Kevin Desmond reaches the end of the line in his role as TransLink CEO

Feb 6 2021, 6:09 pm

This is Part 1 of a two-part exit interview series with TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond, who left the public transit authority at the end of this week, after five years in the role.

Kevin Desmond still remembers how some TransLink employees hid the fact that they work for Metro Vancouver’s public transit authority. This was happening when he first took the helm of the organization in 2016.

He arrived at a time when TransLink’s public reputation was battered, after reduced service levels due to funding challenges, severe technical glitches attributed to poor maintenance that brought SkyTrain to a complete standstill on separate occasions, years-long delays with launching the Compass Card system and fare gates, and the divisive aftermath of the failed transit plebiscite — over the proposal for a half percent regional sales tax to fund expansion and improvement projects.

The perfect storm of troubles even caused public transit ridership in the region to decrease in the years just prior to Desmond’s appointment as CEO.

For these reasons, morale amongst employees was low.

Last month, Jonathan Cote, the chair of the Mayors’ Council and the mayor of New Westminster, said TransLink’s turnaround success during Desmond’s time with the organization was not because of any one individual, but the teams and confidence he was able to assemble and inspire.

“We’ve been able to finally unlock, invest, and improve transit improvements in every corner of our region,” said Cote during the Mayors’ Council’s meeting thanking Desmond for his legacy.

“You have helped build the confidence in the organization and you’ve inspired the family at TransLink to be passionate and dedicated to the work and improving transportation in Metro Vancouver.”

The days of people hiding the fact that they work for TransLink are now long over, said Desmond in an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized prior to his departure from the organization. This was one of his proudest achievements, he says.

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond at ‘North America’s worst bus stop’ on the side of Lougheed Highway in Pitt Meadows. (TransLink)

The other top achievement is turning TransLink into North America’s leader for ridership growth, with ridership soaring by 20% between 2016 and 2019. It prompted the public transit industry to notice the successes that were happening in Metro Vancouver.

TransLink still ended 2019 with record ridership, even with the uncertainty during the fourth quarter of 2019 due to the labour action of two unions.

But then COVID-19 hit. Within days of the enactment of public health orders in March 2020, ridership plummeted to under 20% of pre-pandemic levels. Ridership saw a rebound throughout the summer months, but it has been flat ever since, hovering at around 41% of pre-pandemic levels at the end of November.

It will likely take at least a few years for ridership to fully rebound from its current late-1990s levels to what it was before the onset of the pandemic. It is anyone’s guess on the degree of permanence — or at least the length of the lingering duration — of existing socializing and workplace habits after COVID-19 comes to a conclusion, but we could see the first reversal of the trends as early as late this year when the populace is expected to be sufficiently inoculated.

Still, the pandemic has threatened to upend some of the gains made under Desmond’s leadership, and while he helped secure emergency operating subsidies from the federal and provincial governments to cover revenue losses through the end of 2021, TransLink is expected to face structural operating deficits for years to come.

As well, there is now some uncertainty over the timeline of the region’s major expansion plans, especially the SkyTrain Expo Line extension project reaching at least Fleetwood by 2025. The provincial government has promised to prioritize and accelerate the full extension to Langley Centre by taking the project under its wing, but there are no details on the funding and schedule.

But Desmond notes TransLink is far from being alone with these issues, and throughout the pandemic to date he has reiterated that Metro Vancouver has some of North America’s strongest fundamentals of any urban region for a full recovery.

The region’s underlying strengths are part of the reason why he decided to take the job at TransLink in the first place.

translink ceo kevin desmond

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond. (TransLink)

He announced his decision to return to the United States last October, but says it was not due to COVID-19.

“When I was pursuing this job, which I was recruited for, naturally I asked my wife, ‘what do you think?’ When I took the job, it was with an understanding that we would probably be living apart,” said Desmond in an interview with Daily Hive Urbanized prior to his departure this week.

“My wife is a medical professional in the Seattle area, she has her own patients, so it was unlikely for us to permanently move here.”

While the closed Canada-US border has made their situation more difficult, a decision was made before the pandemic that he would give the role in Canada four to six years. Ultimately, they agreed five years would be just the right amount of time for balancing his professional interests and their personal life.

“It’s trying to find the right balance in life, but I have really enjoyed my five years here. It is really intense, it’s a great part of the world,” he said.

“It’s been such a pleasure being here, running a transit system in such a good transit town, because when you’re in a place where they want more of what you’re doing, that’s a great place to be in. Many of my colleagues in other transit systems in North America, that’s not always the case. But here, they just want more of what we’re doing, so our customers appreciate when we do good things, and they want answers when we mess up. I’ve been game to do both.”

Take note of the frequent terminology use of “customers” whenever referring to transit riders amongst TransLink staff and in the communications to the public. Under Desmond’s leadership, the focus has been bringing a customer service approach into existence.

