Dear Kevin: Welcome. And Good Luck.

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Kevin Desmond

New TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond (Source:

I was interested to see TransLink’s announcement last week that the organization has hired a new CEO, Kevin Desmond. Currently the General Manager for Seattle’s King County Metro Transit, Kevin is set to take on the Vancouver area’s top transportation job on March 21, 2016.

The announcement of Kevin’s hiring got me thinking about what I would tell him if I had the chance.  Not that the opinion of little ol’ me matters.  But I figured it would be an interesting thought experiment for myself as someone who’s been trying to untangle various transit muddles in B.C. for a while now.

Here’s what I came up with.  Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below.

Dear Kevin:

Sincere congrats on the new job.  You don’t know me and I don’t live in the area served by your new transit system.  But I have done lots of work with the communities and transit systems next door that link with Metro Vancouver via road, rail and ferry.

Therefore, think of me like a new, nosy and somewhat annoying neighbour that on move-in day shows up on your doorstep  with a tea towel full of muffins.  Sure, I’m there on the pretext of a welcome.  But really I want to snoop on your stuff, see whether you are going to repaint, and figure out if I need to tap in and tap out every time I pass by your mailbox.

I also have to tell you that us neighbours on the other side of the Salish Sea are curious to see what happens next.  Watching events unfold at TransLink has become for us like tuning in to a binge-watch-worthy twisted plot drama.  It’s like the transportation live action equivalent to Game of Thrones, but with fewer dragons and more trolley buses.  (We use it to keep our minds off our appalling lack of sewage treatment; but you’re from Seattle, you’re well aware of that.)

Anyway, from my position in the cheap seats, thought I’d pass on a nice big welcome and these thoughts:

Thought #1: You seem like a really qualified, good guy.

For those who might not have seen it, I’ve included a clip from your introductory press conference below (via Jeff Nagel) and folks can also see the full press conference here (albeit with slightly sketchy sound quality).

From what I’ve read and seen of you so far, you seem like a thoughtful and strategically focussed guy.  Those are excellent qualities to have in a leader.

In particular, I thought these aspects were most notable among your press conference remarks the other day:

  • Land use” and “livability” were some of the first words you mentioned.  You can’t be very successful in transportation if you don’t get land use right and understand the highest order objective you’re trying to achieve.  I found your acknowledgement of these off the top heartening.
  • You spoke repeatedly about “the transportation network” (not plural networks).  Hallelujah!! As I’ve said here repeatedly, our goal in cities needs to be creating a transportation network with many complementing layers not multiple networks.
  • You recognized that creating a plan to move forward needs to start by first listening to the people closest to the action and experiencing it first hand.   In my own work with systems, I’ve always found this key.  I also liked how you described and seem to understand that the customer experience is made of a multitude of touch points that all need to work together. (Whereas people with less understanding of transit tend to describe “customer experience” as one single amorphous blobby concept “that needs fixing”).

Thought #2: You’re inheriting a bunch of good, smart people. 

One of the things that made me most sad about the TransLink referendum was watching the organization’s staff get maligned. Whether as a passenger riding the system or in my work and interactions with TransLink’s planning, scheduling and operations staff, I am consistently impressed by the creativity, resilience and caliber of your people.

Sure, each of us has a stand out “that time the bus driver was a colossal jerk” story from an encounter in the past, but that’s as true in Powell River or Prince George (or Brampton or Tacoma) as it might be in Richmond or Maple Ridge.  And yes, Compass Card woes and Sky Train service disruptions that strand people are unacceptable and the organization can do better.

IMG_00000030However, I want to say that the individual folks that I’ve worked with and encountered over the years have all seemed to get and support what transit does at the highest level.  They have been trying their hardest to deliver the most they can with what they’ve been given.  I think what they need is a champion on their behalf and some certainty and they will follow you anywhere and you will accomplish great things together.

I also think that as transit agencies, anything we can do to encourage all the passionate people we hire to be our advocates in the community, we are going to get that much further ahead.  Many of us are in the transit business because we value and live community mobility at our heart and gut level.  The “powers that be” just need to be comfortable enough with loosening the communications policy reins a little to let us sing it out.  (And I’m thankful for the latitude and support I’ve been granted so far).

Thought #3: Yes, “governance” is an issue but it’s mainly about process, communications and funding.  

The number of times you were asked about “governance” in your press conference made me smile.

I’ve done transit in a lot of places and no matter what the community and the type of structure, governance always comes up.  Like any magic bullet, it sounds so simple: we could be that much more effective and we’d make the right decisions if only we drew the org chart boxes this way rather than that way.

Don’t get me wrong: I fully support the ideal that the highest order of transportation decision-making in a community should be in the hands of people who are a) locally elected and b) also the ones making land use decisions.

However, what I want to caution is that changing governance structure doesn’t necessarily make all the problems disappear.  A dysfunctional family that moves from a split-level house to a rancher is still likely going to be dysfunctional.

When people talk about “governance,” I think what they are really seeking is improved processes around coordination and communication and a better understanding of what the shared vision is and how everyone fits in with achieving it.  There is much that can be accomplished on those issues within existing org chart boxes. I think they should always be the focus of energy and if structures change, so be it.

I also think the other focus always needs to be sustainable, predictable transportation funding.  As you said in your press conference, we’re not getting anywhere if collectively we don’t invest in our cities and their mobility.

Wrapping Up

Well, Kevin, here’s hoping your new job works out for you.  I also hope that beginning your tenure near the start of spring is an auspicious sign for sustainable transportation in your community and B.C. in general.

There’s no better calling than listening to people, figuring out what needs fixing and then galvanizing them on a path to make their community a better place.

Welcome to our province, good luck and thanks for signing on,


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