Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for April 3rd, 2008

The Price We Pay for a Free Society

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This is an opinion piece which appears in the print edition of the Richmond Review today. I am also going to copy this to Tom Fletcher by email. Because it annoys me so much.

He wrote, in reference to the Langford tree sit:

“The merits of this protest are similar to the fizzled furor over Eaglreidge Bluffs, the first stage of the Sea-to-Sky Highway upgrade, which is to say not much.”

Now I am going to set aside the Langford case as I less familiar with it, although it does appear on the face of the evidence that there is reason to be concerned about the process, if not the merits of the outcome. But in the case of Eagleridge Bluffs I feel on firmer ground.

The Sea-to-Sky “upgrade” was never necessary. It was “sold” on the false notion that it was needed for the two weeks of the Winter Olympics, which in and of itself requires a suspension of disbelief. But we also know that the rail option was deliberately scuttled. A plan had been worked out to borrow commuter trains to transport visitors, but that would have got in the way of the sale of BC Rail. Which, of course, was in itself a process that went badly astray – with one of the bidders pulling out in disgust. The province insisted on adding a completely unnecessary rail tunnel to connect BC Rail into downtown Vancouver (under the Burrard Inlet), to make the rail option too expensive.

Once the Sea-to-Sky got going, both the Municipality of West Vancouver and the owner of land overlooking the bluffs offered to help with the construction of a short road tunnel diagonally under the headland. It would have been cheaper, shorter and faster to construct than the open cut around the headland, and allowed the preservation of a unique Garry Oak habitat – the last on the Lower Mainland. Given that much of the justification for the “upgrade” was the dreadful safety record of the existing road, a tunnel would also have been much safer than the alignment that has now been built, so again the question of why it had to be built that way has never been answered.

The protest was more than anything about frustration about a process that was so obviously skewed from the outset. No proper evaluation was ever done. And no-one even tried deal with the perfectly reasonable suggestions and offers made by people concerned about a very sensitive site. The property owners were simply shown the door. West Vancouver even offered municipal land for free for the tunnel portal. Nothing doing.

Of course, we now know that what Kevin Falcon was really doing was listening to property developers, in Squamish and elsewhere, who can use the upgrade as a way to shift yet more high priced new development. Never in any regional plan in Greater Vancouver or Squamish Lillooet was commuting long distances by highway to jobs in Vancouver suggested as a good way to go. Quite the opposite. Nor was the option of enforcing speed limits on the old road, since nearly all the collisions could be attributed in whole or in part to excessive speeds.

Now if there had been a fair and open process, if questions asked had been answered, if sensible policies had been pursued, perhaps the protests might have been avoided. But what happened to the process of public consultation in this province when the Liberals changed the rules made us one of the worst administrations in this field in North America. You may think that this did not merit a protest. I think you are wrong. And I also think that if you spent a bit of time researching the background to this protest you might have come to a different, and more balanced, opinion.

The people of this region are getting increasingly disturbed by the way that development is being handled. And the John Les case is merely the tip of the iceberg.

UPDATE April 6  I have now added a link to the original piece. I have not to date seen any response from Tom Fletcher

Written by Stephen Rees

April 3, 2008 at 5:49 pm

And you thought “eco-density” was bad …

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Eco-towns are the greatest try-on in the history of property speculation

Simon Jenkins, the Gaurdian

No, they are not the same idea at all. But this splendid rant on Britain’s latest wheeze to try and deal with a rising population and resistance to redevelopment is well worth reading. Let me give you a couple of samples

Planning is a trashcan for any buzzword doing the rounds.

The truth is that all governments hate cities.

Anyway it is not fair that I just sample it. And I am not saying that I agree with it or not. It is just a really good read – and it should provoke some thought if nothing else.

