Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for September 2006


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TransLink is helping deliver a valuable lesson for school-aged youngsters on “thinking outside the car” when it comes to personal transportation, as school districts around Greater Vancouver once again promote “International Walk  to School Week”. From October 2 through 6, students from kindergarten through Grade 12 are being encouraged to walk or take alternate modes of transportation to get to school. TransLink will make transit an easier choice by providing free rides for students on Coast Mountain and West Vancouver buses, SeaBus, SkyTrain and West Coast Express during that time.

Actually this is a pretty silly idea. It’s not a daft as U Pass, but it is in the same mind set. Look, dummies, its not the fare that’s the problem. It’s the following:

  1. You don’t have nearly enough buses
  2. The ones you do have are generally packed to the doors at each end of the school day thanks to U Pass and the use of “Community Shuttles” on routes that pass schools and cannot pick up the kids waiting to get home at 3pm
  3. The fixed route system you use for every type of service does not meet anyone’s travel needs very well, but some people have no choice and others are prepared to compromise. That doesn’t mean you are doing a good job, so stop patting yourselves on the back for a bit and start developing a critical awareness
  4. “Walk to school” week is probably a good idea for neighbourhoods that have sidewalks, and where the local school board takes the concept of the neighbourhood school seriously (i.e. not Richmond). Since this fare concession will also go to the kids who go to expensive private schools rather than the local school, you are just throwing money away. And do you really think that this scheme will attract many of these little darlings out of Mummy’s beemer on a permanent basis?
  5. Lots of people – kids included – have tried to use your system, and concluded that it is woefully inadequate. The turnover in transit ridership in Vancouver is enormous – and has been for years (as one of your erstwhile marketers pointed out to me). Another week of additional overcrowding and delays is not going to help.

If you care you can read the original press release. But I wouldn’t bother, if I were you

Written by Stephen Rees

September 29, 2006 at 2:44 pm

Posted in Transportation

Telegraph | News | Melting ice pack ‘now allows ship to reach North Pole’

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Telegraph | News | Melting ice pack ‘now allows ship to reach North Pole’

This story was picked up by the Vancouver Sun and paired with another article about melting glaciers in BC

There are “before and after photos” of the Warren Glacier in Garibaldi Park

Similar stories are in the Baltimore Sun and the Medford Mail Tribune.

The Sun story winds up

It is thought that there is enough water locked up in Greenland ice to raise sea levels more than five metres if it were to melt. Imagine the impact of a rise in sea level of several metres on cities like New York, Bangkok, or countries like Bangladesh

which is all very well, but a 5 metre rise in sea level takes out all of Richmond (where I live) and much of Delta too. For a story headed “a climate alarm close to home” this is an odd choice of closing!


This article appeared as a letter to the editor in Monday’s (Sept 25) Vancouver  Sun

Written by Stephen Rees

September 22, 2006 at 11:11 am

Group lobbies for SkyTrain rather than light rail

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Group lobbies for SkyTrain rather than light rail

This is bizarre. Accepted wisdom is that light rail is cheaper than SkyTrain. SkyTrain Mainly because SkyTrain is grade separated, and the costs of a structure are way more than putting tracks in the streets. Of course, most light rail schemes started by making use of existing rail tracks, and building short links to make service more convenient especially in City Centres. (NottinghamNottingham tram at Trent University, Manchester and Croydon all follow this pattern).

Mazur also worried about the effects of street-level rapid transit on vehicle traffic,

Actually that is kind of the point. He tries to tie it in to fire trucks, but the hidden agenda is what it always is – the desire to ensure freedom for cars. In most of Europe, cities which had retained streetcars played around with “pre-metro” for a while (AntwerpAntwerp tram for example) putting the street cars into tunnels in city centres prior to planned later extensions into full blown metros. Most abandoned this approach, as cars flooded into city streets as the trams were taken out, making not only the congestion worse, but reducing the quality of life in city centres with noise, fumes and danger. Perhaps some of the nicest new LRT systems are in France (Grenoble, Strasbourg Tramway - Bernard Chartreau photoStrasbourg, Marseilles, Lyon) which are nearly all at grade and often in car free streets. The Swiss,Basle tram of course, stuck to their streetcars throughout.

