Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for January 2007

Number 3 Road

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It’s the main drag through what Richmond calls its City Centre, and it is a mess. And it has been a mess for as long as I have lived here (over ten years now) and is currently getting worse.

One of my regular reader’s questions Richmond’s policy, and he has a point.

Everyone I know in Richmond avoids No 3 Road as much as possible. Especially the section between Granville and Bridgeport. What most people fail to grasp is that No 3 Road is supposed to be like this. It was planned that way!

It is horrible to walk along, and it is very rare to see any pedestrians at all – with the exception of the stretch from City HallCity Hall to Westminster Highway. That is the only section that is remotely “urban” in scale, although even though most of the western side is taken up by Richmond Centre, one of the biggest malls. It is the main area for transferring between buses, since most routes converge here. Only the intersection at Westminster has been rebuilt on three corners to a city scale – tall buildings with offices over retail, with parking behind and within structures. How long we have to wait for the fourth corner to go the same way is a subject of speculation but little activity – I think due to multiple ownership issues.

Everywhere north of Ackroyd has to be comply with height restrictions imposed by the glide path of the runways of YVR. As if this environment were not noisy enough from the traffic (diesel buses being one of the most strident components) there’s the frequent arrivals and departures of giant jets.

4531 No 3 Road

So nearly all the retail is single or two storey with parking lots fronting the street. These lots all have access onto the street, with very tight radius curves, which slows down the traffic crossing the sidewalk (good) and maximises the number of spaces available, though there are never enough. The planners say that is because the Asian malls allowed too much of their floorspace to be taken up by restaurants.

Ackroyd Paza entrance

Caterina on flickr titled this picture “Richmond, BC is a horrible place” and used No 3 Road to support her argument

“It’s one big parking lot, big box retail, the airport, and just cars cars cars. No one walks anywhere. Its only saving grace is that there is a lot of cool Asian stores and restaurants. Otherwise, wasteland. “


No one is allowed to park in one space and then walk to their various destinations – even if they are within walking distance. Since each mall has its own lot, and the amount of parking is inadequate for most, the towing and ticketing guys have a field day, watching for people walking out of the lots. They post spotters, because leaving a lot without your car can be very profitable for these companies. This practice even extends to areas outside the city centre. So most of the car traffic on No 3 Road is people going from one shop to another. A typical Saturday morning shop might require clarinet reeds from Noteworthy Music or Tom Lee, some groceries from Save On or Superstore, something for the car at Canadian Tire or the home at one of the many possibilities. But that is not two trips – one from home to centre and one back again. It is at least four or five – hopping from one lot to another and searching for a space at each one.

Through traffic is supposed to use the perimeter track formed by Granville and Garden City – formerly the route of the interurban tram. (Incidentally Granville and Garden City is one of the worst designed intersections in the City and worthy of its own rant.) River Road provides a westerly alternate – as least as far as Sexsmith – eventually the old CP Van Horne spur will be converted into a road and the river frontage will be reclaimed from its current commercial/industrial orientation.

One part of Richmond’s plan is to put many more people in the centre. So instead of offices over retail we are getting more condos. AquaLots more condos. And these residents, it is hoped will use the Canada Line, although at present they drive. So far, the increase in residents in the centre has produced more traffic on No 3 – especially since the twinning of the Middle Arm Bridge removed a bottleneck and allowed speedier access to the Arthur Laing and hence Vancouver’s Granville Street – always a faster way than Oak or Cambie to get to downtown, or the Broadway corridor. Or UBC via Marine Drive for that matter.

No 3 Road was controversially chosen for the Richmond Rapid Bus – subsequently the #98 B-Line. Prior to that transit planners tried to avoid the congestion by using the Garden City – Oak Street bridge route. This required considerable doubling back through Marpole – and the new route is shorter and, if the bus priority measures had actually been implemented as originally designed, faster. Two new centre lanes were inserted into No 3 Road exclusively for buses – and even buses on local routes were not allowed on it, to reduce the number of “stations”. It was expected to be converted to LRT eventually . But the change in provincial government from NDP to Liberal, changed priorities. Now the push was for a P3, in anticipation of financial support from both YVR and the feds. Up until then, transit did not feature largely in YVR’s thinking. Buses in the terminal area were a nuisance. They took up lots of valuable kerb space for their layovers, and carried less than 2% of the traffic. The early shift at the airport starts before transit gets going, so it is of little use to employees there.

