Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for September 11th, 2014

People in Charge of Transit Systems Should Be Required to Ride Transit

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It sounds very basic and obvious: in most service businesses the executives are expected to directly experience what their customers experience. There is an article in Atlantic’s City Lab by Eric Jaffe on just this issue for transit.

I will as always remind readers that it is now ten years since I worked for Translink. It may be that since I left, things have changed. I hope so.

When I joined what was then BC Transit I was very pleased to be handed my free transit pass. I have been a transit user all my life. That of course is not at all unusual in Britain, for someone whose father was a teacher. I grew up using buses and trains for the majority of my travel needs. Once I started work I was more often than not a commuter and location decisions were often prompted by the quality of the available commute options. And that was not unusual in London. Most of my colleagues used public transport every day, and even many of the senior people did too. It was only the VIPs who got parking spaces allocated to them. That was the mark of their importance. The really top people got a driver and a car too.

When I came to Toronto in 1988 it was to work on transit issues as a consultant. My bosses at the consulting company were distinctly bemused to learn I was getting to work on the Sheppard Avenue bus. Later on I changed companies, and could ride GO Transit to their downtown office. The idea of driving to work there never occurred to me. Pretty much the same applied when I came to Victoria: provincial civil servants could get an annual transit pass paid for through salary deductions, and I discovered for the first time in my life that the people on the bus all talked to each other! We were bus buddies!

Vancouver was different.  I simply could not afford to live anywhere that had decent transit service. I ended up in Richmond on one of the most inconvenient commutes I had ever experienced, requiring at least two transfers no matter which route I used. Service was spotty at best. I found that people at work were of two kinds: those who had moved to be near a SkyTrain station, and those who drove – or car pooled. The few who commuted from Richmond to Gateway were regarded as transit enthusiasts and thus highly suspect.

I actually got into trouble when I went to meetings outside the office, as I used those trips as a way to discover more about the network. I was told that this was not a good use of my time and that I should use one of the pool cars provided. Especially if I was going out to any kind of municipal meeting.

Jordan Bateman of course has made a career about criticising Translink’s management pay and benefits. We do not hear as much these days about the use of cars. At one time Derek Corrigan’s Saab came in for a fair amount of stick. But my commute was transformed when I joined a carpool. There was much less expectation about flexibility of start and finish times. I was not going to get in early or stay late as I would miss my ride. And the in-car conversation proved invaluable for understanding interdepartmental politics. The carpool was a welcome change from the policy silo.

I was persuaded to add cycling as a commute mode, at least in good weather. The car pool car could accomodate my bike in the trunk one way, or there were increasing numbers of buses fitted with bike racks to overcome the uphill or cross river parts of the route.

When I did use transit, what I also discovered was that I was much better advised to keep my head down, and not get involved. I was “off duty” – but nevertheless could not fail to notice things. What I could not do, of course, was do anything to affect those things. The SkyTrain was automated. The bus system tightly controlled by the Union. And when we set up the new regional system we created operating companies to be separate from the central planning and administration office.

“the whole thing was essentially designed by people who were used to seeing the world through the windshield of a car,”

I think that still must be true of most of the people who make decisions at the top. Do you see Ian Jarvis on the bus much? Or any of the members of the Translink Board? Not that they have any kind of public profile: I cannot name any of them without going and looking it up, let alone recognize them. And as anyone who has had any experience of using the reporting system on Translink’s web site will testify, there is not much response beyond PR fluff and excuses.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 11, 2014 at 11:39 am

Posted in Transportation