Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for March 2008

Free Transit

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CBC 690 AM

Regular readers here will know that I do not think this is a good idea. Neither did the people of Geneva . Though it was a bit of a surprise that Frank Buckholz thought our fares were a bargain. But this idea keeps coming back.

On the radio Dave Olsen (who wrote the Tyee series) presented the other side and at the North Shore Transportation Panel were Eric Doherty and Jane Sterk (Leader of the Green Party of BC)

I was asked to provide my “usual summary” but sitting on a panel and sitting in the audience are two different things. Not only that but there was a timer on every speaker and the questions were set and then rotated. So the format was really not conducive to note taking. I didn’t take my lap top, and the notes I scribbled were to make sure I did not miss any of the points I wanted to make.

This is being written the next morning and I hope that if any of the participants feel that it does not reflect their views that they will post a comment. And there is no time limit here!

Dave Olsen has done a lot of research on this issue – and the first thing he says is that you should not just take out the farebox. He likes the example of Hasselt in Belgium. He also said that some larger high ridership systems are also considering fares free systems including San Francisco. He thought that we needed to have done transit in this region much better in the past – he likes surface light rail – and the first thing we need to do before we go for completely free is expand service and look at free fares off peak, where he said there is currently spare capacity. He thought that it should be possible to use the sources that now subsidize road users to finance transit use, and that abandoning fare collection would also reduce costs, although he did point out that Translink does not separate out the cost of fare collection in its accounts.

Jane Sterk is a very impressive politician. She was the only speaker who consistently spoke for less than the time allotted her but managed to be balanced and fair. She also was clear that free fares are not a solution in themselves but could be part of a much wider transformation of society, which would see more people living where they work and an overall reduction in transport demand. She opposed the idea of encouraging longer commutes, and thought that the carbon tax was a positive step in the right direction if only a very small step. I should perhaps point out that the meeting was actually organised by the Green Party, though it was free and open to the public.

Eric Doherty talked about UPass, and how it had out performed all predictions. He conceded that overcrowding had been (and still is) a major problem, but with better planning a universal pass system showed promise for promoting a shift from driving to transit. Unfortunately it also promoted a shift from car pooling and bike riding too. He spoke about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from driving, and the costs that car dependency imposed on society. In contrast, the cost of supporting transit was trivial now and would not be very much greater if fares were lower, but the pay back in terms of health and the environment would far exceed the cost. He agreed with Jane that longer distance commuting – and he singled out West Coast Express – should not be free.

The discussion was really more about how we get from where we are – with an inadequate transit system that is expensive and difficult to use – to where we need to be. And that allowed concepts to be introduced like paying for road use as a way of funding transit. There was also an interesting comment that free transit could reduce walking. The pro-side thought that was worthwhile since it would reduce pedestrian casualties. But it also became clear that most people also wanted better walking and cycling facilities too. The title of the discussion might have been free transit but we spent quite a bit of time on what is wrong with bike lanes at present.

I am not going to use this space to repeat what I said as it is all here – somewhere or another. But there was a high degree of consensus – the main differences being priorities and methods. “How are you going to pay for that” is a difficult issue, and just identifying the current subsidies to car use (and disagreeing about how big they are) really did not resolve the issue.

No major transit system is fares free. All systems that are have support from national or federal taxes. They are all in smaller cities, none in major conurbations. But there are also wide ranging free passes for different groups, and widespread dissatisfaction with the way that BC treats people who cannot afford current transit fares. It was also generally agreed that BC communities outside Metro Vancouver would need to look to their rather different circumstances.

As it happens the Guardian’s travel blog looks at free bus passes in the UK this morning.

UPDATE April 5 A Guardian reporter and his Dad try to travel the length of England on his free bus pass

Written by Stephen Rees

March 31, 2008 at 7:38 pm

Blog Stats

with 6 comments

The crack addicted gerbil strikes again


We did not break through 20,000 views, but the growth is still impressive.

One reason for publishing this data is to blow an electronic raspberry at a few people who have been trying to post negative comments here – apparently someone thinks I am a “waste of electrons”.

