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

Archive for October 2006

Tag, you’re out! School bans recess games

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ATTLEBORO, Mass. — Officials at an elementary school south of Boston have banned kids from playing tag, touch football and any other unsupervised chase game during recess for fear they’ll get hurt and hold the school liable.
Recess is “a time when accidents can happen,” said Willett elementary school principal Gaylene Heppe, who approved the ban.
While there is no districtwide ban on contact sports during recess, local rules have been cropping up. Several school administrators around Attleboro, a city of about 45,000 residents, took aim at dodgeball a few years ago, saying it was exclusionary and dangerous.

(source: Associated Press Published: Thursday, October 19, 2006)
You couldn’t make this up. The motive, of course, is fear of liability for a law suit once a child is injured and the school is sued. Maybe the parents should now get together with a class action suit against the school for making the children obese due to lack of physical activity – actually a much worse, and real, threat to their well being than the scraped knees that we have always accepted as part of the price of kids playing in the yard. In fact, I cannot see any reasonable court taking a suit about tag seriously, but then all you have to do is go to to find plenty of really silly law suits.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 19, 2006 at 4:01 pm

Posted in Urban Planning

Downtown Vancouver

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Lunch with a friend in downtown Vancouver today gave me the opportunity to look around at the construction sites of the new Canada Line stations on Davie and Granville Streets. Work is at an early stage so there is not much to see, and there are fences with heavy sheeting around the construction zones, to protect passers-by from the dust of drilling. So no opportunities for photography – even though pictures of holes in the ground have little appeal to me. I think that Peter Battistoni (of the Sun) must have had privileged access for his photos which appeared in the paper earlier this week (not on line).

Davie Street is now unusually quiet. The hotel next to the station site has already converted its on street parking into back in, perpendicular – making the most of the siuation by increasing the space marked for “valet parking”. Nearly all of the on street meters in the area (which are pricey) were occupied, though none of the shops seemed busy. Mind you, this is a part of town where one computer specialist only opens in the afternoon.

The noise on Granville ( block south of Georgia) was deafening. While there was some pedestrian traffic on the narrow sidewalks, left open during construction of the station box, most shops seemed quiet – and this was between 12 and 1 when you would expect the office lunch time crowd to be out and about.

Much more interesting was a construction site of one of those thin towers with townhouses in the base that will occupy a site on Homer. The excavation looks to be three or possibly four levels down for underground parking, so these are not going to be cheap housing! Fascinating to watch a Bobcat shovelling crush around the base of the columns.

While most works in the core will be deep level shield tunneled, the station boxes will take two years of cut and cover before these streets reopen. I will have to go look up how the interchange of passengers between the Canada and Expo lines will be handled. Looks like a bit of a hike to me, but I suppose that there was insufficient clearance between the top of the old tunnel and the street for a station – and an extension further south to replace the SeaBus seems to likely to remain a pipe dream (sorry about that).

UPDATED 26 October 2006 and photos added

Further south on Sea Island, box girder construction is starting on the approaches to the new Moray Channel bridge, and the trench on Cambie Street between 49th and 41st is well advanced.


Arthur Laing Bridge


Middle Arm Bridge


Written by Stephen Rees

October 19, 2006 at 3:50 pm

Translink halts plans to fight congestion

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Translink halts plans to fight congestion

This is an admission of failure.

Coun. Suzanne Anton said failing to expand the system “would almost be like giving up on our mandate.”

“We’ve made a deal with citizens,” Anton said. “If you get out of your car, we’ll provide you transit. So we’ve got 100,000 people a day at that [Broadway SkyTrain] station out of their cars, and we’re not able to keep up with the transit they require. That’s the big challenge for this board.”

The mandate is in the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority Act, which requires that there should be a Strategic Plan and that that Plan must support the region’s growth strategy. Both of these requirements have essentially been abandoned. Instead of a Plan there is a long shopping list of capital projects, with priority going to those that someone else will pay for. The GVRD’s growth strategy has not been revised since it was adopted in 1995, and has been augmented by the Sustainable Region Initiative – only no-one is exactly sure what that means. The LRSP was written in fairly general terms, but once Bill van der Zalm got rid of the GVRD’s land use powers, there wasn’t much they could do about regional planning anyway.

