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

Archive for August 20th, 2007

Drunk on ethanol

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Los Angeles Times

Basing energy policy on corn could fuel a potential disaster.
August 20, 2007

‘Gasoline is going — alcohol is coming. And it’s coming to stay, too, for it’s in unlimited supply. And we might as well get ready for it now.”

Those words might have come from President George W. Bush, or just about any member of the U.S. Congress, or every major presidential candidate from both parties. All are euphorically drunk on ethanol (a fancy name for grain alcohol), seen as the miracle fuel that will simultaneously solve our global warming problem and end our reliance on foreign oil. Actually, though, they were uttered by automotive pioneer Henry Ford nearly a century ago.

A very well argued piece of editorial. I came to BC to work on the province’s alternative transportation fuels policy over twelve years ago now. There were serious doubts about ethanol then. Since then ethanol has cropped up in the “West Wing” and more than one movie I have seen about presidential politics. The critical factor being the way that the states that grow corn tend to be crucial in the primaries. So candidates early on in the process have to take “the ethanol pledge” – just like Jimmy Smits did. And I doubt that they have long discussions about alternative transportation fuels policy on the campaign bus in real life.

If alternative fuels were so good, they would have been much more successful than they have been. And it is not just the malign influence of the big bad oil companies in league with the auto makers either (although that is almost certainly true too). A lot of people have been trying very hard to get the US less dependant on imported oil as a strategic objective for a very long time. And actually I think the oil companies like ethanol, it is a useful additive to gasoline to increase cleaning and raise octane, and they sell a heck of lot of diesel oil and petrochemical based fertilisers to corn farmers. Indeed I have seen some studies which suggested that more energy goes in to growing corn, processing and distributing ethanol than comes out as usable energy at the other end.

Anyway I won’t rehash the LA Times piece but do recommend you read all of it even if it is a bit long. Just don’t try bringing any of this up in casual conversation – especially anywhere in the mid west.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 20, 2007 at 2:34 pm

Why London-style congestion fees won’t work downtown

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Derek Moscato: The Province

Should Vancouver toll drivers who enter the downtown core or a wider swathe of the city centre? Some would say yes.

Who exactly? Anyone at all? On the record?

Ah, the silly season. The month of August, when everyone else is on holiday and the newsroom is unnaturally quiet. It gets hard to fill up a newspaper with real news (over at the Sun I think they have given up altogether) let alone find things for the columnists to fulminate over. Pete McMartin was reduced to doing a piece on not exactly naked shop assistants at Lush last week. Now Moscato is getting into a froth over something that no-one, so far as I know, has ever seriously suggested. Yes, London has it (and other cities have had it for a while now) and it looks like New York might get it. But Vancouver is not in the same league. In fact, as a commuting destination, downtown Vancouver has been steadily declining. First the industry was pushed out, then the offices. In fact more people now leave the downtown core to work in the burbs than the other way round (That is definitely true for Richmond – and was five years ago: I suspect the others are catching up but I haven’t actually looked up the data.) So the need for a downtown Vancouver cordon fee is just not there. The number of cars entering the downtown in the morning peak has been in decline for some time now.

That does not mean that we do not need road pricing. Just not a flat fee to enter downtown. We do need a more effective way to regulate road use rather than relying on queueing. As we have run out of places to store the queues, and anyway allowing people with time to waste to delay everyone else is pretty stupid. But so far the only discussion has been about the ability that road pricing would give to authorities to monitor an individual’s movements.

Moscato could have dealt with the growing problems of transportation. How rising gasoline prices have not done very much to deter drivers or reduce the demand for huge trucks to move around single occupants. How increasing spending on roads does not bring about any relief to congestion apart from a brief respite after opening day that lasts only a short while. How we have known that we should have been building rapid transit since the eighties, but we still persist in choosing overly expensive systems to serve only a small part of the region. About how reducing the amount of road space allowed for single occupant vehicles is not even on the agenda (most civilized places have been getting busy in that direction for a while).

Still it may help to fill up the letters page for the rest of the week. Because I doubt that today’s flurry of “The Valley needs Rail” letters will last much longer.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 20, 2007 at 11:22 am