B.C. transportation leaders track slow emergence from pandemic standstill

Q&A | In sectors initially hit hard by lockdowns, CEOs shed light on their organizations’ recovery and how COVID-19 has changed priorities on the road ahead

Top, from left: Kevin Desmond, CEO of TransLink; Doron Grosman, CEO of GCT Global Container Terminals Inc.; Nicolas Jimenez, CEO of the Insurance Corp. of British Columbia. Bottom, from left: Peter Lukomskyj, B.C. general manager of Lyft; and Patrick Nangle, CEO of Modo | BIV/submitted

A special BIV series on the future of transportation features leaders from various sectors in discussing the effects of the pandemic on their industries and how they are responding and planning.

The series features, in alphabetical order: Kevin Desmond, CEO of TransLink; Doron Grosman, CEO of GCT Global Container Terminals Inc.; Nicolas Jimenez, CEO of the Insurance Corp. of British Columbia; Peter Lukomskyj, B.C. general manager of Lyft; and Patrick Nangle, CEO of Modo.

The full series of podcasts can be found at biv.com/video and biv.com/audio. They were in conversation with reporters Hayley Woodin and Tyler Orton, and publisher and editor-in-chief Kirk LaPointe.

The interviews below have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Kevin Desmond, CEO, TransLink

So it’s just an absolutely unprecedented time, I think, for all transit agencies across the world, but for you how have priorities shifted since the outset of the pandemic to where we are right now? 

Desmond: It’s been a huge shift in priorities. But then again, they’re still the bedrock. We’re still operating buses, we’re still operating our trains and SeaBus, and HandyDART, but we’re operating in unusual and very extreme circumstances. And the arc of those circumstances, of course, have shifted from the March-April-May period where it was absolute crisis management.… To adapt clearly we had to do things to protect the health and safety of our employees and our customers. So those first few months was just trying to figure out how to do that. We’ve now moved, with the B.C. reopening that started in May…, from the intense crisis management, we got some signals from the province that they would help us financially, so we didn’t have to worry about layoffs and major service cuts.

How has the response been from British Columbians [regarding TransLink’s new mandatory mask requirements] up to this point? It’s just been in effect for a little over a week.

Desmond: By the time last Monday, the 24th [of August] came around, I think all of our customers, the general public through our media and marketing channels understood that it was mandatory. And as of our counts last week, across the system, roughly 92% of our riders are wearing a mask [and] that’s very consistent with what our colleagues in other cities have experienced when they’ve gone mandatory. So at the moment, we’re pretty happy with how this is going.

I suspect that even as the economy is reopening, there are some people that may have once depended on transit that they’ve found alternative means [of commuting]. How do you start persuading people that it the time and it is safe to for them to begin resuming transit once again? 

Desmond: Well, there’s a couple of different dimensions to some of the things we can be doing, but some of it is just the arc of the pandemic, and until there’s a vaccine, there’s only so much that we can do. One of the things that we can be doing is communicating to our riders or former riders in the general public, the steps that we’ve taken to protect their health, whether it’s mandated masks, whether there’s enhanced cleaning of the buses and the trains, looking for innovations, putting hand sanitizers in stations, the little things matter. Of course, you also have what’s going on in society – you have large numbers of people like me at the moment working from home. So clearly a large number of people are still not going to their jobs, still not going to school. We’re going to see depressed ridership. That’s just simply a reality. We don’t think that’s going to largely change until the vaccine is widely available.

 

Doron Grosman, CEO, GCT Global Container Terminals Inc.

Roll back the clock a little bit to where you were and what you began to apprehend back in March, [even preceding] that when you started to see the supply chain disrupt out of Asia.

Grosman: I was in Vancouver on March 4 and learned that the largest international shipping conference held down in Los Angeles was being cancelled. It was supposed to take place that week, and when the conference got cancelled, we clearly knew that the things that we were hearing about coming out of China from the December January time frame, and then Washington in the January-February time frame had really escalated to a tremendous area of concern. I would comment however, that when you look at the Port of Vancouver, July year-to-date, the volume is only down 5%. The disruption in the supply chain is of concern, but it is not that great as people may have imagined.

I want to understand whether you are starting to see any kind of particular Canadian opportunity or advantage that might be there in terms of this sector.

Grosman: Yes, I think that an important thing in regard to the sector in Canada that I would draw the attention to of the business community and British Columbians is the decision for the future to add future container capacity. [In] 10 years there is going to be a need as container volume grows for additional capacity. And this opportunity is now playing out that Canadians and British Columbians and those in the Lower Mainland should be paying attention to that. We have proposed the project that would come on stream incrementally.

