Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for April 19th, 2008

Saturday round up

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I am overwhelmed today by the number of potential “bloggable” items coming to my attention.

There is a distinct limit that I need to recognize, to the amount of time I spend at the computer. So I am not going to write at length about any of these issues – even though they are all worthy of a lot of attention.

is an online exhibition about energy & transportation curated by Claude Willey and Ryan Griffis.

Mother Jones has a very comprehensive special on The Future of Energy – and in particular a long and very thoughtful, even handed piece on nuclear power. It is well worth your time.

And finally sad news from my homeland. Gwyneth Dunwoody, chair of the transport select committee and Parliament’s longest-serving female MP, has died age 77. The link takes you to the tributes. She was one of those very rare politicians, who deal with issues in their own way. She was a great champion of public transport and railways, but she always stood her ground and thought for herself.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 19, 2008 at 3:49 pm

Another great student project

with 3 comments

One of my online correspondents recently wrote to me that she hangs out on facebook to absorb the energy and enthusiasm of young people. I have been really impressed by some of the work being done by students, and thanks to the internet, this no longer just languishes in neglected folders, but gets shared. Paul Hillsdon, Ryan Longoz and Erika Rathje are all great examples.

An exercise in cartography (in pdf format) at UBC by Michael Kushnir has recently been completed and is doing the electronic rounds thanks to Richard Campbell (who does not blog but posts compulsively to email lists, thank goodness).

This map neatly illustrates where the density is in relation to railway lines, and tends, in my view, to support the thesis that we can better link to existing dense places by using the mode which actually brought most of them into existence. That is, as opposed to building even more infrastructure for a mode which we know has brought mostly misery and ill health in its wake. For if you are going to cross large areas of no people at all much better that you do it with trains that do not stop than roads which inevitably bring development with them.

The failure of the road system in the 1930s was due to what was then called “ribbon development”. New divided highways built in Britain as part of the unemployment relief efforts were not like the German autobahns (limited access roads). As a result, development sprang up along them, greatly reducing their utility as longer distance routes due to the number of accesses onto them. And covering some prime agricultural land in the process. At that time farming was in a slump due to the use of “Empire Preference” (which meant grain came from Canada, lamb from New Zealand and beef from Australia – and Argentina, which wasn’t in the empire) and the lack of need for horse fodder due to the mechanisation of road transport. A similar pattern afflicts the Fraser and King George Highways here today. Across the US the “defense” interstate highways enabled longer distance commuting and produce the freeway on ramp cluster that has made much of the country into a corporate clone of parking lots, fast food, gas stations and motels – ringed by big box retailers and outlet malls. And was eagerly copied by Doug McCallum in South Surrey.

The idea that you should use government investment as a way to shape growth seems to be anathema to our present provincial government. They even go so far as to claim that widening the freeway will not influence growth – even though they have been promoting development at highway interchanges in this area. They are even better at it than Judge Doom. The map also shows mode share – and how, at present, transit does not meet much need in the exurbs. That is because the distances to be covered are too great to be covered in a reasonable time by a bus that stops at every hole in the hedge. Assuming there is a bus service at all, which usually there isn’t. So speedy rail cars stopping only at centres will encourage transit oriented development there – provided the municipalities zone it properly.

It requires some concerted effort, by all three levels of government to create a framework whereby we will stop doing what we have been – since we know that doesn’t work – and try another approach, which has been demonstrated many times to be effective. And which will serve us all much better in an oil starved future.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 19, 2008 at 2:58 pm

The Urban Bubble

with 10 comments

Joel Zotkin in The Washington Independent

I have heard about Christopher B. Leinberger‘s article in The Atlantic about the suburbs “The Next Slum?” quite a lot lately. The thesis is that finally the growth of the suburbs has been halted and the rising price of oil means that people are going to be moving into denser urban cores.

Zotkin takes a contrary view, and states

that urban centers — particularly those promoting dense condominium developments — are increasingly buckling under the same credit problems now affecting many housing developments on the suburban fringe. In some markets, condo sales, a strong indicator of urban fortunes, are dropping in price more quickly than single-family homes.

Much of his analysis is based on the census, which showed what happened in the ten years 1996 – 2006. In other words, before the oil price got really high, and before the sub prime collapse hit the mortgage market.

I get the impression that this debate is not really about what has happened or is happening but rather about what should happen. There are people who live downtown and like it there, just as there are people who want a garden and are happier turning their own compost heap,and weeding their peas, than walking to the new Urban Fare. When the debate gets really tiresome is when they both want to claim their leifestyle as somehow more virtuous than the other.

Very early in my university career we were taught to distinguish between descriptive and prescriptive statements (“is” versus “ought”). The main issue I see is not that we need to talk about new development – I think it is obvious that we need less energy consumption, and more walking and cycling. But we have suburbs and we ought not to be gleeful about their apparent decline (which may well be overstated) or self righteous about our own choices. What we need in urban areas is more choice – not less. And that is my prescription – and it is clearly not happening as fast as needed.

The choice of renting ought to be defended, but the changes to the landlord and tenant legislation made private sector transactions needlessly tilted towards the landlord’s interests. We should have more options for occupancy – different types of ownership – co-ops, social housing, co-housing. Not this Cartesian dualism of tenants and owners. The suburbs are going to house most of the people in this region for the foreseeable future. That is not a prescription, it is a realistic assessment of what is there now and how long it is going to remain as it is now. This means we need to come up with better solutions to mobility in low density areas and ways to retrofit neighbourhoods so that walking and cycling become possible – or even attractive for more than just recreation.

It is not an “either/or” issue. We do need more office space in town centres as much as we need to urbanise office parks. That means more than just allowing one eating place!

And affordability is an issue in both places. It seems that even though the volume of sales here is down, the prices are still climbing steeply. And the number of homeless increases. Which is part of the same problem.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 19, 2008 at 9:48 am