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BC Transit is one of the most robust and complex public transportation services in British Columbia. Serving every part of B.C. except the Lower Mainland, this provincial crown corporation oversees a fleet of 1,200-plus vehicles in 83 transit systems, serving 51 million riders annually. 

Q&A with BC Transit

More than 130 communities depend on BC Transit to meet their unique transportation needs. In recent years, the service has undertaken major projects to create a more convenient and accessible experience. One of these projects is the Smart Bus technology project, which introduced real-time bus information, automated stop announcements and closed circuit TV cameras onboard each bus. 

To improve B.C.’s transportation network over the next 25 years, the organization’s Transit Future plan embraces direct feedback from BC Transit customers, resulting in a vision for supporting the need to grow economic vitality, preserve green integrity and develop liveable neighborhoods that demonstrate the integration of all sustainable modes of transportation.

In 2020, as part of the Low Carbon Fleet Program, 95 diesel buses were replaced with quieter, greener Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) buses. 

We talked with Erinn Pinkerton, President and CEO, to find out how BC Transit’s work supports prosperous, healthy communities in the regions they serve.

Erinn Pinkerton, President & CEO of BC Transit.

Why did you join South Island Prosperity Partnership?

BC Transit prides itself on being “your best transportation solution” by providing safe, reliable and affordable public transportation. In the Victoria Regional Transit System, that means a fleet of more than 350 buses connecting people throughout the region with conventional and custom transit service. We also employ roughly 1,000 people, most of whom live and work in the South Island region, and are dedicated to the role they play within our community. Our core values and long-term goals of safety, reliability and sustainability closely align with the South Island Prosperity Partnership, and BC Transit is honoured to be a part of this collective group.

 What do you see as key to growing a resilient, robust economic future for our region?

There are many factors that can influence future economic prosperity for the South Island, but I believe one of the keys to achieving long-term success in this area is sustainability. It’s not enough to just build and develop for economic growth. We have to ensure our path forward is both environmentally responsible and can be maintained for the foreseeable future. At BC Transit we’re doing our best to lead in this regard with a number of initiatives and programs.

One example of that is the development of our new handyDART facility in View Royal. This facility will allow BC Transit to expand our fleet capacity to meet expected ridership growth, and centralize our handyDART service. We’re excited that this centre will be the first BC Transit facility in the province built to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold requirements. LEED principles outline site requirements that employ best management practices to reduce chemical use, energy, water, air pollution, solid waste, and/or runoff associated with the building site. Our site planning work and consultation has ensured Craigflower Creek is protected and enhanced, while also creating more than an acre of restored and protected streamside habitat. And when the facility opens in 2024, it will include the infrastructure to support a fully electric fleet.

What is our region’s secret sauce when it comes to competing internationally to attract quality talent, businesses with household sustaining jobs, and investment?

The beauty of the South Island speaks for itself, with the Pacific Ocean, hiking trails and natural lakes close at hand no matter where you are in the region. While that might be our best “selling point” for attracting industry and people, we have to offer more to compete. Affordability is a challenge and can be limiting. However, studies show accessibility is also key to drawing people, and we play a key role in making that happen.

Before the pandemic, we provided more than 27 million total boardings in Greater Victoria per year. People want accessible transit where they live and they’re beginning to think more about climate change and sustainability. Having an easily accessible transit system that supports other forms of active transportation can’t be overstated, and we have some exciting sustainability programs already underway.

What are you most excited about in terms of your own organization’s plans and potential?

This is actually tough to answer, because we have so many exciting initiatives in development that will have a huge impact on public transit, especially in the south Island. BC Transit’s Low Carbon Fleet Program is already well underway. Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) infrastructure has been added in five communities including Victoria. This has allowed us to replace diesel and gas-fueled buses nearing the end of their service life with CNG vehicles. In Victoria alone, we have added 60 CNG buses to the fleet since early in 2020. But CNG is just a short-term measure in preparation for our plan to electrify our entire fleet by 2040. We are excited for the first 10 battery electric buses to enter service in Victoria next year.

