge and the other two are the Broadway Line, which I know many of you in this room are interested in and the Surrey Light Rail.
First I want to touch on Pattullo Bridge. I look at that beautiful bridge out the window of my apartment in New Westminster each and every day. That bridge needs to be replaced. It’s well beyond its useful life. It was not built to modern seismic standards. TransLink’s been struggling for years to finance a replacement of the bridge.
When the NDP government announced that they are going to eliminate tolls on the Port Mann Bridge and the TransLink Golden Ears Bridge it also then threw the financing of this project into some question.
It was our expectation that we would receive one-third funding as a cash grant from the province to replace the bridge and otherwise we would finance the project through toll revenue. The NDP government wants to remove tolls on the Fraser River crossings through a series of prolonged negotiations in the fall. The other day the province decided they would take the project so they have, in fact, taken the project off of TransLink’s responsibility which is, frankly, a good thing for transit and TransLink.
That project is now moving forward and I expect that the province will start the procurement process in the weeks ahead and we are still expecting the new bridge to open by 2023. The new bridge will still be a four-lane bridge that will be built to modern standards. If any of you drive on the current Pattullo Bridge you will know that the lane widths were certainly not designed to current standards from a design standpoint. The new bridge will also have a really nice bike and pedestrian path as well.
The long sought extension of the Millennium Line is well on its way. It’s a six kilometer extension with six stations from VCC-Clark all the way to Arbutus. It will be tunneled. We are close to going out to procurement, we just need a final funding deal with our mayors and the province to move it forward. The funding is matched. About 35 percent of the project will be funded by the federal government, 40 percent will be funded by the province and our mayors will have to come up with the remaining funding.
We are very close to that deal. Assuming that we make a deal very soon we could begin procurement for that project, again, sometime in the middle of this year and the expectation would be that the Broadway Line would start service in 2025.
We will talk about that publicly fairly soon. We’ve been having considerable public consultations. Some of you in this room might have participated in the public consultation.
My favourite part of the project is the Cambie Street Station which, in my view, is correcting one of the mistakes in how the Canada Line itself was built. Many of you probably use the Canada Line maybe to go to the airport from time-to-time. It doesn’t have a seamless connection with the Expo Line either Downtown at Vancouver City Centre Station or at Waterfront Station. Cambie Street Station will be an integrated station that will finally integrate the SkyTrain network with the Canada Line network.
That’s going to be an important addition to the integration of our system going forward.
Our other mega project is the Surrey light rail project.
Surrey is the fastest growing part of our region. It has attracted some 300,000 new residents over the last number of years and will soon surpass Vancouver as the largest city in our region. They just don’t have enough transit. We have left the communities south of the Fraser River behind as they have been growing quickly and we have not been able to keep up with transit investment.
The light rail program in Surrey is intended to begin to correct that but in a different way. This will be surface light rail that will replace the existing 96 B-Line. The 96 B-Line, which was launched in 2013, has been one of our fastest-growing routes in the region. In the last couple of years its ridership has grown between 13 and 15 percent and in 2016 it had the largest nominal ridership increase of any route in the system with 570,000 boardings.
The Surrey project is a total of 27 kilometres. The first phase of the project, the so-called L line, will run from Newton to Surrey Central and Guildford Town Centre. That will be the 10.2 kilometres. Once we get the program fully funded with the federal government providing 35 percent, the province 40 percent we expect to go out to the marketplace maybe later this year. The L Line will be operational around 2024.
So the Broadway extension and this L Line will be funded in the next phase program.
The third phase of the program is our Fraser Highway extension from Surrey Central to Langley.
The purpose of the surface light rail from Surrey’s point of view, which I endorse, is a community shaping program. There is still some debate in Surrey about why they won’t get a SkyTrain. Surrey is growing fast and they wanted to find a way to mitigate the effects of urban sprawl by creating a walkable and denser community around the L Line where you can live, work, shop and play in rough approximation to the L Line. Basically, you don’t have to travel as far. You can use the light rail to get around in a more localized circulation network and if you need to get to the SkyTrain you can get on the SkyTrain at Surrey Central.
