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

Archive for August 2007

Transportation Is A Big Honking Deal

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Sightline Institute

Taken from “The Daily Score” a weblog on “North West news that matters”

In the Northwest, it’s impossible to address climate change without doing something about transportation. Take a look at this chart showing CO-2 emissions from fossil fuels in Washington.


And the report goes on to note that fossil fuels account for 80% of the state’s ghg.

The western states and provinces are getting more serious about their commitment to GHG reductioin which means that they will have to do something dramatic about transportation. BC is in an odd position since the Premier has made all kinds of public claims about the need to reduce ghg emissions but neglected to tell his cabinet about it before the throne speech. So there is no actual program in place yet since by then the budget had been set by the time he saw the light.

Washington state has quite significant industrial emissions, which includes oil refineries. BC will be a bit different, as most of our electrical power is hydro, and what industry we have is mostly extractive. Oil and gas will play a much bigger role in the provincial inventory I think.

In Greater Vancouver there has been significant loss of industry, and at the same time growth of population as well as increased car use and travel as commute distances have lengthened. So any comparison for emission reduction purposes with earlier years shows what a huge reduction must be made to get back to where we were a few years ago, let alone reduce below that.

And, of course, the province is finally conceding that the Gateway program is not consistent with a strategy to reduce ghg emissions. Although they show no signs at all of abandoning the program or significantly changing their (lack of) commitment to transit.

There is also the link to the Western Climate Initiative, where the precise language is revealing

In April 2007, the Premier of British Columbia joined the Initiative.

Not the province, or the provincial government – just the premier. Mind you that also applies to the states – only the Governors are meeting.

Forgive me for being cynical but I suspect the only thing anyone is committed to is having meetings and making statements. I see no evidence yet of anyone actually doing anything.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 22, 2007 at 9:29 pm

City extends para-transit service

with one comment – Feature Story

Sadly I must quickly disabuse you if you jumped to the same conclusion I did. This story is about Richmond VA not Richmond BC.

Para-transit is the term of art for services that we call “handyDART”. Which, as its users never cease to point out, is not “handy” at all. In Richmond VA they call it “CARE”.

“CARE” vehicles can accommodate customers using wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, canes, guide dogs, or other mobility aids.

“The need for this service has grown beyond our expectations,” said GRTC Chief Executive Officer John Lewis. “Providing access to transportation services to those with disabilities provides access to opportunity and independence.”

I don’t know enough to make a specific comparison, but the US system is required to provide paratransit wherever there is conventional transit. This is actually, in geographical coverage, less onerous than the service area that handyDART provides. There are some places in this region where handyDART users can ask for a ride where conventional transit does not reach.

The main shortcoming of handyDART is that it manages to meet only the needs of a few of its potential clients.  A lot more people would use it if the chance of getting a ride was better. Yet the rate of expansion does not meet the established need, let alone the growing needs of an aging population, and one where more patients are being given care in the community rather than in residential institutions.

At the same time, much of the development of the suburbs continues to be of low density, single family neighbourhoods. The most difficult type of development to serve well with conventional transit: a big bus with a well paid driver on a fixed route. handyDART uses small vehicles, the drivers are paid much less – but provide a lot more help to passengers – and they provide ” door to door” service. The bus comes to you. The cost per passenger of this quality of service is much higher than conventional transit, and since the fare is comparable, cost recovery much lower – or, if you prefer, the rate of subsidy much higher. So getting more handyDART service in a system which is already below essential capacity levels to meet existing conventional demand is very difficult.

Community shuttles were supposed to make a difference. The vehicles are roughly the same size as a handyDART van: the main difference is the lift – on the side on a shuttle, at the rear on a van. This enables handyDART to serve  people who do not happen to live next to an accessible bus stop. Originally, the first shuttle routes were flexible: the bus could leave the fixed route to drop people closer to where they needed to be – a bit like the way conventional buses are allowed to drop women closer to their homes at night – except the small vehicle did not have to stay on the arterial road.

As part of the price to win labour peace in the wake of the four month transit strike, Translink committed the Community Shuttle business to CMBC and abandoned the idea of competitive tendering – which the strike had been about and which Translink “won”. That meant that although Community Shuttles retained the wage differential – and showed that you could recruit bus drivers without having to pay them so much – everything else about the shuttle routes was the same as a big bus. The cost per bus is cheaper, but I would expect that the cost per seat is probably comparable. The main benefit for CMBC was that it released some big buses from low ridership routes to use where overcrowding is the problem.

