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

Archive for October 2007

Basi, Virk and now some cabinet ministers – maybe?

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I will confess I have not got a clue what is going on. I am depressed by the sub at the Tyee who decided to use the word “Railgate” in the headline. But Bill Tieleman is hanging in there and letting us know what’s happening.

I have the distinct impression – which may just reflect lack of diligence on my part – that the rest of the media just think this whole thing is a big yawn.  It certainly doesn’t do much to build one’s faith in the Canadian justice system.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 29, 2007 at 4:10 pm

Posted in BC Rail

The sorry state of railway safety in Canada

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Emile Therien is former president of the Canada Safety Council

A very professional and objective assessment of what has been happening on Canada’s railways recently – but especially CN.

At one time, the railway culture was determined by safety. Now that appears to have been replaced by the desire for growth and ever increasing profits. There is no doubt at all the CN has been very successful from the point of view of its shareholders. But the cost to our environment and the working conditions of employees has been dreadful. And I cannot help but draw the conclusion that government has not just allowed this to happen, but has actually encouraged it. We need to think very carefully before we subscribe to the notion that private sector business practices are the touchstone by which all activity is measured. They are very bad indeed when it comes to notions of “externalities”. But just because they do not show up in the quarterly financials does not mean they are not very significant indeed.

Right wing governments across the world have indulged in an orgy of privatisation and deregulation, mainly due to ideological rather than sound performance reasons. Governments started to take enterprises into public ownership when private sector business could not deliver the required performance. Often, in the case of Canada’s railways, when companies failed and went bankrupt. While society’s needs do change over time, some fundamental public concerns remain and they were supposed to be incorporated into regulatory regimes. But the same ideologues have been cutting into government’s ability to do its job – mainly on the excuse that less government (and more tax cuts) are good for us. Well looking at the transportation sector, I think we can now draw the conclusion that these policies were wrong, and must be reversed. And if something manifestly doesn’t work, continuing to do it is a sign of insanity.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 28, 2007 at 3:13 pm

Posted in privatisation, Railway

New motorway speed limit will be 40mph during the rush hour

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Times online

I have been naging on here about speed limits and road safety for a while. I have also been trying to advance the argument that making better use of existing infrastructure should be our first resort, not the last. This report from England shows that pro-actively managing speeds can improve traffic flow reducing emissions and be “a cheaper way of accommodating rising traffic levels than widening motorways.”

This is the sort of idea that should have been examined carefully and objectively by the Ministry of Covering BC in Concrete before they started inviting bids for the widening of Highway #1. It shoudl also have featured prominently in the environmental assessment which is supposed to look at alternatives. Of course, the current one doesn’t other than “do-nothing”. But the combination of traffic managemnt and improved transit would increase the capacity of the existing road and bridge without inducing more single occupant car traffic – which is the current problem.

Traffic engineers typically look at how to move more vehicles. But planers and economists have for years been saying it is the movement of people (and goods) that matters. But of course to the politicians we are currently saddled with, all this fine detail just sails over the uncomprehending heads. They want a mega-project they can ribbon cut.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 26, 2007 at 11:38 am

Posted in Gateway, Traffic

“Gateway Program a balanced solution”

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Kevin Falcon, Special to the Sun
Published: Thursday, October 25, 2007

There a lies, damn lies and then there is the Gateway Program.

I am not going to reproduce all of this propaganda but, as expected, the little wooden headed puppet’s nose is getting longer by the minute.

we are acting now to reduce congestion, improve the movement of people and goods and provide access to key economic gateways.

Nothing will actually happen on the ground for several years. So congestion will continue unabated until then, as there is no strategy for transportation demand management (TDM). For one thing there are no resources available right now and costs of existing projects keep shooting up because of pressure on both labour and materials. A sensible response to this situation might be to introduce measures now that would make better use of existing resources: but that would mean resorting to common sense.