On March 18 the blog had its best day ever at just under a thousand views, and since it started there have been well over 100,000 views. And over 2,00 comments (and 20,000 spam comments trapped by Akismet). I did find out one reason why that post about the Port Moody campaign for SkyTrain is so popular. At least one reader has used that as a bookmark rather than the home page or an RSS feed. I am also puzzled why people put the entire blog name into Google rather than the address window.

But I am very glad that so many people find this blog useful and interesting. Thank you for reading.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 31, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Posted in blog update

Basement suite battle dogs family

with 8 comments


I am not going to comment on the rights and wrongs of this case. But most places in the region recognize that housing affordability and elder care are very big issues indeed. The building code and municipal regulations about secondary suites, not so much.  And yes I have a personal interest, because of the place I am renting while waiting for the house market to collapse.

But if you want to know what increased density looks like, take a gander at the houses we have been building, and realise that most of the larger ones either are occupied by extended families, or have “mortgage helpers”. And most municipalities have decided to turn a blind eye to them, or at least not been too agressive about enforcement. And some have done the right thing and made them legal.

If you want to scare people, talk about density. Because they will think of high rises. But what looks like the archetypal single family, ground oriented residence may be nothing of the kind.  And it poses very little threat at all. And has been there all the time we were talking about how density would destroy the area. And, of course, it didn’t.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 31, 2008 at 7:16 am

Posted in housing

Freedom of Information – in Municipalities? Hah!

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Miro Cernetig goes into the context of the Les case, and reveals the secretive culture of municipal halls. Or rather reports on the attempts of an SFU professor to dig into it, usually unsuccessfully

Here’s what the report says happened when they asked Port Coquitlam for the election documents: “… one surprising discovery was that Port Coquitlam had ‘inadvertently’ destroyed’ all 1999 campaign finance disclosure statements before the scheduled time.”

Another eight municipalities — some of them the province’s biggest — didn’t respond in the required time under the law: “Belcarra, Coquitlam, Harrison Hot Springs, Lions Bay, Pitt Meadows, Richmond, Surrey and Hope, did not respond within the 30-day time limit and as a result their responses were ‘deemed refusals in law’ according to the B.C. Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.”

Perhaps the most shocking finding of all, though, was the secretive culture that the professor and his graduate students Denisa Gavan-Koop and Stephanie Vieille encountered. Most of the municipalities seemed to want to limit access to those campaign financing details, which would tell you such things as what developers financed which politicians.

Municipal officials should be like civil servants – professional not political. They should work in the interests of the community not elected individuals. But the relationships inside many municipal halls are much closer than they should be. Any not a few senior municipal officials have clearly a very hazy notion of where their responsibilities are supposed to lie.

The author of the article thinks that the Freedom of Information Act should help. And I know I have done this too often but I have worked under the old blanket “Official Secrets Act” in the UK – which made it an imprisonable offence if I told you the price of a cup of tea in the staff canteen, for both of us – and the BC Freedom of Information Act. And in my experience, the public got a lot more from people working under the former than the latter.

Because the OSA was treated as something that could be dealt with on a discretionary basis. It was terrible legislation – a very brief bill rushed through at the start of World War 1. But that meant it could be administered very flexibly. Although I was hauled on the carpet over the risk of exposure of parking meter rates in the City of Westminster – but at least the lady from the SIS had a smile on her face when she did it. But the very detailed FOI means that there are all sorts of rules and regulations, and a whole office of people just “severing” stuff using special felt tip pens that defeated Xerox machines. We never had those in Whitehall.

No it is not the legislation – or the lack of a commissioner to dig stuff out. It is people who think they report to the Mayor and Councillors and not to the tax payers and voters.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 31, 2008 at 6:56 am

Climate Change Boot Camp

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Richard Littlemore is going across Canada, by train, to attend a “boot camp” led by Al Gore on how to do his slide show, and he is blogging all the way.

