Investment, Expansion, Good Business and Customer Experience: 4 Takeaways from Transit in Canada

Nov. 12, 2019
Canada has a forward-leaning public transit industry with top-notch executives, all of which have visions to improve and expand public transportation.

Canada has a forward-leaning public transit industry with top-notch executives, all of which have visions to improve and expand public transportation. Recently, while I toured some Canadian public transit agencies, I met with their staffs, spoke on transit trends, toured their facilities and operations, and rode their services. And now, with more federal funding, these strong, innovative leaders, have the capacity and means to better their systems for their cities. The four main ways these agencies plan to invigorate their cities and riders are through: 

· Transit investments 

· Expansion of services

· Treating transit like a business

· Customer experience

The four transit operations I visited in Canada were from coast to coast - TransLink in Vancouver, British Columbia; BC Transit in Victoria, British Columbia; Hamilton Street Railway in Hamilton, Ontario; and Metrolinx in Toronto, Ontario.

Transit Investment – Funding and Public-private Partnerships

Investment, or funding, comes in many forms. The provincial and federal governments are stepping up in major ways to help provide agencies with opportunities to expand or create better service. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently joined British Columbia’s premier at BC Transit announcing funding for 118 new transit buses across the province to replace those at the end of their useful life. They announced a joint investment of $79 million among federal, provincial, and municipal governments that will also allow for ten long-range electric buses for Greater Victoria. Additionally, the Government of Ontario announced that it would provide funding up to $1.62 billion for public transit outside of the Greater Toronto Hamilton Areas (GTHA) over the next ten years. Investment in public transit from the public is increasing because it is clear to these governments that to make their region stronger, they need good public transit.

Another way Metrolinx, a Crown corporation (or state-owned enterprise), is investing in public transit within the GTHA region is through larger consortiums and public-private partnerships (P3s). The Eglinton Crosstown, a new light rail expansion within Toronto, is a consortium including ACS-Dragados, Aecon, EllisDon, and SNC Lavalin, and operated by Bombardier. This project is nearing completion with service starting in 2021. Metrolinx is also working on at least three more expansion projects within the GTHA worth an estimated $30 billion. Most of these are likely to be created using the P3 model.

More Transit – Extensions, Expansions and New Service

All over Canada, it seems like there are more and more transit services popping up or in the works. This comes in expansions and extensions of subway, LRT, and commuter rail, and new long-haul bus services.

BC Transit launched new long-haul routes with motor coaches to fill the void left when Greyhound inter-city services left the market there. Focusing on meeting customer needs for mobility, even if it’s not in their traditional wheelhouse, is the customer-centric approach the agency is taking under Erinn

Pinkerton’s (BC Transit) leadership. (Customer experience is a theme throughout all the agencies, and will be discussed in more detail below.)

TransLink has extended its SkyTrain network and is also amid a $9 billion plan to improve transit and transportation while investing in much-needed maintenance. Metrolinx is working on the Toronto subway extensions.

While their primary mode is bus right now, the City of Hamilton is at the beginning phases of implementing a new light rail system (LRT) in conjunction with Metrolinx. And Metrolinx has been tasked with expanding its commuter rail service in addition to building the new relief line in downtown Toronto.

Finally, in the spirit of more transit, Metrolinx has increased its commuter rail service by 30% in the last 18 months, mainly by adding off-peak service. This is a new trend among progressive transit agencies to add more weekend and off-peak service to more fully meet the needs of shift workers, shoppers, and those who want transit access for night and weekend downtown entertainment. They’ve also upped their frequency as they are trying to run certain routes on 15-minute or less headways.

More service is offered because these Canadian cities, along with others, have recognized that having more service is an investment their regions need for the mobility of their citizens.

Return on Investment – Treating Transit Like a Business

All this funding and additional services are great, but how do you make sure you are getting your return on investment? Phil Verster (Metrolinx) is a very progressive, business-like CEO who has a clear plan to achieve their service goals. Phil wants to shift the agency to operate more like a business, where:

• Employees and stakeholders understand the customer lifetime value

• Customers receive more value when they use the system 

• The burden to taxpayers is reduced

• Safety is the number one priority

Rail changes communities, and moving people creates real economic impact. For the Toronto area, there is an estimated return of $2.60 per every $1.00 invested in transit. That is significant when you are spending billions of dollars to improve transit within an area.