Somehow rapid transit got linked to the cruise ship traffic and, heaven help us, the Olympics. Actually both are completely irrelevant, but too late for that now, since the line is now being built. The centre lanes are coming out and the elevated guideway will now be on the eastern side of No 3. The first supporting piers started going in this month, so the construction is adding to the traffic misery.

Canada Line Construction

Is this likely to change? Well I don’t see there is any understanding of how these various influences conflict with each. Richmond talks about a vibrant urban centre with more walking, bikes and transit, but the land use pattern, the organisation of retailing and most importantly parking, is not about to change any time soon. If you could choose a route to walk or bike on it 4351-no-3-road.jpgwould be the dyke. At the north end just a couple of hundred metres away, and calm and peaceful – as much as the runways allow anyway. If you get off a bus on No 3 you have to walk through parking lots to get to your destination. At the southern end of the street, these are also behind the shops, and give rise to one of the nastiest built environments I have ever come across. Massive sheets of tarmac, divided up with hydro lines and dumpsters and the detritus that gathers in the urban backwater that is the alley or “lane” as it is so charmingly misnamed here. The only people who linger here are the bottle pickers and dumpster divers, and those whose trades are less than legitimate.

Successful urban places encourage people to stop and take in the passing scene. People watching is universally the most popular human activity. Plazas, parades, boulevards for flaneurs, sidewalk cafes, parks, benches, Las Ramblas BarcelonaLas Ramblas, arcades, bazaars, all encourage the passing trade to slow down and gawp. Or sit a while over a drink and a newspaper, or a gossip. There is nowhere to do that in the ‘burbs unless you are inside a mall. And then unless you buy something you will be regarded with deep suspicion if you do not move on within 20 minutes. The seating is designed to be uncomfortable to encourage turnover. Kids hanging out in the mall are only trying to do what in civilised places everyone can and does do out in the open. Be sociable. Be social creatures. See and be seen. The number of eyes, as Jane Jacobs observed, brings its own security. Now we use CCTV and rent a cops. And we spend most of our time inside the security of our mobile metal wombs. Insulated from all outside influences, and most interaction.

City centres cannot work like this and are currently failing, except where car free areas have been introduced. Everywhere this has been tried, it has succeeded as long as there is somewhere nice for people to sit, and stare, and not feel under pressure to buy or move or do anything really. As long as that comfort is recognised (and it wasn’t on the Granville Mall for a very long time) it will become a place where people want to be. Most commercial activity requires a market place – a Rialto – where casual unplanned interactions can and do occur. Not the formal trading floors – though they can and should be near by – but the sort of place that you might run into someone who just happens to want what you have to offer, or has what you need to make your project a success.

And so far the virtual world has not reduced the appeal of central places. Indeed London is becoming ever more specialised as the financial centre of Europe. Vancouver used to be about shipping – the export of raw materials and the transit of manufactured goods. It still is, and the interesting thing is how other industries are fitting around this – tourism (the cruise ships) the film and video business, computer animation and video games. And this seems to be happening organically, since there is almost no economic planning. And the sort of initiatives that try to hold to some waterfront for shipping, or some land for industry, seem doomed before they begin.

Richmond’s centre is not central, but it does straddle a natural “neck”, caused by the bend in the Middle Arm of the Fraser. The bridges concentrate flows – and the plan has always been not build more of them to keep the traffic off the other streets. The opening of No 2 Road bridgeNo 2 Road Bridge removed a lot of north south through traffic and took it through the east side of Sea Island instead. Much to the ire of the Granville Street residents and merchants. So No 3 has seen its importance as a route increase as the population has grown. No one has ever considered shutting off some of Richmond from through traffic – and until they do No 3 road will continue to be a monument to what happens when you hand over urban planning to traffic engineers. Cities are about much more than accommodating single occupant cars. Successful cities have found that they are not even very important. But so far we, like most of North America (except New York City) have remained in thrall to the car. When we start putting people first, then we will see progress.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 31, 2007 at 8:57 pm

Vancouver trolley buses grounded by glitch

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Vancouver trolley buses grounded by glitch

Which, as far as I know, is the first problem that has affected trolleybus service. Contrast with the introduction of the previous generation (the buses now being replaced) which had to be virtually rebuilt before they became reliable.

