Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for January 2008

My other car is a bright green city

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Here is a blog post that you should go read. Allow yourself some time because it is very long and has all kinds of neat links, but it is far and away the best argument I have yet come across which explains why making technical improvements to cars, and decreasing their emissions, is not the solution to our problems. As someone once remarked to me, “If they were all ZEVs tomorrow, we would still have a hell of a problem!”

Written by Stephen Rees

January 31, 2008 at 8:43 pm


with 4 comments


I suppose that means I must be doing something right. Which, for a retired boomer who seems to annoy the bejesus out of some people, is a comfort.

In the month of January the number of views grew by 40% – and the blog had its best day ever at 647 views.

Welcome all you lovely people who come here to read. And also thank you to the vast majority of supportive commenters. Yes, we do have a couple of trolls now but that is just par for the course for any on line discussion group. They are not going to take over the debate. If that means a return to comment moderation, I trust that you will understand. Please, do not feed the trolls.

Raul asked me how I find interesting things to write about. The problem I face is that there is so much out there, it is more about selection from a growing plethora than finding things. And anyway, if I told you how it was done, you might go off and do it for yourselves. I do, by the way, check on the pingbacks and referrers, and if you do have a blog I usually try to have a look around which often leads me to leave a comment too. So I hope that it all becomes mutually supportive – which does not mean we have to agree. Except on being polite.

Once again, thank you for your attention.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 31, 2008 at 3:54 pm

Translink set to buy a fleet of “green” buses

with 10 comments

Jeff Nagel, Richmond Review, 31 January 2008

The Translink Press Release also has a copy of the Novabus spec sheet too.

Translink is going to buy 141 Nova hybrids for $81.5 m 32 are expansion buses, 109 are replacements and they will be allocated to Vancouver and Burnaby, displacing some older diesels to Surrey. This is because they work best in stop and go traffic: braking regenerates power which is stored in the battery. At a price of $580,000 per bus they are about $100,000 more than a straight diesel but cheaper than a roughly $1m trolleybus. Hybrids should be cheaper to operate than diesels as they use less fuel. The choice of hybrids came after extensive testing of other buses – so no more cng or hythane – good!

Written by Stephen Rees

January 31, 2008 at 3:26 pm

Posted in transit

Tagged with

Road improvements are coming

with 8 comments

By Matthew Hoekstra – Richmond Review – January 30, 2008

Well, the good news here is that the tunnel is not likely to be enlarged any time soon, but it does look like the Steveston Highway overpass will get looked at. And Richmond’s daft notion of a new interchange on #99 at Blundell has been replaced by a Highway 91 interchange at Nelson Road. This is for the port related development on the north bank of the South Arm.

And then the Minister talked about transit

Drawing applause from the crowd, Falcon reiterated his commitment to turnstiles at all rapid transit stations in the region. Turnstiles make people pay for transit they use and provide a sense of safety.

“You never want to underestimate the importance of that. Whether it be the Netherlands or in Paris or in London, there’s no question that commuters, particularly women, feel safer when they’re in a controlled environment, where not every single aggressive panhandler or nut that feels like wandering into a station can do so and harass the patrons.

“Believe it or not, criminals are not the smartest people in the world. They generally won’t pay three to five bucks to go into a station and harass people. That’s a good thing.”

So now its agressive panhandlers and nuts we worry about. Not fare evaders costing us revenue, notice. Which seems to me to be tacit acceptance that gates are not going to pay for themselves. He seems to have stopped talking about how he “knows” fare evasion is higher than Translink admits.

It is also probably significant that he is no longer talking about actual safety – as opposed to perceived safety. If I was Minister of Transport, I think what would grab my attention more is not how safe some people feel or don’t feel, but what the data tells us about injuries and deaths. I might also look at property damage and losses too. Because while that will probably not get me a standing ovation at a Richmond Chamber of Commerce breakfast, it might give me some ideas on what the best rate of return on an increment of $100m might buy me. I suspect that it would look like a road traffic law enforcement program. There is a very good letter about a recent four day crackdown by Richmond RCMP in the same paper edition that does not appear on line. 250 violations were ticketed – 123 were speeding, 10 for driving without a licence. The letter writer suggests that more than 4 days is needed.

And if “nuts and panhandlers” are a problem, spending $100m on housing for the homeless, and more care for those tipped out of institutions might make a lot more sense. Since those problems were largely created by provincial government cuts to essential social welfare programs. But of course to a BC Liberal a crack down on fare evasion or a campaign to keep beggars and homeless people off SkyTrain looks so much more attractive than wondering why we have those social problems in the first place.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 31, 2008 at 3:16 pm

Buses or trains?

with 12 comments

This debate is kick started here by the BC government’s announcement – which might be summarised as trains for Vancouver, Coquitlam and part of North Surrey and buses for everywhere else, sooner but mostly later.