Here is a thought for the day

There are, in Canada and internationally, a host of organizations that exist purely to convince people that climate change isn’t happening, isn’t attributable to human activity, isn’t a bad thing or isn’t possible to stop without “wrecking” the economy. These are “Astroturf groups,” phony grassroots organizations sponsored directly or indirectly by industries that are determined to block substantive global warming policy changes: groups like Friends of Science, the Natural Resources Stewardship Project, the Global Climate Coalition, and the International Climate Science Coalition.

And of course one of the things they like to do is convince editors of the need for “balance” and they also troll blogs. There are similar groups pushing other agendas – such as the pro Gateway groups and a number of their sock puppets too.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 31, 2008 at 6:35 am

Two provinces to ban driving with phones

with 6 comments

The Province

Well it is going to come here sooner or later. But I still think we need to deal with other distractions too. People who watch DVDs while driving for instance. Hands free phones are as bad as hand held in terms of distraction, but both hands on the wheel is still pretty rare. Use of mirrors and signals is unusual too. Observance of the speed limit – you have got to be joking! Being aware of pedestrians or cyclists? Hah!

ICBC could do something about all this – make it very clear that contributory negligence will cost those responsible for collisions very dearly indeed. Not just in terms of higher premiums later but in the percentage of the claim they will be forced to pay.  In the same way that a cyclist who does not wear a helmet is penalised now.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 30, 2008 at 10:43 am

Posted in Road safety

Group irked by perimeter road

with 4 comments

The Province

There is no news in this piece. What makes it noteworthy is the growing distance between the Asper family and Gordon Campbell. The Province – and the rest of the stable – have been quite supportive of the BC Liberals in general. Although individual reporters and columnists do step outside now and again. And the Fraser Institute still has a special place in their opinion columns, and it is not unusual for Campbell to be chided for not being free market enough.

As you can see, the association is just beginning to learn what other community groups, primarily in Delta, discovered long ago — that there are many serious, valid concerns over this project that the Campbell government foolishly sticks to despite viable alternative routes.

Ah, so that’s all right then. We don’t have to oppose building freeways. Or question the non-existent case for port expansion or the Gateway. Just go for a different route.

But there is also quite a bit about John Les too – which is linked up to BC Rail and Ken Dobell. I think the sharks are sniffing blood in the water

(And as an aside have you noticed that 9 out of 11 columnists on the Province are white, older males? As one myself, I find this disturbing. We are not in the majority in society. Nor should we be as commentators in popular newspapers.)

Written by Stephen Rees

March 30, 2008 at 10:34 am

Posted in Gateway, politics

Weak Economy Slows Cargo, Idles Railcars

with 7 comments

Associated Press

Those of you who subscribe to the lrc-general mailing list will have seen this already: thank you Richard Campbell for posting it.

As some of you may know I have a harmless obsession – I like to watch trains, and take their pictures. And one of the places I go to do that around here is Deltaport. And I have been noticing recently that it has been very quiet. I usually like to take pictures of trains as I think shots of empty railroad tracks are less interesting. Though there are people who do that too.

But you cannot extrapolate a trend from a few anecdotes. But this is actual data

Texas-based BNSF Railway, a division of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., has parked upward of 1,000 cars in Montana alone, spokesman Gus Melonas said. More are parked in other parts of the company’s 32,000-mile system, which operates in 28 states and two Canadian provinces.

They decline to provide a figure for the whole system citing reasons of confidentiality. But the truckers are not so reticent.

One of the nation’s leading trucking companies, Schneider National in Green Bay, Wis., says it believes a freight recession began about 20 months ago, well before signs of a downturn closed in on consumers.

