Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.
Urban Planning + Architecture

After Five Years, Kevin Desmond Reaches His TransLink Terminus

The outgoing CEO on commuting through COVID, steel vs. rubber and a transit ‘love affair.’

Christopher Cheung 21 Jan

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

Tough times bookended Kevin Desmond’s time in the driver’s seat of Metro Vancouver’s transit authority, TransLink.

He arrived as CEO in 2016, when faith in TransLink was shaken. After the high of the 2010 Winter Olympics and the brand new Canada Line, it stumbled with governance squabbles, fare gate glitches and a three-year delay of the Compass card rollout.

In 2014, a number of SkyTrains stopped in their tracks due to technical issues, with riders in one incident opting to walk the elevated lines rather than wait.

The previous CEO had resigned in 2015, right before voters rejected a 0.5-per-cent sales tax hike to pay for transit, a win for the anti-tax lobby that called TransLink an agency that “wastes too much money to be trusted with it.”

It was a lot for a new leader to drive into. And now, after five years at the helm, Desmond exits next month in the midst of a different crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic saw 83 per cent of TransLink’s ridership disappear in April 2020.

“It was truly existential,” said Desmond during his final public address, hosted virtually by the Urban Development Institute on Monday.

“It was the most frightening time of my career.... What do we do? Not only with empty trains and buses, with a marketplace that’s collapsing, but our revenues with it just plummeted.”

TransLink, unlike most systems in North America, is heavily dependent on fares. Last year, they contributed to 58 per cent of operating costs.

With COVID-19, that became TransLink’s “Achilles’ heel,” said Desmond. At the worst of the pandemic drop in rides, it was losing $75 million a month.

Despite a challenging beginning and end to his tenure, Desmond took on both crises and guided TransLink through five years of relative stability.

He helped bring in some big bucks, with the provincial and federal governments pledging $9 billion for new projects, including the Broadway subway.

And while politicians obsessed over grand visions of more SkyTrain, Desmond made sure other transit modes weren’t left out, bringing new RapidBus lines, double-deckers and 10-minute SeaBus service.

Good customer service reviews shot up. Ridership did too, with an all-time high of 452.9 million boardings in 2019. Also that year, the American Public Transportation Association named TransLink the best system in North America.

For those who like gimmicks, the voice of Vancouver-born actor Seth Rogen debuted on buses and trains, telling riders to mind doors and not play music too loudly.

Desmond’s tenure wasn’t without controversy. Politicians and labour groups criticized his salary, which was $356,000 when he was hired in 2016, and rose to $517,444 in 2019.

That year, he argued that giving bus workers higher wages would endanger transit expansion plans. Drivers went on strike for a month, refusing overtime, but managed to reach a deal hours before job action would escalate to a system shutdown.

The chair of the TransLink Mayors’ Council, Mayor Jonathan Cote of New Westminster, defended Desmond’s salary as “proper compensation” for the job.

The headlines that dominated the Desmond years concerned SkyTrain, with construction for Vancouver’s Broadway subway beginning this year and funding promised for an extension from Surrey to Langley. But under his tenure, TransLink also significantly boosted buses.

In a revealing interview with the Price Tags podcast in 2019, Desmond shared the bias that politicians have towards heavy rail.

“You just move to the sex appeal,” he explained. “You move to where the billions of dollars go. It’s a natural thing. It’s what politicians want to do. They want to build big things. Buses are not sexy. I took it as a mission of mine, and it started in New York [where Desmond used to work], to reject that buses aren’t sexy and reject that buses are for losers.... If we just assume that all walks of life should use the bus, we can step up the quality of the bus service, and it actually isn’t that hard to do it.”

Nowhere was the rapture of heavy rail more evident than in 2018, when a new cohort of Metro Vancouver mayors voted to cancel the Surrey light rail project — proposed in 2012, with construction to begin in 2019 — in favour of SkyTrain. In 2020, the NDP provincial government made an election promise to help fund the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain.

In spite of SkyTrain’s shadow, TransLink unrolled a grand plan for electrifying its bus fleet by 2050, with four new zero-emission, battery-electric buses already on roads. More are on order, with a goal of electrifying half the fleet, about 300 buses, by 2030.

Charging into the future: Compared to a diesel bus, each electric bus will save $40,000 in fuel costs per year and remove 100 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. Pictured here with an old trolley bus from the discontinued 34 Hastings Express. Photo courtesy of TransLink.

And in the month before the pandemic, five RapidBus lines were launched in the region’s busiest cities. They offer more service and speed, and Desmond was excited when cities spoke to him about densifying along these routes.

“To me, that’s nirvana,” he said this week. “When cities start actually valuing rubber-tire transit on their arterials as also opportunities for smart growth — let’s talk, man!”

Desmond’s passion for public transit was evident throughout his time at TransLink.

He grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., just outside the Bronx, and would ride New York’s Line 5. However, he told media that he entered the sector “slightly by mistake,” following a boss to work for New York City Transit, where his “love affair” began.

