Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for May 1st, 2007


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I suppose it is inevitable. Anyone, like me, who likes sailing ships, steam engines and trams is going to be intrigued by airships. This post calls them “blimps” but those are different. A blimp was originally a tethered balloon, unpowered, used to hang cables in the hope of interfering with low flying bombers. They were used in the Second World war as part of Britain’s air defences. The extent of the destruction London suffered is mute testament to their effectiveness – or rather lack of it. Low, the cartoonist created a character called Colonel Blimp who was the archetypal aged English military twerp. It now also applies to airships that have no internal structure. They are very useful as stable observation platforms and are much cheaper than geostationary satellites, though less discreet.

A dirigible airship or “Zeppelin” is a different matter. Because it uses lighter than air helium gas to provide lift, energy is only needed for propulsion, so they are highly efficient but slow. But as E M Forster predicted they could still be the method of transport in the future. No vapour trails, not much greenhouse gas compared to a jumbo jet. Sybaritic luxury like a cruise ship. Maybe speed may not be essential in a world with instant low cost broad band communication. I am not convinced that the withdrawal of Concorde was actually much of a hardship

But mainly I picked out this story through stumbling. Serendipity. I thought it was hilarious and could even be true. Brilliantly written too.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 1, 2007 at 9:55 am

Whistler to get 20 hydrogen buses

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Vancouver Sun

The provincial government pledged $45 million Monday for a hydrogen bus fleet to service Whistler in time for the 2010 Olympics.

The 20 buses will be developed by a private company and are expected to be operating in 2009. The money will also go towards developing hydrogen fuelling stations in Whistler and Victoria.

$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.

This of course is not really about transport at all. It’s all about window dressing. Potemkin villages to impress the Olympic visitors. It will not make the slightest bit of difference to air quality or greenhouse gas emissions, but it will enable Gordon to pretend to be green to Arnie and the other governors. (Arnie, by the way is not the ally we had hoped. He is pushing freeways over high speed trains in California but I must not get distracted)

Hydrogen is not a fuel. It is a very inefficient storage mechanism to allow for electric energy to be applied to a moving vehicle. Hydrogen is a by product of all kinds of chemical plants – but that is not clean enough for fuel cells. Tonnes are thrown away by a plant in North Vancouver. So it is made by electrically splitting water apart and then “reassembling” it later. If the electricity is hydro this is pretty well emission free – although damns and even run of the river are not the green things we once held them to be. They have environmental impacts too. But this is a pretty inefficient way of storing electricity. Batteries (which have been extensively researched) basically weigh too much and waste a lot of energy as heat. Capacitors were going to be good, but fuel cells have centre stage right now. And while in terms of energy density they have come a long way, they are still not the silver bullet. Hydrogen being very difficult and expensive to store and lug around. Despite being the most abundant element on the planet.

The plan also involves an additional $34 million to be provided jointly by the federal and provincial governments, for B.C. Transit to operate the fleet over a five-year period.

Just what you would expect. No long term commitment to get more transit service to where it is desperately needed. No money for more transit service for the suburbs, or low income areas, or native reserves, or people with disabilities. Or pockets of high unemployment. Or places where there are jobs but no-one to fill them. These are not governments’ priorities. They just want to do a buck and wing on the world stage for two weeks, and give some more subsidies to businesses that cannot make a dollar in the marketplace.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 1, 2007 at 8:49 am

Taxi industry needs a complete overhaul, not just help for passengers

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Vancouver Sun editorial

I get worried when I find myself agreeing with Sun editorials. I passed on the original story since I did not want to give Kevin Falcon more attention than he deserves. A minister deciding to do something about a long standing problem because he was personally inconvenienced is, what I believe, a “soft target”. And it is not the Minister that is the problem. For whatever reason he at least sees the need to do something.

About time too. The taxi industry in BC has needed radical reform for many years and there have been several reviews in recent years, and I participated in most of them. But not much changed. And I could get into the reasons for that too, about small groups of well connected people who make a lot of money and are generous supporters of political parties (note the plural). But that just tells you why we are in a mess. And unlike the Sun, I want to talk about what we could do about it.

Taxis have to be regulated. Experiments with Hayek like deregulation elsewhere have been complete disasters and mostly reversed swiftly. Not only do taxi passengers’ rights need protecting so do taxi drivers’. Since they are not the ones making lots of money. If that were the case the taxi driver would not likely be a recent immigrant. Or someone well qualified to do something else but unable to break down the protectionist barriers put up by the self regulating professions.

But the regulation should not be directed at controlling the number of taxis. It is very difficult indeed to determine how many taxis are needed, since that number fluctuates wildly depending on the seasons, time of day and state of the weather. The present system prescribes one number all year round, and limits them to picking up fares in one municipality.

