Stephen Rees's blog

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

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

with 13 comments

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

13 Responses

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  1. TransLink has a broad mandate that includes roads and bridges, but there’s no excuse for them to have deficient hands-on experience with the transit network they manage.

    I work in downtown Vancouver. Only a few of my colleagues drive to work.

    President: has a reserved parking spot in a prime location beneath the building
    Vice President: drives to work when not racking up frequent flyer points
    Controller: carpools
    Directors: 3 take transit, 1 cycles, 1 ??

    Everyone else:
    26 take transit
    12 cycle
    6 walk
    5 work from home
    16 ??


    September 11, 2014 at 4:05 pm

  2. Would you please provide a source (preferably as a hyperlink) to the data you provide in comments

    Stephen Rees

    September 11, 2014 at 4:11 pm

  3. For what it worth,

    I have already met Ian Jarvis on the skytrain…also some CMBC executive I was able to recognize but not to put a name on their face
    (One was transferring to a 3xx bus at Bridgeport)

    I have also spotted Toderian and Meggs on the skytrain too.

    May be people need to use transit often enough to see other “VIP”


    September 12, 2014 at 12:13 am

  4. Neither Brent Toderian nor Geoff Meggs work for TransLink or its subsidiaries in any capacity, let alone as senior executives. Obviously they are not covered by the term “People in Charge of Transit Systems”

    Stephen Rees

    September 12, 2014 at 6:48 am

  5. Hi Stephen,
    I assume your comment is directed at me. I obtained that data by looking at our company directory and then checking my own memory to see if I could remember how my colleagues get to work. Results were jotted down on PostIt notes and then shredded and recycled. If I need to provide documented sources I will stop commenting.


    September 12, 2014 at 10:16 am

  6. David

    I was not aware that you worked for Translink. Obviously sourced information has much greater credibility.

    Stephen Rees

    September 12, 2014 at 10:27 am

  7. It is quite the sad state of affairs when an agency that was originally formed to honestly foster local control over a significant portion of local transit has its mandate diluted and fragmented by a senior government, then is mocked and blamed often by the same senior government (albeit with a different party at the helm) for being ineffective and contrary.

    It is also very sad that the populace and media largely buy that narrative and in their lust to harangue TransLink for self-awarded management largesse, pro-car bias, lack of experience using transit assets and occasional incompetence, would throw the baby out with the bath water.

    I think we need to take the long view and change the narrative to reform the baby rather than toss it.


    September 12, 2014 at 1:00 pm

  8. MB agreed: and getting rid of company cars and privileged parking spots might be a Good Place to Start.

    Stephen Rees

    September 12, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    Party: Conservative Tenure: 6 May 2012
    Constituency: London Salary £143,911
    (note from Red frog: mayors and councilors in many Euro countries don’t get raises between elections)
    “The Mayor is often spotted on his bike riding around London. If you would like to meet him when he is standing still in one place there are a number of Mayoral events throughout the year open to the public:

    People’s Question Time – held twice a year at venues across London, PQT meetings give Londoners the chance to question the Mayor and London Assembly about their plans, priorities and policies for London.

    State of London Debate (SOLD) – held once a year following the publication of the Mayor’s Annual Report. From cycling to jobs, the environment to housing, this is your chance to talk to the Mayor about what matters to you in London. The next event is planned for June 2014.

    Mayor’s Question Time – held 10 times per year at City Hall where Assembly Members question the Mayor on behalf of Londoners – you can suggest a question to them by emailing:
    To see a full list of public events, see the events section” .

    I don’t know if Boris Johnson get a transit pass. He does record the odd taxi expenses on his annual expenses statements.

    The members of the Assembly for London all get a yearly transit pass but:
    1- only from zone 1 to the zone where they live.
    2-it is a taxable benefit, so they likely use it (parking in London is hard to find and expensive)

    Sample of annual fares:
    Zone 1 only £1,256 / Zone 1-3 £1,472 etc. all the way to Zone 1-9 + Watford Junction £3,268

    Red frog

    September 12, 2014 at 10:28 pm

  10. Reg Frog – I assume you used a comma ‘,’ in the fares listed to represent the period that we use ‘.’ Otherwise those fares look like annual costs to me.

    Steve Cooley

    September 13, 2014 at 8:23 am

  11. That’s what he said. Annual fares

    Stephen Rees

    September 13, 2014 at 9:47 am

  12. I think there’s been a major misunderstanding.

    I work for a computer software company. We have absolutely no affiliation with TransLink whatsoever. My intent was to show the primary commuting choices of people in my particular downtown office.

    Transportation and land use issues are simply interests of mine and I took a handful of related courses way back when at UBC, but never pursued it as a career.


    September 15, 2014 at 3:10 pm

  13. Well, I think the misunderstanding was based on the assumption that your comment was about the topic of the blog post.

    Stephen Rees

    September 15, 2014 at 3:58 pm

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