Maybe too it has to do with our risk averse culture, or the cautious nature of bus drivers. But it does seem odd that it has only now come to light after some four months in service.

And replaced by diesels? What, the old trolleys have already been sent for scrap?

UPDATE January 31

There is more detail in the Vancouver Sun story  today

TransLink has few spare buses on hand because it hasn’t been able to afford to buy enough to keep up with demand.

“We’re working on that,” Snider said. “We’ve basically retired a lot of the old trolleys, and the ones that are retired are not fit for service.

“We still have some older trolleys that can go into service, we’re trying to pull some diesels in, we’re just seeing where we can get some extra resources for this afternoon’s rush hour. Right now we don’t know, exactly.”

TransLink’s Drew Snider

Written by Stephen Rees

January 30, 2007 at 5:04 pm

Posted in Transportation

The Last Logging Railway

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Richard P posted some pictures to and now has a website for them and more. This is believed to be the last logging railroad in North America, and it may also be the only privately owned logging railroad in the world.

At one time the North West was full of little railways, lightly laid with tight curves and many switchbacks to get into the cut blocks. Climax and Shay developed steam locomotives to cope with the conditions and track was relaid as needed to keep up with the loggers. This type of operation is not feasible with current logging practice, but examples can still be seen at the BC Forest Museum in Duncan on Vancouver Island.

They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Joni Mitchell

Written by Stephen Rees

January 28, 2007 at 11:33 am


with 5 comments

Back in November, I reported on an article published in the Georgia Straight about the Olympic Oval written by David Berner.

OVal construction Decemebr 26, 2007

He is now into blogging himself, but his archive only goes back to the beginning of December, but he was kind enough to send me his articles and encourage me to put them on here, which I am pleased to do.


By David Berner


Bob Ransford loves Richmond. He was born and raised in Richmond. He actually lives in Richmond. He asked Malcolm Brodie to run for office and helped Brodie get elected in a bi-election in 2001 and then again in 2002. Today, Ransford is heartbroken.

“Richmond is drifting. The City has a corporate vision, but it was crafted by the bureaucratic and political elites in City hall without any public by-in. The only way the elites can achieve their corporate vision is to spend whatever it takes in pursuit of their goal of making Richmond ‘the most appealing, liveable and well-managed community in Canada.’ It is costing us dearly in every way.”

Nothing focuses Ransford’s angst more clearly than The Richmond Speed Skating Oval for the 2010 Olympics. The Oval is a colossus. It is the grandest construction project of the 2010 Olympics and the costliest single project assembled by a Richmond government. Here’s how the official City of Richmond website describes the project:

The Richmond Oval will be home to long track speed skating during the 2010 Games. The Oval is being built by the City of Richmond at a budgeted cost of $178 Million. Post-Games, the Oval will be a centre for sports and wellness. It will boast ice, hardwood and indoor turf surfaces. It is located on 32 acres of City owned land along the banks of the Fraser River. Site clearing and construction have begun and completion is scheduled for fall, 2008. The Oval will qualify for ongoing funding from a $110 Million Legacy Trust to offset operating costs.

The Straight has discovered “the rest of the story.”

The Oval is reported regularly to be “on time and on budget.”

Originally slated for November 2007, completion has been moved first to April 2008, then fall, 2008. Drive by. To date, it looks like a pile of sand.

On Budget? The oft-quoted $178 Million covers the Oval and the underground parking garage. Never mentioned are the following costs, necessitated entirely by the Oval. Purchase of CP Lands right-of-way (estimated $12M); River Road realignment (est. $7M); Hollybridge Way widening to 4 lanes ($?); Lansdowne Road widening and extensions ($?); new north-south local roads, as yet undetermined ($?); public art; Plaza ($5.2M), travel and consultation $1.5M), and ongoing daily staff time ($?). The true cost is already well in excess of $200 Million and climbing. The Torino speed skating facility was built for $100 Million.

