Stephen Rees's blog

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

What is a clean bus?

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Object conflicts in the greening of urban transit

I have been around the fuel choice for buses argument in North America since 1988. And reading this article forcibly reminded me of why I am not an academic and why I never considered going for a PhD. Apart from the density of the text and the abstruse language it almost completely misses the most significant points of the debate. Or rather it falls into exactly the same trap as all the participants.

The choice of fuel for buses does not, in the great scheme of things, matter very much. What needs to happen is that more people need to chose to use public transport over private cars. That has been a key issue for urban planning and regional development for a generation, and the current levels of use and trends are not encouraging. What fuel is being burned to run the bus, and how, really is a side issue.

Introducing Clean Air Buses

Air pollution is only one among many issues of urban sustainability, and may even be not the most significant one. But the way the debate is currently structured you would think it is the only one. In this region we were supposed by now to have increased transit mode share from the 11% it was when we adopted Transport 2021 (which became part of the LRSP) back in the mid 1990s. But so far from hitting the 17% target, transit mode share remains at 11.5%. And the transit providers carefully avoid using this figure and keep on about the number of riders – because that looks like a big number. And it isn’t.

Increased transit use would bring us less traffic congestion at peak periods. You do not have to get many cars off the road to make a huge difference because of the nature of congested networks. For that to happen, transit has to appeal to more people who have the option of driving a single occupant vehicle. In some parts of the region there have been reasonably successful incursions into this market segment. For example, South Surrey has a big park and ride lot next to the #99 freeway. That means some people who could drive into town, don’t. They ride the bus. Probably because of the queue jumpers at the Deas Tunnel. But these useful devices have been steadily downgraded to HOV lanes since local politicians do not understand the difference between an “empty” bus queue jumper (which was working) and a congested 2+ (Highway #17 only) HOV lane – which I would argue, doesn’t. And when the Canada Line opens these good people will be dumped off their bus and expected to pack into the train at Bridgeport Road.

W e should be building not only residential areas but also employment and commercial centres in ways that allow for more transport choice. We don’t, on the whole and widening Highway #1 will encourage the present inimical land use patterns. Roads designed to discourage short walking and cycling trips. No access to buses. Everything designed around car use and the assumption that we will all drive for every trip.

The number of buses is now somewhere above 1000. But there are over a million vehicles in the region, and car ownership and use is growing faster than transit use. And the idea that the type of fuel being burned in the bus makes the slightest bit of difference to either regional air quality or mode choice is laughable. And the really big contributors to local air pollution we have no control over. Ships and airplanes are effectively exempt from effective controls as they are covered by international treaties solely designed to facilitate trade.

But when we spend lots of money on buses that are cleaner – or appear to be cleaner – we effectively reduce the size of the bus fleet. And one thing we do know is that potential riders are put off by unreliable , overcrowded buses. More frequent service is always the best way to get more passengers, and that takes more buses. Improving service frequency is a far better use of investment dollars per new rider than any other measure. Indeed generations of declining bus use in Britain were reversed at deregulation since the first thing the new operators did was flood the market with minibuses. As a short term strategy to win riders, it was not sustainable, but it did show that people will get on the bus if they know that they won’t have to wait an indeterminate period at the bus stop. If you can look down the street and see a bus coming, you will probably jump on it.

Now I will be the first to admit that I like trolleybuses. And there is no doubt that SkyTrain has the gee whiz appeal that gets young men to use it (the hardest segment of the population to attract onto transit). But both represent “the best” being the enemy of “the good”. If we had gone for diesel buses and light rail, there would now be much more transit service in the region as a whole, and the mode share would be much higher than it is now. (Assuming that the same number of dollars had been spent.)

And one of the reasons we did not make that sensible choice was what the decision makers here term “optics”. It doesn’t matter if we make a good decision (one made on rational assessments of issues such as value for money, or compatibility with larger objectives). Just make a decision that we can make look good. And then we can chastise those who dare to criticize the decision as being against progress.

To return to the air quality issue, briefly, if BC really cared about the health impacts of fine particulate it would have banned beehive burners years ago, back when everyone else did. But the lumber interest was more important than children with asthma.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 24, 2007 at 4:54 pm

One Response

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  1. […] $2.25m per bus. That would get you at least six diesels or maybe three trolleys. This is an extreme example of what I said recently about alt fuel buses producing a smaller bus fleet. […]

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