Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for May 2008

More bad economic news from the US

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Prices of U.S. single-family homes plunged a record 14.4 percent in March from a year earlier, while consumer confidence slumped to its lowest in 16 years in May as gasoline prices surged.

This is bad news for us as well. First the US is our biggest market. For BC we have already seen the effect on our lumber industry, but it is going to effect everything. Canada has had a wealthy neighbour to the south that has wanted – and paid for – our exports. For a long time we thought that had something to do with a weak loonie, but of course we don’t have that any longer. Although it looks a lot stronger against the dollar than it does against other major currencies.

But if course it is also very bad news indeed on the people who have been betting on Vancouver grabbing more of the US travel and transportation business. The port, airport and the tourism businesses who had been expecting that we could do well out of what had seemed an insatiable US appetite for consumer goods and services. Fortunately tourism could pick up from Europe and the pacific rim – but it will have to acknowledge higher airfares. For the all the stuff that has been packed into containers for the shelves of Target and Wal-Mart in China – well that was then, this is now.

And inflation is up too.

So if you had been planning for a major infrastructure project, that depended on growth in the US, now might be a good time to have second thoughts

Written by Stephen Rees

May 27, 2008 at 6:50 pm

Posted in Economics, Gateway

Vancouver’s safe injection site can operate indefinitely

with 10 comments

Vancouver Sun

Supreme Court Judge Ian Pitfield has ruled that Vancouver’s supervised-injection site can operate indefinitely and that it is not bound by Canada’s narcotics laws.

This is an important victory. However, just because it can does not mean it will. That is because it has to secure adequate funding, and that is the issue over which we can expect the political games to continue.

The judge also makes it clear that Insite is part of the health care of drug addicts, and that clearly if people are going to inject it is better that they do it in a safe environment than an unsafe one. You would have thought that such a common sense approach need not require a major court case to be established, but that is the result of both politicians and police officers weighing in on issues that they have pre-judged, and who prefer to either ignore evidence that does not support them or carefully distort it. Insite has been the subject of far more uncertainty and spin than any other service I can recall. Though no doubt some moral dogmatists will also object to the service that provides sandwiches to the street prostitutes.

No-one has ever suggested that Insite was of itself the solution to a multifaceted problem – or even that “harm reduction” can stand alone. In fact all the advocacy that I have seen has been about living up to our commitments to a four legged stool – or whatever that homely metaphor was. But Mr Harper is much keener on the condemnation of sin (and punishment of the wicked) than he is on helping the sinners. I do not share his faith – or indeed any – but I cannot help but think he seems to have got the essential bit of the message twisted around.

Am I being overly optimistic in hoping that another judgment will also remove all the vagary around medical marijuana?

Written by Stephen Rees

May 27, 2008 at 4:15 pm

Posted in politics

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Solar Powered Personal Rapid Transit

with 4 comments

Today we have had a bit too much of back to the future. Sailing ships and the horse and buggy need to be offset by some real Jetson’s style geewhizzery.

soalr prt

This image comes from a short item from Inhabitat which may I think refer to Abu Dhabi. No rails, and also the solar power must be collected and transmitted somehow – not collected on board. It’s part of a city plan for Masdar which will be waste free and zero emission. And of course they are not much troubled by dull wet days there.

I must also say that for a modern urban environment, this one looks a bit bleak to me. I think an old fashioned street with trams, bikes and pedestrains would look a lot more welcoming but then I am obviously a Luddite

Written by Stephen Rees

May 27, 2008 at 9:55 am

Posted in transit

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Oil prices raise transport costs, eroding advantages of globalization: CIBC

with 4 comments

Canadian Press

A short, pithy piece which once again points out the folly of our port managers, who have been pursuing a strategy based on cheap oil.

In fact it is so short I will let it speak for itself

The high price of energy is eroding the advantages of globalization by raising the costs of shipping materials around the world, says CIBC World Markets.

The bank says the cost of moving goods, not the burden of tariffs, is the largest barrier to global trade Tuesday.

