TransLink Podcast: How we’re helping newcomers learn to use the transit system

TransLink Podcast: How we’re helping newcomers learn to use the transit system

Travel training manager Chris Chan stands outside Lansdowne Station

“Transportation might only be a small part of everyday, but it is that part that makes everything else possible.” Those are the astute words of Chris Chan, manager of travel training at TransLink. Chris shares his challenges learning how to use transit as a newcomer and how that informs his mission to ensure new riders of all ages and abilities are setup for success.

Come behind the scenes with us as What’s the T: the TransLink Podcast with Jawn Jang reveals the voices and stories that drive Metro Vancouver’s transit system forward. Subscribe and listen everywhere you get your podcasts, including SpotifyApple Podcasts, and Pocket Casts!


HOST JAWN JANG:Hey, welcome to What’s the T: the TransLink Podcast. I’m your host, Jawn Jang. Here’s what’s coming up on this episode.

[EXCERPT OF “A WHOLE NEW WORLD” PLAYS]: When I’m way up here, it’s crystal clear here and now I’m in a whole new world with you. Now I’m in…

JAWN: How does TransLink help newcomers learn to use our transit system? Let’s tap in to What’s the T.


VOICEOVER 1: The next station is…

VOICEOVER 2: Welcome to What’s the T: the TransLink Podcast.

JAWN: The world is a big place.

VOICE: Thanks, Captain Obvious.

JAWN: Yeah, yeah, I know, but just think about it. There are seven continents making up 195 countries with over 7100 known languages or dialects. Now, first of all, that’s just an amazing fact that we probably don’t appreciate enough on its own. But when it comes to how we access and use public transit and different places that we visit, this means there’s really no universal system or language that helps us navigate each transit system.

For example, waiting for the bus in Metro Vancouver can be a very different experience than waiting for a bus in other parts of the world. Or like when you’re actually on the bus and your stop is coming up soon. How do you signal to the driver that you need the bus to stop so that you can actually get out?

Well, there are different methods for doing that too. Depending on where you walk to get a better understanding of why any of this actually matters. Let’s examine the context of how and why newcomers arrive in Metro Vancouver. As an example, I am an immigrant. I was born in South Korea, but my family immigrated to Canada in the mid 90s and we didn’t have a lot of money.

When we got off the plane and arrived at our new home. We certainly didn’t have a car right away. So like many people in a similar situation, we relied on public transit to navigate what was essentially our new lives. My family’s example might be more typical, but it’s really important to remember not everyone has a choice in where they end up.

So with that in mind, let’s switch gears now to check in with Chris Chan, one of my colleagues and friends at TransLink, and the work that he and his team do to make life easier for newcomers.

CHRIS CHAN: I’m the manager of travel training at TransLink, so my portfolio is involved providing support, training and answering questions for seniors, persons with disabilities and also newcomers.

So I started as a very interesting place. I joined TransLink as a temporary confidential assistant and I work with the Compass project, but I have always had this passion about sharing information with newcomers and persons with disability and also seniors, so the thing that actually got me started on that journey was when we introduced Compass to Metro Vancouver.

JAWN: Right.

CHRIS: There were a lot of questions in the community, and one of the skills that I have as I speak Cantonese and somewhat Mandarin and, there wasn’t that capacity. So when we tried to introduce the Compass to Metro Vancouver, one of the thing was they, we had street teams on at stations and things like that.

And the first two weeks there was no questions in Richmond. And I was like, there was no way there was no questions.

JAWN: Right.

CHRIS: So I was like, you know what? Let me try. I’ll go. And as soon as I was there, there were questions because I had that capacity to translate and answer questions in the language that the people speak there.

So, well, we did a very successful campaign, in Richmond and one thing led to another. I was invited to join the TravelSmart team back then, and start the newcomers program.

JAWN: Love it. And, Chris, give me the elevator pitch if you can explain your program in just a little bit more detail, please.

CHRIS: Yep, so the the travel training program provides small training support for persons with disabilities, seniors and newcomers. And one particular part of the program is called on-system travel training for newcomers. And that’s where we work with stakeholders in the settlement services community and in immigrant support, where we provide on-system training. And what that means is we bring a bus on site for participants to get a hands on experience on how to use the bus system, show them the different features, walk through scenarios on how to get help and how to as simple as getting on the bus and getting off the bus.

And then we take them to a SkyTrain station, ride that bus on a route to a SkyTrain station, and we’re greeted by SkyTrain Attendants or Canada Line Attendants to walk them through how to get help, how to get information, how to buy a Compass Card at the station.

