Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for February 2007

This blog will be going quiet for a while

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I learned yesterday that my mother, who was 84 and apparently healthy, died suddenly earlier this week. I will be going to England on Friday and expect to be away for a month or so sorting out the estate and other matters.

But since this blog is about transport economics I cannot resist pointing out that the emailed special fare Air Canada is currently offering at $244 actually turns out to cost $821.54, as you have to buy a round trip and pay a lot of other charges. Anywhere else this would be called misleading advertising.

Thank you for reading, and I hope that you will come back in a month or so and see what I am up to then.

Gwendoline Winifred Rees (nee Johnson) 1922 – 2007

seen below with her great granddaughter in 2004

My mother and her great granddaughter


In this picture my mother is pregnant – I suspect with me or it could be my brother – in the garden of my grandmother’s house in Manor Park. It would be either 1947 or 1948. The chair was my father’s bar mitzvah present, and it still in our possession.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 7, 2007 at 10:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

“I’m a commuter, get me out of here!”

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Overcrowded, overpriced and underserviced: conditions on our trains are igniting increasing anger and protest among passengers around the country. But are services really that bad? We took a ride on seven commuter trips.

Tuesday February 6, 2007
The Guardian

This is the article that people who advocate privatisation should read. Britain’s railways were privatised some years after I left Britain, but the idea had been kicking around for a while. And the civil servants in the Department of Transport when I was there were nearly all appalled by the idea – especially the experts in Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate, who predicted, with devastating accuracy, that it would kill people. Just look at the long line of links at the end of the Guardian article to the enquiries into “accidents” which resulted from divided responsibility and the “value for money” approach – which means maximising the return for shareholders.

British Rail was by no means perfect, but by the time it was broken up had been running better than it had in its earlier forms, and was performing far better than the current arrangement in terms of how much support it needed from taxpayers and how effectively it spent that money. Railtrack, the company set up to look after the infrastructure went bust, and effectively control of the infrastructure has now moved back to the state – with the Department for Transport running the show, after the Strategic Rail Authority was scrapped. But DfT seems to have proved the old adage that ministries should not run things. Nationalised industries were always run by what in Canada are known as “Crown Corporations” and ministries provided oversight and policy direction, but then stood back. Because political interference in priorities and making it up as you go along simply won’t do when the public depends on the service.

I follow the happenings in railways much closer than I do on Health, but the story there is depressingly similar, with P3s for hospitals having a particularly depressing record of cost overruns and poor service. And yet our politicians in BC seem to think that privatisation is still a magic wand which will transform everything that is wrong with the public sector into sweetness and light. Not on the track record of Britain it won’t.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 6, 2007 at 8:37 am

“I hate Macs”

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Guardian Unlimited | Comment is free

Charlie Brooker
Monday February 5, 2007

A plague on both your houses. I think any commercial that is endlessly repeated – just keeps saying the same thing, the same way with slight variations, is simply annoying.

If you are casually looking at computers in a shop, appearance is nearly everything. You are not going to spend much time working on the thing and anyway most shops do not have them set up to do the sort of things you do on a computer. I agree with Charlie that the Apple mouse is frustrating to someone who is used to right clicking. But then the PCs at the library still run on NT and do nearly everything that is needed but the scroll button doesn’t work. Is that a feature of NT? I dunno – and I can’t be arsed to find out.

A lot of what you do on a computer is based on habit – so switching is really hard. I have been trying to give up Windows for Linux for a long time. I really want to like Linux, but truth be told, you do have to get to know “how a computer works” in any system, if you are going to get it set up in a way that works like you do. And while I gave up on Knoppix – which is simply too experimental in every new version that gets released, intentionally – Ubuntu is proving easier, but by no means easy enough. You still have to use a “terminal window” – just like you have to open the cmd line in XP – to do anything administratively necessary. It took me quite a while to get the Windows partitions readable – something you can do in Knoppix straight away with a click on an icon. And some apps just don’t seem to work – Azureus (Bitstream) is a lot more finicky than Bit Torrent for instance.

But the big thing is proving to be the amount of stuff that doesn’t port easily. Email for instance. I now use web mail when in my Ubuntu environment. Posting a batch of pictures to a newsgroup – for which I currently use PowerPost. My edition of Pan doesn’t even seem to have an attachments tab, let alone deal with multi-part posts. Oh I am sure that after a few posts to support groups, or grinding through instruction manuals I will discover the secrets, but the nagging feeling I get is that I shouldn’t have to.

Consumers want products that work right out of the box. That are “intuitive” to understand. Macs seem to have always been built that way. I did once have an AppleII and it was anything but intuitive. PCs took a while to catch up – Windows 95 being the first breakthrough in that regard. But this comes at a huge price. XP is stable, but has to have masses of memory (RAM and HD) to achieve that.

Above all it still astonishes me that we put up with products that we are surprised and pleased about when they work as designed! In no other field of consumer sales would that be tolerated. And the planned obsolescence for computers is getting ridiculous. Why do I need a three dimensional, animated window just to look at a list of files? And why should I have to pay lots of money to upgrade my machine just to run your new operating system?

And why doesn’t the built in spell checker in WordPress pick up half the words I mistype, offer me bizarre alternatives and not the word I need, and not recognize that I have already corrected the words it still highlights (which includes the word WordPress)?

Written by Stephen Rees

February 5, 2007 at 6:46 am

Posted in computers

Island City still “better in every way”

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Richmond News February 2, 2007

…in recent months, Gordon Kibble, who co-chairs the city’s advisory committee on the environment, started noticing a new logo – “Better In Every Way” – appearing on city advertising.