After the doubled bridge and new highway lanes are opened, the existing bottleneck will still be there – more lanes leading up to the bridges than lanes on them – so congestion will return. There is to be no congestion pricing – just a fixed toll – and that means getting the best rate of return for the P3 partner, who has therefore no interest in reducing demand, because that will cut into revenue. That is a different calculation from how do you get the best use of the infrastructure – which is not about moving vehicles, but people and goods. And there will be no toll on the freeway itself, so there is no restraint on the traffic making short trips along the freeway but not crossing the river – in other words, most of it. So we can expect to see traffic growing rapidly until the new capacity is more than fully occupied. That does not mean “reduce congestion” that means “increase congestion” which has happened in every region that has tried to cure congestion by building freeways.

the Gateway Project will implement key transit and cycling options that are currently impossible with today’s congested conditions and inadequate infrastructure.

Twaddle. Completely untrue. Go to the MoTH web site and have a look at the web cams trained on the Bridge. Gosh, that sure looks like moving traffic to me. The congestion is at the on ramps and their merge sections onto the freeway before the bridge. None of which are fitted with ramp metering.

Cycling options – well I will leave that for the experts but I would think from my observation that cyclists would actually do better if the traffic were not moving – they seem to be able to squeeze through really well when the traffic stalls elsewhere. “Congested conditions” actually favour bikes, on the whole.

When the twinned Port Mann Bridge opens in 2013

Note that the Environmental Assessment has not even been completed yet, let alone approval given, but then Kevin knows that is a slam dunk. (Actually no EA in BC has ever said “No” to any development, though some no hopers were withdrawn mid process.) No matter that it is wholly inadequate, ignores what we all know (generated traffic, land use impacts) and is totally unrealistic in its traffic forecasts. You might think he would at least use language that pretends to honour the EA process, since we are still expected to respond to what is presented as “consultation”. Of course, what he has really done is admit that the consultation is in fact a sham and always has been. Since this is “a done deal” as he and his master have said in public more than once.

Initiatives like this stem from our recognition that getting people out of their cars and onto public transit is key to resolving congestion in the long run.

Your “recognition” might be a bit more credible if you were actually ordering more buses now – and putting up the money for the Evergreen Line instead of flannelling on about a “business case”. Not that there is a business case for the Gateway. How does doubling the size of the freeway from Vancouver to Langley actually get anyone out of a car? Your commitment to public transit is a few million dollars in six years time, but your commitment to road building is in the billions. How does that get to be termed “balanced”? Especially since you have starved transit for funding for years, and are now determined to get property taxes raised to pay for the modest expansions you will allow?

NDP Opposition says “No” to the Gateway Program … but is unable to offer commuters any coherent alternative.

The alternative has been on the Livable Region web page for a while now

Written by Stephen Rees

October 25, 2007 at 3:43 pm

Posted in Gateway

Emergency Management

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This was another of those forums for discussion organised by Metro Vancouver for the Sustainable Region Initiative. We were supposed to discussing “what happens when a catastrophic event extends beyond municipal boundaries?” but on the whole we didn’t. There was a lot of discussion about recent disasters, and how well everybody co-operated – for example when a plane hit a building in Richmond last week, all kinds of help came in to Richmond from adjacent municipalities, which shows that, as a number of people pointed out, we are getting better than we were. But there is still a long way to go.

Johnny Carline (Metro’s CAO) pointed out that there is no regional power to co-ordinate emergency planning – not that that seems to stop them. What happens at present is that the province is the next step, and John Oakley the Senior Regional Manager did answer most of the questions. But he did say that his region does go beyond Metro. He also thought that Translink goes beyond Metro, which (except for WCE) it doesn’t- yet. Though Falcon thinks it might, the local Mayors beyond Metro have been pretty clear that their constituents are not going to pay for buses in Vancouver.

The basic message was that we cannot expect any help from the federal government any more. There’s no military close enough for one thing. But also government in general is not going to help people who should be able to look after themselves. That is why you are supposed to have a week’s supply of drinking water, non-perishable food and essential supplies (like toilet paper) in your home. And have figured out what to do when the power goes out and the phone doesn’t work. The emergency response is designed to help the members of the community that cannot be expected to look after themselves or control their own lives. The very young, the very old and the disabled, for example. That also includes people who need methadone.