As for the $110M Legacy Trust, that is the capital, not the interest, some portion of which Richmond might acquire. Richmond City Manager George Duncan admitted to me in a recent meeting at City hall that the City might get only $1.9 – $3M annually, even though they continue to trumpet the $110M figure at every opportunity. The Legacy Trust Board has yet to meet.

Who is running this project? John Furlong is the public face of the 2010 Olympics. Who’s in charge of the Oval?

We asked City Councillor Bill McNulty if there is a Mr. Oval.

“No. I guess it’s City Manager George Duncan by default.”

Peter Webster, a developer and seasoned sportsman at local and international levels, is a member of the Oval Steering Advisory Committee. We asked him who’s at the helm.

“George Duncan. But he has so many other issues to deal with: works yard, the firemen, people on stress leave.”

Is there one person who is Mr. Oval?


Shouldn’t there be?


Adds Bob Ransford, “There is no Mr. Oval. To be Mr. Oval, you would have to be a champion. To be a champion, you would have to develop community will, you have to communicate with people.”

Ransford continues, “The Oval began behind closed doors – a megalomaniac idea – the brainchild of a small group of people looking for nothing more than self-aggrandizement. Unfortunately, they also had the keys to the taxpayers’ vault. George Duncan has the world’s biggest Lego set and unsuspecting taxpayers have given it to him.”

One need only study Duncan’s official credit card receipts to witness how carefully he spends taxpayers’ dollars. Aside from a dazzling catalogue of restaurant and hotel charges in almost a dozen locales worldwide, witness only these 3 entries made on December 15, 2005:

Lufthansa- Skyphone, calls to staff in Torino, Italy, $93.82, $117.28 and $11.73.

These 3 calls made, presumably on one flight, must have been of the highest priority.

Duncan confirms that all the Oval project managers and senior staff report to him.

“In the end,” he told The Straight, “the buck stops with me at the administrative level, and at City Council at the political level.”

We asked Bill McNulty if City Council ever challenges Duncan about how he spends public money.

“No. The public views us as a spendthrift council. The Mayor should provide direction, but he doesn’t appear to want to know details. He just wants the Oval built.”

McNulty, Webster and Ransford all have concerns about the lack of hired expertise and a staff that are struggling to operate above their levels of competence.

McNulty offers this impression of one of the many oversees staff trips. “I’ve asked are the experts involved? The staff and council are just not experienced. You see, we’re playing ball with the Big Boys now and most of our people have come from Parks and Recreation. I don’t have any problem with travel, but are the right people going? In Torino, we were there to look at long track skating – that’s what the Oval is about. But instead we had one ticket for long-track and 5 tickets for hockey. We weren’t there to look at hockey.”

Webster questions the leadership.

“City staff doesn’t use the expertise they have around the table. Frankly, I wonder if they know what they’re doing. This is the showcase piece, and they’ve never done anything like this before. The communication from the staff is not good. Look, I’m involved in a small project, about $13 Million, and I talk my guys every day and I get a piece of paper to look at several times a week. It’s a huge step to move from municipal, recreational concerns to a world-class facility. Frankly, staff finds it hard to accept that there are people smarter than them. On the Steering committee, we have doers in the real world, but there are no entrepreneurs on staff. One senior staffer was managing a swimming pool before this.”

Ransford is even more sanguine. “They’ve hired a raft of new people for the bureaucracy. There’s no check on spending at all. But they haven’t hired any experts, people who could really help, because they believe that they are the experts.”

We point out to Duncan that many see him as the undeclared leader. He says, “Look, I’m the guy who went to Council and recommended the 3 advisory committees. I was the one who raised the name of Dr. Roger Jackson as an important contributor and recommended that we hire outside project and construction managers. I’ve just become the lightening rod for any criticism that arises. ”

Bruce Rosenhart, a Vancouver communications consultant and a Richmond resident, is another member of the Oval Steering Advisory Committee.