Phil questions, “What’s the value of capturing a rider earlier in life?” Metrolinx is trying to do so by lowering the cost of fares to an appropriate level to entice more people to use the system. It isn’t lowering fares for the sake of lowering fares. Having a reduced fare now makes it easier and more affordable for riders to use the system. An aversion to taking transit is often because of the unfamiliarity of how to ride it. The sooner you get people on your system, the more likely they are to use it in the future. So, lowering the fare now is an investment in a future increase of regular riders, which is a greater ROI than the extra dollar you’d get now.

All the government spending in Canada is helpful for public transit services, but it also puts the overall cost on the public for these services. Phil makes a point to lessen the burden on the taxpayer as much as they can. One of the unique ways they are doing this is to sell the naming rights to their new stations. Additionally, Metrolinx is working with developers to build their stations at no additional cost to the taxpayer. The added revenue and partnerships between contractors are estimated to save $1.5 billion to the taxpayers over ten years.

The final lesson in running transit like a business and maximizing your ROI is to leverage your buying power and pilot implementation. BC Transit is in the unique position to oversee ~81 different transit agencies. Through procurement and building transit exchanges or maintenance facilities, BC Transit can learn from one and keep improving the efficiency for each subsequent purchase or building. This also relates to the larger implementation after a successful pilot. If a pilot project is successful, they can take those lessons and roll it out across the entire province. Now, not everyone has this luxury, but for a few of the state-wide or multi-operator agencies, it’s a great tool to add to your toolbelt.

Customer Experience – Faring, Groceries, Travel Training, and Listening to the Customer

Customer experience, or customer-centricity, is a predominant component of every transit plan in Canada. Each agency approaches this idea a bit differently, but the fundamental concept is fairly simple: generate new opportunities to listen to and develop plans for the customer. It’s always about introducing new programs with the customer at the forefront of the plan. It’s paramount to your future success and relationship with your riders.

Recently, TransLink upgraded its faring system to incorporate RFID tap and go fare gate technology. But, even more interesting, they also introduced North America’s first wearable, wristband fare payment device. This new faring tech is key to reducing the friction customers often experience needing cash for service. Now with the latest easy to use faring, they are making transit access more seamless and faster by tapping into an excited group of dedicated technology and transit enthusiasts.

With the seemingly never-ending rise in paratransit trips and cost, there is always a need to try to make that side of your operations more efficient. BC Transit invested in travel training to help shift the paratransit demand when possible and added an enhanced eligibility program. BC Transit brings in physical and cognitive assessment experts to help their customers make the best decision. It’s about trying to get customers to the right service. It’s not about simply putting them on the fixed route service. They have conditional approvals. So, one of their riders might be hard of seeing at night. They’ll fit the service to the rider – perhaps paratransit at night, but during the day, maybe that rider can ride conventional fixed route.

In line with the industry trend, in January 2019, the City of Hamilton’s Transit Division began a comprehensive community engagement campaign to (Re)envision the HSR, which included a comprehensive survey. Following the close of their survey in April 2019 that was designed by world-class transportation experts at McMaster University, (Re)envision the HSR has now entered phase two, where they are analyzing the results, and engaging with residents through several community events, activities and platforms.

As Director Debbie Dalle Vedove has stated, “This campaign is about more than just our transit network. It marks a new way of working at the HSR. We’re bringing the voice of our customers into our planning and design practices, to make transit the first choice.”

The final customer experience item is from Metrolinx – grocery pickup at their local commuter train station. When commuters get home from a long day of work and their train ride back to the station, they can now pick up their groceries in a refrigerated locker that they ordered online earlier in the day. Metrolinx developed a unique partnership with Canadian grocery store giant, Loblaws, to make GO Stations the first outpost for Loblaws’ “Click and Collect program.” This service allows consumers to order their groceries online and have them delivered to their local GO Station. This creates a strong value proposition for transit amongst commuters who are seeking to save time in their day.

Oh Canada – The Transit North is Strong

Customer experience might have been separated from the other three lessons I took from these Canadian transit agencies. However, all of them come down to serving your community better – enabling your riders the gift of better mobility. Like every public transit organization, there is still a lot of work to do to keep up with the demand of your region and help make transit the first choice.

We are in fast-moving times, and transit being the first choice might not always be the case. But, if you can learn from some of these top agencies and use their lessons to your advantage, it will help you capture the hearts and support of your community. So, if you can, take a play out of the Canadian playbook and see where it takes you.


Paul Comfort is vice president, Business Development at Trapeze Group.