Many of the people displaced by the plane crash did not even have home insurance. Since they were in a condo I found that a bit surprising: a lot of tenants cannot afford home insurance (which costs as much for just personal property as home owners are charged for their entire home) so I suppose that means that the condos are not owned by the people who live there. Home insurance does cover earthquakes, but not floods, by the way. Guess which is more likely.

A family doctor, who is also a parent concerned about school safety, pointed out that earthquakes do not kill people. Bad buildings do. And 311 schools are still at high risk in a moderate to severe earthquake. Local school boards are in no hurry to fix these buildings and bring them up to standard, as it would raise property taxes. No one talked about how safe community centres were, but they will play an important role in any major disaster.

Someone else doubted the wisdom of putting the replacement for St Paul’s Hospital on False Creek Flats which is likely to be flooded in almost any major disaster scenario. But of course Providence Health does not report to the City or the Region. It talks to the Ministry of Health, and they don’t seem to talk to anyone else.

There was also quite a lot of concern about what happens during the Olympics – as we will be already stretched at that point so another event on top will really test things. There were soothing noises, but no specifics. Mayor Lois Jackson of Delta was there as Metro Chair, but she obviously enjoys the role of taking charge during a disaster. As she herself pointed out, it was Rudy Giuliani who took over on 9/11. She made it clear that it is the Mayor who runs things when there is a flood or an earthquake.

I cannot resist retelling my favourite disaster response story. It happened in Victoria during a sudden huge snow storm a few Christmases ago. The Municipality of Oak Bay had the only snow plough in Greater Victoria. It also has a high proportion of elderly residents who might need to get to a hospital. So out came the plough and cleared the main street of Oak Bay so the ambulances could get through, but the hospital is actually in the City of Victoria. And the snow plough turned around at the municipal boundary and went back to its shed. And Oak Bay refused to lend it to Victoria to get the job completed.

When I worked on the citiesPLUS plan, I was very impressed by the then GVRD Emergency Planner, who told us about the importance of not building on flood plains or unstable slopes, which seemed like good advice to me. Which makes me wonder about places like Richmond and the North Shore. Sometimes, the municipality may not be the right level to plan for these things. But at least the emergency responders can now talk to each other – so the fact that every one of the 21 municipalities has its own fire brigade and police arrangement may now be of less concern. Although Doug Kelsey told an interesting yarn about the police forces that cover WCE arguing over jurisdiction – and that includes railway police as well as different local forces.

But overall I got the sense that there will only be as much regional cooperation as the Mayors deem necessary – and anyway most of us will simply be told to stay put, stay off the emergency response routes and be sure we have enough supplies for 72 hours – or was that a week? At least we will be told if we remembered to buy fresh batteries or have a wind up radio.

You do have a wind up radio, don’t you?

Written by Stephen Rees

October 25, 2007 at 3:12 pm

Gas prices affect TransLink

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Matthew Burrows in the Georgia Straight

Translink gets a flat 12c a litre of the provincial fuel tax – no matter what the gas sells for. The feds of course get the GST which is based on price and taxes (tax on tax – only in Canada!). When the price goes up, people buy less of it. And oil pirces are not going to go down very much for very long in future. Of course the genius in Victoria who wants tot ake back controil into his own hands thinks that future revenue increases should come from property tax, which is stupid and regressive but means the tax payers will blame their local council and not the provincial Liberals. Which is the sort of short term, small minded self interested thinking that dominates when people like Kevin Falcon get elected.

The old Translink Board refuses to recognize its lame duck status, and after a bit of toing and froing finally comes out for some demand side management. Actually Richmond’s Mayor Brodie had to wake up and switch sides to break the deadlock.
Which was the right thing to do but is very unlikely to make any difference. Given the size of the Liberal majority in the leg, they will continue to barrel on, relying on spin to get past the awkward questions. Like how does this help us reduce our greenhouse gases when transportation is one of its biggest components? There will be targets apparently for things like oil or forestry- the big industries. Not the things that voters do. And no talk about actually effective policies, like a carbon tax or congestion charges.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 25, 2007 at 8:56 am

Posted in politics, transit, Transportation

Tagged with

Should the province run transit?