SkyTrain is very nearly unique. It is only found in Canada (Scarborough – where it is going to be scrapped) and the US (Detroit, and a slightly larger version feeding JFK airport). Originally conceived as a maglev people mover, the innovations when it was launched were linear induction motors (LIM) and driverless operation (except in Scarborough). Small volume production and the use of proprietary technology means higher costs, as there is not the ability to tap into volume production. Many systems take standard cars common to many cities. Calgary LRT 7th AveCalgary and Edmonton both went for on street running using high level cars (standard German Duwag cars initially – popular with US cities too) and platforms. Most comparative studies show that LRT can be affordable, provided the proponents resist the inevitable scope creep that happens once local politicians with an edifice complex get involved. Docklands LRT(The original Docklands Light Rail was developed as a turn key contract for UKP75m, mainly built on existing rail rights of way and structures and using off the shelf German trams. It is now growing rapidly along new tracks.)

That being said, there is a lot of merit tying LRT into redevelopment. Docklands served this function so well it had to be expanded almost as soon as it was opened, and a new deep level tube line was also added to the area. Portland has made a success of developing station precincts in suburbs that were formerly lifeless dormitories, and has also added city centre street cars to regional rapid transit. The TriCities are already developed as car oriented suburbs, although Port Moody has added some high rises in its downtown, as has Coquitlam. But the key to making sustainable suburbs is to put the train in first, and put up with operating losses for the years it takes for the city to grow up around it. This is the way that most cities grew in the pre-automobile era. The streetcar and subway companies lost money on their operations, but made out on the property development. We do not have this ability here now.

Actually, when it was laid out Coquitlam left provision for an “intermediate capacity transit system” (i.e. technology not specified) with provision for a right of way along Guildford Way to City Hall. When the the province attempted to extend SkyTrain on this route the people who had moved in, knowing the SkyTrain was planned, all howled in protest and got it moved back to Barnet Highway. The same thing happened when the TTC tried to use its reserved right of way into Malvern to extend the Scarborough RT, and the extension was abandoned, contributing to the rapid decline of the area into one of Canada’s most dangerous places, though that may have been reversed recently.

What we have here, folks, is a pattern. And that is, once again, “not in my backyard.” No doubt this group will gather adherents to their misguided ideas, and the end result could be the Evergreen line (one of the few properly planned rapid transit proposals in this region) goes on the back burner once again.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 21, 2006 at 9:31 am

Should we encourage cycling?

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Between 1984 and 1988 I worked for the UK Department of Transport, Traffic Policy Branch. The branch included a team of engineers devoted to designing and testing safer ways of cycling. The policy at that time was not to encourage cycling, because that inevitably increased the number of casualties. Simply put, cyclists got killed and injured in greater numbers, as the numbers of those cycling increased. The Department’s efforts were aimed at taking routes already used by cyclists and providing safer routes – either by engineering designs or by allowing the use of alternatives which had often been banned to cyclists because of conflicts with pedestrians: the most frequent were municipal parks and canal towpaths. The results of these changes were studied by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, and the research results made widely available. Successful engineering designs, or practices designed to both reduce cycling casualties and improve cyclist/pedestrian interaction, were promoted to local authorities who had the primary responsibility for provisions. In addition, special attention was paid to the needs of new cyclists through programs such as “Safe Routes to School” As a result of these measures, cycling became both safer and more popular. The casualty rate (deaths and injuries per cycling mile) fell but the amount of cycling increased. As the Economic Advisor to the branch I determined that the approaches we promoted were better value for money than many of the conventional traffic control measures in use at that time. In particular, we established the use of value of time/value of life as the primary measure of use, rather than passenger car units. This radically changed the rate of return on public investment in traffic management practices, and lead to the greater use of bike lanes, separate bike routes, and bike priorities at signalised intersections. I would expect that all of this research would still be available somewhere. I would also expect that the experience of other European countries could be adapted to North America. In UK and Europe the four way stop is not used as the main device for controlling minor road intersections. I commend the approach used by BEST. It seems to me to be both sensible and practical.

