British Columbia

TransLink's new CEO faces immediate ridership and strategy questions

When he first visited the city three years ago for a transit conference, Kevin Quinn fell in love with Vancouver in the same way a lot of people do. 

After years of record growth that spurred investments, transit ridership is half what it was pre-pandemic

New TransLink CEO Kevin Quinn says that signage and lighting at rapid transit stations will be one of his many priorities overseeing the large transit organization. (Martin Diotte/CBC News)

When he first visited the city three years ago for a transit conference, Kevin Quinn fell in love with Vancouver in the same way a lot of people do.

"I was blown away by the system itself and the investments that were being made, but also just the region itself, the mountains in the background. I'm a pretty outdoorsy guy, I'm a runner, so I was certainly taken by that," he said.

Quinn became TransLink's CEO last month after an international search, replacing Kevin Desmond, who left in early 2021 after five years on the job.

Like Desmond, Quinn comes from a background with American transit organizations, having been head of Maryland's Transit Administration, and said the public support for transit in Metro Vancouver was a blessing. 

"I think the bus frequencies, the rail frequencies are quite robust, and that creates a lot of great stability for riders to count on the system," he said. 

"The United States, in a lot of places, hasn't done a good job with that."

But while Quinn has been able to spend the first month of his job easing into things somewhat, a number of important decisions are coming in the next year that could shape the future of TransLink. 

Pandemic crunch

The first and most pressing issue is where TransLink ridership will plateau, should pandemic restrictions continue to be lifted and people and companies alike adjust to a new normal. 

For months after the first wave in 2020, transit use in Metro Vancouver stayed around 60 per cent lower than it had been just before the pandemic, when TransLink was experiencing record ridership

Transit use has gone up slightly since and is now around half of what it once was, but there's still a big question mark about how many people will no longer be regular transit users going forward because of working from home or making long-term changes to their transportation plans. 

"I think transit is going to remain a very strong component of a multi-modal regional network, regardless of whether we come back to 100 per cent or not," said Quinn. 

"[But] with ridership down, we've got to take a close look at revenues coming in … . That gas tax isn't going to be around forever, so we have to have a larger discussion about what we're going to replace that with."

Long-term plans need a refresh 

TransLink hopes to make long-term plans around ridership in the fall. 

That will help inform its business model for two big pieces of strategy set to be decided in the next year — the Transport 2050 plan and the Mayors' Council 10-year infrastructure plan. 

"We are starting to rebound slowly, but we're really anticipating this fall being a crucial point to set the path about where transit and how transit is going to occur in our region," said Jonathan Coté, chair of the Mayors' Council. 

That will involve negotiations with 21 local governments on which areas of the region deserve more investment, particularly after the SkyTrain extensions to Langley City and Vancouver's Arbutus Street are completed. 

"There's a lot on our plate, but we're excited to have some new leadership and new energy," said Coté. 

For the moment, Quinn can talk about smaller improvements he wants to see in TransLink's operation, including better signage and lighting at stations, cleaner vehicles and fare payment options that are more flexible. 

Larger questions will come soon. 

"I think we've got some big projects ahead of us, and I'm really optimistic about the future," he said.