JAWN: Is this like a is this a common practice for transit agencies across Canada and maybe around the world, or is TransLink kind of innovative with what they’re trying to accomplish here with this?

CHRIS: I don’t think there’s actually an official newcomers program for a lot of the transit agency. I mean, in other jurisdictions, they do what they can to support anyone coming into the region. But because Metro Vancouver is very unique, because we actually have a significant proportion of newcomers for our population. So and beyond that, there’s actually some something beyond the newcomers meaning, because for different people can mean different things.

For some people it means that people that just arrived, they just got off the plane. They are totally new to Canada, but to a certain degree, there’s also newcomers that are not necessarily in those, nor in definition, they could be temporary workers, they could be international students. There are also people that came here maybe ten, 15 years ago, but because of their cultural background, they never really got involved in the mainstream culture or the mainstream community.

So they often isolated, like a lot of seniors, that a lot of immigrant seniors, they don’t speak the language. They are isolated to their own community. For example, my in-laws, grandma, she lives, in the Victoria Drive area. She doesn’t speak English. She doesn’t even speak Cantonese. She speaks literally her local dialect. But she can survive in that four block radius of where she lives.

She could go out by her own things and totally survive on the day to day basis. So. But for her going outside of her area, it’s a challenge because she has no idea how to take the bus. She has no idea how to commute or get anywhere. So and that’s where our help comes in, is to provide those supports so that for newcomers, they can access what they need because transportation might be a small part of the day, but it’s the part of the day that makes everything else possible. We literally are the lifeline to access services and other things that they need.

JAWN: I think it’s such a beautiful and important program because it means so much to me personally. I believe I’ve shared this on the podcast a couple times already, but I’m an immigrant, right? I wasn’t born here. I was born in Seoul, South Korea. I moved here when I was very young.

So unlike my parents, who basically by the time they were adults, you know, they had spent their entire lives in Korea, then made the decision to immigrate to Canada. I kind of grew up with the culture. But that being said, I remember when our family first moved into our like, our first home in Canada was Port Moody. We didn’t have a car when we first arrived here.

It’s too expensive. So we relied on public transit to get around. Lougheed Town Centre. We went there very often. The food court still very much a vivid memory in my head. We had to take the bus in order to get there. And so my memories of growing up on the bus, very fond memories. But, you know, that’s my experience for people like you mentioned who might be arriving in Canada for the first time, their circumstances and conditions might not be that sort of ideal.

Like this was a planned move to Canada. you might be dealing with in your, in your program, the newcomers program, Chris, people that are coming to Canada, under far less ideal circumstances. And so relying on public transit is not just a, a luxury, a nice to have. It’s a must have to your point, right?

CHRIS: Yeah Jawn, is absolutely right.Because like you said, it depends on the circumstances. For me, when I came in 1992, my family came with some money and we were lucky. We actually had relatives that lives in Metro Vancouver, so we didn’t really have to reach out to settlement services support or the government support. We got our family to a certain degree to help us.

We end up moving to an area that is further away. My family lived in Vancouver. We bought a place in Burnaby, and then I remember the first time that we took the bus ourselves to Burnaby. We were trying to get off the bus. We couldn’t figure out where to how to ring the bell because back then there was no red buttons.

In Hong Kong, they were using, where I was from, they used the red button and they have the yellow part, just like the SkyTrain silent alarm.

JAWN: Oh, interesting.

CHRIS: Okay, so very different system, very different system. The first time I took the SkyTrain, I’m like, am I supposed to press that button? And luckily I did it. But the the memory that I have was of a first bus trip was we couldn’t figure out how to ring the bell.

So eventually somebody rang the bell. We tried to get off the bus, but because we have to push the door to open the door and we had no idea we had to do that because in Hong Kong they don’t have that, right. So we couldn’t open the door. So we were just standing there like lost children, and we were looking like, ahhh, the door’s broken.

Why is it not opening now? And we were too shy to say anything, right? And the bus drove for another 2 or 3 blocks before somebody realized, are you guys trying to get off the bus? And they helped us and showed us. But let’s remember that we had help. We had we had time to plan for this and we still had no idea.

Now, back then, there wasn’t as much settlement service. But for people, we have to remember this. A lot of people assumed that if they immigrated, they got time to plan. They got time to learn English. But we are getting such a variety of newcomers that they don’t necessarily have time to plan. A lot of times, especially if they are in a refugee status, you know, they might have only found out that they coming to Canada yesterday.

They literally they were waiting for somewhere to go and the government reached out. You are jumping on a plane tomorrow. You were going to this place call Vancouver. They are like, where is that?

