Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for May 18th, 2008

Licence Plate Readers

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Jeff Nagel

New technology now means that cops do not have to type license plate numbers into their computers. A camera mounted on the patrol car scans the plates and checks them against a database or three. And this is very effective, and catches the sort of people who need to be caught.

More than 70 per cent of hits are unlicensed drivers, 20 per cent are for uninsured vehicles, 8.4 per cent are prohibited drivers and 0.9 per cent are stolen vehicles.

Now for some reason the civil liberties types are worried about this. Let us be clear. A license plate is public information. Anyone can see it, write it down or take a picture of it. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Moreover, and this is not said in the article but should have been, nowhere in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms – or anywhere else – is there a right to drive a car. And as I have always been told, it is not a right, it is a privilege, and it can and will be withdrawn if you abuse it.

If you have been banned from driving by the court, society has an absolute right to stop you driving if you defy that ban. If you have no insurance we have a financial necessity and a legitimate safety concern to stop you from threatening our safety and that of our loved ones.

Two incidents from my early career have coloured my views. I once was involved in a survey – some research which as a government economist concerned me – on how much revenue was being lost to people who did not pay for their annual vehicle license. In the UK we then used “tax discs” on the windshield, not license plate stickers. Casual observation on my walk from the station to the office suggested compliance was low, so we asked the Metropolitan Police to help with a survey at the Elephant and Castle – a busy intersection in South London – of the morning commuters grinding slowly up to the roundabout. The police liked this spot as there was somewhere they could pull cars over if they warranted further inspection. After 30 minutes traffic control in Central London called us and asked us to stop. The noncompliance rate with tax discs turned out to be the least of our problems. People were driving unfit vehicles with no insurance and no driver’s licences and the percentage of vehicles pulled out of the flow was similar to that we see here whenever there is a crackdown on truck or taxi safety. And our small sample survey was actually bringing most of south London to a full stop.

Second was the occasion when I attended Snaresbrook Crown Court, where the driver of a vehicle was on trial for driving while unlicensed and uninsured. He was handed a stiff sentence, but it was not custodial. Merely an extension to his existing driving ban. I was standing on the court steps talking to the policeman who had given evidence against him (when I also learned for the first time about his “long string of previous” which was not allowed to be brought up in evidence as it was said to be “prejudical”) when the driver appeared, walked to his car and got in to drive away!

Prior to the introduction of this system, I have also had direct experience of the previous method used in BC. I was driving to work in my old Dodge Caravan, and I was stopped by a patrol car and had to sit, blinded by bright lights while the officer “ran my plate”. His reason for stopping me? Dodge Caravans are popular cars for house breakers to steal as they hold a lot and allow a fast getaway. Now, I am very happy that it is no longer necessary for me to be detained like this. If my plate has been read once or a thousand times, I do not care. And it can stay in the police computers for as long as they like. If that means I can get to work without being hassled – good. But much more significantly, if I can drive, or cycle, or cross, roads that have far fewer criminal and incompetent drivers on them, great. Yes, some needlenoser will one day fall to the temptation to try and make use of this database to find out other stuff. But we can deal with that – we do not need to stop the expansion of a system that will save lives and pain until we are certain it can never be misused. The world is an imperfect place and there are bad people in it. Let’s get the really bad drivers off the road first and then deal with the possibility of naughty spies with suitable security systems.

Oh and if you did not know, license plate cameras and analytical software has been in use for traffic surveys for many years. The plate reader allows traffic engineers to learn how intersections and indeed entire networks are actually used. No one doing such surveys has access to the databases which contain license or insurance information. And they can also be used to catch speeders – but aren’t here – and should be.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 18, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Traffic

The Delta Optimist

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It must be pretty hard to hold on to your optimism in Delta these days.

This weekend’s edition of the Can West local has 3 stories – most of which continue the tale of things covered here in recent weeks and months.

First up is the outcome of the Andres Duany charette on the “southlands“. Both Ted Murphy (Can West) and Mike Schneider (Century Group, the promoter) have opinion pieces. Ted wants more community benefits – which is a bit cheeky at this stage since Century have yet to submit an application. I would expect that Delta Council will not be a pushover, and will demand more than a pound of flesh to let anything happen on what has become a land parcel as symbolic for Delta as the Garden City Lands are now for Richmond. But it is a bit early to be pontificating – or even doing an evaluation before the proposal is even finished. Though of course that does not stop the letter writers either.

