Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

New Orleans Streetcars

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Back from a week in New Orleans (there was a wedding in the middle of that) where riding streetcars became a central theme. People were asking me if I was going to rent a car, but that seemed to me to be pointless. The French Quarter, where we were staying has very narrow streets and a distinct lack of parking. We intended to rely on NORTA (buses and streetcars) and walking. There were bikes, but my partner did not bring her phone with her, and there is no way to rent two bikes on one phone. As a matter of principle I will not install the Uber or Lyft app on my phone – though we did share my son’s Lyft for one ride. We did use taxis – but that would have to be another post.

Riverfront car at Jackson Square

You may have heard about the Hard Rock Hotel collapse four months ago. That occurred on a site at Rampart and Canal streets.

The Hard Rock Hotel

Entire blocks on all sides have been closed to traffic as a precaution – but there is still no work underway to remove the damaged building. Canal and Rampart streets are both streetcar routes. The Canal Street routes have a bus bridge. The Rampart Street route has simply been cancelled.

Rampart St at Ursulines streetcar station

We knew none of this when we arrived. We relied on the Transit App on my iPhone. That showed – and still does by the way – regular streetcar service on Rampart – with arrival times and the “real time” symbol – so not just the schedule. We sat at a streetcar station at Ursulines waiting for trams that never came. On RTA truck whipped past us and driver yelled something unintelligible – probably “there’s no service” but it didn’t sound like those words. There was no signage anywhere on the station showing the stop was closed. Though the street has bus services, no bus stops had been placed at the same intersections to allow intending streetcar users to board a bus instead of the tram.

Now it is true that there is information on norta.com – though you do have to dig around a bit to find it.

There is also a major hiatus on the Riverfront line as construction is under way at the foot of Canal Street. So the Riverfront cars now turn up Canal instead of proceeding south along the river. The new terminus is convenient for the St Charles streetcar which is unaffected by either blockade.

I took up the issue of misleading information with the Transit App people. This is their reply.

“Although we do work with transportation agencies to display prediction times, service alerts – such as notifications about the streetcars not running – are updated by the agencies directly.

We’re a third-party app based in Montreal, Canada, so we’re not involved in the operation of the agencies. I’d suggest getting in touch with the RTA about this. You can reach the RTA here: https://www.norta.com/About/Customer-Service

So basically the RTA just relies on its own website and does not update the information on the Transit App, nor does it do any street postering. Some buses did have service change cards – but again not on display, just for the driver to give to passengers who asked questions.

Much of the New Orleans system has exclusive reserved rights of way for the streetcars: the St Charles route south of Lee Circle and most of the Canal Street route. But not the branch along South Carrollton to the City Park. There is a median but the streetcars are in traffic in the centre lanes. This of course results in streetcars being held up behind left turning traffic. I saw no evidence of any on-street priority for transit.

Along St Charles St the streetcar is actually better for sightseeing as the car proceeds at a leisurely pace and the tour busses whizz past in the traffic lanes. If you want to look at the charming old houses in the Garden District the hop-on hop-off bus service cannot be recommended. By the way, if you are concerned about trying to board a St Charles car at Canal, at least half of the load there gets off halfway to do the guided walk through the Garden District and most of the rest at Audubon Park.

St Charles streetcar at Canal St

There are also a number of streets that have wide medians that I suspect may once have been streetcar lines. Of course wikipedia is the place to go to find out about that.