That’s the Mayors’ Plan. We are well on our way to realization of the program. There were major service increases last year and we will continue to increase service this year and in 2019 we hope to have the next round of investments put in place. We hope to hear a funding announcement shortly that will enable us to continue to add service to meet demand.
I talked about the ridership increase before. The demand in our region is absolutely insatiable. When I go to cities and talk to mayors, city councils and residents they all tell me they want more transit in the region. I’m sure you all would like more transit in the areas in which you live.
Good things are happening and there’s a good consensus from an intergovernmental standpoint.
Some of the other things we are doing here with transit.
We’re not just focused on improving and expanding the transit system. There are many other elements, programs and priorities in play.
How many of you have a Compass card?
I always have to ask that and in this region it’s always great. Most hands go up no matter where I am in the region so well done, good for you.
One of the dreams that we in my industry have had for many years, with the coming of chip technology, tap-on RFID-based technology. How do you move to what we call open payments? That you’re not necessarily tethered to the card. This sort of proprietary single card is still going to be very valuable going forward but can we reach people that don’t use the system very frequently? Can we reach visitors coming in from out of town from YVR or ships during the summertime?
Well, this spring we are going to move to launch open payments and to the credit of the folks at TransLink who originally designed the Compass program several year ago, we built into this system the functionality to allow for open payments without redesign or any changes to the hardware. So, by the spring you will be able to tap your credit card if you have a credit card. Or, if you have a near field communications phone then you’ll be able to tap your phone to get into the system.
This week we are launching an ad campaign that we are going to run for the next two or three months to begin to encourage people to tap your card or the card of your choice once we go to open payments so that you avoid what we in our industry call “card clash.” The singular complication with the open payments is that if you have your Compass card or your credit cards all bundled together in your wallet or if you have it attached to your cell phone then the system will read a card and it will read the card of its choice and not necessarily the card of your choice.
So we are trying to encourage folks to use their Compass card or use the Visa card once we launch the program in the spring.
If you already have a Compass card then don’t rush to get rid of it. If you’re a regular user of the system it’s still the way to go, you’ll still enjoy the benefits whether it’s from the stored value or a monthly pass. This program won’t provide the discounts. It’s really oriented to the very infrequent user.
If you’re going to a hockey game or an event at Rogers or BC Place and you don’t have a Compass card then you can tap on and off. You don’t have to wait in line to get a ticket.
In our industry we are trying to eliminate cash altogether over the long-term. I think over the next years increasingly we’ll see transit systems around the world abandoning fare boxes and cash altogether. Ninety-six percent of our transactions at TransLink involve a Compass product so we’re actually getting close to being able to realize a cashless outcome.
We’re also very interested in the environment. We’re interested in climate change and eliminating or minimizing greenhouse gases. Right now we are embarking on what we call our low carbon fleet strategy. The most prominent element of that will be a test that we are starting next year of four fast-charge electric buses. Those buses will operate on route 100 from Vancouver to the 22nd Street SkyTrain Station along Marine Drive.
They can charge anywhere between five to seven minutes and go on their way. It’s a demonstration and we’ve got some federal money. We are also partnering with BC Hydro as well. It’s a glimpse into the future. I truly believe that as we get into the next decade with advances in battery technology, costs coming down and the range of batteries continuing to improve I would predict that a significant part of our rolling stock will eventually be zero emission battery buses.
There are two ways to go: either en-route charging or depot charging where a bus would charge overnight and be able to go 200-250 kilometres in the course of a day on a single charge.
Already about half of our fleet run on alternative fuels whether it’s compressed natural gas, diesel hybrid buses or of course the electric trolley buses here in Vancouver which are zero emission.
Something that I’ve been working very intensely on since I got here is trying to connect better with our HandyDART users and advocates for the HandyDART system, to make some improvements. In our world this is called paratransit service and I’ve been very close to this since my first job in New York back in the 1990s.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed by the first Bush Administration in 1990 and it mandated that transit systems in the United States provide paratransit service. It’s a complicated service to run, it’s very hands-on and it can be a challenge. Some of you in this room may use HandyDART from time-to-time so I have a deep understanding and commitment to improving service.