“The committee is only concerned with the Oval structure, not with any extraordinary costs, like parking, art, the road diversion, and CP Rail. This must not be a white elephant. Richmond has traditionally been seen as Vancouver’s poor second cousin, as a ‘tail-end Charlie.’ The Oval is the architecturally defining facility for Richmond. The only serious question I have is does anyone on council or anyone on staff have a real over-all vision for Richmond?”

Sport BC, the umbrella organization for more than 80 sports groups and 800,000 active participants in the province, has been in discussion with Oval staff for some time now about how they might cooperate on facilities and programs post-Olympics.

After dozens of meetings with Oval staff, Sandra Stevenson, the President and CEO of Sports BC, now asks, “Where is the leadership? Who is the decision maker? I’ve spent too much time exchanging information. How are we modelling a shared vision? It’s not apparent to me. What is apparent is that it’s all about power and control.”

Local Unions are incensed with the Oval project on at least 2 important levels. It was revealed through a Freedom of Information that George Duncan signed an agreement guaranteeing labour peace during the Olympic period. Because the City has a clear obligation to consult with the union on such matters, the union has filed a grievance with the city. Quite simply, Duncan didn’t have the authority to make those assurances. As well, the unions are raising important, and unanswered, questions about security. Asks a union official, “Who is doing security for the Olympics? The FBI, the CIA, CSIS? Will our members be marshalled? And who is checking security levels on the people who are actually constructing the project?”

A recent Steering Committee meeting in July was cancelled. The reason given was that there was nothing to discuss. Six meetings were cancelled last summer.

McNulty says, “This is a huge project. There’s always something important to discuss.”

Webster agrees, “The process has never functioned smoothly. They changed the schedule mid-stream. They only call the meeting together when they think it’s important. The last meeting was cancelled, because they said there was nothing important to discuss. When there’s $178Million and less than 1200 days, there’s always something important.”

Duncan responds that the people who complain are the same people who have themselves missed recent meetings.

How is Richmond City Hall functioning these days with all the Oval excitement in its midst?

Duncan estimates that 10% of his day is taken up with the Oval. Yet he spent 2 1/2 hours with The Straight on a recent morning and churns out Oval-related e-mails and memos by the basketful.

McNulty despairs, “The city is on hold because the Oval is a full-time project. We’re trying to run a city, but this is a full-time project.”

Ransford is a development consultant with over $300M in developments to his credit. He reports, “Today when you go into city hall to deal with some local project, they tell you, “Oh, we can’t do that; everyone’s working on the Oval!” This is an exact repeat of the Tall Ships episode. “We can’t do that; we’re working on the Tall Ships!””

But City Manager George Duncan insists that the work of the city hasn’t stopped. “When we received complaints that some of our staff had told people they were busy with the Oval, I went to council and secured additional funds to bring in more people to deal with the extra work load.”

Was this added to the Oval budget?

“The full scope of the work,” admits Duncan, “costs more than the $178M for the design and building of the Oval. But these things – like re-aligning River Road – have been in our plans for years.”

Moving these roads and re-working the riverfront, however, have all been precipitated by the Oval?

Duncan readily agrees. “Exactly. We have a Land Acquisition Budget, for example. We don’t have to take the money from anywhere else.”

Ransford questions the entire enterprise. “How will we pay for the construction of the Oval? We still don’t completely know. How will we pay to operate the facility after the games? We don’t really know. And will the community be a better place when all is said and done?”

Webster is equally discouraging. “We have no concrete information. We have no business plan. We have no marketing plan. We have no financial plan.”

Where are we today?

Webster shrugs, “I have no idea.”

In letters dated July 13 and August 2, 2004, Bob Ransford warned Mayor Malcolm Brodie of the potential for the current state of affairs.

“Does the public not have the right to know the general details of the bid before you make it? Should not the scope of the project – magnitude of public investment in land, capital cash requirements and guarantees, public uses, etc. be known in advance?

This is now the central focus of everyone at City Hall, and [everything else] has been superseded by the City’s new “Olympic culture.” Shouldn’t we be discussing as a community whether we want to make this shift in focus before we make it?

We are not getting a long-term vision or building on our strengths. Instead we are living in a dream world, where more exciting projects eclipse the mundane.”

Is the Mayor listening? Are Richmond voters listening?