When Kibble started asking who made the change and why, he said he got no answers from city councillors.

“I have never gotten a straight answer as of yet,” he said. “Who decided the slogan needed to be changed and why? And who gets to vote on this?”

Never mind that – who in their right mind would think this is any any way a defensible statement? And better than what … or where?

Let’s just look at some of the ways Richmond is well behind other cities:

  • Traffic – Number 3 Road is proverbial in the region as one of the worst places to find yourself stuck
  • Risk of flooding – the dyke is inadequate even before taking into account the inevitable sea level rise consequent upon global warming
  • Very little affordable housing and no plan to provide more
  • Absolutely zero provision for the homeless
  • Hardly any assistance for those on low incomes other than a food bank which is entirely dependant on charity. The food bank was supposed to be a temporary response to lack of provision by governments at all levels. That was what 20 years ago. It is now a permanent feature and one of the excuses that allows such poor public provision
  • Aircraft noise: no controls over the way YVR can send low flying, heavy aircraft over populated areas
  • A shameful human rights record in the Fire and Public Works Departments

I could go on – but you get the idea. For the longest time I have tried to get organsiations to see that complacency is the greatest barrier to improvement. Win an award, or tell yourself “We’re No 1” and no-one is allowed to point out how you could do better. And Richmond – the City and the place – really needs to do better – than we are doing now!

Written by Stephen Rees

February 2, 2007 at 10:33 pm

Scientists offered cash to dispute climate study

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Scientists offered cash to dispute climate study

Ian Sample, science correspondent

Friday February 2, 2007
The Guardian

Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world’s largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.

Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

This story didn’t make this morning’s Vancouver Sun, which I think is probably a fair reflection on that paper’s editorial policy. Canwest is still pursuing the line that there is no consensus on climate change, that it is still controversial and that both sides have to be heard. But of course, the new report of the IPCC shows that there is very little doubt.

The contents of the IPCC report have been an open secret since the Bush administration posted its draft copy on the internet in April. It says there is a 90% chance that human activity is warming the planet, and that global average temperatures will rise by another 1.5 to 5.8C this century, depending on emissions.

Lord Rees of Ludlow, the president of the Royal Society, Britain’s most prestigious scientific institute, said: “The IPCC is the world’s leading authority on climate change and its latest report will provide a comprehensive picture of the latest scientific understanding on the issue. It is expected to stress, more convincingly than ever before, that our planet is already warming due to human actions, and that ‘business as usual’ would lead to unacceptable risks, underscoring the urgent need for concerted international action to reduce the worst impacts of climate change. However, yet again, there will be a vocal minority with their own agendas who will try to suggest otherwise.”

And who am I to dispute the words of Lord Rees? (Oh yes, there’s lots of us, you know – and we know how to spell our name right too!)

The strategy of throwing doubt on the science worked well for the tobacco lobby for years and now seems to be making sure that Bush Jr does the bidding of his Texas oil buddies. What worries me is that so many people I talk to seem to have fallen for the same claptrap. Although recent coverage now suggests that the tipping point on public opinion here may have turned. About time too!

Written by Stephen Rees

February 2, 2007 at 8:22 am

Just another slight of hand…………..

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*B.C.’s luxury auto surtax gives the SUV gang a real break*
*A financial stimulus that encourages people to buy larger, less efficient autos*

Pete McMartin – Vancouver Sun
Thursday Feb 1, 2007

Pete wrote an article last Saturday, pointing out that the provincial tax break on hybrid cars (no PST) has had little impact since only 4710 have been sold since 2001 – or 0.18% of the fleet (2.6m passenger vehicles). This brought a response from Matt Price, of Victoria. Price is the coordinator for a non-profit agency called Conservation Voters of B.C. He points out that the province has been reducing the luxury car tax

“The policy situation [encouraged by the provincial government],” he
wrote, “is even more crazy though. I presented to the B.C. budget committee this year using the example of the hybrid tax break versus the lifting of the threshold of the luxury tax on vehicles.

The [luxury tax] is a financial stimulus that encourages people to buy larger, less efficient autos.

And the kicker is that it costs the treasury 30 times the amount that the hybrid tax break does!”

Price was referring to B.C.’s luxury auto surtax. Designed to dissuade drivers from buying larger, less fuel-efficient autos, the surtax threshold was introduced by the NDP government a decade ago at $32,000.

It was then raised in Premier Gordon Campbell’s first term to $47,000, then $49,000. It now stands at $55,000. For any car over $55,000, the surtax adds one per cent to the PST to a maximum of an additional three per cent at $57,000.

So the current annual cost to the provincial revenues is SUVs and Porsches $45m, hybrids $1.5m

Pete also links this to contributions to Liberal election funds by car dealers but that is a low blow. I think the Liberals have made a principled stand. Give tax breaks to the good folks who vote Liberal (and drive Jaguars) and stick it to the greens while making it look like we care about the environment. Pete goes on to compare the number of hybrids sold compared to the number of big trucks used for passenger transport, but attributing that to recent tax policy is being blinkered. It is a trend that has been going on for years and is mainly due to the big three US automakers trying to get around the CAFE standards. Up to now hybrids from Honda and Toyota have been in limited supply and carry a hefty price premium over similar sized conventional cars. So the pay back from lower fuel consumption is a long way off – long after most people who buy new cars will have moved on to the latest fashion statement. Smaller conventional cars currently offer similar fuel consumption to the Prius and Civic hybrids at much more affordable prices. And to be fair that is exactly what Pete wrote on Saturday – and that article (linked above) is not locked for subscribers only.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 2, 2007 at 8:07 am