Public Transit
October 22, 2020

The Legacy of Kevin Desmond

He came at a time when TransLink was maligned and demoralized, thanks to Christy Clark’s pointless and destructive referendum.  He led the organization to its greatest success, to become the best transit agency in North America.  And to improvements which continue to roll out. (If not for the pandemic, we’d still be seeing significant increases in ridership.)

I suspect he received calls from headhunters every week.  And with opportunities that became irresistible.  I will not be surprised if he becomes the next Secretary of Transportation in a Biden administration.

Here’s the interview PriceTalks did with Kevin Desmond last year – still revealing for the backstory of a public servant who will be much missed but with whom we received much benefit.

The Sky’s the Limit for Kevin Desmond, CEO of North America’s Transit Ridership Leader

Happy hiking, Kevin.

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PT: One of Translink’s most valuable assets is its CEO, Kevin Desmond.  He was the needed leader after the appalling debacle of the BC Liberal’s imposed referendum, he led the agency to the best performance in North America, and he has an even bigger challenge in restoring confidence and ridership in the Covid era, current- and post-.  (It’s on the way; ridership is already up about 40 percent.)

Here’s his latest call to action (with my added emphasis in bold) in Linked-in here:

 

Kevin Desmond: COVID-19 has dimmed the vibrancy of urban centres across the globe and spurred some to question whether we are witnessing “the end of cities.”

The pandemic has disrupted our lives in so many ways that it’s hard to predict what tomorrow will bring, let alone which changes will become permanent. However, I firmly believe that cities will rise again – with a recovery driven by transit.

After all, cities have been at the heart of every prosperous society. We are, as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser puts it, “an urban species,” living off the fruits of collaboration that cities – and public transportation – provide.

But the pandemic is testing the key tenets of what makes cities and transit work, namely bringing people together. Public transport is facing a crisis unlike any other since the late-1940s. What then took place over two decades – an 80 per cent erosion in transit ridership, brought on by the rise of the personal car and suburbia – was realized in just two weeks earlier this year, as COVID-19 emerged. In response, public health measures have kept people safe, but have stunted transit.

As a society, we can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes and allow transit to whither.  Effective public transport is synonymous with equitable and sustainable urban development. Metro Vancouver was a leader on this front before the pandemic, with record-setting ridership that led North America. Notably, the sharpest increase in transit ridership was in communities outside the City of Vancouver.

Unfortunately, in the short-term, I believe the return of traffic congestion is inevitable. We have already witnessed a dramatic decline in transit ridership and a sharp rebound in traffic congestion. Early data show that driving in Metro Vancouver is already up by around four per cent compared to one year ago. I think we can all agree the future we don’t want is one with more congestion.

That’s why it’s critical that we rebuild public confidence in the safety of transit, through initiatives such as TransLink’s Safe Operating Action Plan and our recently launched Open Call for Innovation, focused on improving the cleanliness and safety of the system. Now is the time for our industry, worldwide and here in the Lower Mainland, to seek out and embrace innovations.

Looking beyond the immediate future, we need to contemplate whether the rapid societal changes initiated by this crisis, such as social distancing and tele-commuting, will persist. If so, that will have significant implications on transit ridership – a crucial consideration for TransLink, which depends heavily on fares for operating revenue.

 

We also need to ask: how might our urban landscapes change? Already we’ve seen cities reimagining their streetscapes to create more space for pedestrians, cyclists, and restaurants. Many of these changes could positively improve the livability and vibrancy of our cities I believe we need to consider how transit can complement these measures and contribute to this new urban experience.

Time will tell which changes will hold, but TransLink welcomes conversations on how our region can increase efficiency while balancing diverse priorities throughout the transportation system. Improving the livability of Metro Vancouver is central to our mission and drives our organization every day.

As we help the region Build Back Better, I believe the region’s values – which we learned about through our largest-ever engagement in Transport 2050 – will endure and help inform the decisions we need to make together. Transport 2050 will also help us navigate the next 30 years, with its inevitable population and economic growth, and face the trio of challenges presented by affordability,

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Metro Vancouver has updated their map of Regional and Municipal park washrooms: those available for public access (green) and those no longer accessible due to COVID-19 (red).

 

The map is very revealing of the absence of washrooms where they’re needed the most: downtown Vancouver.

