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

Shifting Gears: #1 – Institutional capacity

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SFU – Transportation Planning “Shifting Gears
Larry Frank introduced the series as a new initiative between SFU and UBC funded by Bombardier. Institutional capacity and governance of transportation is the first topic to be covered. The Bombardier chair has been renewed for a further five years, and there will be an increase in activities, of which this series is merely the first step.

Mike Meyer is a professor at Georgia Tech and is the author of many books including “Urban Transportation Planning: A Decision-Oriented Approach”. He is the Director of the Georgia Transportation Institute and was formerly statewide planning director for Massachusetts Department of Transportation and is the author of 180 academic papers, and a member of the Transportation Research Board.

Streaming Video 

The basic question Meyer addressed was ‘are agencies ready for the challenges now facing us’. They are many and include congestion, accessibility, climate change, increasing movement of freight, and the interaction between development and transportation.

He set out nine trends or factors in a white paper he wrote last year for the Regional Planning Association of New York. Transportation enables other things to occur, and it is these things that we value not the movement itself: these things include connections, development, competitiveness of businesses, quality of life etc.

  1. growth of population
  2. demographics – ageing population
  3. system condition (asset management)
  4. evolving markets
  5. technology “Intelligent Transportation Systems”
  6. energy supply and price
  7. finance capacity
  8. environmental imperatives
  9. institutional structures – most problems are institutional

There is a disconnect between performance and needs. The need can be summarised as “sustainable mobility” which includes issues such as

  • vehicle design, alternative fuels and changes in technology and materials
  • alternative modes and mode substitution which incorporates passenger behaviour, pricing
  • energy which also incorporates air quality and climate change
  • “green highway” concepts
  • urban form and design

No single one of these areas will provide the solution: it needs to be a combination of all of them. This requires a systems perspective, but are our institutions able or capable to think that way? He noted the single cities or metropolitan areas are now not big enough concepts as we are now seeing “mega metropolitan areas”. Vancouver is part of Cascadia with Seattle and Portland. We also have to reduce our carbon footprint, which means we need to expand the role of transit and non motorised transportation. Therefore there is a need for a common evaluation framework for transportation investments, that has to use sustainable metrics. These include the indirect impacts on bigger issues. While agencies are evolving slowly “this will be difficult for many”. There are very few agencies capable of this in US: for example the concept of “environmental stewardship” is new to state DoTs and few are either capable or willing to tackle it. He admitted that he had no knowledge of the position in Canada.

He then turned to the issue of freight, which has the fastest growing flows and creates the challenge of the gateways. He produced a graph drawn by AASHTO of the long term growth expressed in terms of millions of real dollars in December 2006 across the US borders. This showed a long flat line for most of the period than a dramatic recent rise following NAFTA. And the greatest growth was across the 49th parallel. “More is coming” he said based on a recent trip to China. “The Chinese expect more growth” which means the US now has to look at truck only lanes etc. State DoTs formerly did not concern themselves with the supply chain, or the core motivation of enterprises, but clearly the role of public investment is changing. “Ports are the next big environmental battle ground” he said citing the battle of Long Beach as the most recent example.

“Are they (institutions) capable? No”

He then addressed the issue of mobility and congestion: congestion is a merely a symptom of a much bigger issue. So far institutions have been in the business of supply management – “engineers love this stuff: we like to build things.” But we now need to look at land use and demand management. There are good examples: Dallas Fort Worth which has produced a prioritisation of spending in which highway construction is the lowest. San Diego produced its “Mobility 2030 Vision”. Denver has produced a plan to link development to comprehensive plans to ensure consistency. Minneapolis St Paul is examining how to use location efficient mortgages. And many agencies are considering pricing especially HOT’n’TOT lanes (High Occupancy or Toll, Truck Only Toll).

He showed a map of the US Mega Regions and said that is where 85% of the wealth is and 80% of the growth is going to occur.

He said that we are starting to see some willingness to tackle these issues, and that the decision making process is being expanded to incorporate a larger number of agencies. The issues can only expand. And there is a growing demand for better accountability. When it comes to asset management, agencies are finding that the case for maintenance of existing assets is a convincing argument that has enabled them to secure funding. However there is a vulnerability: transportation infrastructure in the US depends on the dedicated gas tax, which the TRB estimates can only last for the next 15 years, as oil prices soar and new fuels and technologies replace exiting fuel sources. Agencies will have to develop a menu of funding sources.

While there is always pressure to change, this has been accelerating and the question now “Is the sector keeping pace?” was answered by the GAO in 2005. “The institutions are not well suited to the 21st century” – they are still reacting and not becoming proactive. They need to evolve from the single mode, build capacity model.

At this point I stopped taking notes as the speed of the presentation got ever faster. It is clear that the US is not like BC!He concluded that there is a need for leadership from his profession, and that there is still a long way to go.