The GVTA has never been popular. Regional authorities cannot expect to be universally liked, but the “two steps removed” indirect election of Board Members leaves the distinct impression that as a body the GVTA is not especially accountable, and the Board has not done enough to remove that impression. It has not shown that it is open (moving its own key discussions into in camera session or Board workshops at the slightest excuse: trying to extract information from its web page is, to say the least, frustrating) and resorts to press releases and spin rather than candour.

Moving to a three year planning cycle was the product of internal staff maneuvering. The five year Strategic Plan setting targets that were increasingly difficult to meet, and the staff conviction was that it was better to work with the province and – if they would be willing to play – the feds – than try to go it alone.

The GVTA was supposed to be a regional body with secure funding. That hope died with Ujjal Dosanjh, and the ill considered vehicle levy. The province has always had the view that Greater Vancouver has recourse to property taxes, and the GVTA now uses them (something that its predecessor, the Vancouver Regional Transit Commission refused to condone) but with understandable reluctance. Although it has happily accepted that if it fixes its rate early enough, the product will get higher as assessments rise. And the new commercial parking levy is another property tax, but at least it does not impact too many voters directly.

Voting is, of course, at the heart of the problem. Though Greater Vancouver has the majority of the province’s population, the way that seats are distributed in the leg does not reflect this. And the more right wing governments have always managed to do well in the “heartland” by appealing to anti-metropolitan sentiments in small towns and rural areas. They are not alone in this. Ontario has always got away with underfunding the TTC using very similar electoral arithmetic.

Mr Harper is probably not very sympathetic to the ideas of the LRSP or transit. He certainly has shown a less than enthusiastic commitment to the environment – same edition of web edition has this on the front

The Harper government’s green plan will adopt a go-slow approach to cleaning up air pollution

which doesn’t even make the print edition. And the federal support for transit and cities in general was a Liberal commitment – and therefore easy to avoid.

Raising all its own money from within the region would have been politically very risky. The commitment to the LRSP is wide but paper thin. Everyone accepts the need for clean air and water and lots of greenspace. We would all like sustainability – as long as it doesn’t actually cost us anything. But very few voters would support a large scale commitment to the sort of changes needed with the price tag now attached to them. Much better, from a political standpoint, to spread that cost to the province – or the country – as a whole, if at all possible. But that puts the GVTA at the mercy of other levels of government who have other things to worry about than the GVTA’s mandate.

So now we wait for Falcon’s review. I am not going to offer any hostages to fortune by making predictions, but I cannot say I am hopeful.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 19, 2006 at 9:40 am

The Cure for Affluence

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The Cure for Affluence ::

Kevin Patterson is a doctor who lives on Saltspring Island, who also happens to be a brilliant writer as well. His new book “Consumption” is reviewed in the Tyee. It is based on his experience in the arctic, where diseases of deprivation have been replaced by diseases of affluence mainly due to lack of physical activity.

I think what we need to do is re-engineer our cities. It’s not about more gyms, because there are lots of gyms. We have to walk to work. We have to live in cities that require us to move to get through our days. There should be as many square feet of bicycle lanes in Vancouver as car lanes. It should just be such a pain in the ass to drive a car that most people don’t. We need oil to cost $200 a barrel, for health reasons

Written by Stephen Rees

October 17, 2006 at 9:48 am

Housing and poverty

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Two pieces in today’s Vancouver Sun are worth reading. First the lead story on the loss of affordable rental housing. Secondly, Paul Willcox’s opinion piece “Is it really okay for little kids to go hungry because of our choices?”

When I went to the London School of Economics [1976-1978] I had to make a choice of which courses to take, and chose transport over housing for my economics option. But the economics of the housing market, and the callous political treatment of poverty in recent years, have been a growing concern. It is now not possible to rent a decent two bedroom flat for under $1500 in Vancouver. This is roughly what we are currently paying for the mortgage on our three bedroom house in Richmond, but then we managed by the skin of our teeth to scrape back into the housing market six years ago. If we had left it any longer, we would have been stuck. (We lost all our equity in the great crash of the house market in Toronto in 1990).

