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

Archive for November 2006

Heart and soul of the city | Conservation | Guardian Unlimited Environment

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Heart and soul of the city | Conservation | Guardian Unlimited Environment

The demolition of a vast motorway through the centre of South Korea’s capital and the restoration of a river and park in its place proves that mega-cities can be changed for the better.

I missed this the first time around, so I am grateful to Babara Docherty for posting it to the Livable Region Coalition list.

It’s not often you get post graduate transportation economics in a daily paper but this is really important

Braess’s paradox, named after mathematician Dietrich Braess, gives the lie to governments and local authorities that argue that building more roads reduces congestion.

According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, it works like this: “For each point of a road network, let there be given the number of cars starting from it, and the destination of the cars. Under these conditions, one wishes to estimate the distribution of traffic flow. Whether one street is preferable to another depends not only on the quality of the road but also on the density of the flow. If every driver takes the path that looks most favourable to him, the resultant running times need not be minimal. Furthermore, it is indicated by an example that an extension of the road network may cause a redistribution of the traffic that results in longer individual running times.”

The article talks about a number of other Asian cities that have done this, but we should all be familiar with the removal of inner city freeways in Toronto and San Francisco which had precisely this effect. This is not just theory – there are many examples that have been extensively reported – so many in fact that Phil Goodwin and others produced a study of studies.

This by the way is not new. Here is a citation which Braess himself gives

J.G. Wardrop, Some theoretical aspects of road traffic Research in Proc. of the Inst. of Civil Engineers, Part II, 325-378 (1952)

So we have known for over fifty years that building new roads generates traffic and taking roads out of the network does not increase congestion it actually reduces it. But somehow that message has still to get through to the BC Ministry of covering the world’s best place in concrete.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 20, 2006 at 5:34 pm

Van City Water Still Not Safe ::

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Van City Water Still Not Safe ::

The boil water advisory was lifted for Richmond and other suburbs quite quickly, but that doesn’t mean our water is clean – far from it. I have been doing some refurbishment on our washroom, and the toilet cistern was full of sludge, which had accumulated over the years. Since the water here is somewhat acidic, rubber fittings like washers and flap valves rot, and there were also pin holes in the stainless steel feed pipe.

We use a Waterpik filter on our kitchen tap, for drinking and filling the kettle mainly to reduce the amount of black stuff the builds up on the element. It also removes the smell and taste of chlorine. In an excess of caution I bought a new filter on Saturday of the type that also takes out cysts and sediments. It was full of crud and useless two days later!

There will be a GVRD filtration plant in a few years time, but officials are already saying that it will not be able to cope with the volume of muck we’ve got in the water at the moment. (UPDATE Nov 23 : Although more recently that story changed). We also get regular doses of “tea leaf scale” which is rust from the inside of the pipes en route to us. The City comes and flushes the pipes by turning on the fire hydrant outside our front door fairly shortly after each complaint that I have made. No-one else seems to bother.

The strange thing in all this is that people here (and in Portland and Seattle) boast about their water – and turn their noses up at London’s water which, they say, has been through five people before you drink it. But that water is treated, and looks and tastes a lot better than the stuff here and I don’t mean now, I mean normally. I never felt the need to filter water in Britain – though with this essential service now privatised I might consider it.

When we lived in Victoria (which also has untreated water) there was a scare about cryptosporidium. Apparently caused by dead cats in the water intake of the Humpback reservoir. So much for “pristine watersheds” where no-one is allowed to go. Presumably if the water shed was open, someone might notice the dead cats. In Britain, sailing on reservoirs and picnicing next to them is common. Once again, I never heard of parasites in the water there.

I don’t think it’s about cleanliness at all. I think it is just a way to avoid paying more for water – and, in the case of Victoria, notoriouly, sewage treatment too.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 20, 2006 at 2:18 pm

College students may balk at transit rates | Vancouver

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College students may balk at transit rates | Vancouver

TransLink spokesperson Ken Hardie told the Straight that TransLink has told the colleges the price difference is due to the “revenue-neutral” model TransLink uses. This model ensures colleges “at least all pay their way” with regard to the U-Pass program, he said. Hardie adds that UBC and SFU are large schools and the students who do not use U-Pass are offsetting costs for those who do.

I feel sorry for Ken. No, I really do. It is not easy being a spin doctor for an organisation that has lost the plot. And Ken doesn’t have much of a grasp of economics either.