JAWN: Yeah.

CHRIS: And they had no idea. So one of the common thing that I’m hearing from settlement services agencies is that people that come from different countries, and especially in refugee status, they weren’t aware how cold it would be even in Vancouver.

For us, Vancouver is like we got sunshine, we got fresh air, right? But for them, comparing with what they have, this is freezing cold. And they don’t have a basic jacket. So a lot of times we have to remember that is that for us we are possibly their first line of contact. We bring them to the settlement services.

We bring them to get the essentials or things like clothing and things like that, that they need to bring the kids to school because they can’t drive right away. They don’t have a license to or they don’t have access to a car. So we literally are their transportation.

JAWN: It’s so impactful when I hear what you’re saying. We have a pretty strong, robust public transit system here in Metro Vancouver, but it can be daunting, right? Because not many places have a SkyTrain,  bus service, West Coast Express. Does your training in this program encompass all of these things, or do you primarily focus on specific transportation mediums, maybe like just focusing on busses for now with plans to expand later?

CHRIS: So the interesting thing about this program is we really tailor to the different audience depending on where we are at. We will mainly talk about the service that is in the area.

But the fun thing about this job is I get to meet literally thousands of people every year. And to this day, I’ve been doing this job for 3 to 4 years now. I haven’t really had one session where I have, a question. I will always have a question that I never heard of. People will ask me questions and I will be like, I never thought about this before.

And I will be like, I’ll get back to you because I don’t know this. And it’s okay to say that because you are learning new things as you go. You go. And to a certain degree is also bringing those aspects that we probably normally wouldn’t hear because from the new newcomers eyes, they see it very differently. And a lot of times we assume. So, for example, we assume people know how, you know, where the bus stop is, right?

But in some places they don’t have bus stops. They do not know. They have to get to the bus stops before the bus getting there, and the bus will go away. SkyTrain. They have no idea what that is. They thought some people, and this is one of the common mistakes that new immigrants make that they buy a, pay for the bus. And then they thought they have to pay for the SkyTrain again,

JAWN: I see.

CHRIS: So and the challenges, because they might not have the language skills or they might have the language skills, but they might be shy and that a lot of that comes from shyness. They don’t want — they feel embarrassed about their language level, so they weren’t as confident to ask that question.

And if they don’t ask the question, we don’t know that they needed the help.

JAWN: Right.

CHRIS: And that’s why it’s very important for us. For the newcomers program is we try to offer at that comfort level. So for example, I when I deliver workshop, I can offer it in Cantonese and Mandarin in English. But when we couldn’t, we try to work with settlement agencies or service providers to provide those languages.

So we have been working with translators from different agencies. So we have deliver, on them in Dari, Farsi, Japanese. Recently, we actually just had a really cool on-system workshop with 30 Japanese seniors from Nikkei Centre and it just goes on and on and, and it opens a lot of doors and it shows us that there are so many communities that they all have unique needs and they have unique questions.

JAWN: Right. I mean, the figure that we know of is in 2023, 90,000 new residents moved into this region, which is more than almost more than double than what was originally projected. 90,000 people of all different ages, all different backgrounds, all different experiences with public transit coming to Metro Vancouver and probably most of them. If I had to make an assumption, we’ll have to use public transit when they first arrive here, right? Because we don’t always get to have the luxury of coming here fully established with all this money and all this family support. So I think it’s so crucial to have, a program like this available from people that need this.

Chris, if people are listening to this right now and they want to find more information about the work that you do and maybe just more about the program in general, how can they find more details? Is there, a nice website for all this or a quick link?

CHRIS: So there are some information on our website. It’s mostly under TransLink’s Access Transit program.

JAWN: Okay.

CHRIS: We also have a travel training line. It goes to a voicemail. And if you would like to look for more information or book session with us, you could call (604) 953-3636.

JAWN: Take it from me, moving is stressful. As someone who’s moved no fewer than a dozen times in his life, it’s hard work just to move across town, let alone moving to a brand new country, with new customs and new language and new opportunities for those arriving here. There’s just so much to think about and see and experience that learning to use our transit system should be easy and accessible.

That’s why travel training matters. And as an immigrant who’s been there and done that, this is why transit matters. My thanks to Chris Chan, manager of travel training at TransLink. The work that he and his team do makes life easier for newcomers every single day. Producers Alan and Sophie. You make this newcomer feel welcome every single day at work. And finally, thank you for always listening and subscribing. I’ve been your host, Jawn Jang, and until next time, have a safe trip.