I think that one way we could make transit more attractive in places like Langley – or Richmond BC come to that – is to have a bus service that will come to you. Even if you are not disabled. In some places this has been happening for years. Rimouski, Quebec has a system called taxibus, for example. For some markets, paratransit has been very successful commercially – airport shuttles for instance, which work like shared ride taxis. Seattle has those – as do most major US airports. Firms compete to get the concession from the airport.

Increasing the number of potential riders actually helps solve one of most difficult problems of a shared ride systems. The more potential users, the greater the potential of finding “matches” in trip demands. Scheduling shared rides is not easy – but the falling cost of information technology and it’s increasing sophistication has made it easier. And there are some systems which work really well. Think of pizza deliveries, for example. Or parcel pick up by courier companies. It can be done.

It is not going to be cheap.  But there will be social benefits that are well worth paying for. Mobility for people without cars will be improved significantly, ending a problem of social isolation that we do not seem to care about as much as, say, the UK. It could even improve labour participation rates (so we can appeal to the right wing a bit). It would reduce the need for able bodied people to own cars well past the age when it is safe to drive them – age of the cars as well as the people. (We do not test the cars of course, for safety. We do test the people but are reluctant to recommend they have their licences taken when they have no other alternative to get around.) We could increase the effective area that high speed transit systems can serve, by acting as a feeder to SkyTrain and West Coast Express. It would reduce the need for ever more parking space at WCE stations. It would increase transit mode share in the outer suburbs, where it has been persistently low for many years and is most difficult to change. And increasing transit mode share reduces the “need” for more roads. And above all it would

provide access to transportation services to those with disabilities – and thus provide access to opportunity and independence

Which is where we started.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 21, 2007 at 7:18 am

Posted in transit

I-5 closure shows we’re adaptable

with 2 comments

Seattle PI – Opinion

Our collective “need” for highway capacity is about as certain as our “need” for bottled water.

It is instructive that we have known about how traffic reacts to both expansion and contraction of highway capacity for many years. After all there are plenty of examples and experience wherever you go. Yet our politicians seem to be impervious to the lesson and they keep on saying that we “need” more highway lanes, more roads, or will be overwhelmed. That without more concrete and tarmac, growth will stall, or the we will see the economy stagnate or – horror of horrors – the Americans may continue to accommodate their import container traffic in their own ports.

Engineers still believe some very poorly designed models based on comparisons with gravity, that treat traffic like a flow of water. In which water finds its own level and demand never reacts to changes in the network other than rerouting. Which we know does not represent what happens. In fact, traffic is more like a gas – it expands and contracts to fill the space provided. The model in this region can in fact do no more than tell you about longer distance travel across the “screenlines” (essentially water bodies and some municipal boundaries) at the morning peak hour on a weekday. In fact the network now sees more traffic in the afternoon peak. But most importantly, it assumes that the volume of traffic is constant, and is simply a function of population and land use.

Indeed, the way the model works is actually not very accurate “out of the box” and it has to be “calibrated”. What little data we do have shows that the model will not  accurately do even the limited task we set it without adjustments to make it fit the observed flows.  For example it assumes that people travel to jobs that are close to them, but we know that is not true, so the calibration allows for the extra “attractiveness” of downtown. Except of course, downtown is now much less significant a destination for the morning peak flows than it was when the model was calibrated.

Maybe the big lesson of the I-5 experiment is this: It isn’t too little capacity that causes gridlock — it’s transportation systems that don’t give people choices.

Or the choices it does offer them are just not good enough to enable them to switch modes. That is the case here for transit, I am afraid. And that is why I constantly harp on the theme of improving service. Because that is what deters drivers from switching modes. As long as transit is slow and unreliable, and inconvenient compared to driving, only around 10 to 11% of the trips will be made that way.

And expanding road capacity – or refusing to reduce it – ensures that car dominance will continue. This is not rocket science.

If we spend money on improving our transit system – buying more buses, changing streets so the buses have priority over single occupant vehicles, building light rail systems utilising existing tracks wherever possible and keeping cost down to expand coverage as widely as we can, then we will see mode shifts. Continuing to do what we have done for the last fifty years will see the same results we have always seen. Expecting any other outcome is madness.