“Revenue neutral” has nothing to do with “paying your way”. It just means that there is supposedly no loss of income attributable to UPass. But it says nothing about cost. The SFU and UBC prices regime reflects relatively low transit ridership at two somewhat remote locations prior to UPass. So a “revenue neutral” formula produces a low fare if everyone pays for the pass, since transit riders were a small percentage of the student body at these locations *before*. Now transit ridership at the colleges is much higher now (without the UPass). Because they have urban locations, a tighter catchment area (though some people do commute from Langley to Langara) and a broader socio-economic demographic. And fewer parking spots. So the formula produces a higher UPass fare.

If SFU and UBC were “paying their own way” i.e. reimbursing Translink for the incremental costs that UPass has imposed on the system then a lot more money would be on the table. But of course the UPass would then be much less popular with the students and unlikely to pass a referendum. One way to deal with this would be to raise parking prices on the campus, but that would not sit well with unionised staff. Or neoconservative economists who think that cross subsidisation is evil. At UBC parking prices were tied to the one zone cash fare on transit (not sure if that is still the case, but I am sure my reader will let me know if I am wrong.)

Written by Stephen Rees

November 19, 2006 at 11:26 am

City must brace for flood: Report

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Welcome to the Richmond News – News

Richmond’s dyke system might not hold back the sea and the Fraser River during a major storm surge, says a new report by the Fraser Basin Council.

The report predicts widespread dyke failure from Chilliwack to Surrey, as a result of spring flooding.

It also predicts dykes in Richmond and Delta could be topped during a winter storm surge.

So we don’t even have to wait for the sea level to rise (as it will, due to global warming) . The City is somewhat smug “we’re well ahead of it” but the point is

Richmond’s dykes may be a full foot lower than they need to be, during a one-in 200-year storm surge.

The huge amount of rain we’ve been getting lately, together with gale force winds, and high tides have already seen the water close to the top of the dyke at the end of Gilbert Road. Unlike last year, we have not had to go to the City’s works yard for our free sandbags as the water lapped at our door sills. Then we had high tides (meaning the pumps had nowhere to put the water) and so much rain the drains were full. My back garden became a pond.

I really doubt that we will see much dyke raising in time to meet the threat. Why? Well we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars and involvement by multiple levels of government. Not a recipe for fast – or even any – action.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 17, 2006 at 7:24 pm

Put the trolleys back on Cambie

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This just got posted to the LRC (Livable Region Coalition) list and I am posting it here in full and uneditted, just in case my reader wants to do something about it

I appologize for the last minute message but I wanted to let fellow LRC
members know about an important issue coming up on Friday at the GVTA
meeting we hope we can get more speakers out for.When RAV/Canada Line
construction is completed the original plan was to
use "mini-buses" for service between stations.  Fortunately Translink has
woken up to what we've been telling them for months, that the passenger
projections show minibuses just won't cut it.  It's a long way between
some stations and there are a lot of apartment buildings (eg. between King
Edward and 10th), RAV will not be the magic bullet for Cambie corrodore
transportation needs.

In the original budgetting Translink had set aside money to reinstall
trolley overhead, at a minimum as an emergency route in case of problems
on Oak or Main Streets.  However staff is currently recommending NOT to
proceed with this, but instead simply using 40-foot Diesil buses for the
route and forget about reinstalling trolley overhead all together.

To lose this clean, efficient means of transportation, something which has
added to Vancouver remaining so liveable is something I hope the LRC would
be interested in fighting against.  My group and I are hoping members
would both write Vancouver city council telling them to demand Translink
keep it's promise and reinstall trolley traction poles, at least keeping
the option open for future trolley usage (the price different between
trolley traction poles and standard light poles when installing new is not
that significant, one might as well keep their options open).  As well to
write the GVTA board supporting trolley usage on Cambie Street.

The meeting is this Friday morning at Surrey council chambers, and
unfortunately the deadline to register to speak is tomorrow (Wednesday)
morning at 8am.
To register to talk, the website is:

Vancouver city mayor and council is:

GVTA Board is:

Some of the wire is actually still there – though not in usable condition. And I suspect that there will be a shortage of trolleybuses by the time the Canada Line is finished because they did not order the same number (244) that is being replaced. At one time an option being considered was getting some artic trolleys for the heaviest loading routes. I don’t know what happened to that idea.

