Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for March 2008

Transit and Property Speculation

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In today’s Sun there is an editorial and an opinion piece by Miro Certenig

And as the editorial notes, this is not Hong Kong and SoCoBriTCA is not the MTR. Nor is it the CPR. And the less said about John Les at this stage the better.

The CPR was encouraged to build its line across the country by a straightforward strategy. The Government of Canada gave it land grants along its right of way. Even so, the CPR was not an easy enterprise to fund. And, just like the UP/Central Pacific across the US, had to be rebuilt soon after completion as a number of cost saving construction measures had to be corrected once the revenue stream started to flow and some of that land could be sold. And that is not a model we can emulate either –  nor should we.

We have needed TOD here for a very long time. And apart from exceptions like Joyce Station have not seen a lot of it yet – although there are stirrings in the undergrowth. But development funded transit is also not the only model. Just the one that seems easiest to finance. And that is what seems to appeal to our leaders these days.

It does not necessarily produce the optimum decision. For instance, when GVTA lost its expected revenue stream from the vehicle levy, its priorities changed. And all of a sudden a replacement for the Albion Ferry leapt to the top of the agenda. And the only reason it did so was that it could be funded by user tolls, and thus built by a P3. Whether or not it was a Good Idea or consistent with a plan to try and restrain car dependent sprawl in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows were questions that were never even asked, let alone answered.

Left to its own devices, the market produces some very poor outcomes. That is because the market is unconcerned with social or environmental objectives. Not that that prevents the market from having profound social and environmental impacts – which is why we used to have legislation to control it. As we now know to our cost in BC we have given up trying to protect our environment except where the protests get really significant. Though quite why they listened at Pitt Lake and not Eagleridge Bluffs I cannot determine.

Once upon a time, we decided collectively that we needed an activity called “planning” to try and control some of the worst excesses of developer’s greed. Not that it always worked – or very well  when it did. But people do still come to Vancouver from elsewhere in North America and they think we did better in some ways than they did. I do not trust the present provincial government – or its appointees. The real estate development model may get us more transit and more TOD. But I would not be at all surprised if in another twenty years we are still stuck in traffic with an 11% mode share – and a very profitable agency that used to be public but will have become a “publicly traded corporation.” Which will no doubt please the “man whose last job was with The Fraser Institute” who writes the editorials at the Sun.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 29, 2008 at 10:33 am

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

Earth Hour

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I have just signed up

I really don’t think I need a page of tips to tell me how to turn off the power – or what to do while it is off. Nor do you. Sign up if you want it to have some PR impact. But cutting your kwh will show up anyway even if you don’t

Just remember what happened nine months after that huge North East power outage a few years back and be careful, OK?

Written by Stephen Rees

March 29, 2008 at 9:54 am

Posted in energy

A moment of transformation

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I am going to ask you to sit and watch 20 minutes of video. I have just done that. I am amazed. Electric cars have always been “just around the corner”. But it now appears that things are going to change – because of a man who understands “the social contract” between car drivers and automakers. He has worked out what it would take to wean Israel off oil – and says that he can do the same for the US – for the cost of one year of imported crude.

Now what am I, a transit advocate, doing promoting electric cars? I do not believe that it will ever be possible to convert most of the trips in this region to transit trips. I think we can do much better than 11% – which is where we have been stuck for the last ten years – but in order to do that we would need the sort of transformation that Shai Agassi talks about for cars. We do not have anyone trying to do that here. I would love to think that we could have, but I am not going to wait for that moment. IF we can have electric cars and clean power generation, then we will have to deal with the traffic congestion. We cannot wait for the gas prices and taxes to rise enough to do that for us. For as we have seen, it has had very little effect up to now – at least in BC. And as long as transit is in the cold dead hands of the bureaucrats appointed by Victoria, do not expect things to change much.

So I am prepared to see lots of electric cars – and remarkably quickly – because this one man has 1) made it unnecessary to buy the battery and 2) I get a free car if I sign up for a long term contract – just like a cell phone. We will still need a lot more transit. We will still have a congestion problem. But air quality and ghg emissions will have been removed from the equation. That will present the transit system with an even bigger challenge. How can you be better than a zero emission vehicle that is as good as my (EV) car? And I think we can do that. Just the way we could do it now, if we were doing the right things.

(And thank you Erika for sending me this link)

It will at least buy us some time, as adapting the suburbs and the transit system to fit together better will take longer than Mr Agassi says it will take to perform the switch from IC to EV.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 28, 2008 at 6:25 pm

The Translink process

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The link takes you to a video clip from today’s noon news. There was a public meeting this morning on the property tax increase – did anybody lnow about that? – that was poorly attended, but those who did get there were not happy. And then the Chair of the SoCoBriTCA Board says ” we have options” but won’t say what they are. And this afternoon’s meeting is in private.

It is not the amount that is the issue. It is the open contempt for public oversight. It seems to me we have become a third rate banana republic.