The point about poverty is that it awaits all of us, if we are not very lucky or very careful. We like to distance ourselves from the poor (who are always with us) in the hopes that it won’t rub off on us. And as Canadians we like to think that there is a social safety net. But it is clear that the net has been reduced to well below the point where it is effective. And children in BC are malnourished because of it. And the downtown eastside beckons for those who slip and fall. Mental illness being one of the commonest causes of poverty. In a society that likes to pretend it has a public health system. Where you have to pay even for the ambulance that picks you up from the street.

Your job is not secure. Your family could be split asunder (family fission now being the mode) in an instant. You probably have limited savings. You could be the victim of a random event. Ty Pennington is not going to come and rescue you, any more than the Lottery Corporation is.

The time for activism is now.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 9, 2006 at 12:44 pm

Posted in Economics, housing, poverty

“Nothing has been proven, based on tests, that any [fuel-saving device] will work”

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Federal agency installed bogus fuel-savers

Devices banned after energy-saving claims prove false

CanWest News Service
Published: Monday, October 09, 2006

OTTAWA — The Competition Bureau has ordered a company to stop selling a bogus fuel-saver that falsely promises to slash car energy consumption, after a federal agency spent thousands outfitting a fleet of vehicles with the device and boasted it was contributing to a federal plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Econopro, sold for $750 each, was marketed as a gadget that when attached to a car generated fuel savings of at least 10 per cent, eliminated emissions and even improved engine performance.

But a lengthy investigation by the Competition Bureau, an independent law-enforcement agency, determined Econoco Inc., based in Prevost, Que., near Montreal, misrepresented its product and misled the public.

So in the last ten years, there has been no progress.
I will now list six ways that you can reduce the fuel consumption of your vehicle. These are all guaranteed to work.

  1. Drive no faster than the posted speed on every road you use. This also has the useful added benefit of reducing the severity of any collision in which you might get involved. You may also save money on avoided speeding tickets.
  2. Accelerate and brake gently. By looking ahead, you can keep driving at a steady speed, and thus avoid wasting energy in rapid acceleration and hard braking. Racing up to a red light is daft.
  3. Change your air filter regularly, using the manufacturer’s guidelines provided in the manual. Note that you may have to do this more often if you drive in dusty conditions. A plugged air filter means that fuel goes unburned down the exhaust pipe.
  4. If you drive a diesel vehicle, keep the fuel injectors clean and service them regularly. Black smoke (clag) is a sign that your engine is overdue for a service. It is also a known human carcinogen.
  5. Buy a tire pressure gauge. They cost a few bucks, but are much more reliable than the gauge on the gas station’s air pump. Check your tire pressure when you fill up. The correct pressures are printed on a label on the door pillar on the driver’s side. Under inflated tires absorb energy. A test using students in a shopping centre parking lot in Victoria in the early 1990s showed that hardly any vehicles had correct tire pressures. The $3 you spend will be recovered in a few tankfuls.
  6. For short trips, leave the car in the driveway and either walk or ride a bike. You will find that you enjoy both, and will start feeling better, as a result of the exercise. You will also have avoided all those parking lot hassles.

I would also like to suggest, for those of you who do not live in Greater Vancouver, that you might try transit for some trips. Here, while it will save gas, it will only add to your frustrations and anxieties and therefore cannot in good conscience be recommended.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 9, 2006 at 12:17 pm

City Wants 2028 Olympics

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Vancouver Sun October 6 2006

Vancouver and Seattle will join forces to try to attract a post-2010 global mega-event, with a wish list that includes co-hosting the 2018 World Cup of soccer, a world’s fair around 2020 or the 2028 Summer Olympics.

Just when you think it cannot get any sillier … in the same edition Vaughan Palmer is getting inside the mess of the current failure to control building costs – or even get started on actually building venues.

What is it about these events that’s get otherwise sensible people so out of their tree?  Wasn’t the Montreal experience bad enough? Why plan around short term sporting events? Why not plan around the needs of the people who are here and who cannot be housed or moved around in any reasonable way? Why not get concerned about the risks of flooding – or the inevitable earthquake? Why not start to deal with the pressing problems of social exclusion (an expression you hear a lot of in the UK but not in BC)? Why is it always the circus, never the bread?