Instead of opening up to questions the lecture was followed by a panel discussion lead by Gordon Price: the panel was George Puil, Peter Ladner and Stu Ramsey.


Gordon Price asked “Are our agencies positioned properly?”

George Puil opened by saying that TransLink when it was created was unique and everyone they consulted said it was a great way to go. “I think what they [the provincial government] have done is wrong. I don’t think they [the new SoCoBriTCA board] are capable of dealing with the problems.” He objected to my snort of derision when Meyer has said Vancouver has a good transit system but did qualify his praise by saying that while the City of Vancouver has a good system, “the links to the region are poor”. “There isn’t a member on that Board who is an expert in transportation.”


Peter Ladner shared George’s concerns about the new board and structure which he said broke the link to land use, but went on “For now, we are stuck with it.”


Stu Ramsey questioned the TRB forecast of 15 years for the gas tax. He said that change will come at a faster pace. He said there was a consensus that peak oil would be reached in six years. “We are starting to take climate change seriously, but we are still only talking baby steps and we will need much larger steps sooner. … It is daunting but there is a lot of common ground on solutions and we know what the solutions are.”


Peter Ladner agreed that people acknowledge we have to do it, but pointed to the recent refusals to ban outdoor gas heaters. The emission targets are huge and first we need to agree on a goal, and he cited Singapore as a model on how to get agreement on a gaol which then drives action.


George Puil stated that that the Province has taken over transportation in the region “Is the political will there? [i.e will the Mayors back the new Board] Unpopular things are hard to do when you face an election every three years. Who takes responsibility for raising property tax?”


Gordon Price responded that perhaps having a professional unelected Board might make such unpopular decisions easier.


Mike Meyer said that his experience in Massachusetts showed that we have to have both participation and transparency. “The voters must understand the goals.”




Stu Ramsey said that these are a hot issue here. He said that the predictions of port traffic growth shown by Prof Meyer have not taken the changing environment into account and there needs to be a reality check. He pointed out that the Gateway program ignores the fact that 95% of traffic moves by rail, and he welcomed the idea that we need to have evidence based decision making.


Peter Ladner noted that Metro Vancouver is forecasting that port air emissions will overtake all other sources in the region. We have been told that the port is an economic driver, but we are now asking “Are we just a doormat” picking up the dirt for everyone else. He advocated the use of demand related sources of revenue like HOT lanes and Pay as You Drive insurance premiums and said that the mayor’s council would make the decisions, not the professional board.


George Puil said he was always in favour of user pay which was why he supported the vehicle charge. “I don’t see why property tax should pay for transit. I want a share of the sales tax, and federal funds. For the port, we don’t have the rail capacity we need.”


Mike Meyer, in response to a question from Gordon Price “I like San Diego as a model to follow”


Then opening to questions from the audience the first one pointed to the serious issues of environmental constraints. Mike Meyer responded that in Georgia they have had to acknowledge that water resources were a real constraint to growth.


Gordon Price said “We only respond to crises.” To which Meyer responded that crises make barriers fall down. And we don’t have to wait for that: “Katrina shocked a lot of people in US. There is nothing like a good crisis”


Stu Ramsey said that we need also plan B. While the sense of urgency is now more widespread, for an effective rapid response we need to have the answers on the shelf.


A comment from the audience was that the GVRD had good solutions but “the province always steps in”.


George Puil repeated the maxim that in BC municipalities have no authority, they are creatures of province.


Another comment was that the discussion had left out growth – “The God of North America” – “it is destroying our quality of life.” …”There is no reason for us to import population from the rest of the world.”


This was followed by a question that pointed out that the Translink, Metro and the Province all had plans in development: he was concerned that they would not be compatible.


George Puil said the Greater Vancouver had been very lucky because the ALR was “inviolate” [which had stopped sprawl]


Stu Ramsey observed that Translink will have to serve two masters, but at least communications between the three agencies was now better than in the past.



The final question was “how do you get people onto transit when there is no constituency”

Mike Meyer said that a regional tax for transit takes time and leadership. That had happened in Boston but “we are in trouble in Atlanta”.




Rereading these notes as I made the corrections reinforced my view that this was very much a lost opportunity. We either needed a lecture on how the US metropolitan areas are gearing up for change, or a panel discussion on what our performance is likely to be. Shoving both of them into one two hour period meant neither was dealt with satisfactorily.

Professor Meyer had been working on pulling his presentation together from a number of earlier discussions, and really had not been able to tailor it to the audience. He repeated several times that he knew nothing about Canada, and that he thought Vancouver has a good transit system. I find it surprising that his analysis showed that some US cities are now much more advanced than we are. It underlines my conviction that recent developments have been wholly retrograde. We have neither participation or transparency.

I agree with George Puil that when the GVTA started there were high hopes, but the province dashed them early. The decision to build the Millennium Line instead of the then planned LRT on Broadway foreshadowed what was to come. A different premier, and one who had no hope of advantage by doing it, wrecked the self funding model. And that is why we do not have a good transit system in this region. The City of Vancouver is much better served than the rest of the region, but this is, in my view, a cause for shame not gloating.