This (below) is from Saturday’s Vancouver Sun

Lower Mainland homeowners were saved most but not all of the pain of TransLink’s 2008 property tax levy.

Residential property owners will face an increase of only $5 per $500,000 of assessed value.

And they will not foot the bill this year to replace the $18-million parking-site tax.

The TransLink board Friday decided — for this year only — to collect only $9 million and to collect it from businesses, not residential property owners.

To nit pick a bit – the change applies to Metro Vancouver (formerly – and still legally known as the GVRD)  “The Lower Mainland” is a much bigger area (though not precisely defined by legislation)  and that is not (yet) subject to the whims of the unelected SoCoBriTCA Board.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 28, 2008 at 12:42 pm

Posted in politics, transit

Extreme makeover Granville Mall

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Vancouver Sun

The list of Vancouver’s $50m of road projects includes $11m for the Mall. What I would have liked to see accompany the story would be pictures. I suppose the print edition might have them but the site in general is pretty mean when it comes to images – except for ads of course.

Translink 2709 on Granville 2002_0614

The Granville Mall “before” construction started (June 2002)

The city will also spend $5 million on a greenway along Carrall St. connecting the seawall in False Creek, Chinatown, Gastown and the Downtown Eastside. Work on the wider sidewalks and treed landscapes between Keefer and Pender has already been completed, with the next phase to cut through the Downtown Eastside along Carrall between Pender and Water Street.

The work on Cambie will include the addition of treed boulevards in the Cambie Village area centred around 16th Ave. and bike lanes south of 29th Ave. to Kent Ave., then on to a private lane suspended under the SkyTrain guideway all the way to Richmond. There will be no net loss of green space to the Cambie corridor due to SkyTrain construction once the work is completed, city staff said at a press conference Thursday.

Which is all as it should be. But there is no mention of how much the left turn bays at 49th and Knight will cost. It is the most dangerous intersection in the City and ICBC are going to help pay for it. But why do we need to widen the road to accommodate “bays”? Why not a simple advanced green for left turners in each cycle? Might it be something to do with the fact that would have the effect of reducing throughput, i.e. slowing the traffic a bit compared to widening? And what about all the left turns that can be done midblock even at peak periods – and the very high speeds seen as people race from light to light, weaving across all three lanes?

Written by Stephen Rees

March 28, 2008 at 9:57 am

Posted in Traffic

Tagged with

Bike, transit use rising along with gas prices

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Vancouver Sun

This is a repeated national survey by Angus Reid. What I think is really interesting is the way that BC differs from the rest of the country.

But, possibly because of the rain, fewer of us in B.C. are willing to park the car and walk more.

This seems to me to be supposition on the part of Gordon Hamilton. There are a number of more plausible explanations but it seems that either Angus Reid did not probe further, or the Sun could not be bothered to publish more information.

Where we live determines how we get about. Downtown Vancouver is not like the rest of the City let alone the rest of the region or the province. That means most people live in places where walking is not encouraged. There are no direct walks and no destinations within easy reach. There are no sidewalks in most suburbs. Bike facilities are often sparse and poorly designed . And transit sucks. Sure ridership has increased, but mode share hasn’t. Most people still do not see transit as a viable alternative.

But the survey also reveals that British Columbians are more likely to do nothing about the bigger bite gas is taking out of their income than most Canadians, an interesting twist to the results that [Angus Reid director of global studies Mario]  Canseco said reflects our obsession with personal choices.

“That was surprising — more than a third of B.C. residents don’t want to do anything or don’t feel that they should,” he said.

Now since he is talking about his poll, I suppose that reflects the way the question was asked. But in the suburbs of Vancouver and out in the Valley, the transit mode share drops off like a stone, mainly due to the paucity of service. And the complete absence of service between suburbs – and most trips these days are suburb to suburb. Which is a market that the transit system ignored for a long time and is only now getting to grips with.

I would like to see the same survey conducted in the main conurbations – Montreal, Toronto and here. And more pointed questions asked about perceptions of the options available. I have a sneaking suspicion that we are not keeping up. I have never been to Price George so I have no idea what they feel about their transit system. But I bet the market share there is pretty low.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 28, 2008 at 9:41 am

German plans for maglev derailed

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My readers seem to like high speed train stories. So here is another one. From Auntie Beeb. I think I may detect here a bit of gloat. It was an English scientist, Eric Laithwaite, who invented maglev. And linear induction motors – as used on SkyTrain. He used to appear on one of those geewhiz science programs “Tomorrow’s World” when were I a lad. On BBC tv as it happens. And LIMs and Maglev were to be the future.

The UK was first to introduce maglev trains for commercial use in 1984 in Birmingham to bridge a short distance between the city’s airport and railway station.

But after 11 years in operation, reliability problems and the sheer expense of extending the network, which are incompatible with traditional railway lines, prompted its replacement with a conventional system.