This article first appeared on the trans-action google group, in response to debate about how to make cycling safer 

Written by Stephen Rees

September 19, 2006 at 8:17 am

GVRD “strongly opposed” to bridge twinning

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posted 1522 September 22

Carmen Mills reports to the trans-action list serve

A motion was put forward at today’s GVRD meeting by Vancouver City Councillor Susan Anton to strongly oppose the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge and the Highway One Expansion. After 3.5 hrs of sharp debate and drama the motion passed, 54 to 52!

So the downbeat Surrey Leader story below was a bit premature!

This story comes from the Surrey Leader.

I am not sure if that link will always work – probably not – but there should be a quote here

Regional politicians have abandoned hardline criticism of plans to twin the Port Mann Bridge and are instead poised to “work cooperatively” with transportation minister Kevin Falcon on his $3-billion Gateway program.

Tuesday’s decision was dubbed a sell-out and cave-in by critics, who said even if Greater Vancouver Regional District directors have no real power to stop the twinning they should stand against it on principle.

The turning point came at the GVRD’s land use and transportation committee, where all members but one voted to back a compromise position that accepts Gateway and the twinning will proceed.

This is depressing but inevitable news. Perhaps the greatest sadness is that the end of the Livable Region came at the hands of the man who wrote most of it – Gordon Campbell. Now the provincial premier, he was Chair of the GVRD back in the early nineties when a determined push for consensus got all 21 municipalities to sign on to the LRSP.

It is now received wisdom that expanding highway capacity attracts more traffic, and that any relief in congestion by increasing capacity is quickly overcome by the fact that more trips will be made once the constraint of congestion is removed. It is like trying to cure obesity by buying a bigger pair of trousers. And this effect is felt before the land use starts changing. Add the impact of increased sprawl once new lanes are opened and we are far worse off afterwards than we are now. And a lot of money will have been spent that is urgently needed in other parts of the transportation system that could have used to provide alternatives to driving.

A $2.50 per vehicle toll is proposed.

A flat fee for every user, no doubt, and also, no doubt, with promises to lift the toll once the bridge is paid for. Because that is current provincial policy. In a world which is rapidly changing, BC stays stuck in the fifties, with Gordo trying to ape Wacky Bennett.

If this state of affairs is of concern to you, go look at the Livable Region Coalition’s webpage.
Sweden has just elected a new government that is committed to introducing congestion charges. Of course, congestion charges work everywhere – except BC. No-one at the province or the GVTA has ever seriously looked at what imposing congestion charges on the Port Mann could achieve, both in terms of revenue generation and congestion relief that would actually make it possible to run buses across the bridge without any widening.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 18, 2006 at 1:27 pm

‘English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal water, …’

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The image below was posted on by Paul Bowery. He put a quote from Vivian Stanshall in his sig block, which I have used as the title of this piece.

Jena Paddington Basin 2006-09-16 photo by Paul Bowery

The picture seems to me to capture what is going wrong in our cities. The water is the only thing that is unchanged: probably a bit cleaner, since narrow boats all have chemical toilets and do not discharge raw sewage into the waterways the way they do here. The most obvious is the elevated motorway, casting a fearful gloom all around it, dominating the scene.

Canal sides used to feature small friendly pubs, catering to the people who worked on the boats. Many survive, now catering to the recreational users of the waterways. But what do we have here? The anonymous concrete and glass block which could be flats or offices. And the universal sandwich shop “Subway”. As fast food goes, not the most objectionable by any means. Fairly healthy actually, but the design is the same everywhere. And the Subway map is New York (of course).

How much of this scene is English? The narrow boat echoes the traditional design and the dimensions are dictated by the locks: 70 feet long by 7 feet wide . Others are more faithful to traditional colours and decorations.

Fortunately only a small percentage of the miles of English canals look like this. I would recommend them for a holiday to anyone. Maximum speed 4mph, and mostly through English countryside – much of which is still unspoiled. You will not, of course, see any commercial traffic. The last narrow boats carrying freight operated from Brenford to Hemel Hempstead on the Grand Union Canal in the early 1970s. Below is one of the last survivors still in use, owned by British Waterways and used for maintenance.