The Sun asks why that should be. And the answer is two fold. Firstly taxis are licensed on the recommendation of municipalities. Secondly, there is a fear that if taxis could roam freely picking up fares anywhere there would be glut in downtown Vancouver and the airport and none in the suburbs. Actually that is the situation here now – just not quite as extreme, but still observable. There is nearly always a long line of taxis waiting at the airport and the cruise ship terminal, and it is just about impossible to flag a cab on the street outside of downtown. And even if you do, they will almost certainly refuse to take you anywhere but the nearest SkyTrain station if you want a long ride.

But it is not just Important People who are inconvenienced. There is a whole community who depend on taxis. People who cannot drive themselves or cannot afford a car but need door to door service – some every day and some just to bring home the groceries. Some have disabilities, some are just infirm, many have very limited incomes. And I worked with a number of groups trying to get more taxi licences to meet the needs of this part of the community and got nowhere – well, not very far anyway. I was actually paid a fee by one taxi company to repeat the same evidence I had given in support fo a new service to provide shared rides for people with disabilities seeking treatment (turned down) to an application to buy more accessible minivan type taxis favoured by the cruise ship crowd as they carry more baggage (approved).

And I do not have space to repeat here all the evidence given by people in wheelchairs, or the blind, about the way they are treated by taxi drivers. Just to note that many who are on the list of essential service handiDART users will not accept a ride in a cab if one is sent instead of the handiDART van. And the lovely lady from the CNIB who stood at the side of the road waiting to be picked up by a booked taxi which just drove past her – because she has a guide dog.

The solution has been working in London since 1865. A metropolitan licensing system that is based solely on quality not quantity. Of cabs and drivers. Very stiff tests are prescribed by incorruptible officials for both vehicles and cabbies. Anyone can be a cabbie in London if they can meet the standards. Fares are strictly regulated, but entry into the market isn’t. And cabbies can work when they want to, and will enter and leave the market as demand rises and falls, working part time and having other businesses and occupations to fall back on.

It does not meet all needs. Shared ride services – mainly for hospitals and similar health and welfare agencies – are also needed. Minicabs – hire cars that must be pre-booked and cannot be hailed from the curb – do a lot of work too, but provide a lower level of service. All the black cabs are now accessible, very few minicabs are.

London cabs used to be regulated by the Home Office. Which meant over time many of the regulations were anachronistic. Recent reforms put cabs where they should be – under Transport for London and the Mayor. The Greater London Authority is what the GVRD and GVTA should be: directly elected to handle region wide services that are too big for the local municipalities which still exist to provide local services (in London 33 Cities and Boroughs) .

So Kevin gets another plane trip. That’s alright. I don’t begrudge him his business class seats and posh hotel. Just as long as he does something effective when he gets back. A passenger charter is a Good Start. But it is only scratching the surface. (He might like to revive the one I tried to write for the GVTA.) Since he wants to reform GVTA, perhaps he could step back a bit from his current efforts to demolish the last vestiges of local control, and have a real think about what might actually work in the public interest.

UPDATE Jan 31 0853 The Vancouver Sun covers this in their “latest news” section on line – so I presumed that it is not in the print version – but the smae headline is apparently on the front page. So I will no longer trust the “posted one hour ago” tag on those top of the page items. Perhaps it simply indicates a story that has been corrected or updated? Maybe a Canwest employee reading this can let me know.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 1, 2007 at 8:26 am

Posted in regional government, taxi, Transportation

Tagged with

There’s no conflict, Dobell says

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Vancouver Sun

I started covering this story a couple of weeks ago, so as more appears, I had to decide whether to update the original piece or start a new one. As I expected, Dobell is offended and has been talking to lawyers. He had a press conference yesterday to put across his side of the story. And Vaughan Palmer was there and provides this neat summation.

He’s not a lobbyist because he doesn’t think he’s one.

He’s not in a perceived conflict because he doesn’t perceive one.

He’s entitled to do what he does because — can’t you see it? — he’s working on the side of the angels.

But there are couple of tidbits that caught my eye. Ken gets $250 an hour as a consultant. Plus he has an inflation linked pension – which he is also drawing. There is a rule that says civil servants in BC cannot work as consultant on government contracts for at least a year after they leave office. This was waived in Ken’s case.

For the purposes of comparison, I left the UK civil service and came to Canada because I could not work for transportation consultants on UK contracts for five years. And I was nothing like as important as Ken. They take conflict of interest much more seriously in the UK. While I am entitled to both a UK and a BC civil service pension I have not drawn a penny from either since I stopped earning real money when I was 55. I did this to try to ensure that there would still be something left to draw by the time I am 65. I work for a sub contractor and make a lot less than Ken – like one twentyfifth of his pay rate. So maybe this is all just jealousy.

I am not a member of any political party but I am pleased to see that the NDP has finally awoken from its torpor. But even as a blogger, I want to be fair, so I hope you will not just read my view and those of Vaughan Palmer but check out what the Great Man himself has to say.

And if you can access the comics in the Sun Bizarro has the standard last request at the firing squad panel with the punch line “Can I have a moment to put this in my blog?” (They don’t put the current one online anymore as it cuts into the revenue of the papers). I just hope that isn’t prophetic

Written by Stephen Rees

May 1, 2007 at 7:42 am

Posted in politics