I have also heard a lot about how streetcars are only for tourists but that is a gross misunderstanding. Where the streetcars run, and their general reliability, means everybody uses them. In fact the schedules for the streetcars seem to much more frequent than many bus routes. It is reliability and frequency that attracts ridership no matter what the vehicle.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 31, 2020 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Light Rail, tourism, transit

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Arbutus Mall Development

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I took these photos from the same point – just west of the Arbutus Greenway at the crossing of 33rd Avenue. The corner of Quilchena Park. This is a protected view cone – or was until the City reneged on that commitment. The first was taken in August, the second at the end of November

Quilchena Park

Blocking the view

Written by Stephen Rees

December 5, 2019 at 4:54 pm

Posted in Urban Planning, Vancouver

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Vilnius Christmas tree

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©GO Vilnius

This image came from a Press Release which I will copy and paste below. I will spare you my opinions about cutting down trees, and Christmas in general. I will say that this is simply a promotional item from Go Vilnius, the Official Development Agency of the City of Vilnius and I did not receive any payment or other benefit from this post. I have never visited Vilnius and I am not about to promote it here – and I have edited out some of the more exaggerated claims.

But I did think that using an old chess piece as a model was a Good Idea.

I am sure if you want to find out more about Vilnius you know how to do that and do not actually need me to provide link(s).

November 30, 2019: The traditional lighting of the Christmas tree in Vilnius attracted citizens and guests alike. The capital of Lithuania has received a lot of global attention over the years for its unique and stunning Christmas trees, and this year is no exception. This year, the decorated Christmas tree resembles the 14-15th century Queen figure from the game of chess, which was found by archaeologists in 2007.

Decorations adorn the already traditional 27-meter tall metal construction, which bears some 6,000 branches. The construction is specially designed to create a completely sustainable Christmas tree. All the actual tree branches used in the construction are defiled from the trees by foresters while carrying out the general maintenance of the forest. Therefore not only trees but even branches are not cut just for the spectacle.

The particular figure which served as a model for decorations was found during the archeological excavations around the Ducal Palace in Vilnius. Dating back to the 14th-15th century, the beautifully ornamented figure was made of spindle tree. Its middle part is carved with geometrical patterns and topped with floral ornaments. According to historians, the game of chess was played by the nobility of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the end of the 14th century.

A traditional Christmas market is set up around the Christmas tree, along with another one located at the Town Hall Square. The markets will stay open from the 30th of November to the 7th of January. 

Written by Stephen Rees

November 30, 2019 at 1:12 pm

Posted in placemaking

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Upper Levels Highway Study

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Corridor study launched for Upper Levels Highway
Upper Levels Highway BC MOTI photo from flickr Creative Commons license

Bowinn Ma isn’t interested in ad hoc highway expansion. So she has commissioned a study.

“Under the scope of the work, Parsons will assess how the highway is doing under current volumes as well as project demand up to 2050, including what local government priorities are and how a potential expansion of the B.C. Ferries terminal at Horseshoe Bay would funnel more cars onto the road.”

“Transportation systems have to be treated as systems. It’s important that we have these long-term plans in place if we actually want to start to address the problem.”

Well yes having a long term plan is a good start – but only if you stick to the plan. And a transportation plan by itself is actually counter productive. There has to be a land use plan as well and that has to fit into a broader regional perspective. If anyone has been reading this blog over the years knows, we used to do regional plans like this at one time – and then the BC Liberals got elected – and re-elected – over 16 years and those plans were simply ignored.

Developers like Jack Poole got a lot more attention than people who had been talking about what “increasing transportation choice” might mean. And while SkyTrain was expanded – a bit – much more got spent on moving congestion around. The North Shore has a railway – but it was essentially given away to CN. It might have served as both a connector to the rest of the region over the Second Narrows Bridge and improving travel options up Howe Sound to the interior. The needs of the Olympics at Whistler would have been more than adequately met – but that got sidelined when the developers insisted that this was an opportunity to increase car commuting into Metro from places like Squamish – directly in contradiction to the long term strategic plans of both regions. The idea had been to limit sprawl and reduce car dependency but that did not suit the paymasters of the BC Liberals.

Since Bowinn Ma does not believe in that policy she will have to do more than just have a highway study

“Most studies have shown adding new lanes for general traffic use only invites more people to drive, quickly negating the expensive project’s sought-after improvements, a concept known as induced demand, Ma said.”

