Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for July 2007

Traffic Deaths Decline, NHTSA Says

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Health – RedOrbit

Highway crashes killed 42,642 people last year, said Nicole Nason, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That compares with the 43,510 who died in 2005, according to the agency’s latest figures.

So that’s Good News, right?

Just for the sake of perspective the number of deaths in combat of US troops since the Iraq war started  in March 2003 is now 3,637. (source:

Written by Stephen Rees

July 24, 2007 at 12:09 pm

Posted in Road safety

Accidents Halved As Street is Stripped of Safety Features

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Business – RedOrbit

It started in Holland and has now spread to the UK. I am willing to bet that none of the risk averse professional engineers who command our streets will be willing to risk trying it here. The entire professional ethos of the PEng is not to step out of the conventional way of doing things.

The whole point of the exercise is to change expectations. Drivers are forced to think about that they are doing. How many collisions occur because the driver is convinced that because he was doing what the sign says he was justified in ignoring everything else? How often have you heard the excuse “I didn’t see you!” – of course not, you were not looking for me.

the number of accidents in Kensington High Street has fallen from 71 a year to just 40 a drop of nearly 44 per cent. Accident levels on comparable roads across London have fallen by only 17.5 per cent, an internal council study shows. Since the scheme was completed in September 2003, the number of pedestrians hurt has fallen from 26 a year to nine.

Today the scheme’s champion, Councillor Daniel Moylan, said it would be copied nationwide.

“We are having visitors from all over the UK and indeed from overseas and they all want to produce their own versions,” he said. “It is about re-establishing eye contact between road users. They are now looking at each other instead of just signs” The report says vehicle speeds have fallen and drivers appear “more alert to the presence of pedestrians and that they cross the street over its whole length”.

UPDATE July 26

I got a message in email from CITE (Canadian Institute of Transportation Engineers) about Walk21 Toronto 2007

Walk21 Toronto is excited to feature reknowned traffic engineer, Hans Monderman of the Netherlands, as a keynote speaker on Wednesday morning. Monderman is recognized as a pioneer of the ‘shared space’ approach to designing streets. This innovative approach, often referred to as naked streets, is designed to create spaces where pedestrians, cyclists and drivers are considered equal, by removing the traditional traffic safety devices such as traffic lights, stop signs, traffic signs, lane markings and sometimes curbs. The result is safer streets where drivers and pedestrians respond to their environment rather than the “rules of the road”. Initially ridiculed, Monderman’s traffic design ideas are now imitated around the world. Hans’s presentation will be followed by a lively discussion on the shared space and naked streets. For more information about this concept visit the European Union sponsored Shared Space project.

So maybe my jeremiad about engineers will not come true and we may see something happening – if not in this region, somewhere in Canada. The conference is in October but the “early bird” savings end at the end of this month.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 24, 2007 at 11:58 am

Posted in Road safety

Debacle in Delta

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It will destroy what is left of the fish habitat and the bird flyway. The original port failed its environmental review but got built anyway. This expansion will actually use land that originally was supposed to mitigate the original development. And it will probably not be needed.
Rafe Mair in fine form

Written by Stephen Rees

July 23, 2007 at 8:56 am

Posted in port expansion

The Livable Blog – Car Free Commercial Drive Festival 2007 #2

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The Livable Blog – Car Free Commercial Drive Festival 2007 #2

with pictures of yesterday’s festivities

Written by Stephen Rees

July 23, 2007 at 8:45 am

Posted in car free day

Communities under threat: MP

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Richmond News

The MP is John Cummings and the threat is the Gateway program.

Increased rail traffic resulting from the controversial Asia Pacific Gateway Corridor project will deteriorate local quality of life and cause real estate prices to plummet, he predicts.

“I think we’re at crunch time here for our community,” Cummins said. “If people don’t stand up and start to scream and holler, they’re going to be awful sorry.

Now Cummings appears to be the first politician who has noticed that freight from the port goes mainly by rail. It has nothing much to do with trucking – which of course knocks out most of the justification that the province (and the BCTA) has made for the South Fraser Perimeter Road and the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge and widening of Highway #1.

“I’m not opposed to the port growing,” Cummins added, “but I’m saying let’s do it right. Let’s not destroy our communities so the Port of Vancouver can be the biggest port in wherever.”

In which case I think he is increasingly out of step with his constituents who are beginning to wonder why it is so important that Vancouver grab a larger share of the North American transpacific trade. Especially since most of it is destined for the US. Given that our ports have a tax advantage – US ports have to pay a lot of money to their local communities – exactly why do we want to subsidize US shippers and consumers? The people who live around the major Pacific Ports like Long Beach are increasingly restive about the amount of air pollution they get from trains, trucks and ships. Why do we have to take that from them?

