Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for May 15th, 2008

Sandpipers

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Pete McMartin catches up on an issue I dealt with here and on Radio Canada back in mid April, in reaction to a Sun story, of course.

He says it “may kill Gordon Campbell’s ‘gateway'”. And we can only hope he is right. One good thing is that it is a port development, which is federal not provincial jurisdiction. And the federal departments have at least been treating the other EA processes with a degree of professional objectivity not seen from the province’s employees. Sadly, as reported here as well, the responsible authorities are DFO and Transport Canada. Who allowed the Roberts Bank causeway and terminal to be built in the first place, ending the way of life enjoyed by the Tsawassen for time beyond memory, but which had been knocked sideways by the similar causeway and ferry terminal on the other side of their reserve. And now has to be made good by a shameful deal on the ALR.

But even if the coal and container terminals are not expanded, this has no impact on the Gateway as a whole. For as we have seen, the project is based not on the “needs” of the truckers, but the hopes of property developers. The critical linkage for the coal and the containers does not come from the roads but the rails. And we still wait to find out what is going to happen to the BC Rail line that links the port to the rest of the system, as it is still sub judice – but Bill Tieleman doggedly keeps track of as its glacial progress continues after FOUR YEARS.

Besides, it does not matter to Gordon Campbell what anyone says – unless they are big businesses threatened by legislation

Gordon is determined to press on and damn the torpedoes. And he has a solid lead in the polls to boost his confidence.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 15, 2008 at 1:14 pm

Posted in Environment

Gasoline taxes denounced

with 7 comments

Province

Maureen Bader is an idiot. I saw her on the CBC News last night and choked on my thin crust vegetarian pizza.

Her thesis is that gasoline “is the new tobacco”. Actually that idea has some traction. But not the way she thinks. Government raises taxes on tobacco for two reasons. As a deterrent and as a way to pay for the damage that tobacco causes. There is a direct link between tobacco and health care costs. Just as there is a direct link between vehicle kilometres travelled and heart disease, obesity and type two diabetes. Of course that has nothing to do with the fuel used. It would apply to someone who drove everywhere in a ZEV instead of walking and cycling. Car use is also strongly linked to childhood asthmas, and other air pollution related diseases. As well as death and injury due to collisions (they should not be referred to as “accidents” as nearly all are avoidable). And if you look at smoking rates, they have declined, and smokers are now social pariahs. Just as SUV drivers are becoming.

She says

“More and more scientists are coming on record and saying that man-made global warming is probably not the cause of the global warming that we have been experiencing over the past few years.”

Which is almost worthy of George Bush. I hope the reporter is not guilty of misquoting. I challenge her to name one scientist who has said this in a peer reviewed journal. Yes there are climate changes due to natural causes like sun spots. But the long term correlation between anthropogenic CO2 and temperature increase – and the causative mechanism – are not easily dismissed except by those with an axe to grind.

She sneered at governments’ funding of public transit.

“Taxpayers have got to ask themselves: ‘Do we really need to have a $14-billion Cadillac transit plan when all the government is really expecting to see is maybe a five-per-cent increase in transit use?’ People here want to use their cars.

I might even agree with her on the $14bn “plan (which isn’t) but if she means an increase of 5 percentage points in mode share (not a 5% increase in ridership) I think that would be very good indeed. Because that is much better value for money out of our existing infrastructure. A 3m wide lane on a freeway moves about 2,500 people per hour. A 3 metre wide transit right of way can easily move 25,000 people per hour and more. In a place pushed for space, which is better value for your tax dollars? And cars need up to 5 or 6 available parking spaces – which mostly sit empty. And cars spend most of their time parked, not being used and depreciating. Not exactly a good use of resources.

But the idea that governments should cut gas taxes because people want to use their cars is bizarre. How do you pay for all that road construction and maintenance without gas taxes? Not to mention the ER capacity to deal with the victims of collisions.

And I have left the best until last – but it tops the Province’s story

gas taxes should be directed to encourage the car culture, not fund public transit

Please keep your comments to under 250 words

Written by Stephen Rees

May 15, 2008 at 12:42 pm

The Province on Paul Hillsdon

with one comment

A Surrey teen who thinks his city is heading in the wrong direction has decided to run for council in November.

If he’s elected, it’s believed 18-year-old blogger Paul Hillsdon would be the youngest-ever Surrey councillor.

And if the Surrey voters have any sense, he will be.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 15, 2008 at 12:11 pm

Posted in politics

New Ecodensity Charter

with 4 comments

Brent Toderian wrote to me to let me know that the revised Charter and its accompanying documents are now available on the City website.

Now I have been gamely plodding through all this, and my first reaction is that it could have been made a lot easier to follow. The full text of both versions of the Charter are there, but as separate documents. It would have made reviewer’s life easier if there had been on one set of pages with the changes highlighted. Most word processing software packages can do this easily (“tools/compare versions”).

The staff report is thorough, and is at pains to point out what the staff heard and how those concerns have been addressed. But I was not at any of the events where concerns were expressed, so I have no idea how those who did express them will feel about how well they have been addressed.

