TransLink Podcast: Why transit is so important for newcomers

TransLink Podcast: Why transit is so important for newcomers

Customers boarding the R1 King George Blvd RapidBus at Newton Exchange during the morning peak

About 120,000 people new residents moved to Metro Vancouver last year — many of whom were newcomers to Canada. We chat with the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia for a better understanding of just why and how transit is so important for newcomers as they settle into Metro Vancouver.

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 we’re discussing on this episode.

[AUDIO EXCERPT FROM THE SIMPSONS PLAYS]: It’s my first day. Since I’d never seen you before, maybe it is your first day. Very well. Carry on.

JAWN: Why is transit so important for newcomers?

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: You may recall, but earlier this season, we spoke with Chris Chan, the manager of travel training at TransLink, and learned the ways that TransLink is trying to help newcomers settle into Metro Vancouver.

One thing we know for sure is that this region will continue to grow. New figures from Stats Canada show that approximately 120-thousand new residents moved to Metro Vancouver last year. For context, the population of Delta is estimated at around 110-thousand residents. I think that helps to put things into perspective

I think that helps to put things into perspective and really embolden the importance of helping newcomers learn to use our transit system. For many people that arrive here, access to transit is going to be their main source of transportation around their new communities as they learn to build new lives and forge new futures.

UNKNOWN VOICE: Knowing that you have a bus waiting for you no matter what time, no matter where, knowing that it’s affordable, even if you’re still looking for a job, it’s really important for us. I still say, “for us” because I still consider myself an immigrant.

JAWN: Mary Akbari is a volunteer coordinator with the Immigrant Services Society of BC, or the ISS of BC. Their job is to help newcomers settle into their new homes, and, as Mary explains, a strong and robust transit system plays a significant role in accomplishing that goal.

MARY AKBARI: The program that I’m in charge of is the Community Connection Program. I manage field trips, English conversation circles.

I recruit volunteers, so I basically work with clients who are newcomers, and I have settlement mentors who are volunteers, and they commit to, take newcomers to different places, like different recreational places, to just show them around the city every week.

And as a part of their plan, they go to different stations together to just show them how to get a Compass Card, how to use the SkyTrain, how to use the bus.

JAWN: As an immigrant myself, I’m really glad to see and hear that programs like this exist, because I think it would have been, I mean, if I was still younger and maybe had known about this organization, would have loved to have seen what that could have been like for me growing up. But let me ask you then, Mary, like, what inspired you to want to kind of do this line of work?

MARY: It’s kind of a funny story how I got involved with ISS of BC. I can say it was because of TransLink.

JAWN: Really now?

MARY: Yeah.

JAWN: Okay. Elaborate on that if you can.

MARY: So, when I first got here, I’m originally from Iran. I lived in different countries, but I finally chose Canada, especially BC to be my forever home. And so, during my second week, I was in a rush to find a job, for obvious reasons.

And before coming here, I used to be an English teacher, so I thought, okay, I should look for something similar. So I applied for a few jobs and I got, I got an interview downtown, and I said, okay, it’s easy. I’m gonna use the public transport, whatever they have here in B.C. and get there. So I looked it up and compared to what I had in Japan, it was very easy.

I had to switch to a Expo Line and then go to Burrard Station. Very easy. So I went to the SkyTrain station and got on the train, and I was looking for a train conductor or someone on the train who was in charge. But no, there was no one. So it was amazing. And I remember I sat on the front seats looking out through the window. It was a sunny day in August.

I started filming, taking photos. I totally forgot about the job interview for the station that I had to get off. So by the time that I realized I had to get up, I think it was Commercial. Yes, at Commercial–Broadway, I was at VCC and it was too late to go back to the interview.

So I sat there like, disappointed. I had lost the job. I lost my chance. And I saw an ad for ISIS of B.C. it said, like, are you a newcomer? I think it was for our employment services. And if you have more questions, contact us. So I contacted them that contacted them right away and became a client. So when I saw how my case manager helped me me, how supportive she was and what a great place it was to work, I immediately applied and got a job here.

So that’s why I said TransLink was the reason.