I can understand that strategically we need ports on Canada’s west coast to handle our trade. I just wonder why we need them to handle other peoples. And I suspect that the Americans will have similar thoughts. And just as they did not stand still while we cornered the cruise ship traffic to Alaska, they will not lie down as we expand here and Prince Rupert. I think we are going to end up with a lot of spare port capacity, some redundant rail trackage, and a lot of very heavily congested roads full of commuters – not trucks.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 20, 2007 at 4:38 pm

Posted in Gateway, port expansion

The Cambie conundrum: Seattle did it differently

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Vancouver Sun Thursday July 19, 2007

The Seattle businesses have access to compensation from a community development fund designed to keep them alive. The Rainier Valley Community Development Fund has doled out $9.8 million US to 160 businesses since 2004 when construction began. And the plan seems to be working, says Jaime Garcia, the fund’s executive director.

[Vancouver-Fairview MLA Gregor] Robertson [NDP small business critic] says it’s not too late to implement “the Seattle Solution” in Vancouver.
“It’s a classic American approach,” he said. “It’s seen as an economic initiative to ensure a tax base, not as a handout. I thought the Campbell government might embrace this approach.”

Written by Stephen Rees

July 20, 2007 at 7:06 am

Posted in transit

Massive cuts, fare hike coming to Toronto transit

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Last Updated: Thursday, July 19, 2007 | 7:18 PM ET



Toronto’s transit agency plans to close down its newest subway line, drop low-ridership bus routes and hike fares as a result of city funding shortages, the chairman said Thursday.

This kind of story is sadly nothing new for the TTC. For years the Toronto councillors and the province of Ontario have played silly games with transit in Canada’s largest city. They love to point the finger at each other and yell “It’s all YOUR fault”.

The Mayor came up with a funding plan, based on new powers from the Province. Just as in the early days of Translink it was based on a vehicle levy – and, in this case, a “land transfer tax”. Of course, there is only one taxpayer. The politicians do not want to get blamed for the inevitable outcry over new taxes. We had Ujjal – they have the TTC.

To reiterate, transit is never free. We need a lot more of it in Canada, and have done for a long time and the need for it is not going to go away. Sooner or later someone is going to have to bite the bullet and admit that since the federal government is not actually giving the cities the budget surpluses, then local taxes will have to pay for local transit.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 19, 2007 at 4:59 pm

Part of the parking market is working

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While we wait for our politicians to get their act together on road pricing, one part of the market that regulates mode choice is working as it should. The cost of parking downtown is going up.

A reserved office tower spot costs $268.80 a month on average, according to a survey by commercial realtor CB Richard Ellis, which is a 12-per-cent increase over a year ago. Six months ago, that same average spot would have set you back $250 per month.

The top rate that the survey found was $375.

Empty lots used for parking and parkades themselves are being redeveloped for condos. And there is now shortage of office space downtown (thanks in part to short sighted planners who allowed office buildings and zoning to be converted to residential use) – so this trend can be expected to continue.

However, there is no equivalent brake being applied to suburban office parks – where parking is not normally regulated by price. Translink tried to influence this market by a levy on parking space, which was, of course, very unpopular, especially with the movers and shakers of the BC Liberal Party – many of whom are property developers or owners. So of course their private concerns are of much greater import than the general concerns of the rest of the populace about why it is getting harder to get to work on time.

Equally on street parking is more likely to be free outside town centres – so in the absence of adequate parking controls, there is not much chance of a real parking market developing. Mostly it is seen as “free” by the user, and we all pick up the tab for them, whether we benefit or not. User pay is a better principle but it has to be applied equally and evenly.

Parking space at work of course is about status rather than cost. You will note that “important people” always get the best spots (closest to the door) often with their name prominently displayed.  This is as important to office culture as the corner office. I thought it very significant that when Japanese companies started operating in North America they did not have this practice. The senior people still got the closest spots — by arriving before everyone else!

Written by Stephen Rees

July 19, 2007 at 10:06 am

Posted in Economics, parking

Metronet to file for administration

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Guardian Unlimited Business

Metronet is one of the “Private sector Partnerships” (P3) which looks after the maintenance of part of the London Underground system. It has been wobbly for some time and now looks likely to collapse.

It is not evidence that P3s are disasters. Just that some are badly run – in this case, it simply awarded contracts to its own shareholders instead of holding open bidding. And, as usual, the public sector has to step back in and pick up the pieces to ensure that service to the public will not be disrupted.

The Province of BC now insists that all major public sector investments overt $20m be handled by P3s. About the only major project that has not been run this way is the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre expansion which has huge cost overruns. Again, not a criticism of public sector management as such, just a very poorly designed project.