Written by Stephen Rees

October 6, 2006 at 10:27 am

Vancouvers VitalSigns 2006: Highlights

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Vancouvers VitalSigns 2006: Highlights

 “The Livable City – top priority for improvement: Public transportation

72.7% of all commuters drive private vehicles

7% are passengers

11.5% take public transit

6.5% cycle

1.9% walk “

The statistics have not changed very much in the ten years that I have lived here. Considering how much is collected from taxpayers in this region now, compared to ten years ago, I think it quite reasonable that we should be asking why there has been so little progress. BC Transit was funded by a 4c per litre gas tax and the hydro levy. The gas tax is now 11.5c, the hydro levy remains, property tax to the GVTA  now averages $91 per home, and there is the new parking tax, as well as much higher fares.

Most of the revenue goes to two items – transit operating cost (70%) and debt service (just under 20%). So you would think that transit operating cost would come under fairly close scrutiny – or at least that Coast Mountain Bus Company (who provide most of the service ) would be at least required to demonstrate that they are competitive with other service providers. After all, not so long ago there was a four month bus strike over the right to contract out – which Translink won, but you would be hard put to discern any benefit apart from one minor concession on wage rates for Community Shuttle drivers. Essentially, after the strike, labour peace was bought by huge concessions to the CAW.

Translink does not pay a great deal of attention to mode share (the statistics in the table at the top of the page). They prefer to talk about the numbers – ridership and service hours – because they are large numbers, which sound impressive. But the region has been growing rapidly and there are more people here and hence more trips. The “market share” for transit has hardly changed at all despite the opening of the Millennium Line, the introduction of B Lines and West Coast Express. B Lines actually get most of their ridership from existing bus users. Note that the replacement trolleybus fleet is 227 vehicles – compared to the existing fleet of 240. That’s because the 98 and 99 B line are carrying people who used to use the Granville and Broadway trolleybuses. Recent rapid transit investments have really had very little effect on transit’s market share. A new market for commuter housing has opened up in Mission, which was not exactly what the regional growth strategy had in mind.

What issues need to be addressed to improve our quality of life?

Transport/congestion 12%

Improve transit/lower fares 8% 

Written by Stephen Rees

October 4, 2006 at 1:55 pm

Made-in-B.C. way to power our buses

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Made-in-B.C. way to power our buses

The important bit is at the end

Alicia Milner is executive director of the Canadian Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance and Mark Kennedy is regional manager of Clean Energy.

So, as you would expect, not much here that is critical of natural gas – or even a mention of the other options.

Natural gas is a far from ideal fuel for buses – or trucks and cars come to that. Conventional fossil fuels have the significant advantage of packing a lot of energy into a very small space. Being liquids they are easy to handle, and they are very nearly ubiquitous. There is a diesel or petrol (I will use that term since it is less confusing than “gas” in this context) pump close to you nearly everywhere there is civilisation.

Natural gas buses cost more than diesel. This price premium ought to be diminished by volume production but so far had not been due to the willingness of some governments to subsidise them. So there is little incentive for manufacturers to cut prices. Some of the kit is a considerable extra cost, notably on board fuel storage (nearly always lightweight tanks on the roof these days) as well as a compressor station at the depot. The last time a contract was entered for Greater Vancouver for CNG buses, BC Gas picked up the additional capital cost by amortising it over the life of the buses and getting it back from an increment to the fuel price.

Nervousness about gas leaks meant that both the depot buildings and the buses themselves got some additional fire proofing and fire suppression equipment. It is doubtful how much of this was actually necessary. CNG is lighter than air, which means in the event of a leak, it disperses very quickly. Leaking diesel fuel or hydraulic fluid are both much more likely to cause a fire, but most buses do not carry detectors or extinguishing systems. This has cost Translink at least one diesel articulated bus that I am aware of.

Using CNG buses would assist the GVRD in meeting its air quality management plan objectives of reducing pollution and promoting cleaner air in the region.

This is a rather large assertion. There are over a million vehicles in the region, but only around 1200 buses. So a small number of replacement buses will not make much of a dent. Heavy duty diesel road vehicles of all types account for around 4% of the on road emissions – buses are not accounted for separately in the GVRD’s emissions inventory. On the grounds that every little helps, I suppose that any contribution is welcome, but no one seems to want to do a cost benefit analysis. Methane (CNG) is a fossil fuel that comes from the same wells that produce petroleum, and has a much higher global warming effect than CO2. It is also much in demand as the feedstock for turning the oil sands into usable fuels.