JAWN: That’s actually amazing. Just hearing you share that story. I mean, I think a lot of people, when they come to Metro Vancouver for the first time, they might not know the SkyTrain is a fully automated system. And for us who have grown up here a long time, it’s something that we just we just kind of take for granted sometimes.

So to hear your, your experience and then to, to hear you call it amazing, I think that’s, that’s really wonderful. And, I can imagine what that was like when you’re just kind of sitting in the front seat. I think I did that when I was younger, too, just kind of thinking like, oh, it’s kind of neat just visualizing that I’m the one driving the SkyTrain in a sense.

So, that’s very, very relatable. I’m sure, to a lot of our listeners as well. So I’m glad there was a happy ending, though, because, you know, if it was just that you missed the interview, we would have felt pretty bad. But I’m glad it all worked out.

MARY: Yeah, it worked out pretty well. I’m happy that I work here.

I want to talk a little about ISS of BC and what we do here. So, I think it’s been more than 50 years. Yeah. So, ISS of BC was established in 1968. And ever since, our mission has been to help immigrants build the future in Canada. And that is beautiful. So with the help of our funders, like provincial and federal government and private funders, we have three main services which are settlement, employment and language support for refugees, immigrants and temporary residents.

And as you said, I know a lot of immigrants here who are now my volunteers, and they say, I wish we had these kind of services when we got here like 30 years ago. And I’m happy that it’s improving. I’m happy that we have more services for immigrants and refugees because it’s really important, especially when there is a language barrier and you come to somewhere that’s totally new for you. You have to have someone to help you.

JAWN: Absolutely. And I think that’s a story that, resonates with a lot of people listening, like myself. Of course, I shared earlier that I’m on the mic, or my whole family immigrated here from from South Korea. When we arrived here, we didn’t have a lot of money, of course, so just having a car right away was not an option for us.

Relying on public transit was very important for me to kind of learn what my new home and then BC and in Canada was going to be like. So, I’m sure not too dissimilar from your story there, Mary.

Maybe you can explain then, like the unique relationship that exists between TransLink and ISS of BC because I think we’re kind of talking about it already, but the role that public transit plays for a lot of newcomers to this country, you mentioned refugees.

I mean, that’s that’s a that’s an important one, because a lot of times these people are coming here under, less than ideal circumstances where, you know, they didn’t plan necessarily maybe to be here, but they are here and they need to get around the region. Yeah, exactly. so I know that ISIS of BC and TransLink collaborate each other with each other, in our settlement services and employment.

MARY: So for settlement, I know that, manager of transit travel training program and public affairs had informational workshops for our staff to let us know what kind of services TransLink has and how we can use them, for our clients, something like HandyDART, for example. It’s always good to know about the details and how we can book that for clients.

Also, our funder has a specific budget for TransLink tickets for our clients. So whenever they come to in-person like appointments, meetings, workshops or whatsoever, we can provide them with these tickets so they won’t have to, like, spend out of their own pockets. And in our employment services, I think, in our employment services, TransLink recruitment team and more specifically the Engineering Project Delivery program have had different collaborations with our Career Paths program.

So what they do is that, Career Paths has actually referred clients, to those programs at TransLink, so they can be reviewed by the Talent acquisition team that you have. And I’m sure that a few people have been hired by TransLink, and it’s only because TransLink is creating the culture of inclusion and welcoming newcomers in the hiring approach, which is great, and I’m just hoping that more hiring managers have this approach to focus on the qualifications, rather than what the past experience was and where they had it.

Even though they were like temporary programs, maybe six month programs, it gave our clients, the benefit of being able to apply internally for more permanent positions, have TransLink on their resume, and have that so-called Canadian experience.

JAWN: Love it. I mean, all of that. I think is such important work. and I love to see that the relationship between TransLink and ISS of BC is so meaningful for for a lot of these people, and it sounds like the relationship benefits like not just the the clients that you have, but also some of your colleagues, the employees you shared, your story.

Has anyone else that maybe you work with regularly, like do they also have a similar experience with with public transit or TransLink in general? What do you think?

MARY: I think yes, most of the people that I know use public transport to get to work. Especially we have this, program called Map Moving Ahead program that the caseworker actually, the caseworkers travel, to different locations with our clients, or they meet them outside the office, and they all use public transport.

