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episode # 192

The Future of Metro Vancouver’s Skytrain Lines & Rapid Transit Expansion with Translink’s CEO Kevin Desmond

When it comes to Vancouver real estate, “location, location, location” has become “SkyTrain, SkyTrain, SkyTrain”. So many industry leaders on this podcast have advised to buy near SkyTrain Stations but what if you want to get in on the ground floor? Translink’s CEO Kevin Desmond sits down with Adam and Matt to discuss the future of Metro Vancouver’s Skytrain Lines & Rapid Transit Expansion and it does not disappoint. The Broadway Line, Surrey LRT, and Rapidbus expansion are only some of the exciting projects that will unlock our growing region over the next decades. This is one stop you won’t want to miss…now stand clear of the closing doors!

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Episode Summary


Tell us about yourself.

I’ve been in the Vancouver region for 3.5 years. I live in New West and can now walk to work. I’m from New York but have worked in the Pacific Northwest for a while, previously in Seattle.

What about Vancouver attracted you to this region?

My wife and I visited Vancouver in 2015 to see a U2 concert and my wife said, “I wish we could live here!” And just a few months later, I got a call about the Translink job. Working in Seattle, we would often come to Vancouver on business trips to study Vancouver’s transit development. Seattle is way behind so we would study this region with a great deal of envy and admiration.

So when I got the call, it represented such a cool opportunity to continue doing the progressive things we were doing in Puget Sound. I was able to roll out my playbook, learn more about this region and see how my plans could be adapted.

Is Vancouver seen as a leader in public transit?  

We were named the most outstanding public transportation system in North America by the American Public Transit Industry Association for 2016-2018. So yes, we are admired. Everyone who comes here to study what we’re doing is impressed, particularly from the land-use and transit planning perspectives. The density around the skytrain line is unparalleled. Because of that, we have a very cost-effective system. For example, we carry twice the number of people on buses here than I did in King County.

What is Translink’s relationship with the development community?

I believe it’s a good relationship and I think that’s important going forward. The most important partnership needs to be with developers. Developers can think long-term so they have an interesting perspective. The most progressive of these companies understand they need to work hand-in-hand with public transit.

We have this deficit of public funding to meet public needs. We have ridership growth but the growth is outpacing service increases. So we have to find smart partnerships. And where better to do that than in the private sector of development?

Ridership is up almost 20%. Why is that?  

We’re leading North America by a long-shot. Most other cities are seeing decreasing or stagnant ridership. Ride-hailing may have something to do with that. High gas prices may be part of that. We do have increasing population and job growth, but other cities have that too.

We have been adding services. Opening the Evergreen Line was huge and we’ve been adding services since then; without the new services we wouldn’t see ridership growth. When we increase service, ridership increases, so we increase service again, and again, ridership goes up. We’ve also been changing our attitude towards customer service.

What does public transportation look like in Metro Vancouver 10-15 years from now?

 I started in New York City transit in the 1990’s and have often said much of our industry is still stuck in the 1950’s. But this is by far the most exciting time in our industry. The changes happening today and in the next decade are amazing. We’re in a very progressive part of the world with progressive transit policies so we can be part of that change.

We have a great team at Translink thinking about mobility services, new partnerships, etc. We start by asking how we can improve mobility for people in a sustainable fashion. I don’t know what it will look like in 10 years but I know it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

We also believe very strongly in getting our buses to 0% emission. We just launched our first four. If things work out, we should only be buying 0% emission buses in the next decade. We’re doing that long-term planning now and reaching out to see what people in this region want.

What are the stakes you see in being aggressive with public transportation policy?

The stakes are very high. In our planning, we’re estimating that over the next 30 years there will be 1 million people added to this region, almost a 50% increase to the area. Where are we going to put them? We can’t grow our metro region. So the stakes are huge to figure out how to design, fund and implement smart mobility strategies. That has to be linked to smart land-use as well as development. We need to work proactively with our partners.

Thoughts on the Broadway line:

A 6 km extension from VCC Clark to Arbutus is going to be a game changer for that corridor. It won’t open until 2025 and there will be some construction disruption along the way. A huge portion of our overall bus ridership is along that corridor. The city has big ideas for how that area is going to thrive as a liveable community – and the Broadway line will ensure that. In 10-15 years, it will be fascinating to see how that corridor develops with diverse housing and opportunities.

My favourite station is the City Hall/City Centre station because we will have a seamless connection between the Millennium Line and the Canada Line.

Thoughts on moving the new line from Arbutus to UBC:

We have a long way to go. We’re in a study process now that will conclude mid-2020. We need to see how much will be above ground versus below ground, where stations will be, how it interacts with future development, etc. There’s currently no funding for the project but it remains a high priority for the mayor’s office.

It can’t be done as a continuous project with the current Broadway line but our hope is that we can move forward. It will cost a lot of money so we need that data to ensure we’re starting the right projects at the right time. Hopefully we will get contributions from all levels of government so we don’t have to go out to taxpayers. But a lot of work needs to be done in conducting research and working with the community.

Are there any rapid transit research studies you’re excited about?

I think we need to see how public input informs those choices. I don’t have a favourite and I don’t want the public to think I have a favourite. Every community in the region wants more transit. My sense is that we need to have guarantees of senior government funding so we can continually develop over the next few decades. That way, the projects will line up logically. If we just do a one-off it will be harder, be more politically fraught and take a lot longer.

In terms of multi-modal transportation and Uber/Lyft coming, what are your thoughts on these big changes?

This is a very exciting time to be in our business. The beginning of ride-hailing apps in Vancouver is both a challenge and an opportunity. The benefit of Vancouver being the last to adopt is that we can learn from the downfalls. One of the biggest negatives has been traffic congestion. And the decrease in transit demand is concerning. So we’re not opposing or fearing ride-hailing as we think there are opportunities to improve mobility but there are things we’re concerned about. If they increase congestion, everyone loses.

We need to be working with cities to confront these challenges and improve what we’re doing so we can be competitive. It will make us sharper as an organization as we work with partners to find solutions. It’s also an opportunity to work together with ride-hailing to fill mobility gaps. For example, we don’t run Skytrains through the night but the biggest demand for Uber/Lyft is Friday and Saturday night.

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