Open letter to translink: “Drop the us-them attitude”

This morning, I took the 145 bus. As the train entered production way station, I ran down the staircase, across the bus loop, and into the front door of the waiting artic. The people behind me weren’t that lucky. They still ran, albeit not as quick as I did. There were around 20 people in the bus loop who didn’t make the bus, some of whom had the back door slammed right in front of them. I glanced at the driver’s display board: he was “+0” minutes early.

This attitude is emblematic and endemic throughout Translink as an organization. And it’s a huge issue. Translink has become a business: a big, bad, multi-billion dollar corporation. It happens when Translink calls the people who use their services, “our customers”. It happens when they make announcements that imply that “customers” are on someone else’s property, and must follow the rules. The attitude happens when they call themselves “Translink”.

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We should not create a divide between the users and the employees. It should not be a privilege to take transit. Translink should not be a business. A business has angry customers, unsatisfied customers, customers wanting refunds, and customers thinking that you’re a huge arrogant corporation. People start trash talking you, they start treating your infrastructure as if it’s the property of a big corporation, and they vandalize you. They pay fares not because “it’s the right thing to do,” or because they want to be a “good citizen” (not break the law), but because they fear getting caught. It’s like Microsoft: nobody likes their products, but they’re big and we are forced to do business with them. Now imagine if Microsoft was funded by tax dollars.

Transit is a public service. Our public transit system is owned by the public, and it belongs to every person who lives in the region. It’s like our hospitals: they don’t call their sick inmates, “our customers”. Staying in a hospital is a right, not a privilege. We respect hospital property because it’s owned by all us. To vandalize, bad-mouth, or steal from hospitals is an insult to everyone in society.

What can we do? First, hire a marketing consultant, and think about what the primary message should be. What is the one theme that should resonate throughout the organization, and throughout all products and services. It might be: “Transit creates a livable and sustainable region.” Change the attitude we use for public relations. Instead of “You keep us moving,” say “We move our transit system,” or “We’re all part of a creating a world class transit system,” or “A sustainable Vancouver starts with all of us taking the bus”.

Changing the us-them attitude starts from the bottom up. It starts with bus drivers waiting for passengers to board the bus, treating passengers with respect, as people who have lives and schedules. It’s a subtle, but powerful shift in attitude that shapes the way we see transit. This attitude is reflected in the words we use: when talking about our transit system, using the words “we”, “us” and “our”, is not only more engaging, but more truthful. After all, we all take transit.

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