The decision making model we have is still based on supply – we keep on trying to build our way out of congestion. It is also not evidence based: quite the opposite. Decisions are made on a whim, and then the evidence is shaped to support that. Huge sums of public money are being spent with no clear goal, and the ones we had are not being met. We were supposed to be increasing the transit mode share – not just for commuting but all trips – and we haven’t. The transit system is overcrowded and unreliable, because the overriding concern of the municipal engineers is that cars must not be impeded. Even in the City of Vancouver, which has a plan that says the right things, road space is still primarily for single occupany vehicles.

While Professor Meyer’s analysis concentrates on ability and organisation, I think the explanation is in mind set. Transportation in North America is still dominated by Professional Engineers, and most are white middle aged males who like driving cars and building bridges. The North American ethos is still wedded to the “hidden persuaders”, who got people out of their streetcars and interurbans into huge automobiles, and destroyed cities and urban life to promote a corporate agenda. Most politicians and many professionals are still in thrall to that agenda.

His forecast of increasing transpacific trade – based apparently on a visit to China – is also wide of the mark. The United States is not going into a temporary recession. We are now seeing the start of a period of secular decline. American credit has been destroyed. The dollar continues to fall, with no basement in sight. The US economy is still tied to cheap oil, and there isn’t any. I think peak oil was passed two years ago. That is certainly what the production figures show. [“The German-based Energy Watch Group (EWG) believes peak oil is real. It’s an “international network of scientists and parliamentarians” that published an October 2007 report with that view. It stated world oil production peaked in 2006, output is now declining by several percent a year, and by 2020 to 2030 global oil reserves will be substantially lower than today and a supply gap will exist.” source India and China will still have rapidly growing economies, but will be increasingly trading with other partners who can pay their bills with strong currencies, as well as their own domestic requirements. Countries which made earlier starts on reducing oil dependency will in future be in a much better position. The US has been in denial, and has been sucked into a war it cannot win which has already cost $3 trillion. That money could have been spent productively in any number of ways. Fighting the wars on terror, drugs and crime has been largely fruitless.

The Canadian and BC governments are both ideologically committed to closer ties with the US. That limits our freedom of movement considerably. We have become ever more dependant on the elephant we share a bed with. And we seem to be incapable of understanding the penalties of tying our future to a failed regime.



Written by Stephen Rees

March 7, 2008 at 10:22 am

Posted in Transportation

5 Responses

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  1. Quite the review, Stephen. You’ve touched on so many issues, small ones squeezed between larger ones its hard to respond. But I appreciate the big picture perspective, and your willingness to deliver it to a wider audience.

    It’s depressing to hear it said again and again how screwed up the world is. More and more people are talking about an outright sudden economic crash with price shocks and shortages in oil. But I dunno about that. It could be a slo-mo crash, or something in between that will allow those who choose to, to adapt. I lean more toward the Homer-Dixonian view than Kunstlerian. The crash is a comin’, but panicking is not helpful.

    I also happen to believe so much will depend on our personal attitudes and coping mechanisms; to stay cool and organize; to ignore the ignoranmuses occupying political office (currently in the majority) and assist the Tommy Douglases (there are a few … just can’t think of any offhand).

    Here’s a link to an article from today’s Globe & Mail entitlted Life After the Oil Crash. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, and I think a little levity is required, especially on things like Socially Responsible Vasectomies! But it isn’t often you read about the larger economic consequences of oil dependency in the mainstream press, just the immediacy of oil refinery shutdowns.


    March 7, 2008 at 4:34 pm

  2. […] can find it here, along with Stephen’s […]

  3. I hope I am not giving the impression of panicking. I always follow the advice of the Guide. It has DON’T PANIC in large friendly letters on the cover, and I always know where my towel is.

    I simply do not accept that trans pacific trade can continue to grow at the rates extrapolated from past experience. I think we have excess container crane capacity now in our port – and those things don’t come cheap. And the idle cranes at Surrey Fraser Docks only arrived in recent years – I saw them being shipped up the river.

    The Gateway Program is nonsense on stilts.

    Stephen Rees

    March 7, 2008 at 5:30 pm

  4. Excellent analysis, Stephen, that pretty well encapsulates my thoughts. I was very disappointed that when the gentleman in the audience brought up the point about growth (not just population growth but economic as well), it was largely passed over by the panel and still not addressed. We can drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but still undercut our life support systems by over-consuming the world’s resources. We must stop accepting constant growth and vigorously question whether or not further growth is sustainable. At a minimum, this means, as Larry Frank said in his concluding marks, that we must include the costs to air and water, not externalize them.


    March 8, 2008 at 9:57 am

  5. thx for the summary. wasn’t able to attend


    March 8, 2008 at 6:57 pm

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