 

Nicolas Jimenez, CEO, Insurance Corp. of British Columbia

[ICBC] has had an intense scrutiny on the part of the provincial government.

Jimenez: It’s been two and a half years of the most intense and consistent effort at change in the company’s 47-year history. So I would say we’re pretty tired over here. A lot of work to do.… We’ve said, “Look, we’ve just got to get down to fixing the problems.” And so we’ve tried to bring in humility. We’ve tried to bring an authenticity, we’ve tried to bring in a sort of a humble approach, which is we really need to beat down these problems and move on. My perfect vision for the future is we get to a place where we don’t talk about auto insurance anymore.

So how do you think things have already changed? 

Jimenez: We are using all available data to kind of see what’s happening the environment. And what we know is we hit a cliff. In March and April, and even the early part of May, the bottom fell out. And our volumes dropped probably between 50% and 60%, in terms of what we’re seeing in claims. But since the middle of May, we’ve begun to see that come back up. Now, we’re still down, year-over-year, probably in the 20% to 25% range. But we’ve seen a massive change. People are driving more, they’re getting around more, they’re working more, and this is consistent with the provincial restart. They’re not travelling to downtown cores and for work, but they are travelling more in their home neighbourhood into parks and other places. So these kinds of shifts have already started to occur. We’re seeing people renew their insurance. We had a huge number of people cancel their insurance in the latter half of March, just saying, “Not driving for a while.” Our cancellations went up in some cases 60% week-over-week, from prior year. That’s normalized again. So people are putting insurance back on policies they cancel. And that’s a sure sign that things have changed in the economy.

 

Peter Lukomskyj, general manager, B.C., Lyft

It was a very short period of time between when Lyft  [Nasdaq:LYFT] began operating at the end of January here in Vancouver and when the pandemic really pushed everybody into a kind of lockdown mode for much of the economy. What was your initial reaction from the outset of the pandemic? 

Lukomskyj: It’s interesting because, as you know, we only had about seven weeks to operate in Vancouver. So there’s a lot of pent-up demand for ride sharing. People started getting into the habit of using ride sharing for all the ways that they wanted to get around Vancouver and then all of a sudden mid-March came and people hadn’t yet really baked in the habits of how they were going to use ride sharing in their lives. And so we saw, obviously a sharp decrease in the number of rides.… What we did there was really pivoted the business to providing rides where they were needed most. We partnered with 10 not-for-profits and unions across Vancouver to make sure that essential workers could get to work, people could still get their groceries, people can get to the pharmacy, I really used what we had as a transportation network to provide that essential service.

We’ve been into the recovery mode for last few months. What have you observed just with regards to transportation habits around the region?

Lukomskyj: During the height of the pandemic, we really saw those essential rides – people were staying home, which they really should have. And what we’re seeing now is a recovery where we definitely are seeing an increase in rides to places where people are enjoying the city. We’re seeing more rides to restaurants that might have the outdoor patios or we’re seeing ride rides to nightlife…. And we’re seeing rides to places like ferry terminals and transit station, so people are exploring the region and they’re integrating ride sharing into their overall transportation mix as they as they get out and see the region. 

 

Patrick Nangle, CEO, Modo

How have the culture of car ownership and attitudes toward car-sharing evolved over the last 20 years – because there still are so many cars on the roads.

Nangle: It’s two cars for every three people in the Lower Mainland, so we still have more than 1.5 million cars floating around just in the Lower Mainland. Car culture for many of us is very deeply ingrained. Many see it as a ticket to freedom and the room to explore. Changing those habits is challenging.

There are some competing forces if you like, which sometimes compel people to go there. Affordability is a big driver. We know in Vancouver, Victoria, elsewhere that cost of living is high. Housing consumes a big part of one’s personal budget. Transportation is usually the next biggest spend. So if something has to give, that’s a good place to look.

I imagine a lot of those 1.6 million personal cars were sitting unused for a period of time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Is a shift to working from home is going to force people to rethink what they spend on transportation and how they use transportation?

Nangle: I expect so. I mean, those cars even before the pandemic were sitting idle 95% of the time. But back in late March, early April, you could walk down any street in Vancouver, and never see a car. You could walk down the middle of the road without any problem at all. That’s crept back up as we’ve rolled through the different phases of reopening. I suspect people will stay home, probably at least some of the time, if not all the time. And that will make a change. It’s too early to tell what that’s going to look like. We’ll see, but we’re cautiously optimistic. •