Alright just one more quote

Britain has plenty of potential eco-towns. They are called London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle, to name a few. They conform to every one of Flint’s declared objectives.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 3, 2008 at 4:51 pm

Posted in Urban Planning

Light Rail Transit in San Francisco

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I just happened across this image. It shows a San Francisco MUNI light rail train. It is what is used to get people around the city – for regional connections there is BART. Note the combination of exclusive right of way and surface street running. And the complete absence of crossing barriers, flashing lights, bells and cross bucks. These trams are more common in SF than the cable cars – but those are iconic, this is prosaic. But along with trolleybuses this is what the residents use mostly. In the centre of the city there is a cut and cover section to downtown – and in fact is double decked with BART underneath. The trams then run in a tunnel underneath Forest Hill. The two systems are run by different agencies (a bit like TTC and GO in the centre of the known universe).

I think that a system like this along Arbutus would still be useful – except now it could follow Kent Avenue past the Canada Line and wind up in New Westminster. In fact in the early days of the Evergreen studies something like that was actually looked at as the CP tracks go all the way to Coquitlam. But being Metro Vancouver we never really take using existing railway track for transit seriously. It just works well everywhere else and could not be tried here. Except for the Vancouver Heritage Railway of course. But no-one takes that seriously.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 3, 2008 at 11:42 am

Lawmakers face tough choices on transportation

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This story comes from a Wisconsin paper with a “Washington bureau” – but has this useful link

National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission:

… lawmakers are reluctant to embrace a recommendation most members of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission have made: to gradually raise the federal gasoline tax by 25 cents to 40 cents per gallon. The current tax is 18 cents per gallon.

In its January report, the commission also recommended other user fees such as custom duties and ticket fees, streamlining the environmental impact review process for transportation projects and trimming more than 100 transportation programs into 10 national interest programs. The 12-member commission approved the report on a bipartisan 9-3 vote.

The commission estimated the federal government will have to spend a minimum of $225 billion a year through 2025 for highway, bridge, public transit, freight rail and passenger rail service. State government and the private sector also would have to spend more to keep goods and people — the nuts and bolts of the economy — moving.

Yes, but when highway bridges start falling down due to neglect of maintenance, it does tend to concentrate minds a bit. I do not know why trimming EAs is supposed to help. That would enable new things to be built sooner, but usually the EA process determines that the proponents had not been nearly careful enough in their planning. And unless they are forced to, don’t expect P3s to be any better. And P3s are what some see, apparently, as the way to greater fairness. No, really, that’s what it says!

I wonder if the Commission took into account the way gas sales are going to start falling. One projection was that within 18 years the US will need a different source of revenue altogether.

But of course the greatest contrast for us north of 49 is how much the US federal government is into transportation compared to the imperviousness of Ottawa to our problems.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 3, 2008 at 10:30 am

Transit use up, driving down in Vancouver census region

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This was what I was looking for yesterday. Gordon Price and Christina de Marco have now had time to look at the stats release. And this really is a good example of how to spin not very much into a good news story.

Gordon even manages to make it about development and retailing, which given the census only looks at Journey to Work is quite a feat but is a nice sidelight on my musings about Save on Foods.

More than a decade ago, when Gordon Price was a Vancouver city councillor, the civic government required Urban Fare to have 200 underground parking spaces for customers of the Yaletown supermarket.

Price, who regularly shops at Urban Fare, has never seen more than one-quarter of those parking spaces occupied, even during rainstorms.

“No one really thought that people would walk to do their grocery shopping, because people drive,” said Price, who is now director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University.

The story is about commuting – but the first section manages to deal with an outdated traffic engineering “standard” about parking requirements. This is media manipulation of a high order, and I take my hat off to him. Not only that but conventional wisdom would have it that if you provide free parking people will use it. Which, if true, would have made Lansdowne Mall much more successful than Richmond Centre.

But we are getting off track.

“We’re on track for about a four-per-cent increase [in public transit use] in 2007 over 2006,” said Snider, adding that TransLink is concentrating on providing better service to suburban areas where car use is still relatively high — the suburbs in the south Fraser River area. In the past year, Snider said, “south of Fraser has received at least 50 per cent of additional service hours” that TransLink has created.

“They’re also getting newer buses there as we retire the old ones,” he said.