I would not say “most” – I think it is all – or at least every one with any credibility. But it is not enough to talk about other modes – you also have to talk about what creates the demand for trips – and that is land use. Because North American planners are still stuck on separating out land uses and resisting mixed uses – and are wedded to zoning – trips are much longer than they need to be. You are simply not allowed to live over the shop in most of the region – which is the way urban humanity has always lived right up until the invention of the internal combustion engine. And a few decades after that when cars were viewed with skepticism. The attitudes of the vociferous in Ambleside show that there is going to be an uphill struggle to change attitudes about what sort of land use changes are essential to reduce motorised travel demand. And the topography of the North Shore is also going to be an issue. Note that Ms Ma bought herself an ebike. I trust it was one that will provide power when starting from rest on an incline. Because that gets defined as a motor vehicle by our legislation.

And if we are changing legislation, lets get rid of mandatory adult cycle helmets while we are about it – and provide lots more protected, separated bike lanes, which actually provide some real safety results.

By the way, it is worth comparing the Ministry’s picture (above) with that used by the North Shore News.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 12, 2019 at 5:10 pm

Posted in Transportation, Urban Planning

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Gothenburg gets battery buses

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In my in box this morning is a press release from Volvo announcing an order for 157 articulated electric buses to start delivery next year.

Volvo supplied image of a new articulated bus

What struck me is how much bigger this initiative is compared to what is happening here. Translink is trying out four buses on one route. Gothenburg is comparable to Vancouver in population: it “has a population of approximately 570,000 in the city center and about 1 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area.” (source: wikipedia) These buses are also much larger capacity than anything on the road here – 150 passengers per bus! You notice from their supplied picture that it has four sets of doors, not three as here. They will also charge at bus stops along the route “using the industry common charging interface OppChargeTM” – so I begin to wonder what was so ground-breaking about route #100. By the way the energy use of these buses is 80 per cent lower than that of a corresponding diesel bus.

But then Scandinavia does seem to be much more determined to create a truly green city than we are. Oslo, for example, has now removed on street parking in its city centre.  

“If you decide to drive in downtown Oslo, be forewarned: You won’t be able to park on the street. By the beginning of this year, the city finished removing more than 700 parking spots–replacing them with bike lanes, plants, tiny parks, and benches–as a major step toward a vision of a car-free city center.

“Without those parking spots, and with cars banned completely on some streets, few people are driving in the area. “There are basically no cars,” says Axel Bentsen, CEO of Urban Sharing, the company that runs Oslo City Bike, the local bike-share system. The city’s changes are designed, in part, to help improve air quality and fight climate change, but the difference in the quality of life is more immediate.”

As usual local businesses opposed the change, claiming its would hurt trade – but the outcome has been quite different. There are now more people in downtown – walking and cycling. Pretty much the same as our experience with protected bike lanes – which were opposed but have benefitted local businesses.

I am sorry that the timing of this post may be a bit awkward when the current labour dispute is top of mind. But it is clear that one of the major concerns of the bus operators is that traffic has got worse, and that Metro Vancouver in general – and the City of Vancouver in particular – has been a laggard in providing buses with priority on street which would go a long way to making services more reliable, schedules more predictable and life a lot easier for both passengers and bus drivers. Our politicians seem to be more concerned about the people driving cars – who are the ones causing the problems.

Clearly we need something like the system now in use in New York – but first we would actually have to put in the bus lanes!

https://twitter.com/i/status/1186355796940079104

UPDATE December 16, 2019 Paris has announced an order for 800 electric buses (source: World Economic Forum) to be delivered in time for its hosting of the Olympics in 2024

Written by Stephen Rees

November 5, 2019 at 10:58 am

Posted in transit

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Arbutus Station

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Translink has released its first “preliminary conceptual design” of what the proposed station on the Broadway Subway is going to look like. They put it on the BC Ministry of Transport flickr stream which makes it easy to display here.