UPDATE November 17, 2006

From Translink’s “Board in Brief”

4.2 Cambie Street Bus Service Following Introduction of Canada Line
The Board approved not reinstalling the trolley overhead system on Cambie Street between Marine Drive and Broadway; and directed staff to advise Canada Line Rapid Transit Inc. (CLCO) of this decision. The Board also directed staff to work with businesses along Camb ie Street to meet some ‘non transportation’ needs, such as ensuring that lighting poles are re-installed after Canada Line construction. Specifically, there is interest in providing electrical outlets on the poles for illuminated street decorations such as during the Christmas Season.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 14, 2006 at 4:31 pm

DEWIRED How Hamilton Came to Lose Their Electric Trolleybuses

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DEWIRED How Hamilton Came to Lose Their Electric Trolleybuses

HSR 69I usually subscribe to the “cock up” rather than the “conspiracy” theory of history. But in this case I did have some, admittedly peripheral involvement. At that time I was working for a firm of consulting engineers, and we were asked to check on the prices of trolleybuses. It seemed to me at the time that this was a very odd request. After all, the price of the bus is just one of several elements, and work we had been doing with GO Transit buses had been concentrating on life cycle cost. I was interested in getting our clients to look at a wider analysis. But in this case it was the client (Ministry of Transport Ontario) who insisted we limit our study to the price of the vehicle. So all we did was telephone manufacturers who had recently bid on North American trolleybus contracts.

It became clear that there was a distinct preference for natural gas buses at MTO. What was less clear was why. After all an electric trolleybus produces no emissions (although if the power is generated from coal there are emissions at the power station) and a CNG bus was more expensive than its diesel equivalent (about 30% premium) and, at that time, not well proven in service. Small volumes of orders and a lack of co-ordination between users meant that trolleys were nearly always custom built, and therefore about double the cost of a diesel bus. And that leaves out the cost of the overhead. But as the operator notes in his article, there are some distinct performance advantages, especially on steeply graded routes. A trolleybus does not carry its power source, and can draw more power as the load increases. So getting up a hill or pulling away from a stop with a full load presents no problems.

As a transport economist in Britain, I was used to monetising externalities, and other non market costs. I was a bit surprised that Canadians seemed reluctant to even discuss these issues – especially later when I worked on economic impact studies.HSR trolleybuses on King at McNab & Main November 1974

Oddly enough, once the Hamilton decision was pushed through we were asked, about a year later, to so the same work for the same client on the TTC TTC trolley 125trolleybuses. Once again I got the distinct impression that we were only being asked to provide support for a decision already made – which I discovered was not uncommon. The decision was also rushed as the supply of replacement buses was late – and some trolleys had to be borrowed from Edmonton trolleybus in Toronto Edmonton for the last year of service.

CNG buses need significant infrastructure – the gas in the supply being inadequately compressed for use in traffic. So considerable sums have to be spent on compressors and gas storage. Gas storage bottles on the bus add to weight (although this was reduced considerably when composites were used instead of steel) and the performance of the vehicles is poorer than a diesel engine of the same size since the energy value of the fuel is around 70% of diesel. Moreover, engine manufacturers in general were reluctant to share proprietary information with converters, so that most Two CNG buses at Stanley ParkCNG conversions were done on a trial and error basis – often on vehicles in service.

The most contentious issue for the trolley is the overhead. Though in most Canadian cities the wirescape is already extensive so the “visual intrusion” argument carries little weight. The point is more about cost – and the limitations on the bus being able to divert off route. In both Hamilton and Toronto I heard allegations that the overhead was being neglected in order to skew the decision – though I have seen no direct evidence to support this. In Vancouver, it was not a factor in the most recent trolley buying decision as the accepted wisdom was that it had remained well maintained throughout its life. It was much harder to justify stringing new wire. I did look at the prospects of extending some routes, since terminating at the city limits made no sense at all – other than “we’ve always done that”. But at roughly $1m a kilometer of plain line (no switches or “special work”) and not much additional ridership gained by eliminating transfers, I could not come up with a convincing cost benefit case. Especially since extensions to SkyTrain were either underway or under active consideration. For example, extending the Granville, Oak and Cambie trolleybuses to the airport was much less attractive than rapid transit. And, once the Boundary station was eliminated from the Millennium Line, ideas of extending wires along Lougheed to Gilmore or Brentwood went nowhere.