We put together an advisory committee in 2016 and they reported out last March and we’ve been busy implementing a number of recommendations that were made by that independent advisory committee.
In addition to the service increases approved by the mayors as we talked about before, we got a 15 percent increase by the end of 2019, we’ve done other things like an extended booking window for next-day trips. You used to only be able to book no later than 4 p.m. the day before and now you can book as soon as noon the day before.
We’ve tried to find ways to reduce travel times. You can often be on the HandyDART bus for longer than is really warranted.
Advanced notification of vehicle arrivals. We want to try and get a little more into the digital age with HandyDART as well.
We brought the customer feedback in-house. Our contractor used to do that and I wanted bring the customer experience much closer to our customers.
There’s a lot going on in the HandyDART front as well.
I was talking to a gentleman who helped build the Expo Line back in the 1980s. Well, the Expo Line is 32-years-old now. It was built in 1986. We’ve got to manage our system to a state of repair. We do not want to be finding ourselves in a place like New York or Washington, D.C. which are both famous for major breakdowns in the system where they did not have a good maintenance program in place. They did not put the funding or attention to it as much as they should have and if you continue to defer maintenance eventually things start breaking down more and more.
Under my watch I want to do everything I can to avoid that.
We’re very focused on our investment program and our capital program. Our kind of meat and potatoes portion of the capital program is maintaining our system in good repair and that means SkyTrain.
One of my favourite topics to talk about is escalator maintenance. The first time I went on CKNW Radio I was taking some calls from the public and a member of the public asked, “how come the escalators are breaking down so much on SkyTrain?” I was brand new so I went back to the office and starting making some inquiries and lo and behold, we didn’t even track that information. So we’ve made a difference. We’ve put that up on our public accountability dashboard. We’ve made that more of a priority.
But the reality is that on Expo Line some of escalators are original equipment. We need to replace those 32-year-old escalators which are operating in a very challenging and sometimes semi-outdoor environment. Our capital program now is funding an acceleration of a replacement program which will commence that this spring with the most complicated project of all: Granville Station. Those of you familiar with Granville Station know how busy it is with all the different entrances. We will commence the program this spring, sometime around May. It will be very impactful for our customers for a period of time and then as we continue to roll out the escalator program we are going to have to ask our customers to be patient but we need to make these improvements and we’re going to do it faster. We’re going to save about a million dollars by accelerating this program.
So we save money and get them fixed sooner but the tradeoff is more impact on users and customers.
In addition, we’ve been rebuilding many of our stations. Metrotown Station will finally be completed this spring and we expect that the Commercial-Broadway project will be completed in early fall. Again, in the Mayors’ Plan there are other station rehab projects going forward as well.
We’re big in innovation at TransLink.
We have a pigeon problem in SkyTrain. The pigeon problem is not only the waste of the bird droppings which can be somewhat unpleasant but more importantly the birds can cause the system intrusion alarms to go off and cause problems for SkyTrain operations. So, we hired a falcon to scare away the pigeons and actually the pilot has worked quite well and I have to tell you that he is non-union. I don’t have any problems with our union brothers and sisters who organize later but we don’t have too many work rules, you just have to keep the bird happy. The bird doesn’t eat the pigeons by the way. We feed the bird other good stuff.
We’ve been testing double-decker buses on our express routes south of the Fraser River in communities like White Rock, Delta and Surrey. We’re going to market to buy 32 double-decker buses and I hope they will be here next year as well.
More importantly, what I want to talk about is new mobility. Have you ever heard of Uber? It’s a ride-hailing company. We already have a really active environment of car sharing in Vancouver. We partner with Modo now, they provide first mile and last mile transportation to some SkyTrain stations. I understand gthat where they have Modo cars at some our SkyTrain stations. They are some of the best-used vehicles in their entire fleet which is really super encouraging.