Arbutus Station looking northwest

“Arbutus Station looking northwest

Artist’s rendering of preliminary conceptual Broadway Subway Project station design. Final streetscape and potential development will be subject to the City of Vancouver’s Broadway Plan. Learn more: engage.gov.bc.ca/broadwaysubway/stations/

Arbutus Station looking southeast
Looking South East from 8th Avenue

My bet would be that there will be some additional use of the “air rights” above the station. Either with a building – equivalent to what happened at King Edward on the Canada Line. Or perhaps it will stay like this and square footage will be added to something in the vicinity.

This is what the same corner of Broadway and Arbutus looks like now

https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_rees/45184182172/

Written by Stephen Rees

October 31, 2019 at 8:45 pm

Posted in transit, Transportation, Vancouver

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Do we really need a “hackathon”?

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The City of Vancouver is holding an event to “Decode Congestion“.

They say

“We believe that the combination of data, technology, and talented Vancouver residents can create solutions that optimize street use for an efficient, safe, and reliable transportation network.”

I am not convinced that this is actually necessary. I think we know how to deal with congestion. The problem is that the straightforward, already well demonstrated, policy approach has been studiously avoided.

In part it is because we use the word “congestion” to suggest that this is somehow just a technical issue and that cities can be decongested by some formula or other. Cities work by concentrating people into a relatively compact space. Instantly, our planning process states that is somehow an evil – “overcrowding”. And that the real issue is that it just takes too long to get anywhere.

Look at the way cities have evolved over time and the pattern that emerges is remarkably consistent – and that things don’t really start to fall apart until the advent of the motor vehicle. Even then things get sorted out, until it becomes some kind of desirable objective that every household has at least one car and uses it for most trips. At that point things get really messed up. And the problem is not just that it takes 30 minutes to get 6.7 kilometres – but that anyone has the expectation that they can do that at the same time as everyone else, each in an SOV. It’s even worse when the SOV is an SUV.

Analysing our issues of urbanity – making a place that is worth living in – as though the only problem worth examining is where to park and how many lanes of freeway you need is why we have problems. Congestion is not a sensible way to summarize that. But the answers to that particular conundrum are simple geometry. Go read Human Transit to find out more. The tl:dr is that famous picture which has many versions now that all say the same thing

We can move many more people through the same width of roadway/right of way if we use space efficient modes. Walking is the most important but distance that can be travelled is limited – so bikes (and things like bikes) and public transit are essential. Cars aren’t. Very few vehicle trips really need a vehicle. And places that take this stuff seriously have been demonstrating how to do that for years. Copenhagen and Amsterdam come top of mind. And they did the math long before everybody had a computer in their pocket.

Getting rid of on street parking, giving buses priority over all other traffic, giving people on bicycles a safe, protected pathway – and allowing anyone on foot to move safely through the area – solves most of the people moving issues.

For cities that have been car dependent for fifty years or more the real problem isn’t congestion – it is sprawl. Low density development that demands automobility. To connect to those places you need higher speed trains – all day, every day not just weekday peak hour peak direction.

Then when you have done that (bought a lot more buses, given them exclusive bus lanes, completed your sidewalk and bikeway networks, built safe intersections and crosswalks) you will also need to deal with goods movement. By that time, the last mile vans will have been replaced by cargo bikes and things will already be a lot simpler. Most large scale freight movement in urban areas will have to be rescheduled to times when there is capacity available. Monopolising rail corridors for freight movement in daytime may be highly profitable but it is also sociopathic.

I do not see any of this as a data problem or requiring any new technology at all. Bicycles and electric trams were all over cities before the end of the nineteenth century. It was just the “success” of the automotive industry (“If it’s good for General Motors, it’s good for the USA” was a flat lie) at dominating the debate.

Then we can get on with placemaking, which generally translates as replacing soulless suburbs with interesting urbanity – AKA mixed land use. Which greatly reduces trip length – but can’t be done nearly as fast as reorganising urban streets.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 18, 2019 at 4:50 pm