But of course he is not talking about mode share. And south of the Fraser has a lot of catching up to do, and 4% is way below what is needed to just catch up to recent population growth. And I doubt that getting a nice new bus wins you many more car drivers. “I think I will stop driving to work now. The bus is newer.” Naaah. Not gonna happen.

Nice new bus at Surrey Central
Nice new bus at Surrey Central

Christina DeMarco, manager of regional planning for Metro Vancouver, said she was “excited” by the census findings.

Well, when you have a job like hers, you have to grab what excitement you can. But she does manage to spin a rather lack lustre performance into a success story

Another telling statistic is that in the past 10 years, population growth in the region has been 15.3 per cent, with a matching growth in car use (15 per cent). However, transit use increased by 40 per cent.

Which sounds so much better than having to say we are still at 11% mode share for all trips, and for the journey to work we still are not as advanced as the other large urban regions which have much denser centres

Contrarily, large suburban business parks are being built away from transit lines.

Vancouver, at 16.5 per cent, still lags behind Toronto (22 per cent) and Montreal (21 per cent) in transit use, but the gap has closed.

“We’re on the right trajectory,” DeMarco said.

Clive Rock called this kind of thinking “steering a ship by only watching its wake”.

We are only going to do well if we can reverse the trend in employment dispersal – and Gateway will not do that!

Commuting Distance

If you are interested in Victoria there is a big Canadian Press story which emphasizes age differences: the young are more likely to walk, bike or bus to work.

The census doesn’t ask commuters why they chose their mode of transportation, so it’s not known if younger workers pick greener commuting options because of their concern for the environment or whether their choice was related more to financial considerations.

I think it is making a virtue of necessity – and as a correspondent recently pointed out, young people are finding it much harder these days to get a decent job, let alone buy a house and a car. (Although a quick scan of the high school parking lots around here shows that some kids get really nice cars as soon as they get their licences.)

Written by Stephen Rees

April 3, 2008 at 8:59 am

Life without transport by oil is closer than we think

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Barbara Yaffe, Sun

That is not a name I associate with this kind of opinion piece. I must admit I ignored this story yesterday. It did not seem to me to add anything we did not know already.

But it seems that is not what she has been reading. Instead it is

Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil, by Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl, is one of the most thought-provoking books to cross my desk in a long while.

And that book was launched some time ago. Now I thought that the key message in that book was that technological change could deal with the problem – it certainly seemed to me to dwell on developments in that area. But Professor Perl was giving it a much more political spin yesterday.

The Pacific Gateway Strategy, Heathrow’s fancy new Terminal 5 and other “boondoggles” demonstrate society’s reluctance to smell the coffee, Perl observed in an interview this week.

“There’s going to be some steep learning curve for political leaders who are largely unprepared to deal with the impending transport revolutions. Techno-fantasies and wishful thinking will have to give way to reality-based planning.”

Ms Yaffe also noticed the electric car commitment in Israel, which so far as I recall has not actually been reported in her paper. Which is not about technology at all, but policy. The real shift is that a known commodity has to be got to market quickly, and that needs a different marketing strategy – and governments can help by using the power of taxation. The Israeli government is going to tax internal combustion engine cars heavily and maintain that over time, while raising all car taxes (including electric vehicles) but keeping the advantage for electric, in order that there is no revenue loss. The clever bit is the response by the people who can make and sell the cars, batteries and battery quick change operations. And I suspect that the Israelis would have done that in any event simply because the oil is still controlled, by and large, by their sworn enemies. Rather in the same way that the old South African government had to develop an oil from coal program.

Of course, if you are ideologically against taxes and intervention in the “free market”, taking effective action this way requires some mental gymnastics which is well beyond the capabilities of the administrations in Ottawa and Washington.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 3, 2008 at 8:36 am

Climate change ‘seriously underestimated’ by UN

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The United Nations’ celebrated climate change panel has “seriously underestimated” the challenge of curbing global CO2 emissions, say Canadian and U.S. researchers.