I think that this may have been a forerunner of the SkyTrain. I have certainly read that UTDC thought its application was going to be as an airport people mover – though only New York bought into that. The idea of a frictionless, no moving parts propulsion system sounds great in theory. But the reality has been a great deal different. It is perhaps ironic that the only city in the world to have a major LIM driven transit system will have conventional electric trains serving its airport.

Maglev has had some spectacular failures – and only Shanghai (illustrated)  now has an operational system. Meanwhile more conventional electric trains have done very well indeed both for local transit and high speed applications. The conventional electric motor being the heart of both systems but electronic control technology making the real difference between modern systems and those first demonstrated by Frank Sprague back in the 1880s.

I think that the problem with Maglev was it was a solution looking for a problem. Conventional electric traction has been very versatile and efficient and quite amazingly reliable and long lived compared with say internal combustion engines. And electrical transmission systems for ic power sources are still together one of the most efficient ways of turning the energy in fossil fuels into motive power. It may be that I will be proved wrong as energy efficiency and need for speed continue to pose ever greater challenges. But not for a while, I think. Maglev to me looks a lot like the monorail – it looks pretty but it really doesn’t work very well.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 27, 2008 at 7:46 pm

Posted in Railway

Tagged with

Bike Lane Built for Two

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Bike Lane Built for Two, originally uploaded by Fußgänger.


New York City’s new, physically-separated 9th Avenue Bicycle Lane safely and comfortably accommodates two cyclists side by side. If drivers can have a conversation between the driver’s seat and the passenger seat, why can’t two cyclists enjoy the same pleasure – rather than yelling at each other in single file in a narrow, 5-foot wide bike lane?

Written by Stephen Rees

March 27, 2008 at 3:02 pm

Pacific Spirit Park

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Due to the duplicitous action of Mr. Campbell’s provincial government a chunk of Pacific Spirit Park, which is on the Western edge of Vancouver and is kind of like Stanley Park only wilder, will soon fall under the Developers’ axes.There is only one faint hope, which is that our Civic pols might actually show some gumption and say ‘hell no!’

And they’re meeting to talk about it tomorrow.

Thus, I have a post up asking/pleading with anyone living in the Greater Vancouver Regional District (pretty much all of the lower mainland) to Email these civic pols asking them to take a stand.

Ross K

I was going to take this post down once the meeting was over – but instead here is an

UPDATE March 29

Metro leaders vent anger at new expropriation law

Victoria can grab Pacific Spirit park land without compensation

Just when you think that things cannot get any worse, they do. Pinecone Burke was the exception – not the dawn of a new era.

A view of the forest at Pacific Spirit Regional Park. (Metro Vancouver/University Endowment Lands, BC, Canada)

Written by Stephen Rees

March 27, 2008 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Environment

Metro Vancouver Planning Coalition

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Who? It was a bit of a surprise to come across this quote thanks to Beyond Robson and 24hrs

“The so called top planners do not even have the end of cheap energy, global warming, or mass migration on their radar,” said Balfour, director of the Metro Vancouver Planning Coalition. “We cannot keep on making the same silly mistakes of the last hundred years and that includes most current planning and engineering in our urban environments.”

And not to my surprise he’s promoting his new book. But what is this organisation? It’s a new one on me. And the web site does not have an “about us” page

But I did find this on

From Rick Balfour, MVPC: “The Metro Vancouver Planning Coalition is a Sustainable Planning and Urban Design Think Tank organized on an informal network structure, overseen by a Steering Committee of practicing and retired Architects and Planners. It has a number of committees and tries to cover public issues others want to avoid. The area of concern has grown to encompass what many see as the greater city area of Vancouver, the ecological basin ‘from Desolation to Hope’. The MVPC grew out of community level activities started from former urban design and discretionary zoning committees in the Architectural Institute of BC some 15 to 20 years ago now.”

And he doesn’t like freeways and thinks we should build light rail. Well, it’s always nice to come across an ally you didn’t know you had.

Update 31 March: he is also interviewed by the Tyee

and from the discussion section of that post

Richard was educated in Engineering (RCAF/ROTP, Royal Roads Military College), Sociology
(UBC B.A., 1972) and Architecture (UBC, B.Arch. 1974). He has spent 30 years working in the
planning design and construction professions in British Columbia. As a Council member of the
Architectural Institute of British Columbia, Richard has served on professional committees and task
forces dealing with community and government affairs including the Urban Design Committee and
the Housing Committee. In addition he has chaired the Discretionary Planning Task Force and was
a coordinator of the Vancouver 2001 Public Planning forum (1982). Recently he served as vice-
chairman of the Design Panel for the Corporation of the District of Surrey. Richard is particularly
sensitive to the concept of community and is concerned about the complex issues which affect a
community’s growth and change. He is a founding member of the Metro Vancouver Planning
Coalition, and a director of the New City Institute. Since 2004 he has been a member of the
Vancouver City Planning Commission and is currently Chair of the Strategic Sustainable Planning
Committee of the VCPC.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 27, 2008 at 2:08 pm