One thing that did jump out at me however was this

New housing will also come through some additional large sites that are yet to be planned (e.g., Arbutus Village, Little Mountain, and the former Transit Bus Barns in Oakridge).

I do not know anything about Arbutus Village but Little Mountain is happening right now – so “yet to be planned” seems a bit of an odd phrase to apply to it. And the Oakridge “Bus Barns” (they are not called that by the people who run them) are going to stay as a Transit Operating Centre for some considerable time. They are currently being used as a Community Shuttle base, a place to commission new trolleybuses and a storage space for buses awaiting disposal. Early plans to redevelop the site to high density housing were rejected by the City, throwing a large wrench into Translink’s financial plan for disposal and use of the funds elsewhere. My advice would be not to expect too much new housing here any time soon. Finding sites for new operating centres is harder than redeveloping existing occupied housing.

Oakridge deadline

I welcome the attention now being paid to affordability, and the seeming willingness to allow existing homeowners to add secondary suites and lane houses. I am sure there are a lot of empty nesters who would like to stay in their neighbourhoods but have less lawn to mow and a new source of rental income for their retirement years. A lot of density can be added that way, but I think we need a bit more of a codified approach that people can understand ahead of time. The sort of approach advocated by Andres Duany, which eliminates much of the staff – and political – discretion in these issues. Duany says that is more efficient. I think it is more important that it is more transparent and fair. Since I think what caused the uproar was that the citizens of Vancouver have a very low level of trust when it comes to the City dealing with property development issues. At least, that was what I heard in the voices raised against EcoDensity Mark 1. And that is not Brent Toderian’s fault. It is Sam’s – and by making himself the man proposing the change it became political – and personal – and not about the virtues of the idea itself but the credibility of its source.

Frances Bula has a very short piece in today’s Sun which does not add much, but notes that towers for eastside seem to have been dropped.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 15, 2008 at 10:57 am

Posted in housing, land use, Urban Planning

Tagged with

Peak-oil spike reshapes the suburbs

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Georgia Strait

A series of interviews about the impact of rising gas prices on places that are car dependant.

But the recent rise in gas prices is more to do with short term supply issues than an awareness of peak oil plus the rapidly growing demand from China and India. And, the price is expressed in US dollars, which means that the real cost of oil for people who do not use that currency has not changed nearly as much as it appears to those that do. I think we have passed peak oil – but most people in the oil business deny that. However, big oil companies no longer dominate oil production. National oil companies in the producing states do that and they do not think they have an obligation to keep America’s big cars supplied with cheap fuel.

A new study by Oregon-based economist Joe Cortright suggests that spiralling oil prices in the last five years burst the American housing bubble that swelled partly due to relaxed lending practices and speculation.

Properties located in cities and neighbourhoods that require residents to go on lengthy commutes and don’t provide many transportation alternatives have fallen in value more deeply than those in “more central, compact and accessible places”, Cortright wrote in Driven to the Brink: How the Gas Price Spike Popped the Housing Bubble and Devalued the Suburbs.

“The collapse of the housing bubble, punctured by the gas price spoke, marks a watershed point for the nation’s suburbs,” Cortright wrote.

But it wasn’t punctured by gas prices. It was punctured by investors becoming unwilling to buy commercial asset backed paper (the hideously complicated packages of mortgages taken out by people who could not afford them that were being traded like securities). Mostly because no-one could agree on how to value them. Now, some of the growing number of mortgage defaults (which made the packages hard to value) may have been caused by people impacted by higher driving costs, but mostly the problem was the type of mortgage. Many were only affordable at a low introductory rate and became unaffordable after a couple of years as market rates kicked in. Since we did not have these new, riskier mortgages here, our suburban house prices have not (yet) fallen, but people here are being hit just as hard by higher gas prices. And higher food prices too, come to that. So far what we have seen is an increase in houses for sale i.e. they are staying on the market for longer but prices are not yet falling. Though the phenomenal rates of increase seen in recent years will be a thing of the past. At the same time of course, in BC we are also being hit by rapidly rising hydro bills after a long period of having the lowest electricity rates in North America. Plus the shift to fees and charges from income tax, which hits poorer families hardest who are at the margins of the housing market.

Yes, the American suburb is in trouble now. But oil is only part of that story. The shenanigans of Wall Street are more to blame in my view. Which actually means that the process of adjustment may take longer. Because doing something about it will require financing, and that is now harder to find.

We also know that choice of housing location in this region has not been driven by commuting costs, but mostly by availability of the housing type people wanted. Whenever this got discussed in recent years it was always said to be about “lifestyle choices” – and also the recognition that the decentralisation of employment had made the commute pattern not only more complex but also more car dependent. At the same time as we were building rapid transit and commuter rail to connect the suburbs to downtown Vancouver, so employers were moving out to cheaper locations. And very few of those are accessible by any transit service, let alone rapid transit.

Oh, that thing about house prices and distance from the centre is not news either. It has been around for as long as urban economics and was referred to in my student days as the “rent gradient”.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 15, 2008 at 10:25 am