It is worth noting that David Berner wrote this on Wednesday, September 6 2006. I read it (in what the author calls “a mangled version”) in the Straight on November 10

And here is the the sidebar that was written by him to go with the above

This is the land of “Nothing Proved. Nothing Solved. Let’s move on.”

ITEM: The Tall Ships. An official City report, dated Feb. 13/03, states “the cost for the Richmond Tall Ships 2002 was in the range of $3-3.5 Million when the contribution of staff was included.” The Straight is in receipt of credit card statements showing staff buying cell phones, for example, at retail prices in excess of $300 each (with $100 leather cases), when the City clearly has a customer relationship with a major cell supplier.

ITEM: Jose Mario Ferreira filed a BC Supreme Court lawsuit in 2001 against the City of Richmond and five of its employees. He alleged private contractors sold city owned goods and that his employer, the City Works Yard, was regularly guilty of double and triple billing, misuse of sick time, and personal use of city credit cards. He further alleged that he was called “rat,” “nigger” and “faggot’ by colleagues and subjected to humiliating treatment and harassment by colleagues when his claims were made public. The City argued that this was a case for labour relations and human rights and not the courts. To date, there is no known resolution.

ITEM: Firefighters. Stories of harassment and sexual shenanigans on the part of Richmond Firefighters were front-page news across the country this spring. Resolution? Responsibility? Criminal charges?

ITEM: Women on Stress Leave. Several female City staffers went on stress leave shortly after returning from Torino. Why?

ITEM: Rabbits. Yes, rabbits. Behold the Year of the Great Richmond Rabbit Explosion. The critters, multiplying in biblical proportions and munching every veggie in sight, have baffled the planners at City Hall. The planners are talking.

ITEM: Casino crime. Loan-sharking, extortion and kidnapping are taxing the capacities of Richmond’s RCMP. No practical solution or additional resources cited to date.

ITEM: Massage Parlour mayhem. Housewives Against Prostitution in Richmond trumpets, “We know that a lot of prominent citizens frequent the dozens of massage parlours licensed by the City of Richmond.” The City responds that it has stringent bylaws. Then, why so many massage rooms? Who is using them?

ITEM: Number 3 Road. After spending upwards of $80 Million to completely redesign Richmond’s central thoroughfare only a few years ago, the City has now torn up #3 Road to accommodate the new RAV line. How much has this lack of foresight and bad planning cost the taxpayers?

To be fair, Richmond did want something else on Number 3 Road. They wanted a surface running LRT just like they had been promised. Trouble with that was that Ken Dobell didn’t. And the City of Vancouver and the Airport both wanted a something like SkyTrain but in a tunnel as far as the Fraser and on stilts thereafter. Now making people transfer is the not popular in transit – and the type of train anticipated for the Canada Line (as it is now called) would not adapt well for street running. Richmond also did not want a structure down the centre of Number 3 because of the shadowing of the retail street. So the expensive compromise was on stilts but at the side – so that is why the road is being rebuilt again. And of course all the “bells and whistles” that the Rapid Bus (which became the 98 B-line) were scrapped too at Translink’s cost – GPS linked traffic signals and information system, architect designed one off bus shelters (which actually didn’t do much to keep out the rain but kept the retailers happy because they were see through) and lots of “landscaping” and street furniture.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 28, 2007 at 10:24 am

Posted in Urban Planning

Brothers in Arles

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Brothers in Arles: BIOGRAPHY I The Studio of the South was Vincent van Gogh’s dream — Paul Gauguin came along for the ride

Gail Starr, Special to the Sun

Published: Saturday, January 27, 2007


Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks

in Arles


Little, Brown/H.B. Fenn, 339 pages ($32.99)

An interesting review – and with two links that I followed up and spent a lot of time on. So, since this is a web log, it is worth giving the actual URLs which work – unlike the ones in the Sun.

The Art Institute of Chicago has a fairly straightforward approach – easy to navigate and find what you want and some nice larger scale reproductions of the paintings – though all small enough to deter copying. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam on the other hand, has all this and more – even though the “experience” is little bit overdone, in my view, relying heavily on the viewer “interacting” in ways that are sometimes  hard to detect. But nice music for the multi-media fans. Have a fast connection though – it takes a while to load – but well worth the time I think.