We want to partner with the shared economy. Whether it’s car sharing, Car 2 Go or Mobi bike share, it’s a really active environment and it’s actually among the leaders on a per-capita basis in all of North America if not the world in the shared economy. Ride hailing will probably come next year. The government plans to table legislation in the fall legislative assemble. When that takes place we will partner with ride sharing companies.
We think that could improve overall mobility throughout the region.
At the end of the day we can never provide enough transit service to meet the region’s needs so we are looking forward to working more and more with the mobility providers and with tech companies and entrepreneurs to find different and better ways to bring innovation to our system. We call it TransLink Tomorrow and we will have a web portal where we will have open innovation calls. We’ll put a problem statement out and we’ll seek unsolicited proposals to solve various problems.
Depicted on the right is a concept that we’ve been thinking about in our business for a long time where you can really match together travel plans, travel services and payment all in one app. Again, I would predict that those types of apps will be absolutely ubiquitous over the next 10 years.
The last thing I want to mention is the big picture.
By 2040 it’s expected that this region will accommodate another 1.2 million people and over half a million jobs and there aren’t going to be a lot of highways built in this region if any. This region has decided against paving itself over and building a lot of highways like I’m familiar with in the United States.
How are we going to absorb all this additional population going forward? There’s a land-use issue, there’s a housing affordability issue and there’s obviously a transportation challenge associated with that.
We’re going to get started with an update to a new long-range plan this spring. It will be a 12 to 18 month process. It will a place to start talking about big ideas. I’ve spent a lot of time on the North Shore lately. They’ve got a real sense or perception of a transportation crisis over there. We are really leaning in. Whether it’s talking about SkyTrains or gondolas to the North Shore it’s obviously a conversation about when we are going to get SkyTrain to UBC. How do we take SkyTrain further south say extending the Canada Line?
We’ll be starting conversations about how to better connect the growing bedroom communities of Squamish and further east to Abbotsford and so forth. The long-range plan is the space where we will be able to think big and start talking about the next plan.
The 10-year-plan that I described before that is on the table now that we are very close to getting funded is essential but it’s only a start. We need to start thinking about the next 10 years and the next 10 years after that and get a lot of public consensus on what that means, the shape of the communities going forward and how to fund it.
Questions and Answers
Q. Are there any plans to extend the Canada Line trains?
A. The plan right now is to increase frequency and adding more cars. We’ve ordered 24 cars and they will start arriving in 2020. Our analysis suggests that that additional capacity provided by the cars and therefore more frequent trains on the Canada Line will be able to meet the demand over the next 10 years or so.
Long-term we’re going to have to extend the stations. We will have to build them longer. The system was underbuilt, that’s a reality and there’s no mystery associated with that. It will cost money. It won’t be cheap to extend these station platforms to accommodate longer cars but we don’t think we’ll have to do that for another 10 or 15 years.
The system has an operating capability of running trains every two minutes or slightly less so we can have a lot of frequency and those additional 24 cars that we’ve ordered should help meet that demand.
Q. Where is Broadway extension going to operate?
A. VCC-Clark is the terminus of the Millennium Line right now and it’s going to have a stop at Great Northern Way near Emily Carr University and then transition up Broadway with stops at Main Street, Cambie, Oak, Granville and on to Arbutus. At that point it will mimic the 99 B-Line which will be discontinued at least up to Arbutus.
It’s underground so we will have to build and design something of an improved connection point at Arbutus between the train and the buses.
Q. Should the Massey Tunnel be replaced with another tunnel or a bridge?
A. That’s not my project. The first time I met with the new deputy minister in the new government that came up and he asked, “What do you think about Massey but before you answer that question don’t tell me that it’s your problem because it is yours.” What he meant by that is that TransLink has a role to play in thinking about how to manage capacity in the region from a planning perspective.
From the engineering issues associated with the current tunnel and what type of structure should be built is for the province to figure out. We can help the province run some numbers. What type of bridge is needed? Do you need a 10 lane bridge? How can you do things a little different to meet current and future demand?
It is a provincial project. They are studying it now and I know that Transportation Minister Claire Trevena talks about this frequently. She was out in Delta the other day and was quoted in the paper talking about the project.
