Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for April 7th, 2008

Pricetags Issue 100 Celebration

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A small but distinguished crowd gathered at the UBC Robson Square campus this evening to celebrate the 100th edition of Gordon Price’s on line magazine Pricetags.

Gord Price collects more material

Photo by Jason Vanderhill

Larry Frank opened the proceedings with the somewhat surprising announcement that “There is a Gordon Price elementary school”

He also announced that Gordon has donated his collection of slides to the University. This donation has been valued at $27, 000 to SCARP and the whole collection has been digitised and can be found at It will be of considerable value to bloggers and future contributors to Price Tags.

Gordon then did a PowerPoint presentation on the history of Price tags. It was of course profusely illustrated and this account cannot be an adequate facsimile of it. PriceTags itself is created in PowerPoint so perhaps at some stage Gordon will produce a pdf of this presentation too. You should know too that you can access the entire archive thanks to the Sightline Institute including editon #100 which is a hyperlinked index.

He said that initially it was just about learning the technology. He had discovered digital photography, which meant he was taking many more pictures and was always interested in documenting Vancouver whenever he had the chance. When he visits other cities he will grab an architectural guidebook, a local paper (to discover a local controversy) and a map. He has found that the key is to make pictures of “people doing something on that great stage set we call cities”.

Initially it was just a Word document sent out as an email attachment with links to items of interest – one of the first being an on line edition of the San Francisco Chronicle called SF Gate, which had an interview with Gordon.

PT was a bit of self-promotion. The Chronicle column featured an interview with me, but mainly as a foil for Carol’s observations on the Vancouver Style and what it might mean for San Francisco. Since I was no longer at Vancouver CityI barely knew how to attach a Word document to email, much less do layout. Though the pages and font size doubled in subsequent issues, PT remained merely black type and blue links.

Since I was no longer at Vancouver City Hall, I thought it might be helpful to send out links to stories in which I was interviewed. Hence Price ‘tags.’

He has always enjoyed conducting tours of downtown and now the term “Vancouver Style” has come into vogue. The “South East corner” of San Francisco – which used to be industrial – is seeing this kind of development now that “they have got over their fear of height”.

The breakthrough came when he worked out how to put a digital picture in a Word document. His test of the success of the amount of content he sends out is that “People don’t ask to be taken off the list.” He has been documenting the change of the West End, and how Vancouver depoliticized development approval. He noted that Peter Pollen, the Mayor of Victoria had a picture of the West End of Vancouver in his office, and boasted “That will never happen here”, That decision is now regretted since Victoria does not have the resident population to support its downtown.

Issue 2 of Price Tags ensured its success. A link to the City of Vancouver’s panoramas of urban went viral. At times the City’s servers were in danger of becoming overloaded. Emails just keep getting forwarded. He did a lot with developer’s brochures. And just recently he was invited to the new Concord Pacific office but he noted the absence of the bike rack – which shows that they really don’t get it yet!

Among the issues he showed was one I was most impressed with on Minneapolis St Paul and their catch phrase he now uses a lot “more natural, more urban, more connected”. He also picked out the Port Mann Bridge. “It was never about the bridge. I voted for the SFPR and the Golden Ears”. It was that the “Gateway was the reverse of what we had been doing. And you have to make a choice. You cannot have both (an dense walkable city or a car oriented suburb). He was also very enthusiastic about taking pictures from planes. “Only God had that kind of view before.” And he also showed how to use the mapping and measuring capabilities of Google Earth. His comparison of Vancouver to West Los Angeles showed that they were both compact. The distance across the city, 15 miles, is the same in both cases and is an easy bike ride.

The entertainment was not just the fact that every time someone does a PowerPoint presentation the system crashes. (it did) Or someone swears at Windows Vista (Larry Frank could not do an on line demo of the picture gallery). We were treated to a live performance by the all female B:C:Clettes – who must be, I think, unique, and uniquely Vancouver. They are a dance cooperative who celebrate cycling. They have recently produced a music video helmet PSA which includes the line “I wear a helmet so you can drive like an idiot.” They are wonderful – and should be seen the next time they perform if you have not caught their act already. Larry Frank thinks they are “hilarious” which I thought a little ungallant. They are gorgeous, talented and disciplined. And they know how to move. On bikes.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 7, 2008 at 10:39 pm

Posted in Transportation

The End of Suburbia

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Dorothy Woodend writes about a movie that will be shown in Vancouver this week. I will not be able to go as I have work on Friday nights – but I hope somebody who reads this will and report back here aftewards

A panel discussion will follow the screening of the film on Friday, April 11th at 7:30 p.m. at the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, 154 E. 10th Avenue, Vancouver.

There is hope in the suburbs

Written by Stephen Rees

April 7, 2008 at 3:00 pm

Posted in Urban Planning

Price Tags in Paris

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Price Tags 102

Because my readership keeps growing I am going to assume that there are some of you who do not know about Price Tags. The rest of you already subscribe and got this link by email. Clicking on the link gets you a pdf magazine produced by one man, former Vancouver Councillor Gordon Price who is now head of the City Program at SFU. He said recently that it started as just a way to send his friends information on his travels, but grew from there. And this is the second effort as a result of his Paris trip. Well written, well researched and well illustrated. Priceless!