“We have been in a freight recession longer than people have been expressing deep concern about the economy,” said Bill Matheson, Schneider’s president for intermodal transportation.

or the ports

In January, Long Beach posted a decrease of about 12 percent in overall volume compared to January 2007

The trajectory of ever increasing imports into North America was never going to be sustainable, but the extent and speed with which things have turned around seems to have taken the province of BC by surprise. The Gateway program is still steaming along with no slackening of its pace. Despite increasing concerns about the impacts on the environment and local communities Gordon and Kevin are determined to press on regardless.  But as we also know the justification for both port expansion and the associated road program was never really very well thought through. It was simple opportunism, not long range planning at all. And the road expansion appealed to other groups. I think that for a while there a lot of people thought that the apparent economic case – more trade means growth and jobs – was good cover for what they really wanted. Freeways and suburban development. Business as usual. And I think that cover has been blown.

And I have no doubt at all that when confronted with this story their reaction will be that it is a cyclical effect. The recession, they will say, will be temporary, and when things turn around we will be in a stronger position to compete. Except that this is no ordinary recession, and more than one commentator is drawing comparisons with 1931. And I suspect that as usual the US response to difficult times will be to retreat back into protectionism.

There is also another effect of the credit crunch that is more direct in its impact. It is becoming increasingly difficult to finance P3s. Because the organisations that were really keen on such things were once awash with funds. They had these wonderful new financial instruments, which looked a bit complicated, but people thought were backed by real estate. Securitised mortgages – and lots of them, thanks to the removal of federal oversight of the financial community and exactly the same type of instrument by the way that caused the 1931 collapse. That is when the recession started. Not the 1929 Wall Street crash. The banking crisis which looks the same as the one the US has now. When people could not make their mortgage payments and the banks foreclosed and then found the properties they had repossessed were unsaleable. Which meant the value of the paper they had been flogging was now impossible to determine.

So how long before the penny drops in Victoria?

Written by Stephen Rees

March 29, 2008 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Economics, Gateway

Local news items

with 3 comments

Richmond Review

I must admit a sense of surprise – but gratification  – to read an editorial in a local paper that wants photo radar back, as well as more red light cameras. Good.

A new greenway is to be built to link No 3 Road to the Oval. It seems to have all the right things to including muich better access to the top of the dyke and a “series of public plazas”. Which is just what I have been talking about here for a while.
Also Good

and also

Another project that motorists will notice is a plan to run hydro lines underground along Lansdowne, between No. 3 and Cooney roads.

Which I think makes my trifecta.

It makes me wonder if someone at City Hall is reading this blog. If not it doesn’t matter where the ideas come from, just that we are doing the right things for a change.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 29, 2008 at 4:37 pm

Save-On-Foods opens first Vancouver location

with 19 comments


This is in the Business section

The newest store lies in the heart of a Cambie corridor that’s experiencing a massive retail transformation, with new stores like Best Buy, Home Depot and Whole Foods open or about to open soon.

Store manager Bruce Brown said the 42,398-square-foot outlet will be a “full-size, full-scale, full-service” grocery store.

“It’s a true Save-On-Foods store, not a boutique store,” he said in an interview. “Our consumers can come here and do a primary shop — fill their baskets with whatever they need in their household.”

It is actually Cambie and 7th so it is some way north of the area that had really got everyone’s attention “Cambie Village” which is up in the teens. Now I do not pretend to know much about this area and what is happening there. But at first reading these stores do not seem to me to be the sort of places you pop into on your way home from the transit station. Home Depot and Save On in my experience are car oriented retailers – at least the ones I have used. And I would expect that they will be very attractive to the car owners within the 20 minute “isochrone” (drive time) that I used to draw on maps back when I did retail impact analyses many years ago in another city. Mind you, back then a store half this size was a “superstore”.

Fortunately we do have a number of regular commenters now, and I look forward to reading their reactions, but I must start out with my guess that this area will not be much like TOD as I know it

Brown said all the new residential developments nearby ensures a lot of people will walk to the store while it’s proximity to the Canada Line — with a station about two blocks away — will also attract more business.

“Also” – in other words people who walk in are a bonus – it’s the drivers they really want!

UPDATE April 1 2008

Save on Foods

The development has a number of retailers – including Home Depot – and housing on the top. Mixed use is a Good Thing – but is this too much of a Good Thing? I also blogged about this on the Metblog.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 29, 2008 at 10:48 am