P3s would be much less contentious if governments dealt with them rationally and not as an act of almost religious faith. “Private good, public bad” is a silly principle. The privatization of the transport systems in Britain has had very mixed results indeed – British Rail being admitted by everyone to have been an unmitigated disaster. The sell off of BC Rail also seems to have been badly thought out, and poorly organized.

If a P3 is given the right sort of incentives and is monitored carefully, it can deliver projects faster and cheaper. But mostly this comes from the integration of functions – design, build, operate. Not, note anything to do with ownership. In fact when private sector borrowers go to the market, they have to pay more for money than governments do. And then they also have to make profits for their shareholders – not something that need be required of public sector corporations – though BC Hydro was bled by successive governments. It is simply bureaucracy that prevents DBO working in the public sector – and dogmatic right wing politicians who cannot stand to see successful public corporations doing a good job.

Somehow, I managed to file this piece as a draft rather than publish it. But that turns out to be just as well since Craig McInnes has a very important opinion piece “P3s just put the bill in another pocket” in today’s Vancouver Sun.

… in the past fiscal year alone the provincial government and its various affiliates added more than $27 billion in bills that will come due for taxpayers in coming years, bringing the total future obligation to more than $55 billion.

…while using private sector capital to build hospitals, roads and electrical generating facilities means that government can reduce its debt, taxpayers still get stuck with the bill. It just gets put into another pocket.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 19, 2007 at 9:43 am

Paying for ‘Free’ Transit

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Dave Olsen’s five part series ended on Friday and I have been wondering how to respond.

I tend to agree with what he says the professional consensus is: that a fares free system is one that no-one values. In our society, price is an indicator of quality. For example, my local supermarket has many cleaning products, but a whole special shelving area is set aside for new “green” products all of which have one thing in common. They cost a great deal more than the conventional ones. Similarly a number of heavily advertised products are remarkably expensive: for instance the CLR bathroom cleaner is priced at around $12 compared to the average competitor at around $3. Obviously the signal that the maker is trying to send is that this product must be far superior than the cheaper everyday ones. Pricing has very little to do with cost.

He also points out that at present users do not pay to use the roads. And I think that tends to support my stance. Roads are over used exactly because they appear to be free. As long as people walked or rode on push bikes that didn’t matter but once they insisted on travelling in tons of steel, we got troubles! We should indeed devise methods for charging the social cost of road use – including the delay imposed on other road users, the environmental impact and the cost of the road itself. And we certainly should never, ever allow free parking on public roads. They cost us far too much in land alone to allow for such wasteful use. In Tokyo you cannot even own a car if you do not have an off road parking spot (and this in a country that actively encourages its car building companies with heavy penalties for operating older cars).

Mostly my approach says that if we have an extra dollar, where would we spend it first? Not on cutting fares, as that does very little good. Improving service should always be the number one priority. As long as demand exceeds supply (as it does here) we have to tackle needs first – basically more buses and trains. I enjoyed his usual sniping at Translink’s costs. As expected, bloated bureaucracy and transit police are targets. Well, without the limits that fares impose, I think we would need many more transit police on a free system – for crowd control, if nothing else. Oddly enough he does not point out that transit costs are 80% wages and wage related.

The real issue that is not dealt with is how do we increase the market share of transit – not ridership, but share. That means getting people out of cars. Fares do not deter car users from using transit. The biggest component of generalised cost is in vehicle time. The car is always available whenever you want it (no waiting) goes where you want it to (no transfers) is comfortable (no standing, no other passengers to deal with) and you can do what you want (smoke, play the radio loud …). Frankly even if you could deal with these kind of issues many people will never switch modes. So transit very properly concentrates on how to win over those willing to change. And those people just want better services. More frequent, more direct, more comfortable but not necessarily cheaper than they are now.

I do agree that we need to find better ways to pay for transit. And as long as we have a bus dominated system that means we need to have some money dedicated to the right of way. I would rather see dollars spent on bus priority – indeed in Vancouver their major road network (MRN) is essentially complete and they want to spend their MRN money on bike and pedestrian facilities. So if Translink took my advice (they never did but it won’t stop me offering it) they should use an approach which allowed spending on bus priority measures in parity with other off MRN programs for other users. Especially if road space is reallocated to higher density use than SOV. This is simply based on numbers of people moved per hour per lane – which buses (and trams) do much better than cars.

The main thing that is wrong with the Olsen approach is that it starts off with a solution, and then looks for evidence to support it. If he had started with an open minded inquiry into what is wrong with urban transportation, free fares would not have been considered very long. It doesn’t help much. It costs a lot, diverts walkers and bike riders onto transit, and does nothing to win over car drivers. It is the wrong thing to do.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 16, 2007 at 4:08 pm

Posted in Economics, transit