We are also developing our electronic fare collection system that will allow people the option of using a mobile app or contactless credit card to get on the bus in addition to paying with cash. And the RapidBus project will create a dedicated, high capacity transit system that outperforms the personal automobile in speed, comfort and reliability. The plan introduces the flagship West Shore-Downtown Victoria Line in the next three years and then subsequent RapidBus lines across the region. We really are entering an exciting and landscape-changing time for BC Transit and for residents in the Victoria region. We can’t wait to bring you along on the journey. 

What’s one thing about your organization you really want people to know that they probably don’t know?

The province had another challenging and sometimes devastating summer of wildfires. It’s a little known fact that BC Transit is named under the Emergency Program Act as the agency responsible for coordinating requirements for public transportation, including school and privately owned buses. This summer our team once again carried out strategic and detailed operations to help individuals, communities and wildfire response teams dealing with the more than 250 fires across our beautiful province.

Over a roughly two month span, BC Transit completed 33 evacuations of almost 400 people on our handyDART and conventional buses with wheelchair accessibility. We relocated seniors and other people without accessible transportation as far north as Prince George and as far south as Vancouver. Two of our team members were also out on the front lines as volunteer firefighters.

And with the recent flooding due to atmospheric rivers, BC Transit once again answered the call by supporting the evacuation of more than 1,100 people from locations like Abbotsford, Merritt and Princeton. 

It’s something our team puts a lot of work into, and something we’re very proud of. BC Transit’s emergency response is yet another illustration of our dedication to the communities we serve across B.C.

What challenges are you most invested in helping our community overcome and why?

There are two specific challenges that are interconnected. The first is accessibility. I believe everyone should have easy access to safe, reliable and affordable transportation. Every day we are striving to provide that for our customers and we are constantly looking for ways to improve. The more reliable and convenient BC Transit is for people, the more likely they are to consider not taking their personal vehicle everywhere they go. And that leads right into climate change and sustainability. Taking the bus is already the greener alternative, but as our Low Carbon Fleet Program progresses, public transit will become an even better choice as people look to have their own personal, positive impact in the climate change battle. Our services also align well with other forms of active transportation that are better for the environment like walking and cycling.

What lessons have most profoundly impacted you since the pandemic sent shockwaves through our community and economy?

The adversity we have faced has provided many learning opportunities, both at the personal and professional levels. Some of my biggest takeaways from this extremely difficult period are that we need to be willing to adapt and we must be flexible. We quickly recognized that everything we had built would have to be continuously re-evaluated, with no clear end in sight. Since March 2020, we have had to send all our office staff home with their work, temporarily halt fare collection, implement mandatory mask and employee proof of vaccination policies and so much more. These are all things we wouldn’t have dreamed of prior to the pandemic, but we had to do them to keep our employees, bus drivers, customers and the whole community safe.

The pandemic has also reminded me that our buses and drivers go well beyond just getting people from A to B. There have been countless examples over the last year and half of drivers caring for their communities on a deeper level. The homemade signs of gratitude people put up at bus stops filled me with immense pride, and I know they meant a lot to our drivers.

One of the other big takeaways for me is the importance of staying connected with coworkers. BC Transit really is a big family, and even though most of our employees were working from home and only seeing each other virtually, people worked hard at maintaining those personal connections. It’s an important ingredient in working as an effective team, and despite the challenges we’ve all faced, BC Transit has been able to accomplish many wonderful things since the pandemic began.

When you envision the South Island region in 2040, what will have changed? What does our future look like?

Being born and raised in Victoria, I never could have envisioned the significant changes we’ve experienced as a community. The growth of the Westshore, the increased presence of the tech sector and the ever-growing importance of our tremendous environmental assets (trails, lakes, etc.) just to name a few. We have the potential to continue to make this region an even more amazing place to live and work, and I know we will do just that.

For BC Transit this will include an entirely electric fleet of buses, electronic fare collection so people can use their phone or tap their way onto a bus and facilities that will allow us to expand our services and continue to meet increased demand. It also means services for Indigenous communities like Beecher Bay that are looking for more access to safe and reliable transportation, and bus lane infrastructure that makes it easier for people living in our growing communities in the Westshore and on the Saanich Peninsula to get to work without single occupancy vehicles.

 The future is bright for the South Island and I’m excited about the role BC Transit will have in making that happen.