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TransLink’s new CEO Kevin Desmond says Vancouver’s public transportation system should embrace ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft because they can strengthen transit.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

TransLink's new CEO says Vancouver's public transportation system should embrace ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft because they can strengthen transit.

"We have to find ways to embrace this change," said Kevin Desmond, who was hired from Seattle in February to take over the Lower Mainland's transportation agency. He noted that ride-hailing services are hugely popular with the public, and transit systems "need to find out a way to participate in that and make it complementary."

Mr. Desmond, who was speaking at a Vancouver Board of Trade event, said a recent paper from the American Public Transportation Association concluded that services such as Uber and Lyft support public transit by giving people another option for getting to bus and rail lines more easily.

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The public-transit system is never going to be able to provide door-to-door service for everyone, he said, so all kinds of other services – car-sharing, bike-sharing, taxis, ride-hailing and more – help give people options and allow them to blend transit into their trips.

Uber has so far not entered the B.C. market, aside from a brief period in 2012 when it operated its black-car service in Vancouver. Unlike other cities, where it has pushed in over the objection of local governments, the company is waiting for the B.C. government to draft regulations for such services in the coming months.

The TransLink CEO's speech and responses to questions were filled with future-focused solutions and optimism about the present.

Mr. Desmond said that mobile ticketing will be coming soon to the system, along with the ability to use a credit card to tap through gates to pay for an individual fare.

And he said the innovations he'd like to bring most to TransLink are those that use social media and digital communications to run a more efficient network.

Talking about the current situation, he noted that TransLink has gained about $25-million in revenue since the Compass card was introduced, partly because ridership has gone up, partly because the card has made it more difficult for people to avoid paying fares.

He noted that 52 per cent of operating costs in TransLink's huge system are covered by fares, one of the highest rates in North America – even though the fares are lower than in many other cities.

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And, more importantly, for beleaguered transit riders who have been cramming onto a status-quo system in increasing numbers, he painted an enchanting picture of service improvements that are about to arrive.

There will be additional SkyTrain and Canada Line service and more SeaBus sailings in January, along with new buses in April in order to relieve a system that he acknowledged is "bursting at the seams."

He also talked about five new rapid-bus lines that would be in place within five years.

But, he acknowledged, all of that is dependent on mayors voting in favour of a property-tax increase ($3 for the average household; $45 for the average business) and a 5- to 10-per-cent fare increase in November.

That vote will come after a public consultation that started this week, which seems to be generating interest already. Mr. Desmond said 900 people had already filled out response forms in the first few days.

The tax and fare increases are meant to help pay for two major needs.

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One is the regional share of the first phase of federal transit funding, which the cities, province and federal government agreed on in May. The region needs to come up with 17 per cent, or $125-million, out of the total $740-million for the first phase.

As well, Mr. Desmond said, some of the new $1.3-billion in local revenue generated over several years, if tax and fare increases are approved, will go to immediate service improvements, such as the operating money for buses, which wasn't included as part of the federal initiative.

Mayor Gregor Robertson, who participated in the board of trade discussion, said he thinks the public will support the plan and the increases because the situation has changed dramatically since the new Trudeau government announced it would pay for half, instead of the usual one-third, of transit projects.

"We have fewer demands on local sources so we're basically putting together a new funding approach. Mayors are inclined to think we've got a good combination here. We want to make sure we've heard from people around the region that this makes sense as opposed to the sales tax which didn't make sense."

He said if people reject this new idea, "we're back to the drawing board."

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