In fact, the report says, the explosion in transportation costs caused by the record levels in the price of oil has effectively offset all the trade liberalization efforts of the past three decades.

In 2000, when oil was US$20 a barrel, the cost of transportation was the equivalent of a three per cent U.S. tariff rate, the bank says.

Now, transportation costs are equivalent to a nine per cent tariff, and at US$150 a barrel for oil they would amount to 11 per cent tariff, about the average of tariff rates in the 1970s.

China has been among the most adversely impacted, with steel exports to the U.S. falling by 20 per cent from a year ago, and other exports that carry a high freight cost component also showing declines.

Trade is based on the economic doctrine of “comparative advantage”, and the cost of transportation has always been a significant part of the calculation – trade figures are quoted as either CIF (including carriage, insurance and freight) or FOB (free on board, usually at the port of origin). And of course the huge size of modern freighters and the massive investment in containerization all helped to keep those costs down. But they have probably achieved all the economies possible and now fuel costs are rising and it will take some time for fuel saving technologies – such as the return of sailing ships – to get going. And before you imagine I mean tea clippers, there have been some very successful experiments in sail assisted ships in recent years.

Modern sail assisted ship

But it stll seems to me more likely that in our current planning horizon (the next twenty to thirty years) port expansion should not be a high priority.


There is a very similar opinion piece in the Sun today

Written by Stephen Rees

May 27, 2008 at 9:40 am

our alternative transportation is …

with 4 comments

Mother Earth News

At the last meeting of the Inter-Regional Transportation Select Committee, Councillor Harris accused me of wanting to go back to the horse and buggy era. I think it was a fine rhetorical flourish, and I did not argue with her. And I now I am glad I didn’t. Because here is an article which tells you all you need to know about replacing your old station waggon with a horse and buggy. Now it really helps that in some parts of the north eastern US they are still a daily sight. And if you have Amish neighbours they will only be too pleased to help you.

So far as I know, there are not too many old order Amish around here – but in places like Abbotsford and Chilliwack – and indeed Richmond – horses are still kept, though mainly for saddle work, which, as the writer points out, is a bit different to harness work. But I took the image below in Chilliwack – so there are people out there who know how to mange the transition. And, by the way, I did see recently that a very successful undertaker in London has found that the use of a hearse drawn by a fine team of black Belgian horses is an increasingly popular option.

Pony and trap

Written by Stephen Rees

May 27, 2008 at 9:26 am

Gordon Campbell’s Free Ride

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Harvey Oberfeld has a blog called “Keeping it Real” and he thinks that the BC media have been much too easy on Mr Campbell.

He is a retired journalist and he still keeps a professional eye on what passes for news and comment in the mainstream media. And when someone like that says that if the same crimes had been committed by the NDP the media would have been up in arms, he knows what he is talking about.

I think Harvey earns his place on my blogroll on the strength of this one piece alone. For his  has confirmed for me what I have long suspected and often written about here. The mainstream media in BC are in too few hands, and far too much power is concentrated at CanWestGobal. And instead of doing their job, which is to keep a jaundiced and wary eye on all concerned, the Asper family have decided that their job is to provide comfort to the ruling clique. They are happy that we have an ultraconservative provincial government, and they, as a business, want to see that continue. No matter what impact that has on the people of this province, their Charter Rights and Freedoms, their environment, health and education, all of which have suffered grievously under the BC Liberals.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 26, 2008 at 7:08 pm

Posted in politics

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Prince Rupert casts a wary eye on Chicago

with 4 comments

Globe and Mail

I am very grateful that the The Tyee has this neat column headed “Reported Elsewhere” which meant I finally caught up with this story. You may have heard that Barrack Obama has gone on record as opposing CN’s acquisition of the EJ&E (“The Juice”) a railway in suburban Chicago that would help it avoid the congestion in the US biggest rail hub.

CN has run into significant public opposition in its bid for approval of the acquisition of Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railway Co. CN wants the rail line so it can bypass Chicago through the suburb of Barrington and cut nearly 30 hours off the time it takes container trains to reach destinations in the American Southeast – and that means a faster route from Prince Rupert into key U.S. markets.