The same quarrel is raging in Ottawa – and I don’t mean the federal government but the city region. Or at least the bit of it in Ontario. The city fathers are accusing the rail advocates of jumping to conclusions. But the fact of the matter is Ottawa is the only city in Canada that adopted the “Curitiba” approach. And they spent a lot of money on a busway, but used ordinary buses instead of high floor ones, so that the routes could feed onto the busway with no change of vehicle required. This means that in a city whose peak period is mainly civil servants commuting to downtown, they got a comfortable one seat ride – no transfers – from near their front door to near their office.

OC Transpo 8040 Ottawa ON 2002_0209.jpg

But, as usual, the instincts to pinch pennies meant that they failed to do the downtown bit properly, so at the end of the busway, the buses have to fight traffic on street, with nothing like enough bus priority.


UPDATE Feb 3 2008

I have just come across a video of the BRT system in Bogota – and it is even better than Curitiba. I also posted about this on the Livable Blog


Even Calgary did downtown surface transit better than Ottawa! And now the argument turns on a tunnel! WRONG.

Calgary Transit 2206 7th Ave 2005_0713

Why am I against tunnels in towns for transit? Because grade separation is nearly always to give cars free reign on the surface. Cars and urbanity are a problematic but not insoluable issue. But grade separation means that access to transit is harder than on the surface. Some European cities experimented with what they called “pre-metro” – they put the trams underground in the city centre as a first step to a complete metro system. And they quickly realised it was a mistake, for the space freed up by taking up the tram tracks was instantly filled by more car traffic. And what city centres need is more space to walk, and sit around in pleasant public spaces and watch the passing scene.

Surface for transit demonstrates commitment to people – not cars. Rail transit is more predictable – trams cannot leave their tracks, so you know where they are going to be – but you can also do various guided bus ways too. And as long as there is a commitment to transit priority – produced by a combination of regulations and hard engineering (like pop up traffic blockers) there is not much to choose between bus and rail until you get to very high passenger throughput. So called “intermediate capacity” systems pretty much wash out even with pluses and minuses on both sides.

Rail is better if you want to convince developers you are serious. Buses – even when you build a dedicated bus way – are easy to take away. Just ask Richmond. Oddly enough, underground railways do not attract development – at least that is what the developers told the London Docklands Development Corporation. “A staircase on the corner of the street leading down a hole gives me nothing to sell” said more than one. A rail station will have a much larger walk in area than a bus stop. People are prepared to walk further to get to a train than a bus. So on a greenfield – or a brownfield like the docklands – I would pick rail. But if you have a city with a busway already the reason you might switch to rail is capacity. In Toronto they used to have a rule of thumb. You increase bus service until you have them nose to tail, then you put in streetcars. Then when you have streetcars nose to tail you build a subway. Except of course it did not work out like that.

I think you need to start with what kind of city do you want. Think first of how it will work, and what it will look like to people living, working and relaxing there. Transportation is not an end in itself. It is way of doing everything else. And transportation by any mode starts and ends with a walk. So start your urban design work with walking – and see how to fit in other modes. Cities worked very well for thousands of years, long before cars, and long before buses and trams come to that. The qualities of urbanity can still be seen in the cities that have retained the structure of the pre-industrial age. And it is no surprise at all when we come to create new places, we tend to pick up on the cues that are common to all successful cities. And if you want to see what distopia looks like it is usually dominated by machines. No one wants to live in la ville radieuse.

But since we have machines, if anything goes underground it should be the utilities not the people. Trains overhead – the el – I find oppressive as a pedestrian – even if the view from the train is better. What London has rediscovered recently is that when your underground system is straining you can do a lot with buses – and bus lanes and bus only streets. Especially if you add road pricing to pay for them.

What is instructive about the debate in Ottawa is how sterile it is. It is an argument between transit enthusiasts – not a discussion about how to make Ottawa a better place. I think the debate here is at least a step or two forward, since we start with Livability as the criterion. Not mobility – which has turned out to be such a snare and a delusion. And yes that is hard for some to grasp – especially those who are only interested in making lots of money quickly, or defending their self interest. Or who see economic growth as a desirable end in itself – arguing it makes all other things possible when in fact what it does is shut off some of the best possibilities.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 31, 2008 at 2:49 pm

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

The US economy

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I have predicted here, more than once, that the US recession is going to be serious and long term. That argument is one I use to question the “need” for Gateway. In case you think this is merely me being a Jeremiah it is based on what economists call “fundamentals”. This article looks at recent economic history in the US and explains why the present measures to stave off recession do not address the current problems.