While low natural gas fuel prices and abundant domestically sourced supply will benefit TransLink operations and customers, there is also a direct economic benefit that CNG buses bring to the province as a whole. Using a homegrown fuel source like natural gas in transit buses brings additional benefits from B.C.’s important natural gas industry — the province’s single largest generator of resource based revenue, that last year alone contributed more than $2 billion dollars to the provincial treasury to pay for health, education and a host of other services for British Columbians. B.C. will also be able to take advantage of federal gas tax agreements, which in turn, will provide the province with gas tax revenues that can be reinvested into services and infrastructure benefiting the entire province.

Gas prices happen to be low at the moment. Don’t bet on them staying that way. A pipeline is going to be built to take NG from Prince Rupert to Alberta, for the oil sands, since local supplies there are expected to be exhausted by 2014. It is a bit odd to be levying taxes on the fuel used by public transit, since it is supported by taxes. It seems to me a bit daft to levy taxes on property in order to pay tax on fuel. Most other countries exempt transit from fuel tax – the accounting is easier for one thing.

Translink is currently running a trial using garishly liveried buses. The trial includes biodiesel, which has been in use in municipal vehicles for some years. Among its advantages are that is a renewable resource, and thus does not add to the GHG burden. It reduces local emissions as well and can be derived from waste products – such as used chip fat. Diesel engines need no adaptation to run of biodiesel, in fact Rudolf Diesel designed the engines to run on vegetable oil in the first place!

CNG buses also have a very dubious record of reliability in this region. I could go on about why that was so, but I will leave the current controlled trials of newer technologies to determine the outcome. However, one result can be guaranteed. When the municipality of Sydney on Vancouver Island converted its fleet of trucks to CNG, fuel consumption was halved. Of course, the CNG was of no use to other vehicles that used diesel or petrol, and the fuel issuing system had also been upgraded. Not that I would dream of suggesting that anyone is diverting Translink’s diesel to their own use. Perish the thought!


6 October 2006 The Vancouver Sun

TransLink will spend $50.2 million to buy 126 new diesel buses, despite fierce lobbying by the compressed natural gas industry.

The buses will be built by Nova Bus of Quebec , and fitted with particulate traps which will reduce emissions over the “1990’s vintage buses being replaced” by 99% PM 90% NOx and 15% ghg. They also represent a cost saving – getting 20% more buses for the same dollars.


Written by Stephen Rees

October 3, 2006 at 10:07 am

City ‘road diet’ plans moving ahead

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Welcome to the Royal City Record Now – News

The use of the term “Greenway” is a little odd in this context, but it does link up to the Central Valley Greenway, a key part of the Urban Transportation Showcase Program.

This section of Columbia Street has been posted at 30k/hr for some years, though compliance is about as poor as you would expect. Trucks are required to divert alongside the railway tracks along Front Street, which does seem to work, unless there is a train blocking a level crossing. As a shopping street, it is pretty grim, although Army and Navy, a cut price “department store” still acts as an anchor and draw. The towers are residential, and office space is mostly two or three storey, “over the shop” type serving mostly local needs. Given its central location, it is surprising that it is not more of an important centre.

Front Street itself has a speciality role as “antiques row”, though the gloom cast by the multi-storey parking structure over the road does not help. At one end, the old station (now a restaurant) the public market and the casino act as magnets. But there is not much at the other end. Though the conversion of one of the grimmer provincial institutions into a housing development may help.

What has been wrong with New Westminster, according to its council, is that everybody drives through on their way to somewhere else. At one time this would have been seen a as locational advantage for all kinds of businesses. Maybe car ownership has killed central place theory?

I will be watching this one. Hopefully, once it has been shown that reducing the road width to two lanes can be made to work, then there will be more space for pedestrians, and, more importantly, for people to sit and watch the passing parade. Sadly, we have become so obsessed with moving on the street people (of which New West seems to have more than it’s fair share) that there is very little civilised space to linger in most centres in the region. But any cursory glance at the best pedestrian spaces will show that space for people to park themselves is much more important than spaces to park their cars (back in or otherwise).

Written by Stephen Rees

October 2, 2006 at 11:07 am