“It certainly would add tremendous market weight to our gateway,” Mr. Krusel said of the EJ&E acquisition. “If they are successful in getting that line, it will be 100 hours [from Prince Rupert] to Memphis. We’ll be just as close in time as L.A./Long Beach – maybe closer.”

But what catches my attention is the broader context. Prince Rupert is not, at the moment, doing very well. Partly that is simply teething trouble with a new facility. But as noted elsewhere, the world is changing too

Prince Rupert is holding its own while other West Coast ports are seeing declines in container shipments now. “A year ago we would have expected a second carrier here,” he said. “That hasn’t happened. Carriers are reducing service on the Pacific, everywhere.

Prince Rupert has plenty of spare capacity and the demand for moving containers from China to the US is declining. So what on earth are we doing pressing ahead with a port expansion at Roberts Bank? There are all sorts of questions raised about its environmental impact and plenty of reason to suspect that whatever studies were done were pre-determined. In BC we seem to think that somehow we are immune and do not need to concern ourselves about ecology. But more than that, why are we proposing to spend vast sums on infrastructure for a port expansion that seems to be destined to be a white elephant.

Prince Rupert has a two day sailing advantage over Vancouver for Asian Pacific trade – and that is important in reducing cost, both inventories and ship’s bunkers. And the CN line through Chicago looks like a lot better bet then the congested lower mainland, where rail investment means the odd overpass here and there – not massive increases in capacity and some very weak links indeed.

By the way, has anyone ever heard one of those management types from Port of Vancouver ever admit that trans pacific container trade was actually declining?

Written by Stephen Rees

May 26, 2008 at 6:50 pm

Posted in Gateway

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Sullivan finally agrees to a debate

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Frances Bula, Vancouver Sun

This is what passes for news this morning. In fact its one of those announcements that’s not an announcement, as there is no date and no location. So no debate yet.

It is as fractious as the Democratic nomination. The incumbent had to, reluctantly, agree that the nomination should be open. But he really does not want to have a process that might actually have some substance. And his supporters have even managed to get Peter Ladner to make a loyalty oath to the political party that is not a political party. In terms of decision making there really is not much to choose between them. Peter Ladner lost all credibility for me when he reversed himself on the Burrard Bridge bike lanes. He had been up to that time an advocate for cycling. But of course what Sam wants to do is spend ridiculous amounts of money to protect (in his mind anyway) car capacity. The conversion of GP lanes to bikes being an important shibboleth for the DVBIA and the car driving community that would actually have no impact on car use, as it is the intersections on either side that control traffic flow. Indeed, such is the symbolic value that Sullivan would not even allow a trial conversion, for fear it might actually work.

Ladner’s case for running is the Sullivan is not electable, given his record. Which might well be true, but Ladner’s is not much different. Which is why the debate is so important to him, as it is the first opportunity for him to distinguish between his policies and those of the current Mayor. And of course that is exactly what Sullivan and his supporters fear most which is why the only date suggested for the debate so far is the morning of June 8, the day when NPA members vote on the candidate.

I think this whole process has damaged the NPA more than it has damaged Sullivan – who’s hopes of re-election were slim and are now that much worse. Because there is nothing of substance here, and it seems to be only about personalities. Forget the people who hold NPA membership cards , and think in terms of the wider electorate. My bet would be that the  people of Vancouver are tired of the NPA and its assumption that it will rule Vancouver for as long as it likes. I suspect – hope – that there is a desire for change at 12th and Cambie, and that this charade will only hurt the NPA’s turnout, whatever the outcome.

And the Burrard Bridge is not the only issue – or even the most important one. But my suspicion would be that fear and loathing are going to be – and EcoDensity may be Sam’s achilles heel.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 26, 2008 at 7:19 am

Posted in politics

Tagged with , ,

The forecasting problem

with 5 comments

A little while ago I posted Ben West’s piece on the Gateway forecast, which used a gas price of 80c/l. The chart above I stumbled upon. The source is Bespoke Investment Group and I have no idea who they are and I am not recommending them. And the chart could be updated to $135 a barrel last week.