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The answer in this region for many years was a resounding “No!”. BC Transit was cash starved, and while the Vancouver region grew rapidly, the transit system didn’t. The Mayors wanted local control, and finally, in 1999 they got it. But then they were denied the funding mechanism they had chosen. And now the province wants to take back control – only it is diguising it as a “professional” take over, which fools no one.

Meanwhile in the centre of the known universe, the equally cash starved and under funded Toronto Transit Commission is also in trouble. And the Toronto Star asked its readers if the province should take it over. And most of the answers seem to be “Yes”.

I suspect that the answers are based on the mind set that “anyone could do a better job than the current crowd”. But I think it is not about management, I think it is about money. And the fact that Canadian cities are really stuck when it comes to funds. They only have access to property taxes and user fees. And Canadians feel that they pay way too much tax in general, so there is very little willingness to give the cities any more.

What people really want in both Vancouver and Toronto is more and better transit. And it doesn’t matter who provides it, as long as they don’t have to pay any more in taxes or fares to get it.   Because as far as they are concerned all government at every level is not only awash with cash but they only know how to waste it.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 24, 2007 at 4:36 pm

Posted in transit

Canadian ports losing business to U.S.

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The Conference Board of Canada has released a report that says that long line ups at the border are the reason that BC ports are failing to take business from the US ports.

One reason is congestion at border crossings, according to Dalhousie University transportation professor Mary Brooks, the author of the Conference Board of Canada report. Another is government red tape that is causing overseas shippers to take their business elsewhere, she said.

“There has not been the same investment in border infrastructure as would be dictated by the increased growth in traffic,” she said.

As well, tighter security has put more emphasis on inspection.

Now, just to be absolutely clear about this, these arrangements have nothing to do with governments north of the border. Federal or provincial. Border delays southbound are caused by US border officials.

Furthermore, while the agreement may be called “North American Free Trade” we do not have that, and it is very unlikely we ever will. If you look at other places where borders between countries are being taken down – Europe being the obvious example – there is a huge difference between what has been happening there and what has been happening here. And it is a lot more deep seated than the tourette’s “9/11” which gets inserted into every cross border discussion.

The softwood lumber dispute is, I think, the best illustration of how free trade does not work for Canada. The protectionist instinct in Washington is as strong as it ever was. Free trade that works to increase the access of American controlled multinationals is one thing: trade which demonstrates that another country has an advantage is something else. If its our resources they want, better stand back or get trampled.

The Gateway assumes that Vancouver (and I suppose , grudgingly, Prince Rupert too) can compete with US ports. I don’t think so, Tim. They did not lie down and let us take all their Alaska cruise ship traffic: Chinese container ships, or Japanese car carriers, will not be any different. I think that before we spend any more money on this venture, we should ask ourselves if the Americans are ready to play nicely with others. Their economy is looking very shaky right now. There is a real prospect that there will be a recession there, following the real estate collapse and the credit crunch. Indeed, that is being cited as one of the reasons why US retail prices are notably lower than here

“U.S. retailers have been slashing prices and bleeding margins just to hang on to any degree of market share because of all the economic issues and the fear that they’re heading into a recession,”

Derek Nighbor, national affairs vice-president of the Retail Council of Canada

( from another CBC story today)

The first instinct of any US politician is to look after the interests of his local constituents: even if in theory he supports that idea of free trade, that support is conditional – as long as it doesn’t hurt me electorally. And I think the stevedores and teamsters will have a lot more pull in Washington in future, and the true believers in Hayek and free markets will be a lot less influential.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 23, 2007 at 6:27 pm

Posted in Gateway

Tagged with

City Business: Gordon Price

with 2 comments

Business in Vancouver:

Gordon posted this week’s article to the lrc listserve: it is worth reproducing in full. Well done Gord!

Liberals’ Gateway transit commitment too little, too late

Twenty buses in six years.

That was the extent of the commitment the premier made as part of the Gateway project for service south of the Fraser. When the twinned Port Mann Bridge opens around 2013, there will be an express bus service running across it.
If you were a planner south of the Fraser, would you now want to reorient your community transportation plan? If you were a developer, would you now cut back on the number of parking spaces? If you were a home buyer, would you change the location of where you buy so you wouldn’t need a second car? If you were a student, would expect to get around by U-Pass?

