As TransLink continues to rebuild after last spring’s disastrous referendum, Vancouver’s transit authority might look to America’s Deep South for inspiration

Atlanta was named by Time magazine as having one of the United States’ 10 worst transit systems in 2011 and one of the few to lose ridership. In 2012, its voters rejected a referendum pitching a new one per cent sales tax that would pay for $7.1 billion in improvements. Voters, by a two-to-one margin, said they just didn’t trust government to spend the money well.

Three years later, a new CEO—hired five months after the referendum failed—is earning praise for how he has changed the image of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA). Keith Parker has been credited with all kinds of miracle work: stabilizing the agency’s finances, achieving a new, harmonious relationship with the often-opposed Republicans in state government, improving service and making transit cool in car-centric Atlanta. Voters in one of the three counties in Atlanta that didn’t have transit service voted earlier this year to support a one per cent sales tax to get it. And the American Public Transportation Association named Parker outstanding public-transit manager of 2015.

Vancouverites hearing all this can’t help but wonder: is this the glorious future that awaits their favourite public-agency whipping boy, TransLink? The Lower Mainland transit authority is, of course, looking for a new CEO after Ian Jarvis was unceremoniously removed from the position a couple of weeks before our ill-fated transit-tax plebiscite earlier this year. (The hiring process was temporarily put on hold in August, at the suggestion of the minister in charge of TransLink, Peter Fassbender.) Will this new leader inspire confidence, add service, transform the province’s relationship with the transit agency it loves to undermine and turn perpetual TransLink critic Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation into a superfan?

Umm, maybe. Depends on whether that new leader has the leeway to make real change, say local experts in public relations. And it depends, says one Atlanta transit-advocacy group, on what else is happening with every other part of the complex transit ecosystem.

A leader can’t turn an organization around if all the conditions that led to problems before are still in place, says Patti Schom-Moffatt, principal of PSM Ventures Inc., who has spent 35 years working in crisis and reputation management. She’s worked with companies or agencies with badly dented reputations and helped move their image ratings up the scale. But it never happens easily. And it can’t happen if only the leader changes.

Vancouver has benefitted from that virtuous cycle when ridership and service steadily moved up during the decade following TransLink’s creation in 1998. It reached its peak during the 2010 Olympics, when the public happily left cars at home and piled onto the brand-new Canada Line–although it helped that the system got $17 million from the Games organizers to create an unprecedented level of service while the Olympics were on

“If nothing changes but the person and the title, and all the other constraints are still in place, I cannot see that person being successful,” says Schom-Moffatt. “A leader can make a gigantic difference if the mandate is to make a difference and it’s no-holds-barred.” But if TransLink continues to operate with all of its current conditions—revenue frozen at present levels after the province and public have rejected all possibilities for new sources; a governance system where no one appears to be really in charge—the greatest new leader in the world will have a hard time making headway.

Schom-Moffatt, public-relations consultant Leslie Boldt and others say that a strong, communications-savvy new leader can make a difference if the only problem the organization has is communications—if the company or agency has a decent story to tell but hasn’t been successful at telling it.

“If it really is a leadership issue, they need to show a few wins and they need to communicate those wins, show that they’re getting this back on track,” says Boldt. (Though doing a quick win like cutting costs, as Parker did in Atlanta, may be more challenging here, since TransLink already trimmed almost $100 million from its $1-billion budget in 2014.) Boldt, like many in the transit-advocate camp, believes that accusations of terrible management at TransLink are often unfair. “Its financial management versus other transit authorities is not bad and in some cases better.”

Finally, whether that new CEO has to contend with basic operations and governance problems or mainly communications maladroitness, turning around the reputation of a transit agency is a different challenge.

“In other kinds of businesses, you don’t have an opportunity for something minor or major to go wrong every day,” says Boldt. TransLink serves almost a million passengers daily and is vulnerable to everything from electricity failures to trees falling on tracks to everything that happens in a big public-serving space.

On the other hand, as has happened with Keith Parker in Atlanta, outside forces can come together for the good. “I think Keith Parker is terrific,” says Lee Biola, an Atlanta attorney and president of Citizens for Progressive Transit. But, he says, there were many other factors that have played into what some have portrayed as a kind of “great man” transformation accomplished by leader alone. 

When Parker took over, the worst impacts of the recession were starting to ebb. That made a huge difference to Atlanta transit—the only system its size in the U.S. that doesn’t get state funding and which relies heavily on sales taxes. During the recession, revenue from those taxes plummeted and the previous CEO, an energetic and visible leader, had to drastically chop service. Parker was able to restore it as sales-tax revenue rebounded and created a wave of good publicity when he increased the frequency of local trains. Then, because there was better service, transit ridership went up. As Biola puts it, “Your best advertisement is good service.”

Helping Parker is the fact that the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, has energetically driven forward a plan for streetcars and is putting city money toward the effort, which has improved the overall attractiveness and accessibility of the transit network. As well, four local development groups have decided to put major new projects near transit stations in the last 18 months. While not noteworthy in Vancouver, in sprawling Atlanta—where developers are just catching on to the “millennials want to live in walkable communities” trend—the move to building around transit is revolutionary.

And so, through a combination of factors, things just keep on looking sunnier in Atlanta. Yes, it helps that Parker—a hip-looking guy with a trim goatee—bought a house near a MARTA line and is riding transit all the time. It also helps that, through a combination of a lower-key approach and financially prudent management, he’s getting along better with state politicians. And perhaps most of all, it helps that the region is adding more and more transit—and as service improves, shops and offices decide to locate along the line, which makes ditching the car and taking the train even more popular. “It’s a virtuous cycle,” says Biola.

Vancouver has benefitted from that virtuous cycle in the past, when ridership and service steadily moved up during the decade following TransLink’s creation in 1998. It reached its peak during the 2010 Olympics, when the public happily left cars at home and piled onto the brand-new Canada Line—although it helped that the system got $17 million from the Games organizers to create an unprecedented level of service while the Olympics were on. But if the next CEO of TransLink is able to achieve the dramatic transformation that everyone seems to be calling for, it will take more than just good leadership and a strongly articulated vision. It will require the province to empower the transit authority and give its leader a real mandate—something that’s been lacking from the beginning.