The Gateway modellers used 2003 data, which if you look at the chart was just around the time when the trend turns upwards. Now, I am not saying that what they did then was wrong – although I think most modellers would throw in some additional “what if scenarios” or “sensitivity tests” just to show what could happen if the assumptions are out. And also note that other forecasters were blindsided by the way that oil prices have taken off. Just like the climate change scientists have been proved wrong. Climate change is actually happening much faster than anyone predicted.

What is bizarre, however, is the way that Kevin Falcon and Gordon Campbell are sticking to their guns. The forecast is now five years old – and obviously by steering the ship from looking at its wake, missed something very important up ahead. Like the fact that VMT in the US is actually dropping – and that has not happened on a month to month basis since 1979.

Of course, the Gateway folks want to pretend that their plan is not going to depend on people driving more. They like to maintain the fiction that it is “necessary” for the port to expand, which is why we “need” a twinned Port Mann, a widened Highway #1 and the SFPR. (Forget the fact that the freight goes by rail for now.) And, of course, if you steadfastly refuse to expand transit but fob people off with a $14bn pie in the sky, someone else will pay for it, transit “plan” you could even be right that many folks will have no choice but to keep on trucking. For rapid transit will not reach places like Langley in my lifetime the way things are going.

But the other things that have been happening, that this oil price spike illustrates, is the collapse of the US dollar and the horrendous impact this is having on trans-pacific trade. Which was supposed to grow rapidly, forever, according to the Port officials, but has actually been declining. Because China now prefers to ship to Europe whose currency is much stronger.

It is very unfortunate that in North America there is a perception that being decisive and holding your ground indicates a strong politician. One who adjusts policies to changing circumstances is said to “flip flop” or be indecisive. As a result we have had a long history of quite dreadful decisions based on “stay the course” when it is quite obvious to all around that it is monumentally stupid to do so.

The world has changed. America is no longer #1. The dollar is not the most favoured store of value. The US economy is not growing. They do not like to use the word “recession”, but that is the one that everyone outside the US is thinking. Gateway was never a very good idea, because it ignored a whole number of external influences. It assumed away any inconvenient facts. But that was then. Now it looks like the daftest idea since prohibition. Because it assumes that the Port of Vancouver can get more trade here that would otherwise go through US west coast ports.

“When circumstance change, I change my mind. What do you do?” (often attributed to John Maynard Keynes, though there seems no evidence that he said it)

Written by Stephen Rees

May 25, 2008 at 7:57 pm

Posted in Gateway

City of Surrey trying to halt radio orchestra’s swan song

with 9 comments


I have tried to keep my personal views about the deliberate sabotaging of culture here and on CBC Radio 2 off this blog. I have another one for that. But this article shows how Surrey is really leading the region. They understand that a real city is more than just real estate and property taxes.

“This is an opportunity looking us square in the face,” says Surrey Coun. Linda Hepner, who introduced the resolution. “Bringing the orchestra here marries nicely with the shift in direction that we’ve taken to develop our city centre core.”

Mayor Dianne Watts agrees.

“We’ve already crunched some of the numbers and we certainly think that bringing this orchestra to Surrey can be done,” she says.

The mayor explains that establishing a resident symphony orchestra fits hand-in-glove with Surrey’s larger plans to move city hall from its current hinterland location on Highway 10 to the emerging downtown core in Whalley, where the new Simon Fraser University campus, an increasing number of high-rise buildings and SkyTrain are located.

It is Surrey’s good fortune that Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan has been far too busy fighting off a challenge from Peter Ladner to notice what is happening to culture in his own city. And the idea of Surrey City Centre finally rising out of the disaster area that “Whalley” was when I got here ten years ago is very encouraging. And Surrey is, of course, much more a Central Place than downtown Vancouver geographically for the region as whole .   Surrey has been growing faster than Vancouver for some time, and it will be salutory for the people who have been overly confident that the downtown core will always be the centre to realize that the competition is real. There is more to a city than thin high expensive condos.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 25, 2008 at 8:09 am

Posted in Urban Planning

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