And if we are really serious, and we really want to reduce the terrible carnage of driving (for the US its death toll is far greater than the Iraq war) then we will use the market – a pricing system – to actually charge users what it costs to accomodate their cars and their “need” to drive them everywhere. For right now, the market signals are that we should acquire cars (they are getting cheaper, in real terms, and more efficient) paying up front for tax and insurance too, so that we have invested a considerable fixed sum, and thus the perceived marginal cost per trip is very low. If people think at all about money when they drive their cars it is first parking and then gas cost that will come to mind. What they really care about is time. So what we need to do is make the car less convenient (reduce road space for cars, cut parking provisions) and raise its price at the same time as we make transit much more attractive.

Indeed, I think it is essential to have some spare capacity on the transit system before you try to persuade people to use it. So some of the new trains may well appear to be a bit empty at first. That’s alright. We can stand a loss in the first few years if we can fill it in the long term. And you know that our current experience shows that when you do provide a good alternative, you don’t have to market it at all. It sells itself. Word of mouth is your best friend. I would get rid of the marketing and PR people altogether. Make the people who run the system your spokespersons and salespeople. And allow them to be honest – that builds trust, not cynicism with spin doctors. Above all give them a really good product – fast, comfortable, safe and reliable. The colour you paint it, and the name you call it, matters not one whit.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 21, 2007 at 6:33 am

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

with one comment

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

Editorials & Opinion | Showtime for transit

with 4 comments


Sounder at King Street Station

Seattle Times photo

And the good news is that they have the capacity to take on the additional load. Wise words from the Seattle Times.

Vancouver must tackle its lack of capacity soon, and in a determined fashion. The system is going to be overwhelmed yet again after Labour Day as it has been for years, but more noticeably so since the disastrous introduction of UPass into an inadequately prepared system. All that has done is reinforce the notion in the minds of the new students at UBC and SFU that transit sucks. Lots will try it, many will give up, and even those that stick with it will look forward to the discounted cars their graduate status will qualify them for.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 19, 2007 at 11:26 am

Posted in transit

Tax exemption driving up sales of pickup trucks

with one comment

Vancouver Sun

New federal measures aimed at pushing Canadians into hybrids and other fuel-sipping vehicles are instead driving up sales of new pickup trucks, according to research released Friday by DesRosiers Automotive Consultants.

Sales of small pickups like Ford Motor Co.’s Ranger were up 18 per cent in the first seven months of the year, while sales of large pickups like Chrysler’s Dodge Ram rose 14 per cent over the same months last year, DesRosiers’ research shows.

I would like to think that this is the working of the “law of unintended consequences”, but I have become cycnical enough to know that this is not true. The effect was exactly as intended. North American manufacturers (i.e. car makes with plants in Canada) do not have anything much to stand up to the imported hybrid small cars (Toyota Prius, Honda Civic) that top the fuel efficiency lists – or even the conventional cars that nearly equal their fuel efficiency (Toyota Yaris).

The Conservative government exempted pickups when it unveiled its so-called EcoAuto program in March because it said many people use them for work.

Yes but many more of them now drive pick up trucks because they are seen as “cool”. And they may drive them to and from work but many do not “need” the truck bed except for the weekend excursions to the garden centre maybe. Even my 16 year old daughter yearns for a pick up truck.

The point was not to favour a particular segment of the population but I will bet that pick ups are the favoured vehicle of choice in Stephen Harper’s constituency. The percentage of pick ups used in Alberta for personal transport must be as high as it is in Texas. Like wearing cowboy hats at stampede time, it’s a statement about identity.

So I am sure that Ford, Chrysler (and, no doubt, GM though Des Rosiers does not mention one of their products by name in the piece) will be suitable grateful at the next Conservative fund raiser. Maybe they can add a bumper sticker with the Canada word mark. (Like the BC Liberals put on the SkyTrain (very belatedly) to acknowledge federal funding when they were looking for more Ottawa dollars for the Canada Line.) So we can see our tax subsidies at work.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 18, 2007 at 10:26 am

Secretary Peters Says Bikes “Are Not Transportation”

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We’d expect this kind of thing from some people, but on PBS “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” this week, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said that instead of raising taxes on gasoline to renew the nations sagging infrastructure, Congress should examine its spending priorities — including investments in bike paths and trails, which, Peters said, “are not transportation.”

And there’s more where that came from, But really what’s point. The US Republicans really are dinosaurs.