Robert Reich is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He is former US secretary of labour and author of “Supercapitalism

Most Americans are still not prospering in the high-technology, global economy that emerged three decades ago. Almost all the benefits of economic growth since then have gone to a small number of people at the very top.

The question for us of course is the extent to which the optimism of our governments that we are somehow insulated from these effects is justified. The real wage stagnation, increased working hours and labour participation rates as well as high personal borrowing rates are also seen here – though in somewhat more muted fashion. But mostly the US is still our biggest market. And our motor vehicle manufacturing sector is inextricably linked to US factories on the other side of the border – as we have recently seen. Our lumber industry here has been hit very hard indeed by the declne in US housing starts and the falling value of the greenback is causing us all kinds of heartburn – not least in tourism.

Yet we think that they are going to let us take a bigger slice of their port business? I don’t think so, Tim.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 31, 2008 at 11:02 am

Posted in Economics

Water cloudy

with 3 comments

Richmond News

Published: Thursday, January 31, 2008The City of Richmond and Vancouver Coastal Health officials are warning Richmond residents that water main upgrades could cause some cloudiness in their tap water, though the discolouration poses little risk to healthy individuals.

A city news release said Metro Vancouver staffers are conducting work near the Oak Street Bridge as part of seismic upgrades.

Vancouver Coastal Health spokesperson Viviana Zanocco said health unit officials are monitoring the water, and that the turbidity is a result of a change in the water’s flow. The water used to flow from Vancouver to Richmond and through to Delta, it is now running from Delta back to Richmond.

I am reproducing this announcement entire as a public service to my fellow residents of Richmond. Who have probably all installed filtration systems of one kind or another on their drinking water anyway. In addition to the turbidity mentioned above, these systems are generally considered essential since they also remove the strange swimming pool smell of chlorine, the “tea leaf scale” – a sort of light brown fleck – that we get from the inside of our water mains – and – for some people who are really worried about their health – the parasites and other nasties that seem to get through every so often.

The people who do not have these systems buy their water already filtered and bottled. At great expense. For some reason they do not take any comfort from the announcements of the authorities. While they bitch and complain about bus fares and gasoline at over $1 a litre they seem to be willing to pay more than that for water they feel safe with. I wonder why. Perhaps it is because the stuff that comes out of the taps does not look clean – even when no work is being done. There are also people who put filters on their showerheads, and say it makes them feel better.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 31, 2008 at 9:55 am

Posted in water

Translink bills : Only one Taxpayer

with 4 comments

There’s an op ed piece today which is creditted to Kevin Falcon. It is in response to the Sun’s earlier “Hide your money before the TransLink Gang turns you into roadkill, Jan. 24″

It is of course a simple recycling of what has been said before – but the kicker is at the end

But the benefits of this plan go beyond just addressing climate change.

This is about building stronger, denser, more vibrant communities that will grow near transit hubs and along corridors.

It’s about giving people in the Lower Mainland choices to efficiently get where they need to go — by walking, cycling, transit or car.

This suggests that someone in the MoT is paying attention. And of course it is absolutely right, and must be applauded. Well done Kevin! Now perhaps you would just care to explain why you need to build all those highways first – which will of course have exactly the opposite effect. And while you are at it explain why since the BC Liberals have been in power for the last seven years you have done so little in terms of transit for the fastest growing parts of this region? And that the only significant investment in rapid transit in that time (the Canada Line) has already destroyed one “dense vibrant community” centre (Cambie Street in Vancouver) and you have not even thought seriously about compensation for the businesses destroyed by cut and cover construction which even you now admit was a bad decision and won’t be used on Broadway.

You might also like to comment on why in your announcement there was so little for the South of the Fraser in terms of rapid transit. And nothing for Abbotsford or Chilliwack for twenty years when they already have a railway line that could carry passenger trains now – and get them to Langley and Surrey, which for people in that area are actually more important destinations than Vancouver.

In the next twent years another million people are coming here. And for the first half of that time all they will see are new highways. Do you seriously mean that this will convince them to go for “hubs and corridors” that have only inadequate transit as they do at present?

People need more choices NOW.  Especially those struggling to get between Surrey and Coquitlam in the peak periods. You could be running a fast, frequent bus service between those two centres today – by the simple expedient of using a short length of the northbound hard shoulder of Highway #1 in the morning peak as an exclusive bus lane to get past the queue and onto the bridge. But you actually stopped Translink from doing that!