Vancouver did get one extension as part of the Stanley Park end of the Lion’s Gate project. I have always thought that extending the wires on 41st to UBC made sense, especially when the wires on 41st were in use for getting buses in and out of service at Oakridge, but the preference there was for express bus (#43) which trolleys cannot manage easily. So trolley fans must be content with a half a loaf. New Translink trolleys in Oakridge Depot Derek Cheung photo

Written by Stephen Rees

November 13, 2006 at 12:16 pm

Beer review

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A departure for this blog, but a subject close to my heart. One of my many sisters in law remarked to me that no beer was worth drinking if you could see through it. Now while I have have consumed some lager type beers that I found pleasant, I must admit that since coming to North America I have been in pursuit of the ultimate dark beer. Guinness is, of course, widely available – and the widget fitted cans produce an acceptable “draught” for home consumption. I started drinking Guinness at a very young age as my Granny was convinced I needed “building up”. At that time it was delivered to the NHS bedside of newly delivered mothers as an aid to breast feeding.

Young’s is often available at the BCLC and is a very pleasant alternative. The chocolate is there but somewhat understated. At least in comparison to my most recent discovery. There is a newly extended liquor store at Ironwood, where I found Longbow Double Chocolate Porter from Phillips. This is a new brewery to me (it opened in 2001) – but I was well disposed towards it when I noticed in tiny print on the crown cap “imported from Esquimault”. This is definitely a drink that is worth trying. The chocolate is mostly in the aftertaste, but that is (in my view) to its credit. It is very smooth, and goes very well with roast beef. It is also worth trying as an aperitif – though as it is a 650ml bottle, perhaps make it stretch through the meal.

While I am on the subject, the Hermanator from Vancouver Island brewery – I think the first and so far the only “dark lager” I have tried – gets an honourable mention too. It is currently the favourite of visitors to their web page. I am beginning to think it is time for another trip on the ferry. And, of course, Isabel’s Ribs.

And that liquor store is a worthy destination too and a distinct improvement both to what was there before and the quite dreadful newly privatized Blundell Liquor Store, where I shall never set foot again!

Written by Stephen Rees

November 12, 2006 at 7:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Who is Mr Olympic Oval?

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There is a piece is this weekend’s Georgia Straight by David Berner, which I wish I could post a link to. But it’s not on their web site. So I guess you may have to pick up a hard copy, like I do, to read the whole thing.

UPDATE January 28, 2007 The original article has now been posted here.

It is not often that I find myself in agreement with Bob Ransford but he says “Richmond is drifting. The corporate vision … was crafted by the bureaucratic and political elites in City Hall without any public buy-in.”

Berner uses the example of the Oval to illustrate the point. Despite what the City claims, he shows that it is neither on time or on budget. Peter Webster, a developer and a member of the Oval Steering Advisory Committee says : “We have no business plan. We have no marketing plan. We have no financial plan.”

The Richmond Oval under construction December 23, 2007

The answer to the question posed in the headline appears to be George Duncan – the City Manager. Ransford again “George Duncan has the world’s biggest Lego set, and unsuspecting taxpayers have given it to him”. Now the article makes it clear that being Mr Oval is a full time job in itself but George has also got to deal with the naughty firemen, the Watermania mess and other issues.

Oh and there’s also this thing

Richmond is going to triple its population from its current 41,000 to 120,000 in the city centre. This is as big of a makeover as you can get, and the city wants you to take part. You can pop by city hall or check out the plans and drawings at

Gloria Chang in the Richmond Review

She also quotes Councillor Harold Steves

“Previously, when we’ve come up with a community plan, we have great ideals and lofty visions, but the implementation of the plans—generally what happens is that when the developers come in and make a case that the economy is down or for some reason, they’ve paid more for the land than they should,” says Steves.

“Then the council of the day allows them to build without providing the amenities that were envisioned. It’s happened over and over again in Richmond over the last 30 years.”

The key issue is the use developer contributions of “community amenities” to make up for the reduction in required open space – not the 7.6 acres per thousand people that applies in the rest of the city. And even there, the School Board notes that the City seems to assume that the Board will provide the parks – which ain’t necessarily so

If the city’s current plans aren’t altered, Richmond’s downtown core could slowly devolve into a concrete jungle because of the city’s over reliance on the school district to provide green space.

“The public just needs to know that the city is using in their calculations land that is owned by the school district,” said Linda McPhail, chair of the Richmond school board chair.

That’s the front page story.