But one cute little statistic that is irresistible is that the states have not spent the money that congress has been allocating for new bridges – there’s been a 27% shortfall over the last ten years. Well, of course. The States probably have to put up some of their own money to qualify. And, of course, no mention of no money for maintenance.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 17, 2007 at 3:38 pm

Posted in cycling

New group pushes for Valley light-rail system

with 8 comments

The Province

In a nutshell, the light-rail advocates say building more roads — such as the Port Mann Bridge-Highway 1 expansion or the proposed $1-billion South Fraser Perimeter Road through Delta and Surrey — won’t solve traffic gridlock.It only encourages more vehicle use, which results in more greenhouse gas and particulate emissions impacting everyone’s health.

The thing that I noticed about this piece is its positive tone. there is no attempt to “balance” it by allowing the nay sayers equal space.

There are actually quite a few issues to resolve. I am very much in favour of light rail, and using existing tracks is always a good starting point. The Rail for the Valley website has quite a lot of information on how they propose to deal with the existing freight traffic for example, though I hunted about in vain for a map or some pictures. (There is a 1910 map here.) The former BCER (now SRY) tracks can link up well at Scott Road for SkyTrain – in terms of a short walk for passengers, not through running, which would be impractical.

Durtch Railways (NS) Light Rail vehicle

I do think that it needs to be clear that what is being proposed is not to put back the interurban as it was, but rather a modern light rail system to meet current needs. Such as has been used in many other cities in North America and the rest of the world (the picture above was taken in The Netherlands recently). Not a proprietary system: no needless technological leaps forward and no cheaping out to allow a P3 to make mega profits.

The best thing will be the sections of line that will run alongside roads, where motorists stuck in traffic can seen the trains whisking their passengers past in silent comfort.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 16, 2007 at 11:20 am

Posted in Railway

Wheel-clamp profits to be banned

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I covered this issue a while back, but this story on the BBC web page caught my eye.

New Department of Transport guidance says councils should “not seek to make a surplus” from clamping parked cars.

The guidance, which is part of a parking regulations shake-up, puts a priority on winning public support.

It says the enforcement should be “proportional” to the contravention’s seriousness. Wheel-clampers are being urged to target persistent offenders.

Which is, in essence, what was supposed to have happened in the first place. It was only because of the fear of outrage by the privacy advocates that it did not happen, but being clamped for overstaying a meter is a bit like being hanged for stealing a sheep.

The great fear is always that Big Brother does not just want to watch us, he wants to control us. And, sadly, the track record of authority in this field is not very prepossessing. The current – somewhat muted – scandal of unathourised wire taps in the US being only the most recent example.

But the problem for law enforcement is that when people see someone “getting away with it” the temptation is to try it themselves. For a law to be effective, people have to comply with it voluntarily, because they see it as right and just. But increasingly it is difficult to see much justice in the ways the law is drafted and prosecuted. And for some people, evading the law is a way of life.

“We are bringing in quicker clamping and removal times for persistent evaders.”

Wheel-clampers are being urged to make vehicles which are suspicious in other ways – such as not having a valid tax disk – a top priority.

If you read my original piece cited above, you will see the same theme repeated.

I think there is a case for a database. It is the persistent offenders that we need to catch. Speeders, red light runners, parking louts (flickr has whole groups devoted to recording their offences) the regular fare dodger – they can all be caught, because we now have the ability to track them. Currently the feeling seems to be that we would be giving up too much of our liberty if we did crack down on them. I think that misses the point. The current ethos is that law breakers have no fear of being caught. They know that they can get away with their offences most of the time. It is only when photo radar or bait cars are introduced that this belief is falsified. What we need to ask the speeders and so on is, why do they think that they are entitled to break the law? For those who cry “tax grab” the loudest at photo radar, were those who were getting the tickets. And the cost to society of someone who parks on a busy street in peak period in terms of delay – and consequent frustration and road rage and all that – is huge. Taking a blue badge parking spot from someone who cannot manage without it just because you will “only be a minute” is not trivial.

We have already accepted that in order to stop drunk drivers we will be stopped at random checks. In order to reduce the carnage on the streets and drain on our Emergency Rooms, we are checked to see if we are wearing our seat belts. This is not “the nanny state” the libertarians bleat about. It is simple common sense. There is a very clear, positive social cost benefit ratio. And the same applies to clamping the cars that have a glove compartment full of unpaid parking tickets.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 15, 2007 at 9:08 pm

Posted in law enforcement