Radical “decarbonization” of the global energy system is needed to stabilize emissions — a task that is much more daunting than the panel has led the world to believe, the researchers report in journal Nature today.

“The size of this technology challenge has been seriously underestimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” say economist Christopher Green at McGill University in Montreal and his U.S. colleagues. The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for its work, showing how human activities are warming the climate system, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

And I thought the big issue was fighting the climate change deniers. It turns out that the growth of China and India has been much faster than anticipated. Now it seem to me that we also need to direct attention toward the fact that we were supposed to be doing something about this – and we haven’t. So not only is there faster growth in the developing world, but the developed world has, in general, shrugged and gone on as before. And Canada made all kinds of “commitments” which we did nothing about keeping: which pretty much sums up our foreign policy in general. Ask Mr Harper what he thinks and he will talk about the need for more economic growth for Alberta to offset the industrial decline in Ontario.

And I still see no plan of action to raise the Fraser dykes.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 3, 2008 at 8:16 am

Surrey buses needed: MLA

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I admit I do not read either of the daily freebies very often – and I am quite impressed that Metro now provides actual page views  as well as a downloadable pdf.

Jagrup Brar says city needs 300 to meet demand

for Metro Vancouver

Surrey is “severely underserviced” by public transit and desperately needs more buses to provide an alternative to driving on congested roads, according to NDP MLA Jagrup Brar.
Surrey has 83 buses to serve a population of 400,000.  When Vancouver had 400,000 people there were 400 buses, the representative  for Surrey-Panorama Ridge said.

It is odd that whenever I talk to people about the Port Mann Bridge and the freeway widening, people still have this idea that there is a big need to accomodate people who drive from Langley to Vancouver. But the big, frustrated movement is between two major regional centres. Surrey and Coquitlam.

A look at the bridge traffic figures shows that the flow bulges with cars moving between the intersections on either side of the bridge – and it tails off very quickly. The main transit link for the north end of Surrey is the SkyTrain – and service frequency across the SkyBridge was reduced when it was split to serve the Millennium Line. And of course no plan ever suggested the region needed a second service from New Westminster to Broadway via Lougheed Mall. What was in the plan and was not built was a rapid transit service that linked Coquitlam to the Broadway/Lougheed “corridor” which, thanks to Upass really needs now to get to UBC, though again the plans usually gave up around the Richmond link – Granville or Arbutus. The transit planners always assumed that a repeatedly shorted B Line (as the RT was extended) would do the trick.

To some extent Doug McCallum was also responsible for the lack of bus service in his City. He aggressively adopted a car oriented development pattern. To some extent he was abetted by the province, charmed by the idea of developers paying for things, who abandonded the long held policy of keeping development away from the intersections (to leave room for highway expansion at a  later date and cloverleaf ramps) . They allowed developments to be built on MoT land at the intersections and the developers paid for “improvements” as at 200  St. He also went for the same type of big box retail centres seen around the Interstate #5 to catch the cross border choppers in Whatcom County. Surrey City Centre (never to be called “Whalley”) languished as multiple centres absorbed the developers’ efforts.

Surrey was always the place that was growing fastest in terms of population but once the SkyTrain reached the King George Highway, transit seemed to lose interest. At the creation of Translink, interest revived since they could also do road building as the frequently repeated justification was that you could not  put a bus lane on the Fraser Highway because it was not wide enough.

What fascinates me is that this story is not “news” – it has been the case for as long as I have been around and probably a lot longer. So getting a bit in any paper is a good trick. But at least Dianne Watts and the NDP are now on the case. About time too.  Chances of anything hapenning any time soon?

The provincial government has plans to build a Skytrain line to Guildford but it won’t be completed until 2020.

More importantly Translink’s attention is now on road and bridge building – and the Golden Ears now under construction should do wonders for more sprawl in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows for people to drive to jobs in North Surrey – and potentially a new industrial area on Barnston Island – once they get it out of the ALR. LRSP? What’s that?

Written by Stephen Rees

April 3, 2008 at 8:02 am

Posted in transit