Then there’s the power lines. What seems to be missing here is that the cost of putting these things underground is not that great. $38 million for a province that is not exactly short of cash. And it would be a very good start in my view to show that we actually do care about what this place looks like. The flat lands of the Delta are actually more impacted by these towers and wires than places were they can be threaded through wooded valleys. I find it very odd that we love our scenery but there is nowhere that a view of the mountains is completely free of wires. And I am simply not going to get into all that emf stuff. We were supposed to have a built environment of the same quality as the natural environment it sits in. And that was an undertaking given by Gordon Campbell, then Mayor of Vancouver and Chair of the GVRD and author of “Creating Our Future”. The same man who ingores the views of 2,000 local residents who turn out in the rain to sign a petition.

Third is the SFPR and its impact on Burns Bog which recent changes “may help slightly” – but there is still “too much uncertainty” according to John Jeglum a member of Metro’s Burns Bog Scientific Advisory Panel. He is a retired professor and an expert on peatland ecology. You would have thought that our politicians might have learned something from the experience of other politicians who defied scientific doubts and uncertainties – for example on climate change. But not our Kevin. It really does not matter what is in the final EA document, the SFPR will go through anyway. It will only be later that we discover that we never needed it and the damage it will do is irreparable. The precautionary principle does not mean anything to the BC Liberal Party.

And so it goes on – garbage, air quality – all important stories. I noticed that on the mast head it says “Newsstand 50c” but even if you are not a resident you can get one from the box at the end of the swing bridge for free. Well worth reading I would say – and I do not often say that about an Asper product.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 18, 2008 at 4:31 pm

Forecasting demand for Gateway.

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There are are at two huge failings in the way that the Gateway programs views the future. The first one is its convenient blindness to any realistic assessment of its effect on personal mobility. Basically it is assumed that the number of motorised trips will not change between the with and without project scenarios. And I have written here enough about why that is simply unbelievable.

The second one is the forecast that trade between North America and China will continue to grow at the same rate it was growing up until a couple of years ago when high gas prices and the credit crunch hit the US. At the Livable Blog Nic S notes

Captain Gordon Houston of the new Vancouver Port Authority, which includes all ports in the lower mainland, keeps stressing that we need all this extra capacity. He does not quote any studies to support the expansions and the only business case he makes is that he’s the expert here and we simply need to follow his advice.

What he found was an article in the Sacramento B that describes recent changes in the way international shipping has been responding to a different commercial reality.

Since, apparently, we have no reference documents that we can go to to determine what assumptions were made by the Port or the Gateway Council when it dreamed up this “plan”  we cannot determine if they did what “due diligence” would require. We do know that the province made ludicrous assumptions – and refuses point blank to do any further work, now that the world seems to be unfolding in a way that was not anticipated when these ideas first surfaced.  I am not picking on the province, or the Port, because it seems to have been a common problem. Not so long ago I quoted the head of American Airlines as saying “there was no game plan for $120 a barrel oil”.

What the article cited shows is that expensive fuel, and a shift in economic fortunes between the US and Europe, has already had an impact on container shipping. Europe has been hit much less hard than the US since it gets more dollars for its euros now. I think it is extremely unlikely that anyone at the Port or the MoT looked at gas prices this high when they did their demand forecasts. Indeed as Eric Doherty points out in another Livable Blog article, neither did the US Energy Information Administration – whose forecasts have been consistently wrong and far too optimistic.

We also know that the Vancouver Port is completely unconcerned about Price Rupert, the North West passage opening up decades before anyone expected and the New Panama Canal coming online. Now if a commercial corporation behaved like that you would expect the shareholders to kick up a fuss at the AGM – and probably one of those aggressive investment trusts to start making noises in the boardroom. But our strange not public not private not responsible to anyone but our mates “professional boards” do not have to worry about any oversight. After all it is tax payers money they are spending. Though I fervently hope that at some stage Sheila Fraser takes a long hard look at Transport Canada and how it seems to have shrugged off any responsibility for anything connected to Gateway in any of its multifarious manifestations.

Apart from the pilings now appearing at Deltaport, it is not too late to stop all this. All it takes is for Gordon Campbell and Kevin Falcon to admit that their forecasts were wrong – just like everybody elses. No shame in that.

But if you think they will do that, I have a bridge you can buy.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 18, 2008 at 3:37 pm

Posted in Economics, Gateway