Improving the Commuter Experience

Cathy McLay is helping Vancouver’s TransLink find efficiencies while making its fare system more user-friendly

As the authority responsible for transportation across all of Metro Vancouver, TransLink, established in 1998, covers 21 municipalities. The organization now employs almost 7,000 people, and it continues to be instrumental in the shaping of western Canada’s future transportation landscape. Cathy McLay serves as CFO and executive vice president of finance and corporate services, helping TranLink develop 10- to 30-year plans that will best meet the needs of a Vancouver commuter population that’s still growing.
As the authority responsible for transportation across all of Metro Vancouver, TransLink, established in 1998, covers 21 municipalities. The organization now employs almost 7,000 people, and it continues to be instrumental in the shaping of western Canada’s future transportation landscape. Cathy McLay serves as CFO and executive vice president of finance and corporate services, helping TranLink develop 10- to 30-year plans that will best meet the needs of a Vancouver commuter population that’s still growing.

According to the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), roughly 15.4 million Canadians woke up each morning that year to board a bus or train, mount a bike, or drive a car to get to work. It’s unlikely that many gave more than passing regard to how the great, convoluted commuter system they were partaking in actually works, but Cathy McLay is not like most people. As the CFO of TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s central transit authority, she has found her passion in what, for much of the population, is a burdensome afterthought, and most recently she has brought her spirit to bear on a new fare system while continuing to seek out new ways to cut costs.

With so many people across the nation commuting on a daily basis, the various transportation systems need to work with minimal interruption and at high capacity. And while four out of five Canadians used private vehicles in 2011, according to the NHS, some 12 percent depended on public transit—up from 11 percent in 2006. This gradual shift has made the inclusiveness of TransLink’s work all the more important.

“TransLink is a unique transportation authority in that it is one of the only organizations in North America to take a total integration approach to transportation,” McLay says. “Our vision is around building transportation excellence in Metro Vancouver.”

Through strategic planning, the organization has been able to incorporate new infrastructure and add service early, helping the region minimize massive sprawl and preserve green spaces. “This reduces our costs [and] provides more options for the customers that we serve,” says McLay, who also serves as TransLink’s executive vice president of finance and corporate services.

Facts & Figures

80,000
Number of Compass Cards TransLink has already distributed (as of January 2014)

1.2 million
Number of riders per day that Compass Cards will serve when the rollout is complete

$57 million
Amount by which TransLink has reduced its operating costs

2013
Year that Cathy McLay earned the CFO of the Year Award in the Transformation Agents category from Business in Vancouver

McLay oversees the fiscal and accounting functions of the Vancouver-based organization while also handling strategic sourcing, treasury, enterprise risk, legal matters, real estate, and business technology. Her 16-year background in the private sector gave her the acumen to take multipronged approaches across teams, and it earned her a 2013 CFO of the Year Award in the Transformation Agents category from Business in Vancouver. McLay lets numbers chart her way to continued success, effective change, and innovation. “What makes me passionate about my job at TransLink is that we move 1.2 million passengers in the transit system each and every day,” she says. “We are also responsible for roads, bridges—we touch the hearts and souls of almost every person in our region on a daily basis. It’s really about being able to be a part of something bigger, be part of a vision.”

For good reason, her success has garnered her recognition from much of the community. Discussing their working relationship and what McLay brings to the table, Sean St. John, National Bank Financial’s executive vice president, cohead, and managing director of fixed income, says, “We at National Bank Financial greatly enjoy working with Cathy. Her sense of community purpose and broader vision for TransLink’s role in the greater Vancouver region make it a rewarding relationship on many levels.”

McLay is living up to those words as she looks to make life a little bit easier for public commuters in 2014 with TransLink’s latest innovation: the Compass Card. The electronic fare card will replace all the authority’s current passes and tickets, and it works on every kind of public transit in Metro Vancouver. TransLink is conducting a phased rollout to a few groups of customers at a time and has already distributed about 80,000 cards. This tactic allows the authority to make adjustments as needed to get the Compass system right for customers. McLay says the transition will wrap over the first several months of 2014, and when the program is fully implemented, it will serve all 1.2 million riders each day.

The Compass system is designed with a tap-in-tap-out payment process. When passengers enter or exit TransLink stations, buses, or SeaBuses, they tap their cards in (or out) by placing the cards flat against readers. Each transaction is expected to take about one-third of a second. The system allows passengers to ride to multiple stops easily as the cards track their fares, eliminating the need to worry about exact change.

TransLink has already distributed more than 80,000 Compass Cards to Metro Vancouver commuters.
TransLink has already distributed more than 80,000 Compass Cards to Metro Vancouver commuters.

AskCompass.ca, a public website, offers answers to a plethora of customer questions concerning fare rates, how to use the Compass Card, the logistics of the tap-in-tap-out process, data privacy, and much more. This transparency will contribute to the widespread adoption and awareness of the technology. “Those initiatives are so important for our customers, first and foremost,” McLay says. “Our customers are saying, ‘We want more for our money.’”

McLay recognizes that tax dollars are scarce, so, in addition to high-tech initiatives such as the Compass Card, she and TransLink continually seek out creative ways to reduce the authority’s burden on taxpayers. “Each number has a story—you just have to ask why something is working the way it is,” she says.

She has brought together stakeholders from across the region and built an effective team that focuses on cost savings for taxpayers while simultaneously restructuring how Vancouver experiences transportation. The team leverages consumer data, for example, to determine more efficient travel patterns and routes, but it maintains Compass Card customers’ privacy by keeping the information anonymous and demographically based.

TransLink looks for ways to not only lower costs but also reallocate resources, including taking higher-capacity buses and putting them on more productive routes. “This allows us to have more riders, lower costs, and increase revenue,” McLay says. In total, TransLink has reduced its operating costs by more than $57 million through this and other initiatives.

Solving such problems for the greater good is what drew McLay from the private sector into her current position in the first place. “At TransLink, I get to help shape what the future is going to look like in one of the finest cities in Canada,” she says. “I get to work with so many different people, and the variety is quite amazing. That’s what I love about my job.”
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THE BOTTOM LINE

Job title
CFO & executive VP of finance and corporate services

Industry
Public transit

Years in the business
25

Where did you start your career?
In the private sector.

Describe yourself in three words
Curious, focused, team player.

Advice to those just starting in finance
If you want to be in finance, you have to go in there and be curious; ask the questions and look for the story. Each number has a story; you just have to go in and ask why. That’s what I love about the finance side—it touches every part of the business.