Two recommendations: (1) a map showing washrooms in private spaces (hotels, malls, departments stores, etc). (2) More public washrooms everywhere – especially transit interchanges.

In fairness to TransLink, such washrooms are nightmares of maintenance, and very expensive propositions if they are to be supervised and continually cleaned. Perhaps time to change the law and allow for a small charge (common in Europe), payable through Compass, that would also allow free use for those eligible.

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One of the so-sad consequences of the pandemic is the loss of momentum immediately experienced by TransLink.  And not just with the reverse of the quite stunning increase in passengers. (Said CEO Kevin Desmand in September of 2019: ““If this trend continues … then over the four-year period from 2016 to 2019, we would have seen a 20% growth in overall ridership. It is pretty astonishing.”)

By March, an 80 percent drop.

But it’s not just in ridership where the momentum has been lost.  TransLink was in the process of delivering on its 10-year Plan, with significant increases in rolling stock, frequency, new routes and upgrades in its facilities. (Like this PT report on Joyce-Collingwood Station.)  Much is still going ahead, like the rolling out of the Rapidbus routes. But, on the North Shore, the R2 line literally started just as we all went into lock-down.  I took it shortly after it started – one of only two passengers for a good part of the trip (right).

Progress continues.  And one of the places where changes will be the most welcome is one of the most dismal transit exchanges in the system.  Dark, dank and polluted from diesel, it sits under the ICBC headquarters adjacent to Seabus at Lonsdale Quay.  Convenient but unpleasant.

Well, that’s changing – as these pictures from CNV Councillor Tony Valente reveal:

 

As Daily Scot would point out – a lot of grey.  But alleviated by LED lighting overhead:

Tony tells us that there’s more to come.  All it will need is a lot more passengers.

 

 

 

 

 

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It was in the Sun‘s lead article today, but it might get missed:

There were just 11 new cases reported between noon Sunday and noon Monday — despite an increase in the amount of testing being done — and no evidence of any transmission on public transit, Henry said.

Two qualifications: (1) Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  (2) Over what time did that statement hold true?

Further, has there been any example of community transfer on transit, in Vancouver or elsewhere, and under what circumstances?

It seems obvious on one hand that crowded public transit should facilitate transmission.  But on the other, why aren’t there many more proven examples of it – hotspots in particular – given that some of the places where the virus has been most effectively contained – Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore – have some of the busiest transit systems on which their cities are dependent?   It’s a question that goes hand-in-hand with the density debate, as Sandy discusses in the post below.

If TransLink is to get back to anything like normal service in the next few months, it will depend on the public’s confidence (and willingness to follow protocols) in the safety (or minimal risk) of the transit system.

“No evidence of any transmission” is a very good place to start.

 

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As you’ve probably noticed, residents all over Metro Vancouver are e-scooting on the streets despite the presence of prohibitory bylaws. Accordingly, some recognition is long overdue – and here it is: Shared Micromobility Guidelines.

Published in July by TransLink in collaboration with Metro Vancouver, the document is not designed to recommend the adoption of specific bylaws or policies but to inform municipalities of the relevant considerations for permitting shared micromobility devices within their jurisdictions.

The guidelines focus on six areas:

  1. The collection and sharing of Data to measure success.
  2. Payments and Price Structures that are financially sustainable and adaptable for integrated and secure payments.
  3. System Planning and Design for a fair balance between innovation and public interests.
  4. Right-Of-Way (ROW) Management to identify and manage risks.
  5. System Operations to ensure service providers are held accountable and have an appropriate level of risk management.
  6. Permit Structure and Conditions for short-term and long-term permit structures.

Few would disagree that these guidelines are a sign of progress.  But they stand to have little impact if provincial and municipal regulations and bylaws aren’t amended to permit the operation of these technologies.

For example, so long as the City of Vancouver continues to prohibit the use of e-scooters along trails and paths (the only place they legally can operate under the provincial Motor Vehicle Act), guidelines for shared micromobility services are virtually meaningless.

So, while I commend the creation of these guidelines, I eagerly await amendments to city bylaws, the provincial Motor Vehicle Act, and the new BC Active Transportation Design Guidelines.

You can buy one, you just can’t use it.