At least a lot of the 120,000 will be in high rises, so presumably most will be able to survive the coming flood.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 11, 2006 at 1:12 pm

Posted in Urban Planning

Dear Canada: you are part of the problem

with one comment Vancouver | News and Views |

George Monbiot is a columnist on my favourite newspaper (The Guardian). This is the introduction to the Canadian edition of his new book “Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning“. There is also an interview which reveals that Jack Layton is reading this book.

He praises our R2000 standard. I wonder if he realises how few houses built in Canada actually meet this standard?

In 2004 alone, there were 233,431 housing starts across Canada (Statistics Canada, 2005). This translates into more than 200,000 missed opportunities to build more sustainable, more energy- efficient homes.


It’s not just a “model for the rest of the world to adopt” it’s one that we need to adopt!

But give George some credit. This book is actually a practical guide to things that can and should be done to save the planet – so it’s not just the usual doom and gloom. However, whether or not anything will be done is another question.

In my experience, probably not. I was part of the team that wrote BC’s first greenhouse gas action plan. Or “53 things the province could do to reduce its emissions and still come out ahead financially”. Yes, that’s right, every recommendation made economic and financial sense – we were, after all economists. And even at the energy prices of that time (1995) we only recommended things that would pay for themselves within a year or so. Shortly afterwards (1997), the Energy Management Branch was wound up, as part of Glen Clark’s reduction in the size of the civil service. And yes I did lose my job. Despite what the press said at the time about people being absorbed into existing vacancies, so did quite a few of my colleagues.

And nothing was done.

UPDATE November 24, 2006

BC’s greenhouse gases have grown 30% over the last 15 years

Written by Stephen Rees

November 11, 2006 at 12:29 pm

Posted in Environment

High-tech ‘street sweeper’ sorts licence plates

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High-tech ‘street sweeper’ sorts licence plates

I think this is a very good idea indeed. It just shows how far we have come in effective enforcement. To give some background, I worked on traffic enforcement issues in the UK back in the eighties. Then we had determined that 80% of the offences are committed by 20% of the offenders – in fact this 80/20 rule crops up in nearly every statistical study of any kind of human behaviour. In the case of traffic (parking, speeding, driving without a licence, insurance or road tax) it was determined that there was a hard core of what the Americans call “scofflaws”. That led to the development of the Denver Boot, and we tried a similar approach in London. Or would have had not the Secretary of State for the Environment at the time, Sir Nicholas Ridley, worried about the potential blow back from the civil liberties groups. So wheel clamps were used for just overstaying a parking meter, which was very effective but had a much wider impact than intended.

The original aim had been to identify vehicles that were known – a cut off was proposed at ten unpaid parking tickets (a common practice in the US at the time). But there were other things we were looking at. For example, one trial of a “stop and look” approach on tax discs (the equivalent of the licence plate sticker used in BC) pretty well brought South London to a standstill one morning. We had picked a length of the Old Kent Road for the trial, but had to abandon the exercise as the police we had with us were quickly overwhelmed. The out of date tax disc was a good indication (we discovered) that the driver had no licence or insurance, or the car had failed its MoT (road worthiness) test or the driver was wanted in connection with other inquiries. Similarly, we found that the same vehicles were parked at broken meters (which gave them a day’s free parking). Just keeping a list of the licence plate numbers adjacent to the broken meter showed the same cars – many of which were operated by Fleet Street’s finest. Or one enterprising plumber who made fifty pence piece shaped lumps of lead that he plugged the meter with so he could work at adjacent premises.

S o I was less than impressed with the way that the CBC radio had this story this morning (it’s not on their web site at present) which had a civil liberties advocate to give that false sense of “balance” to the story, worrying about the Big Brother implications. What needed to be said was that the are people out there who are driving every day, who have been banned from driving. The police even note that these people get back into their cars to drive away from the courthouse where they have just been handed a ban. Car thieves are now being effectively deterred by bait cars. Maybe if the SkyTrain surveillance tapes did not have to be rewound every hour, pickpockets at stations might be caught more often.

And while they may not do much to deter drunks

Naylor said Britain’s roughly 200,000 public CCTV cameras are effective in deterring certain types of crime — such as sophisticated theft rings.

“They deter professional criminals who are very surveillance conscious,” he said.

Exactly. Which is why I think some more effective surveillance is a good idea.

Indeed, it might even be tried inside prisons to restore some sense of order there too.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 10, 2006 at 10:19 am

Posted in Traffic, Transportation