Van Gogh has, of course, become something of a modern icon. His paintings now command some of the highest prices in the world. His life is so well documented – mainly in his own letters to his brother, Theo – that he has been the subject of many books and films. And the Don McLean song “Vincent”. But despite all that – or maybe because of it – his mental illness, his poverty and generosity, his suicide – seeing his paintings has always had a profound impact. Not just on me but literally millions. And I have stood in front of his paintings in Paris, Amsterdam and Chicago – as well as in London – and they always stun me. I live with two large prints – Thatched Cottages at Cordeville and The Harvest – in my sitting room.

“But I could have told you Vincent
This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”

Josh Groban 

Written by Stephen Rees

January 27, 2007 at 12:57 pm

Posted in Art, personal thoughts

The Most Important Medical Breakthrough

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What was the most important medical breakthrough of the last 167 years? The structure of DNA? Nope. The invention of vaccines? Nope. Antibiotics? Sorry. According to a poll by the British Medical Journal, the answer is: Sewers. More than 11,000 readers responded, and sanitation won with 1,795 votes. London was one of the first modern cities to improve public sanitation after John Snow showed that cholera was spread by water, and Edwin Chadwick came up with the idea of sewage disposal and piping water into homes. Antibiotics was a close second with 1,642 votes.

Canadian Press

Published: Saturday, January 27, 2007

I would go one step further. And this is not something I came up with on my own. It was something I learned at the LSE when I had to take the compulsory Quantitative Methods course as part of my planning degree. The way that the link between water and cholera was established was by a combination of statistics and mapping. The cholera deaths were plotted on maps and the clusters were shown to be centred on certain public water pumps. It was a whole new way of thinking about urban problems and it is the basis of rational urban planning.

Sadly, it is a lesson that we seem to need to relearn. Our capabilities to manipulate data have expanded exponentially in recent years. I have now more computing power in my calculator than I had access to in the first mainframe computer I used in the late seventies. At the same time as computers have got cheaper and faster, our willingness to collect data has declined. I was studying the impact of big box retailers on established town centres when Mrs Thatcher abolished the decennial Census of Distribution. She said the small business should not be bothered with filling in government forms. She was the daughter of Alf Roberts, a grocer in Grantham, and his was the sort of corner store that my political masters were concerned about. The big supermarkets on the edge of town, accessible to those with cars doing the weekly shop, were putting the corner stores out of business hurting the carless and those who preferred to shop every day. As a planner, I wanted to demonstrate that, but without recent data, how could I do it? I presented a paper to the Planning and Transport Research and Computation annual meeting on a way it could be done using VAT (Europe’s name for GST) without compromising anyone’s confidentiality. The Treasury just said “no”. I suspect because then the loudest Tory voice in London came from Shirley Porter, the heir to Tesco’s – Britain’s biggest supermarket and the leader of Westminster City Council. She was later disgraced for electoral malfeasance.

The most frequent excuses for not collecting data are the need to cut government spending and concerns about privacy. But government spending without measurement of results is plainly stupid – and something that Canada is supposed to be tackling. And as for privacy, why is there not the same concern over data that we have to give up whenever we use a debit or credit card that is then stored (needlessly) by commercial operators who then “lose” it?

We have some very large medical problems. Among them obesity and diabetes – and plenty of evidence that car dependence is strongly linked to both. But we think health problems have to be dealt with by hospitals and drugs, even though there is plenty of evidence that shows that a more active lifestyle – walking and cycling more – is the key to preventing both these serious health concerns. But how much effort is devoted to this cause compared to getting more MRI machines or building freeways? And why is that?

And isn’t there an old political saw “there’s no votes in sewers”?

Written by Stephen Rees

January 27, 2007 at 11:42 am

Posted in Urban Planning

Trolleys on Cambie

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Media Release from Citizens for Trolleys on Cambie

Trolley service on Cambie Street could help fight global warming

Global warming, operating costs, reliability of service, better utilization of resources, these are just a few of the topics being raised by the grassroots organization Citizens for Trolleys on Cambie during its public awareness campaign.

