Stantec's Firas Al-Tahan was among several industry professionals who discussed the latest transit topics with METRO. - Photo: Stantec

Stantec's Firas Al-Tahan was among several industry professionals who discussed the latest transit topics with METRO.

Photo: Stantec

Firas Al-Tahan, Rail and Transit Lead at Stantec, discussed the idea of mobility changing into a more multimodal model, how consultants can help improve ridership, and more.

Mobility, Global Trends, and More

Dig into this Q&A to learn more about how mobility is changing, global trends that might make their way to the U.S., and growing trends toward design-build.

METRO: As the idea of mobility is changing to a more multimodal model, how can consultants help transit agencies move forward with new programs that will boost ridership?

Al-Tahan: From my experience in my role here in Vancouver, but also from what I'm hearing in my network in London, the key thing for me is to understand the demand and appetite for people to migrate to these new modes. An opportunity for consultants to add value is to present the benefits of these new modes. Some of these might be health benefits, some might be just getting more fresh air.

Here in Vancouver, the weather can be somewhat challenging, but certainly, when it warms up it's beautiful, so the opportunity to go multimodal to use alternative modes other than buses and trains is still certainly there.

When I spoke to Kevin Desmond, who was the CEO at TransLink until recently, about three years ago, he was quite keen on the whole multimodal piece.

To answer your question, it's really about demand management and trying to make the urban environment appealing and safer for those new modes, so that people have that drive to try something new. And, chances are if it’s well thought through and executed then it's something that people will be naturally drawn to try and continue using as part of their normal journeys.

METRO: Since many of these solutions are not a one size fits all, how do you discuss and make suggestions for what may or may not work for a particular transit agency?

Al-Tahan: One of the benefits of being in a large consultancy like Stantec and the diversity and experience we bring is the ability to share solutions that resonate with populations.

So, how does that work? We have a team that does an awful lot of stadium modeling work and the demand goes along with how you are going to move 65,000 people who will be descending on the network. The idea is to provide a diversity of options so that they can get to and from their sporting event as safely and efficiently as possible.

So, that's an example of the value proposition consultants bring; we are able to share what has worked elsewhere and open the perspectives of some of these transit agencies to try something new and dynamic that could be successful for them as well. That has worked in London and proven to be effective in other regions as well. 

METRO: What global trends could eventually make their way here in the States?

Al-Tahan: The first one that comes to mind is not necessarily the diversity you may be pointing toward, but the gondola is an interesting mode. We just submitted an RFP response for TransLink here in Vancouver, who are looking at the Burnaby Mountain gondola as a mode of transit that will help them get away from just using diesel buses or even electric buses. I am excited to see how things progress on that project.

It looks like the demand could be there to make it a commuter route, but I also think it will attract the tourist angle and drive both ridership and revenue. We have been involved in early lifecycle feasibility studies with a number of cities up and down North America, so gondolas are an exciting opportunity for sure. 

Outside of gondolas, of course, rideshare and bikeshares have been crucially key in various cities, as well as electric scooters, which I see an awful lot of.

In my view, the whole of the offering needs to be considered not just for the rider experience, but also for what it’s like to maintain the service, as well as what it looks like when people aren’t using it. Does it hurt the urban environment, or does it come across as visible pollution in the city?

I don’t think I’ve seen a city yet that has gotten it completely right. The nearest one for me is London’s bikeshare implementation because of its scale. Paris has a great bike scheme as well.

I think both the adoption and political messaging is important with these multimodal programs because eventually, it all boils down to a diversity of options and quality of life. 

METRO: Do you feel high-speed rail is something that can still make an impact here in the U.S., specifically in California?

Al-Tahan: High-speed rail is something that needs to be adopted, but the routes need to be selected very carefully to ensure that it's a winning formula. London or Paris didn't get it, right— they forecasted much higher ridership between London and Paris and on to Belgium, but that number was sitting at about 10 or 11 million per year before COVID.

With that caveat, high-speed rail in California is going to be an interesting one where they need to not only look at passenger ridership but also look at how likely it is to be able to grab that market share away from the airlines.

There are some quick wins, potentially, based on European practice where governments are legislating against the main airline operators being able to make short flights where a train is feasible.

With these trains hitting 200 mph from city to city, I really think it’s a winning formula. I’ve done it myself countless times, but again, it’s all in the way it’s implemented. If you do some research, you may find that London is finding the implementation of high-speed rail a challenge. Conversely, the French are doing it a bit better because they were much brighter in the way the system was set up to connect big metropolitan hubs.

So, execution is one thing, but the layout and destinations are crucial in the success of high-speed rail in California, or elsewhere for that matter.

If the system layout is optimal, it boils down to the customer experience — it has to be clean, elegant, and straightforward so that riders can experience a system that is stress-free, comfortable, and more cost-effective than flying. 

METRO: Have you seen any growing trends toward design-build? If so, how do you think that will impact your business? 

Al-Tahan: Yes. I moved to Canada to facilitate design-build contracts; that is the sole purpose of my move here from London. When you look at design-build for projects, it all boils down to risk — what can transit agencies do with respect to identifying and helping to quantify risk, while the agencies and governments look to undertake risk transfer?

From my view, particularly with my experience with London Underground and Transport for London, there are some risks that aren’t going to be commercially palatable to be transferred over to the design-builder. Some are technical, and some are scheduled, but it all depends on the context in which the project is being requested.

So, if it’s a project that is being delivered for an Olympics, for example, the risk profile could be different from a generic project where you see there’s a demand and decide to implement a light rail system, for example.

So, risk is crucial, and one of the reasons Stantec routinely goes through its governance processes is all around what our appetite is for risk on a particular job.

There is still going to be a level of partnership as you engage a design-build contractor from the perspective of an agency because there are shared objectives — we both want the line to open and for the infrastructure to be safe, reliable, operable, and cost-effective. 

Overall, design-builds are fun to be involved in. The dialogue is important and it's great for people's careers to get involved in early so that they get a feel for what the infrastructure is like to build. I think the industry, as a whole, is intolerant to risk, and only some parties are really prepared to adopt significant levels of risk to get to the carrot at the end of the stick.

The Canadian market is interesting.

Here in Vancouver, the Ministry, or Transport Infrastructure Corporation, lets out design-build contracts for system extensions. TransLink, on the other hand, typically lets out design-bid-build contracts. We are on one of those contracts right now, where we are the designer for 100 percent and the agency has let out contracts for general works to undertake construction.

We navigate numerous types of procurement models, which is just one of the benefits that we are able to bring to our clients around the world.

About the author
Alex Roman

Alex Roman

Executive Editor

Alex Roman is Executive Editor of METRO Magazine — the only magazine serving the public transit and motorcoach industries for more than 100 years.

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