And from there I got this nice little video of how the metro works to move people. The film maker is not an American unused to transit – he is a Londoner and I think a bit of a train buff. But even he is astonished at the number of people quite small trains at one minute headways can move. Imagine for a moment while looking at this that 70% of these people are trying to lug a tonne and half of machinery with them – and then you will understand why freeways are useless in urban places.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 7, 2008 at 10:29 am

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

Back to the future – Bus Rapid Transit

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San Fransisco Chronicle

Henry Gardner is the executive director of the Association of Bay Area Governments and former city manager of Oakland.

And he is trying to advance the cause of BRT by re-awakening memories of the old Key System. I am at all sure that this is wise. Firstly because a lot of people who are young or new to the area will not understand the references, an dthose that do may be misled. Yes we all used to ride the interurban once upon a time but modern transit systems are a lot better than that was.

But the reason I wanted to quote the article is this gem

Critics point to the effects on automobile use as reasons to oppose the project. But some difficult trade-offs will need to be made to improve public transit and improve traffic flow, even if there are impacts on motorists.

Effects on automobile use are precisely the point. And the greater the impact the better. The automobile and its excessive use is that cause of the problem – and that covers a whole range of issues including local air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, traffic congestion, road safety and human health. Take cars out of most urban environments and the neighbourhood improves overnight.

A lot of what is wrong with transit in general is that far too much accommodation has been made for cars, but that is changing slowly. Bus stops that stick out into the travel lane as opposed to those that require the bus to get out of the cars’ way are a good start. So are exclusive bus lanes – especially when they are taken away from other traffic not used as an excuse to widen roads.

The Richmond Rapid Bus (that became the 98 B line) that I worked on should have been much better than it was – or is now. And that could have allowed for the Canada Line to be put off for a while, itself a worthwhile aim, I think. But is was sunk by traffic engineers obsessed with vehicle capacity who refused to allow the use of people carrying capacity as the metric. And, of course, most of the public outrage was carefully manipulated. What had really upset the residents of the most expensive area of Vancouver was that people from Richmond were driving through it! They had accepted the Arthur Laing because they used the airport too, but the Number Two Road bridge was a betrayal. And restriping Granville to three narrow lanes “without consulting us” was unforgiveable. That is why the opponents used the terms “Say No to Granville Highway” – because even they could see that opposing better bus service was elitist. Indeed the only really bad faux pas in transit discussions in recent years was that silly woman who talked about “la crème de al crème“. She deserved to get a tram up her Arbutus for that if nothing else!

The bus rapid transit system along Insurgentes Avenue in Mexico City, a project of EMBARQ – The WRI Center for Sustainable Transport.
EMBARQ website
Photo by Robin Murphy, 2007.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 7, 2008 at 8:40 am

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

Tagged with

Comforting myths

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Dan Gardner, Canwest News Service
Published: Monday, April 07, 2008

This editorial seems designed to throw down a gauntlet to environmentalists. It is aggressive, argumentative and mostly wrong headed. It also tries to have it that only people of the left have any emotional attachment to their preferred approach. Which is, of course, also twaddle. The right is as emotionally attached to its positions as the left. And is based on their world view.

What they want instead [of carbon capture and more nuclear power] is a big campaign for energy conservation coupled with promotion of green energy sources such as wind, solar, and biomass.

Not too difficult, not too expensive, and it can be done in time to prevent the end of the world as we know it.

And best of all, this foolproof program consists entirely of policies environmentalists have been pushing for decades.

Isn’t that something? The solution to climate change consists exclusively of changes environmentalists were demanding back when climate change was nothing more than a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. What an amazing and delightful coincidence.

But the reason this program has not worked is that is has not been implemented in any serious fashion. First of all he misstates the program that has been advanced. Governments have generally gone for the easy options – education and a few subsidies. The big issues which required significant “sticks” as well as “carrots” were generally ignored. And in this country, the necessary investment in infrastructure too. BC hits the headlines when it introduces a tiny, first step in the right direction – carbon tax – and the reaction from business has been “the sky is falling”.

Governments in general, and ours in particular, instead of pursuing strategies that would promote energy conservation have continued to build freeways and expand runways, and stressed the need for free trade and economic growth – and even now are telling people to get out and shop to rescue the American economy despite a very real credit crunch that is impacting everyone’s budget. Instead of conservation we have looked for ways to generate more power. As the oil price rises, so more carbon intensive processes are brought on stream to extract liquid motor spirit from oil sands and shales.

From anti-tar sands action held in Calgary on January 17, 2008.
Photo by Steve Loo.