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In Review: The Quest for Commute Trip Reduction Part – I

In part one of this series, CTR was described as a collection of tactics designed to reduce commute duration and distance, as well as reduce the use of single occupancy vehicles in favour of more sustainable, healthier modes of travel. The primary responsibility for implementing CTR tactics falls on employers (typically ‘large employers’ with over 100 employees). State/provincial and regional governments typically have responsibility for encouraging or legislatively mandating participation by employers, and offering support, incentives, and/or disincentives/penalties. Apart from legislation, governments may also work toward CTR through trip reduction ordinances (TROs), regulations, policies and guidelines that apply not only to large employers, but municipalities, transport authorities, housing developers, building owners, among others.

At the time of this writing, CTR is not mentioned in any B.C. provincial legislation. CTR is not mentioned in Clean BC, despite its potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In Metro Vancouver, no municipalities appear to have adopted ordinances specifically for CTR, however, some plans and programs do support and reflect CTR-related principles, including:

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Bob Ransford got it right: the public art piece – ‘Off Centre’ by artist Renee Van Halm – is at the Joyce-Collingwood Station.

It’s a small but colourful piece of the just-completed station upgrade funded in the blandly named TransLink Maintenance and Repair Program – a $200 million program of 70 projects that have been rolling out since 2016.

As these small and large improvements continue, it feels like a golden age of renewal for TransLink, reflected not only in physical changes but also in additional capacity and ease of use.  Like these, as reported in The Sun:

On Tuesday, 24 new Skytrain cars will increase capacity by five per cent on Expo Line and nine per cent on the Millennium Line during peak periods.

As well, commuters can expect more frequency on 12 key bus routes with the addition of 40,000 service hours. On Seabus, sailings are being increased to every 10 minutes during peak periods. …

The regional transportation authority has implemented a new artificial intelligence algorithm that improved the accuracy of bus departure estimates by 74 per cent during a pilot project.

It can even seem excessive:

When headways are every two minutes on a Sunday afternoon, passengers don’t really need a schedule.  But hey, it shows they care.

Let’s remember this as we reflect back on the 2015 referendum – a totally cynical move by the BC Liberals, which delayed the inevitable funding and cost millions, only serving to demonstrate how easy it is to trash government if you make the price visible.  The Liberals have barely acknowledged (and never apologized) for imposing that referendum on the region.

The least they could do now is to recognize how TransLink has improved, helped shape the region, and is more necessary than ever.

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There’s no two ways about it — TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s transit authority, is #1 in North America for year-over-year transit ridership growth. Seattle’s King County Transit is #2. And Kevin Desmond has led them both.

Desmond, now in his 4th year at the TransLink helm, didn’t emerge as a transit planning professional as a result of education, nepotism, or some cultish, hippie-era, preternatural NUMTOT trip (though, thanks to Gord, he’s now officially hip to the ELMTOT jive).

No, Desmond came to transit by mistake. An upbringing in the Bronx — OK, technically Westchester County, but he could walk to the #5 Dyer Avenue train — was followed by various positions Mayor’s Office of Operations during the mayoralty of Ed Koch, working with New York City agencies implementing public policy.

You know, typical New York stuff, like counting trees (there were 800,000), and helping untangle a parking revenue corruption scandal (big money). Which eventually led to an invitation to join the Department of Customer Services at New York City Transit. And so began Desmond’s love affair with transit — as he credits it, a cloying mixture of public policy, public service, and running a business. His great challenge in ’80s and ’90s New York City? Trying to figure out how to drive transit ridership up in a mega-city of abundant transportation options. His focus was to paint transit as a desirable consumer product, and to do so with the support of “a lean mean, growth-oriented consumer product organization”. And it worked.

Desmond tells Gord all the stories…of how he tried to bring more attention, and money, to the bus system in New York, when the subway tended to suck up all the oxygen….what prompted him to swap coasts in what eventually became a 12-year stint as chief executive of King County Transit in Washington State…how his efforts in the Puget Sound region culminated in a successful $54 billion tax package ballot measure for transit that included a multi-phase plan for high-capacity light rail (jealous much?)…and what ultimately led him to Vancouver.

He also waxes on about Transport 2050, the largest public engagement in TransLink’s history. But what we really wanted to know was what Desmond thinks of ride-hailing players like Uber and Lyft, slagged by Price Talks guests (among many, many others) as malignant, transit-killing tumours on the rumps of cities across the continent.

“Not something to be feared,” he claims. Why? You’ll have to listen to find out.

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