I’m agnostic. I do know that the bridge that the previous government designed had really good transit support features. It had good connections to the bridge and HOV lanes so I just want to make sure that it works well for transit and that we can provide high capacity.
But in terms of the actual design and when the province wants to put it forward, that is a provincial project.
Q. Do you think you will ever eliminate transit? So many trips are made to universities, for example, and perhaps many of these trips could be eliminated if more classes are delivered online or at remote locations.
A. I don’t think we are going to eliminate the need for transportation but the concept of working at home, alternative work schedules and students doing more work from home can take stress off the system. Our urban environments largely exist based on the peaks. As a city grows in population and employment that puts pressure on the peak periods whether it’s on the train or the Second Narrows Bridge and the Second Narrows Bridge is almost non-functional now because of employment growth on the North Shore.
In our business we call that transportation demand management. How can you reshape how people relate to the transportation system which is another way of asking the same question?
I think encouraging businesses that are generators of transportation demand shift the way users use the system is very important.
One thing I didn’t mention in my slides was the mobility pricing commission. Some of you have heard about that and that’s going to be a big topic of conversation in this region. That’s about creating different incentives for how people travel.
If we are going to have a very constrained transportation network going forward and we’re not going to have a lot of highway or road capacity but we will see a 50 percent increase in population in this region over the next 30 years so we have to think of ways to use that system whether that’s improving transit or creating mobility pricing incentives to have businesses, universities or daycare centres change when people are needing to get there. That could take stress off the system.
Q. Many people in the room would remember Art Cowie who was a future planner and thinker and former city councilor and MLA. Before he died he advocated that from Arbutus to UBC you would jog over to 10th Avenue. Between Arbutus and Alma at the bottom of the big hill you would have expropriation on both sides of Tenth and one side would have density that would then pay for all of that and then there would be light rail up the hill with some cover all the way to UBC.
Did that ever get into the mix that you guys talk about?
A. That was before my time. I have not spent a lot of my personal time focusing on different alignments to UBC other than knowing that there are a lot of ideas. Hopefully we’ll get a deal on getting the Millennium Line extension funded and we can get started on that.
We are doing some work today with the City of Vancouver and UBC to dust off some of those different concepts going forward. The next phase of the Mayors’ plan if it is funded will include additional conceptual design money for an extension to UBC.
Those type of questions will be asked and eventually resolved during that process going forward.
The second point of your question was how we could finance it from the density around it. I happen to think that’s a very important discussion to have. Each and every time this region looks to extend its system with big capital projects for things like this and light rail we need money from the federal government the province and invariably we have to raise money locally.
Instead of necessarily always having to go back for more tax money or raising fares are there other ways to finance big development projects like this? I think the property uplift is a big component of that and the UBC extension with the very significant potential density going forward means that we could really mine that territory. We could start talking to the different interests about the development advantages of connecting to the mainline system. They will have more valuable property and potentially get more profits from that so let’s put that back into building that particular public facility.
So yes, that needs to be part of the conversation. We have all levels of government, particularly the City of Vancouver.
Q. In 1970 we were going to have an eight-lane tunnel to the North Shore and since then Whistler has become the major all-around sports centre in the north. We’ve also had Squamish commuter traffic increase a lot. We’re becoming increasingly congested on the North Shore.
From what you say it will be 10 years before you look at it but we will have gridlock before we reach that stage. What can you do about it?
A. Get more grey hair thinking about it! It turns out that my grey started sprouting at my prior job which was a fairly insane job but that’s a different conversation. But yes, grey hair comes with the territory.
We’ve embarked on a pretty intensive process on the North Shore. I’ve actually spent a fair amount of time there recently talking to the business community. We’re engaged very directly with provincial government officials and all three mayors of all three jurisdictions, the business community, MPs and local engineering staff to think holistically about dealing with the problem.
The first thing we have to do is really understand what’s causing the problem. The outcome of that process will come out in three manifestations; what short-term things we can do now? Transportation demand management. What can you do about car-pooling for your employees? We’re starting a van pool program with Seaspan and I want to try to get that to move forward so more business can talk with their employees about doing some van pooling to relieve the Second Narrows Bridge.