Archimedes Harlesden Paul Bowery Photo

I spent several years trying to promote the use of inland waterways for freight traffic. The only new traffic I saw start was on the River Thames. As commercial shipping moved down river, and the docks closed, sea dredged aggregate began to brought in to meet the insatiable demands for ready mixed concrete. And domestic refuse, all neatly packed in ISO containers, from GLC transfer stations along the river bank to land reclamation sites on the Essex marshes.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 18, 2006 at 9:03 am

Transport lags in fast-aging city

leave a comment » Vancouver | Straight Talk

Another one of those “so what else is news?” stories. There is nothing new in this: handyDART has always been inadequate. Demand for its services has always exceeded supply. The addition of additional types of service – accessible buses, community shuttles, taxi savers – helped a bit, but not much. And, by the way, this is probably true in every transit system in North America. At least, in seven years of research, I never came up with one that had succeeded to any great extent. Though there are plenty of examples of urban areas that do much better than Greater Vancouver.

Why are we so bad at this? (And, believe me, we are pretty bad.) First of all because it is a political minefield. You cannot step into this field without risk – and our politicians are highly risk averse. The provision of specialised transit service to provide door to door service is very expensive indeed. This region has never had enough resources to provide a decent conventional system, let alone a specialised one. In the United States this is common and institutionalised. If you don’t live in an area that has conventional transit service, you cannot get specialised service either. Simple. Equally bad for everyone. Not a solution that I would advocate, and not one that operates here.

Many systems look carefully at who is entitled to specialised service. The idea is that if someone can use conventional transit the they should not be accepted onto the specialised system. This has been refined to actually looking at the trips the individual needs to make, and determining if the specialised system is needed – on a trip by trip basis. Calgary uses that system. Easier there than here since the City of Calgary provides both the transit system and social services. So integrating the two is organisationally efficient – or maybe the word I want is “possible”.

Talk about “eligibility” for handyDART here, and you empty the room pretty fast. Just about anyone can get onto the register – all you need is a signature on a form. From your doctor, or indeed any health care professional. And most people in the caring professions are quite happy to sign such forms. Some even charge you for it, so they have a financial incentive not to say “No”. So many people have registered, and so many demand trips, that they have to be rationed. Anyone wanting a a trip for work, post secondary education or for healthcare gets priority. If the trip is needed on a regular basis, it can be block booked. So if your trip is for some other purpose, or you don’t do it regularly, your chances of getting the trip you need is pretty low. It is also of no surprise at all that many people who want trips make sure that they fit this category. Their doctor, dentist or optician will, of course, be located in a shopping mall. Recreation is not a priority – so “swimming” is a “no” but “hydrotherapy” is a “yes”. Small wonder that health oriented trips dominate the service. Indeed, health services (and adult day care) are designed on the basis that handyDART will bring the patients to the facility. So that gets client/patient transportation off the health care budget, and the funds can be used for MRIs – or doctors’ fees. They don’t get transferred to Translink.

Taxi savers were meant to fill the gap for these “spontaneous” trips, and to some extent they do. Although ask most people with disabilities about their experience with taxis and you will hear some hair raising stories.

A centralised booking system was supposed to help and contracts were even let to set one up. From this article I conclude that this still has not been achieved. As I said, this type of service is expensive to provide (compared to conventional transit) but at least costs in this sector are contained. Contracts are let by competitive tender on a regular basis, and most providers come from the not-for-profit sector (community assistance societies). Indeed in Vancouver, handyDART has been provided for many years by a collective of people with disabilities.

Translink has been faced with a painful dilemma. Given that resources are inadequate, and demand is growing, do they try to limit demand or increase supply? Well they do both, but neither with any great conviction. To some extent, lack of service in itself acts as damper on demand. People who ask for trips but never get them give up asking after a while. So the measure of “refused trips” doesn’t actually reflect reality. The service providers have got pretty good at determining whose needs are really top of the list, but of course if you don’t make that list, you feel pretty sore. People don’t complain nearly enough because the popular notion is that those who complain will be denied service in future in retaliation. I hasten to add here, that I have never seen any evidence to back this up. It is an urban legend with a life of its own.