Improving services to a level that better meets demand and reliability expectations is an immense part of the customer service equation, but it was only over the last few years that “creature comfort” amenities also received proper consideration.

Some examples include real-time next-train digital screens at SkyTrain stations, improved public announcement systems on SkyTrain, air conditioning on all future new vehicles, and new touch screen dynamic information signs at major hubs.

The public transit authority also initiated a strategy to gradually introduce public washrooms at major hubs, and an innovative partnership was made with Shaw to install free Wi-Fi into all transit vehicles at zero cost to TransLink.

There was a push for innovation from Desmond, made evident by ongoing initiatives that invite researchers, universities, and the private sector to come together to improve regional mobility options as a whole.

Most importantly, Desmond committed the public transit authority to improving maintenance, a state of good repair, and cleanliness. All of this continued in different ways throughout the pandemic.

translink ceo kevin desmond

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond. (TransLink)

The branding of services was another area of customer service attention, and that was no more apparent than his direction that led to the creation of RapidBus. It finally provided the region with a more layered bus system that properly distinguished regular bus services from more superior services that benefit from high capacities and frequencies, and faster travel speeds and improved reliability from interventions such as strategic limited stops, the installation of bus priority-lanes, and queue jumpers. RapidBus, of course, is also visually distinguished by its use of blue-and-green coloured articulated buses, and special bus stops with wayfinding and real-time next-bus digital screens.

Double-decker buses fall under the customer service umbrella as well, with Desmond emphasizing in the past that it is not just about the greater capacity, there is an obvious unique appeal with these vehicles.

Desmond first introduced the RapidBus concept and double-decker buses during his previous job as the general manager of King County Metro in Seattle. It was a role he held for 12 years. Prior to King County Metro, he held various executive roles with Pierce Transit in Tacoma for about a decade, and was the Chief of Operations Planning for New York City’s MTA for five years.

One of the reasons the TransLink board of directors hired Desmond was his proven experience in working with a wide range of stakeholders — especially the business community — and navigating through complex political landscapes, especially after the region’s failure with the transit plebiscite. Although there are 23 different municipal voices in Metro Vancouver, Desmond says this region has it pretty good, comparatively.

“Governance of regional transit systems anywhere I’m aware of, in North America at least, is very complicated. There is not a silver bullet. New York’s governance of the MTA is always a challenge, messy for a variety of reasons. In Seattle’s Puget Sound, we have seven different transit agencies, one of those is a regional transit agency that overlaps with three counties. Each transit agency is governed differently,” said Desmond.

“For my previous transit agency, King County Metro, I had three bosses, and I had to deal with Sound Transit with its own governance. It was complicated but we figured out how to make it work. Over here, it’s less complicated than Seattle.”

But there are even worse governance systems, he continued.

“The San Francisco Bay Area is crazy. They have 30 separate public transit agencies in the Bay area, and they don’t have integrated fares to this day. Here, we’re a single transit agency for 23 municipalities for a completely integrated network, a single fare system, and I only have two bosses — the TransLink board of directors and the Mayors’ Council.”

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond (middle) and SkyTrain President & General Manager Vivienne King (right) shortly before the opening of the Evergreen Extension in Fall 2016. (TransLink)

Although they certainly do not agree with everything, Desmond says, the regional mayors at the table, for the most part, are able to think regionally when they are asked to.

“They do their best to think regionally. It’s hard to do that when you’re a mayor of a city. How do I take my very municipal lens, take it off, and think about the regional good. It’s why regional governance of regional transit agencies is so hard,” he said.

“I think we’ve demonstrated, at least in my time here, that we can make the governance work. We can figure out how to work in partnership with the provincial government, how to work closely with the mayors, how to make sure the mayors and board are really well aligned, and as a result good things have happened. It takes care and feeding, and attention from the CEO, but people who want to make it work, it will work, and we’ve demonstrated we can make it work.”

During the last Mayors’ Council meeting, Desmond was regarded as a unifier and listener by the region’s mayors, and they commended him for setting the tone immediately upon his arrival by meeting with the leadership of every municipal government in the region.

“One gets the measure of a man in the most difficult moments, and you truly are someone who is epitomizes grace under pressure. Of course, the most difficult moment of your tenure was the B-Line debacle in West Vancouver, which I would have sincerely apologized for,” said West Vancouver councillor Craig Cameron, who sits on the Mayors’ Council for the district.

“It was a low point in your tenure, I’m sure, but we managed to persevere and through it all, you actually were really graceful and worked with us as best as you could, and you were patient with us when we weren’t able to keep up with our end of the bargain.”

Gigi Chen-Kuo has become TransLink’s interim CEO, replacing Desmond on a temporary basis until a permanent replacement is made later this year. She is the public transit authority’s Chief Legal Officer, and Executive Vice President of Corporate Services, as well as the head of the public transit authority’s enterprise safety group, business technology services, and real estate division.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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