After the Translink board decision on November 17th to recant its earlier commitment to re-electrify Cambie Street upon completion of the Canada Line a group of Lower Mainland residents have come together to fight this decision.

Citizens for Trolleys on Cambie will be canvassing the Cambie Street corridor with leaflets and posters letting residents know what this decision will mean for them. Informal surveying done by the group shows a majority of residents weren’t even aware the post-Canada Line plans for Cambie Street had changed, and Translink was now proposing full time diesel bus service on the route.

Through this on the ground campaign and a parallel digital campaign the organization hopes to force Translink to maintain its commitment to the residents of Cambie Street. The money to re-electrify the street had already been budgeted before construction, and the group maintains it would cost the same amount to put wires back up than remove the large proportion of wires remaining.


For more information on Citizens for Trolleys on Cambie, the campaign, and the business case for trolleys returning to Cambie Street please see our website at

New TYranslink troleybus

Written by Stephen Rees

January 26, 2007 at 11:24 am

Ford makes biggest-ever loss in its history | | Guardian Unlimited Business

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Ford makes biggest-ever loss in its history | | Guardian Unlimited Business

The cash-strapped Ford motor company has plummeted $12.7bn (£6.4bn) into the red, suffering the worst annual loss in its 103-year history as it struggles to cope with changing car-buying tastes and fierce competition from Japanese rivals.Ford announced today that its annual revenue dropped by 9.5% to $160bn as American buyers shunned its trucks and sports utility vehicles in favour of smaller, more fuel efficient, cars.

Its financial results, which followed a $1.4bn deficit in 2005, eclipsed the Detroit-based company’s previous worst result of a $7.4bn loss in 1992. The figures meant Ford lost more than $34m every day last year.

I have covered similar stories before in this blog, and I make no apology for doing it again. Henry Ford II coined the phrase “mini cars, min profits” – so now Ford needs to have a new catchphrase – “huge trucks, even bigger losses” might do for starters.

How long before we see a change in direction – or shareholders finally pull the plug? Apparently the restructuring plan gives them three years to return to profitability and they ahve mortagaged all their assets.

Has any public transport operation ever lost this kind of money?

BTW I saw a Smart car yesterday with the personalised number plate “BENZ 4 2”

Written by Stephen Rees

January 25, 2007 at 11:24 am

Rehabilitating Robert Moses: New York Times

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Robert Moses, Queens Museum, Museum of the City of New York – Architecture – New York Times

Published: January 23, 2007


Robert Moses was a man of his time, no doubt. And he was determined to get things done his way, and ride rough shod over all opposition – especially from the community. Pointing to his achievements, these three exhibitions are trying to accentuate the positive and offset what is now seen as the harsh judgement delivered by Robert A Caro’s definitive biography.


I suspect that there is some agenda here – since Moses hated transit and built expressways. And the auto lobby are still demanding more roads and ever more resources for their failed experiments in social engineering. Maybe it is significant that Caro is not invited to any of the exhibitions.


Or am I paranoid?


Written by Stephen Rees

January 24, 2007 at 5:21 pm

John Baird, Light Rail Killer

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News ::

Did Tories’ new enviro minister undercut a big light rail project to settle a political score? A Tyee special report.

By Laura Drake
Published: January 23, 2007

I have been professionally invloved in evaluating transportation projects for most of my career. And far too often, it really doesn’t matter what the technical or economic arguments are – it’s all about politics. And mostly poilitics of the smallest and most personal kind.

When I was last in Ottawa (June 2006) it looked like the line would be built. But what did I know? I was cheered by the use of a lightweight German vehicle which brings the lower cost of Light Rail (tram) technology to existing railways. O Train got around the ARA rules about not allowing heavy freight trains and Light Rail vehicles on the same track by “temporal separation” . Diesel traction may not be ideal but saves a lot in front investment in electrification, so the initial line as proof of concept can open and win over the waverers.

But obviously not those opposed by reason of personal self interest or – if the Tyee is right – simple malice. And after all the interests of the community at large are the last thing you would expect any politician to put ahead of their own agenda.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 24, 2007 at 9:16 am