You can put six to 12 people in a van which is six to 12 cars that you’re taking off the road with one vehicle.
Spot improvements, for example. Key approaches to Highway One. What could be done from an engineering standpoint to relieve some of those spot problems? We’ll be introducing a new B-Line along Marine Drive between the Phibbs Exchange and West Vancouver in the fall of 2019.
Those are the short-term things we can do.
Medium-term are the types of things that are more complicated to put forward and probably involve funding. What might those be and let’s commit to making it happen.
The long-term are the crazier ideas like SkyTrain and gondolas. That stuff takes time. Even if SkyTrain were deemed feasible and had a good business case for the North Shore the reality is that that is 10 to 20 years away. Those are just the realities of big infrastructure.
A significant part of this really has to be in the transportation demand management arena because we are not going to have a third bridge. I know people ultimately believe a third bridge is a non-starter anyways. And even if wasn’t it would still take decades for that to happen so we have to be thinking about near-term things from a variety of different perspectives.
If you do 100 little things they all add up to become one big thing. So how do you actually populate those 100 little things? That’s the conversation we’re having on the North Shore.
I don’t have a big sexy answer for you because the big sexy answers are fanciful. They cost too much money and they are not going to solve any problems in the near-term. There’s a place to talk about that but let’s focus on things we can actually make happen.
Q. How far in the future do you see a proper subway system throughout Vancouver to meet the needs of this growing population and the huge tourism?
A. I don’t have a crystal ball. I’ll give you an anecdote and I say this a lot in public because it’s how I came to the Pacific Northwest.
I came out to the Northwest from New York in 1996. I was working in a small transit system south of Seattle a month before a vote went to the public that created an organization now known as Sound Transit, the regional transit agency in the central Puget Sound region.
In 1994 they went to a referendum and they lost. It was a $7 billion program. They recast the program and then in 1996 they passed a $4 billion one. The first few years were extremely rocky, I won’t go into the history, but they got their act together and then again in 2007 they went out for what was called ST2. I believe it was a $7 billion program and it passed the first time around.
Right after they began the really important stake work, working with business, stakeholders and the public to talk about ST3. What’s the next program? It’s not build and stop and then think about it next time. Every sequential takes decades to make happen. They weren’t busy thinking about the next plan before they even got the prior plan approved by deported.
In November 2016 when Donald Trump was elected in the rest of the country Sound Transit passed a $54 billion 25 year building plan. What that represented was 20 years of public engagements but with three successful votes to build out.
What I argue here is we have to lean in. We have to think about the big investments in the future and build public consensus. Yes, that’s the direction to head and yes you have to pay for it so lets’ start talking about how to pay for it.
I can’t predict when that will happen. I do know it’s needed though. We’ve got to continue to expand the transit system to deal with those 1.2 million people. We have people talking about it now.
People ask when we will have SkyTrain to Abbotsford. When you look at the land use south and east of Langley you sort of wonder how that could accommodate something like SkyTrain? Think about 30 years from now, it probably will.
The Canada Line is a great example of that. When folks were analyzing and sizing the Canada Line the numbers at the time suggested that you could do two car trains on small platforms because we don’t see the demand growing much more than that.
The numbers were much more robust and now you see the huge development projects around the Expo and Millennium Line and Canada Line corridors. If you build it they will come. The question is how to finance it. You could finance it through property development.
I don’t know when it will happen. Over the next 18 months groups like Probus and other community groups will share their point of view and let us know what those big projects should be.
Q. You say you can’t build more capital infrastructure in terms of roads but you have this waterway at your doorstep. When I go to places like Lisbon or Sydney you have these ferries that go back and forth on a regular basis that serve a huge population. Why don’t we do that here?
A. I don’t have a good answer for that and I think that needs to be a part of the exploration. The first time I met with the folks at Seaspan, I met with them because they had a growing and fairly acute problem. They once had a big contract from the federal government to build some naval vessels. They were going to grow their employment base fast and they were not going to build a parking garage for their employees. One of the things they put on the table was a second SeaBus route to the North Shore. I think that was once studied but I’m not overly familiar with that study. There are challenges but there are challenges to all sorts of infrastructure. I think there are some marine tracking issues in the Burrard Inlet.
