TriMet’s general manager is still getting to know the Portland area.
TriMet’s board hired Doug Kelsey in February to replace Neil MacFarlane, who retired at the beginning of this year after leading the transit agency since 2010. Kelsey comes to Portland from Vancouver, B.C. where he led Translink, the Vancouver-area transit agency. Kelsey also helped pitch Vancouver as a 2010 host for the Olympics and led transportation planning for the event. Kelsey’s resume includes private-sector experience in planning and strategy with Shell Canada and Starbucks.
Kelsey stopped by The Skanner’s offices in December to talk about transit accessibility, TriMet’s successes and the future of transportation in the Portland metropolitan area. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
THE SKANNER NEWS: What are some of the ways TriMet has improved since you stepped into your role?
DOUG KELSEY: When I took over we were about 81 percent on-time performance for the buses and ran on a public road system. But there were still a lot of things we needed to do. For example, we never measured when the buses left the barn. Well, showing up to work is an important thing to do. If you show up to work, you’re going to, probably, have a good day. So we need to leave on time for our customers. So now we measure that, and now the team’s doing an amazing job. High 90s. When I first started measuring this, we were in the 60s. And they’ve taken over now, in the really high 90 percent. Every day, you know we’re hitting the high numbers.
TSN: How does that change, particularly in the summer time, when you’re doing so much construction? Not you per se, but the city? How do you keep that on-time performance?
DK: I define us into the buckets that we own and control and the buckets that we share ownership with our partners on. So, some we directly control and some we influence. And so the parts, like construction – we do some of our own construction. So we manage our own work and deal with the cities, plural, because we have a regional system, and the counties. And we try and synergize and if we’re going to do a project of construction – I did one a couple years ago – and said, ‘Gee, if we’re going to open this patient up,’ like First Avenue, let’s work with all our partners. PG & E, what work do you want to do? Fiber optics. City of Portland, what do you want to do? Multnomah County, what do you want to do? Instead of TriMet just causing disruption, I’d rather do one – let’s consolidate it for the taxpayer and leverage as much in there as we possibly can. So that’s an example: instead of being disrupted four times, because we had four different partners, let’s do it once and get it done in the same amount of time.
If we look out 20 years, this region, including Clark County, is gonna be three million people. That is a different conversation around how we run the system today versus what we’re leaving for our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandkids. We need to be playing for not just today, but playing for what we need to do to make this a continued competitive and highly healthy liveable city and inclusive for all, starting with the system needs to be 100 percent transit-accessible. Every person, regardless of ethnicity, age, size, gender, needs to have privilege to get on the system, including those with disabilities. So my vision is, TriMet will become 100 percent transit-accessible.
We need to, with the three million mindset coming, what are we doing differently to be ready, like other global cities before us have done, including steps like that? We need to have transit as a priority. It cannot be equal in our policies or our practices to the single-occupant vehicle. Having a bus sitting next to a car is not an advantage. Because the person who took time to get to the bus – the other person who came out of their parking lot or garage or wherever they came from, and they’re already in the comfort.
We need to give an advantage to transit, cycling and walking in this region and healthy options.
But if you need your car, take it so we can be free of the road space for goods movement and people movement altogether. It's how do we use and leverage and free up our infrastructure in different ways than we have contemplated before, the partnership with municipal governments. And they need to do more too. So just putting a bus stop down, in our partnership, and I’ve said this to some of the mayors just recently: don’t just put a bus stop down. If we are around grass, what’s your plan to have a sidewalk next to it? To have lighting next to it? To allow us to be truly accessible and safe for all. If not, don’t have us put a bus stop in a grassy area in a field.
TSN: I’m thinking about [outer] southeast. They’re putting sidewalks there now, but it was years before they had sidewalks out there.
DK: I see it in all parts of the region. Nobody has an exclusivity on getting it right or wrong. I just think it needs to become a standard way of life for all of us. I have had two full knee replacements. I have a severed Achilles, I have C2C3 fused, I’m a broken athlete – and never was very good, by the way -- but I know what it’s like to need help. And what looks like a speed bump when you’re healthy is big when you’re not. I believe we owe it to this region to become a champion of 100 percent access for all.
TSN: Of all the transit companies, how would you grade Portland transit compared to some of the higher end transit that you think is some of the best in the United States?