Will 20 buses in six years turn the valley away from car and truck dependence?

Obviously, no – not just that. But it could be a start.

In the meantime, for at least the next six years, most people in the valley south of the Fraser will reasonably expect to get around solely by car.
Given that the biggest promise of Gateway is improved vehicle mobility, the fastest growing part of Metro Vancouver will build itself out on that expectation.

The valley will be a northern version of southern California.

That’s the real consequence of Gateway: putting the pattern of car dependence in place.

For the next six years, we will design our built environment – our buildings, our streets, our subdivisions, our shopping centres – on the assumption that the car will be the No. 1 and only. A few places will be different: Surrey City Centre, uptown White Rock, Langley City. But most of the valley will be designed for the guys who drive big trucks.

Six years from now, however, our assumptions might be different. Mother Nature is already starting to punch back. The reality of climate change – not the theory – is changing our expectations about the future. Add in peak oil, the geopolitics of energy competition, unexpected financial fallout – and a fossil fuel-dependent transportation system, with no Plan B, doesn’t look to be as promising as its assumptions.

Even using current plans and projections, Gateway doesn’t pass the smell test, in part because it lowballs the carbon impact. The Sightline Institute in Seattle estimates that every one-mile stretch of lane added to a congested highway will increase climate-warming CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 tons over 50 years. Gateway rather deceptively focuses only on congestion-related emissions, resulting in an estimate that bears little relationship to reality.

But beyond that, Gateway’s model doesn’t take into account the changes induced by the project itself. And in the end, it’s not just about the road and the bridge; it’s about city building.

It’s hard to get an answer from Gateway supporters to this essential question: what place in North America would you like Metro Vancouver to be more like? Calgary? The 905 Belt of Toronto?

Is there any growing region that has solved the problem of increasing vehicle congestion by building more roads and bridges – and is that what we should be more like? Atlanta? Denver?

Examples given so far: none.

We’re going to need a few alternatives, and soon. Change is coming at us, and fast. If we stay on the present course, we’re going to be increasingly vulnerable as things turn ugly.

The premier, showing the leadership that continues to outflank his critics, has called for us to shape a different reality: 33% fewer greenhouse emissions by 2020. Twenty buses, I assume, are a downpayment to start us moving in that direction, but it’s a very small downpayment and a very long time in coming. There’s no reason why the queue jumpers couldn’t be built now. The problem for bus service is not the bridge; it’s the roads leading to it.

The premier still has to define a much larger strategic direction for Gateway, as he did for the region when he was chairman of the GVRD – a vision expressed in land use, in city building, in a valley that is less vehicle-dependent, not more.
So much remains to be done – transit plans completed, land-use plans revised, serious resources committed – if planners, developers, home buyers and students are going to reach a different set of conclusions than the ones they’re getting so far from Gateway.

Gordon Price is the director of Simon Fraser University’s city program and a former Vancouver city councillor. His column appears monthly.Gordon Price

Written by Stephen Rees

October 22, 2007 at 7:28 pm

Electric Cars

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Lengthy, thorough and highly positive piece on electric vehicles. Basically it takes the line that you either have to build your own car conversion or buy an electric bike. Which must make some local manufacturers a bit miffed.

UPDATE October 25

Watching the CBC News this evening, I learned that the real problem is with Transport Canada who have refused to allow IT or Zenn low speed vehciles on the roads in Canada. IT have given up and will close the Annacis Island manufacturing plant and go off shore, Zenn in Quebec (approved in the US undert the same rules that Canada adopted years ago) is on the point of giving up on Canada. And, of course, I cannot find this story on the CBC web page

But the best bit for my money is the article’s debunking of the nonsense of the “hydrogen highway” that the Province and Arnie are pushing

Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen is not an energy source. The gas is bound up chemically with other compounds such as oil, gas and water. It needs to be separated from those compounds, which requires more energy than hydrogen provides. Hydrogen is a net energy loser, and the amount of hydrogen needed to power automobiles in North America would be staggering.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 22, 2007 at 4:04 pm