Some brave souls have even tried to get into the market. I have given evidence on their behalf to the Motor Carrier Commission – because the taxi companies objected strenuously. By the way, the same companies also asked me to give the same evidence to support their application for more accessible taxis.

Four additional handyDART buses is really such a small addition as to be insignificant. But then Translink cannot afford to buy enough new buses anyway, so the handyDART system is only getting the same inadequate response as the rest of the bus system. Trouble is the people who really need it, really have no alternative. People are even less willing to give their own relatives a ride when they need it. It’s called “family fission” in the trade. Kids move away. People separate or divorce. The extended family is now extended geographically too.

There are no easy answers. But at least there ought to be a plan to tackle the situation. I know because I tried to write one. It was simply ignored. Not a priority. Go away and do some more research. Don’t ask us to do things that might call the wrath of the human rights brigade down on our necks (whether justified or not).

Written by Stephen Rees

September 13, 2006 at 2:05 pm

Posted in Transportation

Two bikes

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Two bikes

Walking on the dyke on Labour Day, I saw a Harley. The illegal-anywhere-but-BC helmet dangling from the handlebars catches my eye now, but at the time I was still musing about the way bikes were displayed in Gastown Gastown bikeson Saturday. I could get shots of the cars easily enough, but the bikes were parked to save space not for display.

And then just as I press the shutter, in a moment of happy serendipity, a push bike and trailer occupies the background. Neat shot. But not planned.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 5, 2006 at 12:01 pm

McClaren Buggy Steveston BC 2006_0904

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McClaren Buggy Steveston BC 2006_0904, originally uploaded by Stephen Rees.

I saw an umbrella stroller today at the No 2 Road Pier. I could not find its owner, but it looks in very good shape to me.

From somewhere deep in the recesses of my cranium the words “Maclaren buggy” popped up – so I tried a Google and got this

and a Reith Lecture

Twenty years ago, getting around with young children was a great deal more awkward than today. The basic *McLaren* *buggy* was the height of technology then. Child car seats were cumbersome, often requiring professional fixing. Look at the cleverness and choice of today’s equivalents!

Written by Stephen Rees

September 4, 2006 at 2:20 pm

TransLink studies ‘smart card’ fare systems

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TransLink studies ‘smart card’ fare systems

Another “no news” story put out by Translink ahead of one of their staff reports. Smart cards have been studied at Translink for as long as it has been in existence. We don’t have them have them because the market for them here is too small to be financially viable. Small transactions are of no interest to the banking system, and cost merchants a fortune. For example, Dairy Queen (where my son works) charges an additional 25c flat fee for Interac transactions. Many other merchants refuse debit cards for amounts under a specific limit, reflecting the transaction cost.

Since I started looking at the issues of small cash payments, back in London in the eighties – first for parking meters, then for the Underground – matters have changed a little, but economies of scale still have to be present to make the considerable up front investment in kit worthwhile. Hong Kong and London both have Oyster systems, which have been very successful, but they are orders of magnitude bigger in number of transactions than Vancouver. Experiments such as VISA cash have been small and have not developed into full blown systems. Parking can now be paid for by cell phones, and this kind of convergence may betoken the future. Other types of card – such as the Starbucks card – are more about retaining customer “loyalty” than reducing costs.

The other big issue is the complexity of Vancouver’s fare structure, which has grown incrementally with the years and is now so byzantine as to require a purpose designed software suite for the bus farebox as to be prohibitively expensive to change. And it can only be done by Cubic, the original contractor, since they own the source code. And, yes, it can have a Cubic smart card reader added to it , but only to their spec. And the Electronic Fare Box (EFB) cannot talk to all the other electronic systems on the bus such as the destination display, communications systems and so on – which requires several separate log ins by the operator.

To be fair, Translink did pay someone on staff for several years to work on the “architecture” of ITS – to no useful output that I can recall.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 2, 2006 at 8:14 am