Stephen Rees's blog

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

Beware of “balance”

with 3 comments

I have seen this word a lot lately. It was prominent in Stephen Harper’s address to the UN about climate change. It features largely in the Gateway apologists recent publicity.

But it is neatly summed up by this quote – which is about Australia and “then” but applies very much to the here and now

While the planning rhetoric of the 1970s turned towards “balance” in transport planning, this was mostly a fiction. For the past 40 years most transport planning effort has been focused on supporting cars with big roads.

For the benefit of Harper fans, you cannot “balance” environment and the economy – because when you get the environment wrong you don’t have an economy any more. Some recent illustrations could be the collapse of the Fraser salmon fishery, or the Exxon Valdez, or the mountain pine beetle. Or you could go further afield, and further back – Chernobyl or Bhopal or PG&E in California.

We cannot “balance” our transport infrastructure by planning to spend a lot on roads now and “promising” to spend on transit later. Transit has been neglected for far too long. And as for the assertion that nothing has been done to the road infrastructure in recent years – poppycock! Huge increments to the road network have been added – and mostly by developers or at their expense. But also by sneaky, underhanded methods such as adding HOV lanes to Highway #1 – a contributory cause of the present discontent I suggest – since they did not replace general traffic lanes (as on Barnet/Hastings) but supplemented them. Plus all those upgraded intersections developers paid for so that they could develop land adjacent to the freeway – which had been set aside in careful prudence against future needs – but was sold off by the present improvident lot who also sold off BC Rail.

Moreover, the rhetoric that suggests that transport spending has not kept pace with population growth includes the extraordinary unstated assumption that there was something “right” about earlier years spending patterns, or that earlier generations did not build in spare capacity for future growth. How dumb do they think we are? Is anyone taken in by this sort of stuff? Obviously not the kids

“I, for one, am sick of being ashamed of my country and its poor behaviour on the world stage,” P.J. Partington of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition told a news conference.

“The government keeps saying Canada’s playing a bridging role in the negotiations, but with our current plan we’re on the road to nowhere.”

Catherine Gauthier, who told leaders the future is in their hands and that too many world capitals are “spinning” their positions, was equally scathing.

“Canada needs to step up our action on climate change or get out of the way of progress,” said Gauthier, a member of the Quebec-based Environnement Jeunesse.

“Our current targets won’t yield real action until I am about to retire, which is completely out of line with the urgency of the science. We cannot play a constructive role in the international negotiations with our current plan.”

Written by Stephen Rees

September 24, 2007 at 1:54 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Amen. I’ve noticed for a few years now that ‘balance’ is the favourite word used to defend inaction, and it’s very effective. It’s not something you can directly counter, because after all, balance is good.

    It’s used in everything. I remember a few years ago, when Geoff Plant was AG, and the Province (after some time) removed a bunch of people camped out on the legislature lawn. Mr. Plant justified the move saying: “We need to balance the right to protest with the right to access the legislature” (as if anyone camping on the lawn was blocking access). They may or may not have had justification for removing the protesters, but the justification was laughable.


    September 24, 2007 at 10:25 pm

  2. I am also tired of hearing the word balance used to stall and defend the status quo. It’s always used in an abstract way, so it’s difficult to criticize. No reasonable person is going to say “I am against balance; I am in favour of imbalance”. I’d like someone (the press, the Loyal Opposition?) to ask “pretty please, can you tell us in concrete terms what you mean by ‘balance’?” Maybe then we’d get to hear a statement that was based on something in reality, instead of the Zone of Platonic Ideals or wherever this wishy-washy crap about balance comes from.

    I wish there was a way we could hold these spin doctors to their word when it comes to balance. Let’s propose to spend the same amount of society’s resources on public transport over the next N years as has been devoted to the private automobile over the past N. Pick any value for N (30, 50, 80, …). First hide the thesaurus though, so they don’t start yakking about harmony and symmetry.

    We need to “re-frame the debate” so that the word balance cannot be used like this anymore. We’ve been in a state of Transport Imbalance for a long time and if that idea gets out there, then every time someone talks about “balance”, the listener will hear “imbalance”.


    September 25, 2007 at 7:59 am

  3. My interest is in public discourse and the way in which balance has become the enemy of truth, i.e. in order to create balance in a debate, media workers will elevate myths, rumours, fears and even lies in order to create balance against truth. Balance is often a legal requirement while truth is not.

    Have a look at this on global warming denial:


    January 19, 2009 at 9:46 am

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