So, as you can see, it’s a vital part of our life, I mean, both personal and work life. And, I’m happy that it’s easy to use. As I said, there are not so many lines to confuse you. You can easily get around the city. Of course there’s always room for improvement. But yeah, I’m happy that we have it here in Metro Vancouver, and I wish it was more accessible in other areas like Fraser Valley.

JAWN: One more question then for you, Mary, when you take the SkyTrain these days, do you still sit at the front? Is that still your favorite seat?

MARY: Oh no, not anymore. I mean…

JAWN: You’re past that now?

MARY: Yeah, it depends on the day. Sometimes when it’s rainy and it’s beautiful, it’s worth a shot. I said, okay, why not? But I can say it’s mostly for new users.

For me, I sit next to the door so I can get out. [inaudible] Yeah.

JAWN: See, at this point you’re a veteran. You know, you got to get in and out. You got places to go. You got people to see. So, I can fully appreciate that. You know, what is one tip that you would want to share with any newcomers who are arriving in Metro Vancouver and using transit?

Now that you’ve gone through the SkyTrain and the bus experience yourself, maybe if there was something you could have told you, the very first day you arrived in Vancouver, what would that piece of advice be?

MARY: Hmm, let me think. So I know that our settlement workers, when they first meet our clients, they they give this these little maps of TransLink so they can know how to get around, even if they don’t have access to online maps.

But the one thing that’s very tricky and funny is to be aware of the zoning. Because sometimes for a newcomer, you know, everybody lives on a budget and you kind of calculate how much you’re going to spend on transportation this month, and you go one stop further and say, oh, it was another zone. So now I have to pay more.

So you try to be careful about zoning and try to plan in advance, like plan your trip way in advance so you, you don’t forget like me, where to get off the train. But sometimes that leads to good things, right?

JAWN:  Absolutely. Yeah. Very well said, Mary. I think it’s been wonderful talking with you and learning more about the work that ISS of BC does with TransLink.

Just one last question then. Like how just just to maybe reiterate the importance of what transit accessibility means to, to newcomers. I mean, we kind of touched on this already, a few minutes ago, but I don’t think it can be overstated, really. The the importance that, our role is with people that are coming to Metro Vancouver and hoping to establish a brand new life here.

MARY: Yeah, absolutely. So, it is extremely important to have accessible, affordable and safe public transport throughout Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley and honestly, everywhere. Just just imagine the life of an immigrant coming here the very first night that they arrive at the airport. So they have to get home to their very first home or to the temporary residence that they have.

And the next day they have Service Canada, they have ICBC, they have opening a bank account or they have the appointments at the ISS of BC. So these are the important steps that they have to take. And there is no other way to get to those place, but using the public transit, transportation. And not everyone can afford a car.

And I think that we should not have to afford a car or have a car for, for so many reasons. So this is something that affects their settlement journey. This is something that affects that first impression that they get from that new place that they should call home from now. And even after that, like they are settled now, they’re looking to have a full life.

So many people say that maybe, for example, in Maple Ridge, there is no nightlife. I know that we try to introduce, and try to engage with our clients by taking them to a hockey game. But, you know, hockey games sometimes go past 10 p.m.. So I didn’t want everyone to be worried about the night bus. So having that, like knowing that you have a bus waiting for you no matter what time, no matter where, knowing that it’s affordable, even if you’re still looking for a job, is really important for us.

I still say, “for us,” because I still consider myself an immigrant.

JAWN: Access to public transit really is the be all and end all for newcomers. As it is so eloquently put by our friend, Chris Chan, “Transportation might only be a small part of their day, but it is that part that makes everything else possible.” It makes their transition easier and affordable, a strong and expansive transit system allows newcomers to grow, new families to thrive, and new futures to be built.

That’s why, with our region rapidly growing every single year, we need new investments to expand the transit system to meet the needs of an ever growing population here in Metro Vancouver. Their future is our future, and that is why it all matters.

My thanks to Mary Akbari and the entire ISS of BC team for giving us the time to speak on the work they do. Chris Chan, the manager of travel training at TransLink, for getting us in touch with Mary and her team. Producer Allen for making sure the future of this podcast remains bright as always. And of course, our thanks to you for listening and subscribing. I’ve been your host, Jawn Jang, and until next time, have a safe trip!