DK: TriMet is considered, even by the FTA, the Federal Transit Administration, as one of the top models in the United States. It really is. Not what I thought. Now having said that, I’m insatiable and that’s not good enough. How do you reinvent? Because the circumstances this region’s facing, from the north – Seattle hit the [traffic] crisis and they passed a $56 billion bond or ballot measure [for transportation]. To the south, San Francisco’s rejuvenating. LA’s passed a $120 billion bond. So in 30 years from now, so we talk about our 3 million people -- without a significant change on top of a great base, we have a better base than others get to work with. We will be a lot less competitive to attracting and keeping people in jobs longer term. Because they will have implemented a lot of plans that they’ve said acknowledging where they are. We’re starting from a far better, stronger position than they are. But let’s not sit on our laurels. Because 25 years from now, they will be in a very different place.
This region, like most cities, has done an excellent job building what I’ll call Phase One – the hub and spoke network. But not everything is hub and spoke. We have to look differently at how we put services in place in the suburbs. Suburb to suburb, not everything from the hub-and-spoke from the downtown central business district.
When I first took over, I did 23 town halls in 96 days. I wanted to listen and try and understand what my own view points were – not only my own, but what others were talking about. And one of them that hit me was that they actually sacrificed transit, new bus service, but just give me shelters and amenities first. So I said, OK, that’s helpful to understand. But also the suburb to suburb. This region, I think, has a tremendous opportunity. We do not use queue-jumping lanes, where you jump out the stoplight, transit gets to pull up next to it and all the cars, and then when the light goes green, it goes first. We don’t use HOV lanes, we don’t use transit signal priority, so these – when other cities have gone before us, no question.
I ran the largest maker of the largest BRT – that’s bus rapid transit -- system in North America. Sixty thousand people a day on one line, every day. Not everything is a train. Trains are emotional for people. They’re also a big cost. If you have big cost, you better have big usage, and you work your way down, right? You want to make the assets and the productivity sweat. That’s my private-sector side coming out. As we rejuvenate to get ready, we re-DNA our organization and keep all the good, because there’s a lot of good in there and we don’t want to lose it. We’ve got to modernize our IT systems, our practices, our processes, our safety forms, our online performance – so redoing many departments.
We’re redoing our company to get ready as we go from just over 600 buses now, our largest growth in history, to 900 buses in the next six, seven years. And on top of that, we’re moving – by 2040 or before – we are going to be out of the diesel bus business. We are going to be in an alternative form of energy, probably called electric, maybe hydrogen, who knows. We don’t have it fully funded. The team wanted to do 2042. I said no, 2040 or before. Management needs to be pushed and tested and it’s our job to figure out the gap.
We’re testing electric buses right now, double decker buses. We brought in a double decker bus last week. We don’t own it. I just said, “Bring it in. Let the customers touch it and feel it. What are they saying? What are they feeling?” Double deckers aren’t new. Seattle, you see them all over the place. Is it for here? But I’d like to see double decker electric buses. That’s where I want to go.
I just try to get, I’ll call it product development. I’m trying to say [to riders], “Hey, you have any interest in this?” When you put it up on a picture it’s not the same as when you get to sit up top and feel it -- and go up and down the stairs. It goes 3D on you. You go for a ride. You know, we had people on the street – didn’t have any logos on there, and we had people on the street taking pictures downtown and people were going thumbs-up. It’s not new. It’s new here.
The point though is, how do we create, where people – including why do people want to take transit? Queue jumper lanes, a good experience, HOV lanes, transit signal priority, taking less time to get where they want to go on their terms? More frequency, more reliability, 24-7 service, which we just launched again after decades of no 24-7 service.
TSN: You talked about the accessibility piece. I wondered if you could talk about some specific things that you might have on the agenda as far as making the system more accessible for more folks?
DK: The rail system’s really quite accessible. It’s there, and our paratransit team does an amazing job with that service. We need to look at that model, how we deliver that in a cost-effective way that provides better service for less dollars taxed in the future. So that’s an area we want to look at with our community partners. The other piece though is we need policies and partnerships around, let’s not just put a bus stop down to say we’ve expanded bus service in a grassy field that people with disabilities can’t have access to. So if you put a bus stop in there, what is the municipal plan to have a sidewalk and lighting and maybe a shelter to go with it? That’s an investment to say we’re open for business. A bus stop, to say you’ve got one, in a grassy field, is not really a commitment. What’s the plan to get there if it’s not there to start with?
I use that as an example but the commitment level is, how do we invest and keep the topic front-of-mind policy-wise and investment-wise – every time we do that we go, how are we taking care of accessibility? It has to be a conscious muscle we exercise. And I went through this on the Olympic Games as I was in charge of all the spectator booths in Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics. It became the first Olympics in history, summer and winter, that was 100 percent transit-accessible. But we set that as a goal to go after and we achieved it. So I know it’s possible and I think it’s probably the only system in North America that has had that. I have no doubt, we have to really be unmoveable to keep this front lined. As we talk about equity, equity is actually access to the system, which to me is to me an important cause.