Kevin , you have a huge problem – it’s called lack of credibility. And sending stuff like this to the paper only makes matters worse.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 31, 2008 at 9:44 am

B.C. introduces taxi passenger’s bill of rights

with 5 comments


About bloody time too! All of these issues have been around for years. There is also a need to see something done to effectively enforce these rights, which is not helped by the current arrangements which divide responsibilities between the municipalities and the BC Passenger Transport Board. And of course, you should always start with the company operating the cab – make a note of the cab number, they should know who was supposed to have been driving at the time.

The passengers’ rights are:

  • Be picked up and transported to their stated destination by any available on-duty taxi driver.
  • Pay the posted rate by cash, or accepted credit card or taxi-saver voucher.
  • A courteous driver who provides assistance, if requested.
  • Travel with an assistance dog or portable mobility aid.
  • A taxi that is clean, smoke-free and in good repair.
  • Direct the route, or expect the most economical route.
  • A quiet atmosphere, upon request.
  • A detailed receipt, when requested.

What of course is amazing is that these basic customer service principles have to be spelled out, but each is indicative of a shocking record. Every time I read a report of s surprise on road inspection (and there are not nearly enough of those) dangerous cabs are ordered off the road. Refusal to accept taxi savers (used by the disabled as an alternative to handyDART when a van is not available), not helping passengers who need assistance to get in and out of the cab or to and from the front door, refusing to take guide and assistance dogs and refusing to go where the passenger asks to go were constant complaints that I saw at Translink. And just in case you think my complaints are just about the needs of the aged and disabled, I was refused a trip from the MoT office in Burnaby to the Helijet very early on in my career in BC. The driver said he wanted to go off duty soon and did not want to have to go to Vancouver where he is not allowed to pick up passengers. He took me to the SkyTrain at Metrotown – which was actually quicker and cheaper – but that is not the point!

I have long argued that the model we should adopt here is the one used in London – but hardly anywhere else! Getting a black cab license is very difficult. But it is not regulated by quantity as it is here (which gives rise to a market in scarce cab licenses) but by quality. The driver has to pass the “knowledge”- which takes at least two years of full time study and the vehicle must meet rigorous inspection and specification standards. It is by no means a perfect system, as minicabs are also needed to provide lower cost service in the suburbs. But it does mean that drivers can make a decent living – and work as and when they want to, which means more cabs appear on the streets at times when demand is high (but not when it is raining for some reason). And regulation is now under the aegis of Transport for London – and thus the Mayor.

The real problem here is that no-one who has a choice would want to be a taxi driver. If you do not own a license (and that usually requires a mortgage on your house to buy one) you have to rent one, and a cab, and pay for gas, insurance, dispatch fees and so on. And all that is paid up front before you pick up a single passenger. If a cab driver is lucky he might make minimum wage. Only the very privileged get the premium work – airport to downtown is the best, and produces the biggest tips.

The lack of cabs in this region has reduced the size of the market. People here have got much more creative about avoiding the need for a cab – because they have had no choice. And anyone who tries to expand that choice will come under fervent opposition from the existing licence holders, whose only interest is in protecting the value of their investment. Service to the public does not even get considered. Or the role that hired vehicles could play in reducing the need for car ownership.

UPDATE Feb 2 – Miro Certenig thinks drivers will find a way around the bill

Written by Stephen Rees

January 30, 2008 at 12:01 pm

Posted in taxi, Transportation

Tagged with

Travel in metro yesterday

with one comment

The media are full of reports about conditions yesterday. A snow storm led to very poor driving conditions – and once again demonstrated that all seasons radials are not the best choice for driving on snow and ice. Richmond did not get many of its arterials salted and at 10.00 am Garden City south of Granville had heavily impacted snow as it is a bus route. I could see no evidence of salt or sand, let alone a plough.

West Coast Express was disrupted by a CP derailment near Second Narrows, that got a lot of coverage on CBC News last night. What impresses me is the way that Doug Kelsey shows up, and not only does a stand up in the snow interview but helps direct passengers and provides information. Can anyone remember any other CEO of Translink or its subsidairies doing anything similar? Or even senior office staff?

I must admit that I only ever tried once, in my early days at BC Transit. At that time I used a combination of the SkyTrain and the #410 to commute between Richmond and Gateway. An even longer wait than usual at 22nd Street Station, and a long line up, prompted me to go back into the station and pick up the white phone to find out what was going on. I learned there had been a collision on the east-west connector, which was taking some time to clear. I went back to the queue, and made an announcement. The crowd turned on me – furious – spluttering. “That’s completely unacceptable!” was the mildest expression. Obviously it was my fault, and the fact that I could not conjure a bus out of thin air was my worst failing. Fortunately, a bus arrived within a few minutes – but I let it go to get a seat on the next one! It seemed safer. I never again mentioned I worked for BC Transit while waiting for a bus.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 30, 2008 at 11:08 am

Posted in transit