Alternatives to fossil fuel include cutting down forests and promoting chemical dependent monoculture plantations – or taking food crops from the poorest to turn into fuel for SUVs. In BC we even abolished the luxury car tax we had had for years so single occupant commuters could increasingly buy gas guzzlers for their travel. Transit investments and Smart Growth were derided, ignoring the fact that they worked where they had been used. And the PR industry continued its campaign of obfuscation even as the polar ice melting accelerated. There are very good reasons “the solution” so far has failed and by and large that had nothing to do with its advocates or its virtues. Mostly, we have not adopted it seriously, we have cherry picked out the easy bits and preferred business as usual. We knew what we had to do, but mostly didn’t.

it’s no mystery why many environmentalists are so obstinate. They are strapped into “an ideological straitjacket,” they wrote — immobilized by “a deep suspicion of big business and big industry that’s a residue of the leftism of the original environmental movement.”

Well now, I wonder why that could be? Do the following names have any resonance with you?

Exxon Valdez, Bhopal, Enron, Arthur Andersen, Pacific Gas and Electric, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl

There are, it seems to me, very good reasons for having a cynical attitude about big business. I distrust people who think they can act with impunity – and then hide behind their lawyers to try and avoid the consequences. And the two nuclear disasters I have included are there because that is what we remember. I would have added Pickering to that list but no-one will know here what I am talking about. That was the nuclear power plant in Ontario that I used to live next to. It leaked, all the time. Pipes were corroded but power production continued. This plant is located in a heavily populated area on the shore of Lake Ontario east of Toronto. We were told that that the radiation produced byt his plant,and its lackadaisical attitudes to maintenance and waste disposal were “safe”. It has, like most other Canadian nuclear reactors since been shut down and for good reason. There are people who think you should restart reactors that are not safe – and who override nuclear safety experts to do so – because it seems to meet a popular demand. It does not seem to me to be an especially responsible attitude.

There is another reason to distrust nuclear power – and it is one the right wing has been using for its own political advantage a lot recently. Fissile material and technology can easily get into the “wrong hands” – whether you regard terrorists or rogue states as the highest probability matters not at all. The potential results are equally disastrous. And the cost of protecting all this new nuclear capability is far more than most of us are prepared to pay – because it is not our taxes that are most at risk but our liberty.

Please Take Your Nuclear Waste Home
… this planet is home to many people, animals and plants.

Dungeness, Kent, England

Photo by John Wigham

And he then gets into the emotional stuff. But the preference for business as usual is emotional too. Our attachment to our cars, our huge houses, our enormous flat screen tvs, our preference for wearing tee shirts and shorts indoors at the depth of winter – none of that is based on reason. The people who buy massive trucks are convinced they are safer in them – all evidence to the contrary. We like to drive fast – and talk on the phone and have a couple of drinks first too if we feel like it. We resent effective enforcement, and government courts easy popularity by getting rid of speed control devices – or refusing to require those that are known to be effective. The arguments in favour of the Sea to Sky Highway and Port Mann Bridge are all emotional – there is not a scrap of rationality about them. Mostly what government and big business gives us, the public, is spin. They hate to tell the truth and redact it whenever they can.

The hexavalent chromium in the drinking water did not get there by accident. It was known to be a carcinogen. Yet a company more concerned with the bottom line than human lives behaved badly and then lied about it and tried to hide the evidence. Bhopal was not an “accident”, it resulted from a corporate culture that did not value human life.

We may have no choice but to increase carbon capture in future now. But one of the reasons that it was opposed is that the solution has to incorporate a major change in the way we live. The reason the world has problems is that our planet’s climate is not going to absorb all that people are throwing at it – and as long as the populations of China and India seek to emulate us that problem is going to get worse. Cutting consumption is the part of the solution that Dan Gardner does not mention – I suspect because he is as emotionally attached to his consumer goods and services as the rest of us. Air travel – and cheap air travel at that – is still part of what we want to do. Canadians cannot be denied their mandatory two weeks of sun and fun in the dead of winter. Sure they could enjoy winterlude in Ottawa, or skiing on Seymour, but most still see Cabo san Lucas as the place to be in January. The idea that GDP might decline is still seen as unspeakable. It is regarded as a disaster. Carbon capture is promoted by those who think GDP can continue to increase in the west. It is the same mind set that saw energy efficiency programs produce much bigger fridges ( and new products like wine coolers) – that has been used by the car makers not to reduce fuel consumption but to promote bigger and more powerful vehicles, even though they will spend most of their time on the road stuck in traffic with the Smart cars and hybrids.

I will confess I have an emotional attachment to clean air and clean water. I would much prefer, emotionally, to stay where I am instead of heading for higher ground as the sea level rises. I do feel quite attached to parks and old growth forests. One of the reasons I like my workplace is that I share it with seals, herons and bald eagles. They are not much use to me. They wouldn’t lend me a dollar if I needed it. They are indifferent to me, mostly. So I suppose my attachment to them must be emotional too. And you know what, I am not going to apologise for that. And I also happen to think that seal is worth more swimming free than having it’s head bashed in so someone can have a key ring ornament, and if that means the GDP does not grow as fast and a former sealer claims EI that’s ok with me too.

And as an economist I am going to call that part of my value system. And yes, I think my value system is more comprehensive that that of the average accountant. So sue me.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 7, 2008 at 8:01 am