He found public transit a “really cool mixture of public policy, public service and running a business.”

He came to Metro Vancouver after 12 years as general manager of King County Metro Transit, which covers greater Seattle. The popular Seattle Transit Blog described him as a “wonk in a politician’s job.” New Westminster Mayor Cote said that Desmond “lives and breathes public transit.”

A TransLink staffer shared with The Tyee how encouraging it was in 2016 to see someone who was an advocate for public transportation take the role, noting that the previous CEO Ian Jarvis was an accountant.

The agency was coming out of a few years of bad press. The Seattle Times had called the failed transit referendum in 2015 “embarrassing.” Despite the coalition of Metro Vancouver mayors, labour groups and environmentalists pushing for yes, the referendum was defeated.

Greater Seattle, in comparison, had won three transit referendums and lost one under Desmond’s watch.

Two TransLink staffers said that Desmond started in the role with a lot of energy and some harshness, like the new boss in a TV show, “shooting out commands… but that didn’t last too long.”

They said Desmond became a respected leader, especially considering all the divisions and subsidiaries of TransLink he had to manage, as well as working with 21 of the region’s mayors. He made sure that small communities like Lions Bay had a voice.

Cote agreed, adding that being a skilled communicator is crucial to a role that requires securing “huge, huge” partnerships and helping the public “have a greater understanding of the work that TransLink is doing, but also a greater trust and respect.”

851px version of RichmondCapstanStation.jpg
Richmond’s upcoming Capstan Station. The associated costs of $31 million were fully funded by developers with nearby projects. Desmond highlighted the station as an example of how the public and private sectors can partner with TransLink. Rendering courtesy of the Office of McFarlane Biggar Architects & Designers.

The staffers wondered how aware Desmond was of the region’s diversity when he moved here. One of them said they “never really got the sense” that a full representation of Surrey residents were included in public conversations around new rapid transit in their city.

About 41 per cent of Surrey residents don’t speak English at home, according to the 2016 census. The staffers hope that the new CEO pushes for more representative consultation.

They did compliment Desmond on basic but important customer-facing improvements, like the introduction of boards showing the estimated time of arrival for trains and some buses.

Desmond has shared in the past how “there’s a posture that [a] New Yorker has, looking down the platform, looking for the next train, and nobody tells you a damn thing. The only way you know another train is coming, you feel the air first, from the piston effect in the tunnels.... Customers are more forgiving of a delay if you’re telling them what’s going on.”

Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program who’s been consulted by TransLink as a field expert, noted how these finer improvements for everyday users led to people embracing TransLink as part of the region’s identity.

“They went from transit geek to transit chic,” he said, pointing to the unexpected popularity of the Compass wristbands that could be used instead of fare cards. The wristbands not only sold out upon release but were scalped online.

“Think about New York. The subways have their issues, but they’re such an important part of the identity of a New Yorker.” It’s become the same in Vancouver, he said.

But even with an effective leader like Desmond and a strong team, Yan reminds that TransLink is dependent on other bodies with powers it does not have.

“You can only do so much with transit before it becomes a land-use issue,” he said.

The zoning issue is in the court of regional city councils, each with their own take on growth. It’s something that’s peeved B.C. Premier John Horgan, who told cities in 2019 that they can’t have it “both ways,” asking the province for transit money without welcoming the density to justify the investment.

Gordon Price, the former Vancouver councillor who writes the Price Tags blog, said it wouldn’t be exaggerating to call the Desmond years a “golden age.”

“When you’re in expansion mode and you continue to deliver the goodies, people are going to say nice things,” he said.

The golden age might’ve been interrupted by COVID-19, “but even that story isn’t over,” said Price. “The improvements are rolling out, and I don’t get the sense it’ll diminish this region’s commitment to transit.”

851px version of TransLinkBusWindshieldMask.jpg
TransLink required commuters to wear masks before the province did for indoor spaces. And it handed out free masks. Photo courtesy of TransLink.

In his farewell address, Desmond spoke of how the region might look post-COVID if commuting patterns remain changed, with more people working from home, for example. (TransLink is almost back to pre-pandemic levels of service, despite the financial burden and lower ridership.)

He pointed to global headlines that showed transmission wasn’t happening on public transit, and he tried to assure people that TransLink was doing everything possible to protect riders. The authority announced a mask mandate before the province called for masks in indoor spaces, and it introduced innovations like germ-killing copper on the handles of buses and trains.

TransLink is still tabulating the data on pandemic ridership, but the numbers for September show ridership was back to 40 per cent of last year’s level. At its lowest point in April, ridership was just 17 to 40 per cent of 2019 levels. The impact of COVID-19’s second wave, however, remains to be seen.

As Desmond prepares to return home to the U.S., he's shared how pleased he's been to work in Metro Vancouver. The region “gets it,” he said, and understands that public transit is key to equity, the economy and the environment.

Meanwhile, TransLink’s board has hired a firm to search globally for a new CEO to take the wheel.  [Tyee]

  • Share:

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context


The Barometer

Are You Concerned about AI?

Take this week's poll