For a guy who is leaving his post as head of transit in Hamilton after only 20 months in the chair, Dave Dixon is surprisingly upbeat as he looks back on his time in the job. “I think it’s all been a high spot. It’s all been a whirlwind,” he told the Bay Observer. When Dixon came to Hamilton he had finished a career of nearly a quarter of a century at the Toronto Transit Commission, culminating in a stint as COO. But when Andy Byford was appointed the head of the TTC Dixon was one of two senior executives to be pushed out to make room for Byford’s team. As soon as he landed in Hamilton just days after the municipal election that saw Fred Eisenberger returned as mayor, Dixon had a major task on his plate—developing a ten-year master plan for Transit—a task that was completed in about two months. “It was a bit of a rush, but I think we came up with a solid plan,” Dixon said.
That master plan unveiled to council in March of last year echoed the earlier Rapid Ready report; focusing on making significant improvements in bus service, especially in underserved areas on the Mountain and suburbs as a necessary precursor to LRT. In other words LRT someday, but not until transit usage had increased sufficiently to ensure the success of LRT. The plan did not sit well with Mayor Eisenberger, who in the recent election had suggested he was flexible on the LRT question, but once elected quickly moved to lobby Premier Wynne for an LRT commitment. As the Dixon report was presented to Council Eisenberger said he was blindsided by its de-emphasis of LRT; although a majority of councillors liked the plan and ultimately voted to endorse it. Some observers thought the clash in visions exposed by the release of Dixon’s plan could be put down to his newness and relative unfamiliarity with the realities of Hamilton politics. But Dixon, a believer in “speaking truth to power,” looks at transit modes through the eyes of a transit expert with, incidentally, 15 years’ experience with rail transit in the from his TTC days.
To Dixon the type of transit vehicle that is needed in any situation is a numbers game based on the passenger capacity of the vehicle. “A bus holds 50 people. If you have 2,000 passengers to lift in an hour you need 20 buses which means they will be running on 3 minute intervals,” he explained. “When we get up to 3,000 people — at that point you go to an articulated bus that holds 75 people so I can maintain 3 minute headways. When you get to 4000 people now you can go to an LRT because you can link them together and carry more passengers; That’s why you go to higher technology.” Currently Hamilton is moving 1,100 passengers at its peak hour on its busiest route—the Number 1, King bus. Tactfully, Dixon acknowledges the view of LRT supporters that LRT is not all about simply moving people, that it also is about city building. “Rail will definitely shape the city to some extent…the real question is to what extent. From a (purely) transit perspective, you know where I would be.”
A key accomplishment of Dixon’s tenure was to improve relations with the Amalgamated Transit Union, whose history of bad relations with the HSR was well documented. Relations between the city and the transit union had never really recovered from the three month lockout in the 1990’s. After that stoppage, each subsequent collective agreement was typically achieved only at the 11th hour after much sabre-rattling. For a while it looked like last year’s negotiations were headed in the same direction but Eric Tuck, the President of the ATU local says Dixon made the difference. “I credit him with saving that round of bargaining. We were very close to walking out. (Human Resources) was at the table and wouldn’t let him do his job, but we would later meet in the hallway and get some comfort that things could work out.” What resulted was a deal that will provide three more years of labour peace after Dixon’s departure, with only modest pay increases. Dixon’s approach to labour relations reflects his customer-centric approach to transit which means making sure the bus driver has the tools needed to provide good customer service. “ I have a saying that we all, including myself, work for the (bus) operator– the person delivering the service…so the fleet managers have to make sure the driver has a vehicle that doesn’t break down …the service planners have to make sure they got a route the driver can operate on with proper timing points…if we provide them with all the right tools then they’ve got to do it, and do it well.” With regard to the labour negotiations, “There was a lot of pent-up demand—they didn’t have basic things like washrooms we we’ve done some work on that. There were some safety and security issues…so were going to get cameras—things like that go a long way to treating people like you’d like to be treated yourself…I guess it’s about respect and dignity for one another…” Union president Tuck concurs, “Dave’s approach was much different from the past. For him the operator (driver) was number one. Front line staff for the first time felt valued. His tenure is far too short.”
Turning his eye to the future Dixon sees fundamental change in the transit picture that may make today’s debates over which mode of transit irrelevant. Transit itself may be an endangered species. “Transit usage is flattening or declining. I think you’re going to see transit change rapidly in the next few years with car sharing going on. Uber, in cities like San Francisco and Toronto are getting to the point of quasi transit routes. They’ll give you a certain discount if you go out to a certain point—a pseudo bus stop. The price point is starting to narrow between what they would charge and the transit fare. There’s a big debate in transit circles—are Uber your friend or your enemy?—are they going to provide the first and last kilometer of the trip or are they going to take the whole trip? There’s a school of thought that says just as ride sharing is pushing out cabs—they’re going to slowly push out transit. They have better data…better analysis of data than we do.”
Doesn’t that argue against investing huge sums in a fixed inflexible system? “Rail works because you can couple cars together and carry more people and you reduce the cost of the driver,” he explained. “If we get into driverless cars, well, that is no longer an issue. So I think transit is on a huge transition. Transit is going to have to change radically—become a lot more customer-focused…a lot more adaptable and a lot more dynamic in terms of meeting what customers are looking for, and particularly in a market like Hamilton where you have a pretty sparse transit network.”
Asked if he were staying in Hamilton where he might place his focus, Dixon says the next emphasis should be on better service to the industrial parks. “Jobs today in manufacturing are not as high-paying as we used to see. They’re paying reasonable wages-$15 to $20 an hour, and many of those employers are looking to good transit.”
Dixon took some heat when he proposed a $200 million bus barn as part of his $300 Million master plan but he defends it saying storing the buses outside is not an option—a view echoed by Union boss Eric Tuck who still drives a bus. “When you come in at 3:45 in the morning in the winter, the bus has frost on the inside AND outside of the windows. It takes 2 hours to get it warm enough for passengers. Plus there are computers and sensitive electronics in the bus. You just can’t leave them in the cold.”
In a few days, when Dixon, a Schulich MBA, leaves the Highway 6 transit terminal for the last time, at least he will know where he is headed. He recalls his astonishment when he first found out where the HSR headquarters was– 10 Kilometers outside the city centre—a result of some spotty planning decades earlier that cost one of his predecessors his job. “It’s a bit of a weird place for a garage…the first day on the job I was driving here, I thought must have missed it, and I turned around and finally went on my smart phone and looked it up. I was interviewed for the job downtown so when I started the first day on the job I couldn’t believe where they built it.”
While Dixon diplomatically deflected any attempts to explain more fully his decision to leave Hamilton, ATU’s Eric Tuck had his own thoughts, “Hamilton has underfunded its transit system… we need to build up ridership. Dave Dickson was the first transit director to come in and try to build transit. I hope Dave will sit down and explain his true feelings but he is too much of a gentleman for that .I wish there was any way we could change his mind.”
Written by John Best