Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for April 24th, 2008

Is B.C. ready for peak-oil refugees?

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We have heard from more than one  group that population increase in this region is going to be our greatest challenge. Matt Burrows talks to Richard Balfour

“20 to 30 million people” could be living in the Georgia Basin in the next 15 to 20 years.

Now of course that is a much bigger figure than we are used to hearing – but that is because the “Georgia Basin” is not an administrative unit – any more than “Cascadia” is.

Earlier this month, Balfour gave a presentation to the Metro Vancouver land-use and transportation committee about applying strategic sustainable planning to the region. This would involve creating new towns in the mountains and partitioning farmland into self-governing areas so that municipalities cannot expand into them. He also urged regional politicians to develop more rail capacity, including high-speed rail, “because the highways will not be running”. He also advocated using “run-of-the-river–powered villages for B.C. rather than for export to California”.

But the railways are private entities – and they are making money – and are a very good stock pick right now. And they are not in the slightest concerned about the sort of things that Richard Balfour is or Metro Vancouver should be. And of course our provincial government thinks that highways are a great idea – and will be running on biofuel or hydrogen for ever. And Metro cannot organise its own waste disposal – liquid or solid – so expecting them to take on railways as well is a bit pointless, in my view.

I have been around the strategic planning business for most of my career. And what I have noticed is that very little of what actually happens is at all strategic. We argue about what is happening and what our response should be, but meanwhile the development process seems to be relentless, and very little of that responds to any strategic concerns. Not that the long term trends are hard to determine, or that we are fairly sure of what is needed. But somehow the short term, silly things get done – and not much happens to the big deal items. For example, the City of Richmond is dealing with the Olympics and the Canada Line. Most of its current spending is at the Oval and on Number Three Road. And on the dykes – critical to our survival – vulnerable to the inevitable seismic event and rising sea levels – nada!

We know that oil at $118 per barrel is not a short term flash in the pan but a long term problem, for an oil based economy. But all the transportation planning is concentrated on road building. And policies for low speed electric cars – well we will leave that up to the municipalities! For railways we will just flog them – and then try to keep the process out of the courts as long as possible or at least past the next election.

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic seems far sighted by comparison.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 24, 2008 at 11:53 am

Smog in Beijing

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Guardian video

A very short video, which should be pause for thought. The clip concentrates on the smog – and we already know that drifts across the pacific and gets to us – but my concern is the ghg.

But it also is a very well made point that even if they are small cars, the traffic problem, is horrendous and will only get worse. And the authorities in Beijing have conceded that they cannot build enough roads to ever keep up with demand.

(I would have like to embed it but Vodpod only gets the ad!)

Written by Stephen Rees

April 24, 2008 at 10:32 am

Biodiesel a key part of a smart, green policy for Western Canada

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On the opinion page this morning Ian Thomson, president of both the B.C. and the Alberta Biodiesel Associations, makes the case for the province’s plan for renewable fuels to comprise five per cent of all diesel and gasoline sold in B.C. by 2010.

He notes that elsewhere governments are having second thoughts about this type of commitment, mainly due to the undeniable crisis in food shortages and high prices. Mr Thompson says that their analysis is “simplistic”

global food price increases are the result of a complex mix of factors, including supply and demand, trade policy, tariffs, political instability, and global energy costs.

Which while true neatly avoids the explanation that demand for some crops, and for more land, to supply the demands for biofuels is one of the big changes recently. The link between corn prices and the demand for ethanol in the US as a fuel additive is directly linked to the high prices of corn products in Mexico. That is an old story. But still true. The wider impacts of the demand for palm oil and clearance of forests has also been around for a while. As has the calculation that some biofuels can take more energy to produce than they provide, and the consequences of current farming practice results in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

This is not to say that all biofuels are evil. They could be created from waste products. There is a lot of used frying oil out there that could be recycled this way. A lot of yellow grease that is currently exported as unfit for human consumption here – that probably ends up being eaten by very poor people in third world countries. I do not know if we are doing them any favours with that trade, but somebody is making a lot of money out of our care and other’s neglect of standards of cleanliness. Forest products could probably produce ethanol – but currently it is foodgrains that are used, not switch grass, straw or sawdust.

And even if he is right, which seems to me unlikely but we will let his case stand for the sake of argument, the needs of hungry humans should override those of the automotive business. That means right now we have to back off legislated biofuel mandates until we can get this market stabilised, and concentrate on getting people fed, not SUVs producing a little less ghg.

Because the other feature of biofuels is we are currently treating them as a way to carry on behaving as we have done. Just like the use of hybrid drives on huge trucks that are only single occupant passenger vehicles, and whose only freight hauling role is some bags of groceries, or some 2x4s for a rare home improvement project. We need above all to reduce the number of vehicle kilometres travelled as that is what is driving up the demand for fuel – despite improvements in vehicle efficiency and fuel standards. We keep building freeways and low density, unwalkable suburbs. Poor people around the world should not be expected to pay for our self indulgence or refusal to face facts.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 24, 2008 at 8:50 am

Highway would cut key first nations archeological sites

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There is so much wrong with the South Fraser Perimeter Road that anywhere else this would be the issue that stopped it. In the Ontario EA process for a site search project I did – admittedly some years ago now – we decided to go for a site that was so comprehensively disturbed and so far from streams that there was no chance of archaelogical remains. Indeed one of the first EAs I worked on here at Bamberton on Vancouver Island, it was the First Nations concerns that made the proponent give up, because they realised that mitigation was simply not possible. Sacred sites are like that.

But the SFPR has impacts on existing communities, on a unique and fragile ecosystem, on farmland – but all of that is not enough to get the MoT to even consider the available alternative route, let alone the flawed case that it is needed at all. And the presence of a line in an old plan (which had not examined any of these issues) should have no effect on the appraisal. By any measure, the SFPR has failed to meet any reasonable standard of evaluation.

It amazes me that Metro Vancouver has not joined the fight. How can you talk about a future sustainable region and have the advocates of the Gateway on the platform? There is nothing about the Gateway that is even remotely connected to sustainability. And the government’s claim that it will reduce local air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions has been shown to be false. Use a flawed set of assumptions (there will be no induced traffic, there will be no change in land use)m and you get forecasts which no one with any understanding of the history of urban growth can accept. Indeed, I am certain that both Gordon Campbell and Kevin Falcon know that, but regard their indebtedness to the business community as being more important than their responsibilities to the wider community.

The most depressing aspect of all this to me is the attitude of the First Nations. But these are their concerns – and I understand that they feel that a newcomer like me has no standing in this discussion. It is not my story to tell. I just wish that they would tell their story more forcefully and publicly. The lack of comment in this Sun piece is distressing, for this was an opportunity to take and possibly make some change. The Juggernaut of the Gateway needs some obstacles thrown in its path, to slow its progress before it flattens us all. We know this government does not care about the environment, or the community. But there are some groups that have to listen to – and that is not the farmers, or the defenders of Burns Bog, or the people who live along the present chosen route. They can expect to be ignored – and have been. But the reality of the present treaty process does give the First Nations a voice. And a voice that has power.

It needs to be heard along the Fraser.


Written by Stephen Rees

April 24, 2008 at 8:12 am