SeaBus is a great service and it runs super well so let’s talk about this. Can we find the right terminal capacity on both sides going forward?
Q. TransLink operates a lot of autonomous vehicles but they are all on fixed links. Do you have any thoughts about the impact or possible impact of autonomous vehicles operating on the road system?
A. When I was at the chamber of commerce in Pitt Meadows someone asked what we were doing about automated vehicles and my snarky answer was that we’ve been operating them since 1986 and we are proud of it. We currently operated the longest automated public transit rail system in the world. We seem to bounce back and forth with Dubai. I think they are extending their system so they will surpass us at some point.
Automated vehicles are coming. There is absolutely no doubt about that. I think a lot of the hype around automated vehicles come from the entities that want to build and make money off of automated vehicles whether it’s the technology companies or the automobile manufacturers all over the world.
They will push all of the advantage including safety and efficiency which I don’t dispute. On the other hand we can do it wrong. We’ve seen what has happened with Uber in major cities like New York and London where I think the proliferation of ride-hailing has caused more traffic because you have more cars circulating.
One of the visions of automated vehicles is that nobody will own their own vehicle anymore because you can just call up a car but that means all cars will be in constant motion and you could actually make traffic worse.
Automation is coming. It’s absolutely inevitable. I’ve heard many different prognostications about when production vehicles for people like us will be available over the next 10 years. We have to prepare for it to make sure we avoid the negative outcomes associated with automated vehicles while making sure all the positive outcomes that people talk about are realized.
It’s coming, we need to be a part of that conversation. It will not replace things like SkyTrain and high capacity bus routes which can still move a large number of people far more efficiently but it can help with first mile and last mile connections.
Stay tuned. There is a lot of public regulation that needs to take place. They are currently being tested in places like California and Arizona where it’s sunny all the time and it’s flat and there’s a reason it’s tested there. If you bring it to environments like this or very crowded areas then different challenges will present themselves.
Q. Congestion pricing?
A. Thank you for that last question! The mayors of our board put together a mobility pricing commission which was launched in late spring last year. They spent the summer pulling it all together. They issued their first real public report in January and got a lot of media. A lot of good debate in the media airwaves and social media and so forth.
They are set to issue their final report in April or May. It’s an independent commission and we are not guiding it from the TransLink side. They were given terms of reference. The report will come shortly before municipal elections so we have to be careful to not have that report dead on arrival as a campaign topic.
It’s a very important topic for this region. I don’t know how it will play out in the end. There’s a reason why there’s really not a mobility or congestion pricing regime anywhere in North America.
I’m both encouraged but cynical about what’s happening in New York City right now.
The Governor of New York State is actually trying to enact congestion pricing for Manhattan. They’ve been talking about that for 40 years, most of my life, and there’s a reason for that. It’s a very difficult thing for the public to accept. They are getting it free now except where there are tolls. There are tolls and dynamic tolling all over the place in North America. There are lots of different examples of mobility pricing. Your gas tax is, frankly, a mobility price because it’s a pay-as-you-go type of system.
The point is not so much how we’re going to put our hands in peoples’ pockets to reach for more money. The first question is what’s the future of mobility in our region? How are we going to best manage the capacity of the region? Can we create price incentives to change peoples’ behaviour? It’s more expensive to drive driving the peak and maybe it’s free to drive in the off-peak and that way you start shifting behaviour and more people can travel more efficiently and effective going forward.
The report will come around the May period and that will start the next round of public dialogue and debate. I would like to think we could start a pilot program in this region to get our toes in the water but it’s going to be a big public debate going forward and I have no illusion that it’s going to be a bit of a call point.
People in Vancouver are going to be much more favourable about it but suburbanites south of the Fraser River not so much. Arguably the election was won and loss over tolling the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges so we need to be wary of that public opinion.
We have to be very smart about how the public engages this very important public debate.