Stephen Rees's blog

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

Algae or air could fuel cars

with 17 comments

Gwynne Dyer – Georgia Straight

The algae I think I covered a while back. But the combination of CO2 and hydrogen to make octane is a new oner on me. This is a short piece and frustratingly short on detail. But as with most things timing is everything.

I think there wil be some way of keeping the internal combustion engine going – we have so many of them – but for now the best bet I think is not to be too concerned about alterntaive fuels. Let the inventors and venture capitalists do their thing and refuse to subsidize them. Governments need to get us out of car dependance which they have largely created by building freeways and the associated distributors in response to pressure from the auto makers, oil and concrete industries – not to mentiont he property developers.

As commenters herev point out frequently there are too many areas where there is very little alternative to cars – and that is a failure to invest in footways, cycle paths and transit. And that is what the BC government shoudl be doing. Not building Gateway or the Hydrogen Highway or giving tax concessions to some fuels or vehicles.

And Transport Canada should stop buggering about and allow slow speed EVs on the road. Good grief, back in the 1950’s that was how the milk was delivered and the recycling collected back where I lived then. What is the problem that takes 5 years (and counting) to deal with?

Written by Stephen Rees

June 20, 2008 at 10:52 am

17 Responses

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  1. Good thoughts Mr. Rees —-People of BC do want alternatives and they shouldn`t be punished,because the alternate options aren`t here yet.I believe what the biggest problem is —-Our goverment is full of lobbyists,the biggest donations get the biggest ears,the gas and oil companies do not want us to change until they run out of product.

    They will run out of oil eventually but until that day comes or until we get an ETHICAL goverment nothing will change.
    Campbell will never put pressure on the big corporations,the BC Liberals are the enemy within and until you all wake up to that fact things will continue to deteriorate.

    A lot of you talk about the green party,I would like to remind you that if ralph nader wasn`t in the 2000 american presidential campaign then AL GORE would have been president! So remember that when you vote in may 2009, you might want Campbell outof office but by voting for the green you are actually helping Campbell stay in power, so unless the greens get to 40% of the electorate, then you must vote for the viable challenger.

    grant g

    June 20, 2008 at 12:12 pm

  2. “So if the car-driving masses are ever to escape from high fuel prices…”

    Why doesn’t anyone EVER question whether or not there should even be “car-driving masses?”

    It’s taken for granted that people always have and always will get around by car, and it drives me up the bloody wall. Maybe we should start accepting that mass car-driving is an historical anamoly that probably wasn’t even a good idea to begin with. There are even plenty of signs to support this notion. To name a few:

    – highest fatality rate compared to other modes of transportation
    – highest pollution rate of any other mode of transportation
    – highest social division rate of any form of transportation (this includes geographical and physical division in time and space)
    – highest stress rate for all types of commuters
    – highest rate of agricultural land used to support road infrastructure

    and so on.


    June 20, 2008 at 1:23 pm

  3. i have not looked into the subject, but why would slow speed EVs not be permitted on the road? I can understand freeways perhaps, but other roadways? Slow moving farm vehicles are permitted (in some provinces they must display the ‘slow moving vehicle’ triangle), and in southern Ontario, the Mennonites still travel on the main roads with horse and buggy. How are slow speed EVs any different?


    June 20, 2008 at 1:55 pm

  4. Not to mention that traffic in the lower mainland is hard pressed to get above 50 kph anyways…


    June 20, 2008 at 2:20 pm

  5. We have slow moving vehicles already, they are called bicycles and they are obligated to drive on the road. My guess would be that the delay in approving NEVs has more to do with bureacratic sloth or even more likely special interests who would lobby against them.
    I have concerns about these vehicles tangling with something like a dump truck but anything we can introduce to city streets that forces us to slow sounds like a good thing.

    Are the milk floats history now Stephen? I suppose door to door milk delivery is a foreign concept everywhere these days.


    June 20, 2008 at 2:23 pm

  6. Right on Corey & Stephen.

    I believe this search for alternative fuel, if directed at cars, will be a lot longer than Dwyer predicts because car dependency will still be propped up and encouraged to grow along with the costs/subsidies of sprawl that destroys food production land. I think the message must continually be hammered home that car dependency is a bottomless pit for resources. This is not merely a fuel crisis. It’s a series of land use and energy crises.

    However, there are still fire trucks, ambulances, police cars, city buses, ferries, primary commercial vehicles and farm equipment that possess internal combustion engine and that remain vital to our economy and wellbeing. It is for these engines that fuel from algae ponds (under glass in winter?) and cellulosic ethanol could be directed. I would suggest the effort be conditional on protecting and rebuilding Class 1-3 agricultural soils, land and ecosystem rehabilitation, and introducing a major silvicultural program to replace forests killed by the pine beetle.

    They had one of those little electric trucks on display at the Vancouver public library atrium a ciould of Saturdays ago. I think they have lots of potential, especially in cities and small farms.


    June 20, 2008 at 3:39 pm

  7. Corey said:
    Why doesn’t anyone EVER question whether or not there should even be “car-driving masses?”

    It’s taken for granted that people always have and always will get around by car, and it drives me up the bloody wall. Maybe we should start accepting that mass car-driving is an historical anamoly that probably wasn’t even a good idea to begin with. There are even plenty of signs to support this notion.

    For exactly the same reason we are having this discussion on a web site as opposed to sitting around the fire in a cave – it’s called progress. And those who fall behind…well, they are just no more…perhaps brushing up on human history could help (Guns, Germs and Steel is an easy read).

    Dejan K

    June 20, 2008 at 4:13 pm

  8. If you call cars being used as they currently are progress, then I also have a very nice bridge I could sell you.


    June 20, 2008 at 6:25 pm

  9. They are progress compared to what preceded them – horses or horse drawn carriages (or for most people – nothing). They are certanly neither perfect nor the pinacle of personal tranportation technology. But things will improve, as they always do.

    Dejan K

    June 20, 2008 at 7:25 pm

  10. I think you are confused about what the point of my comment was.

    I never stated that cars weren’t a sign of technological progress. What I was trying to say is that cars, in the form that they are currently being used, represent a step back in transportation efficiency. The assumption that everyone can and should drive is the cause behind this inefficiency. Cars themselves are quite technologically advanced, even if their effects on the biosphere are detrimental to us.

    I’m questioning the way they are used, not the thing itself.


    June 20, 2008 at 7:33 pm

  11. The problem is that, in BC, planners, bureaucrats and politicians refuse to ‘look out of the box’. There are many solutions to our pollution woes, but we still opt for ‘rubber on asphalt’ solutions.

    Any new LRT project must also include an updating of the Motor Vehicles Act, to update the laws of ‘rail’ vehicles operating on-street, as those laws have not changed in 80 years. Hasn’t happened, so one knows instantly that no LRT will be built.

    Buy more buses is a frequent refrain, but no one can say that more and more buses actually reduce congestion or pollution. Buying more buses just increases operating costs.

    We stick to light-metro and cascade every bus rider possible onto the one line and say, “goody for us, SkyTrain is carrying 200,000 passengers a day, it so successful.” but 160,000 of those passengers have come from a bus. While other cities with LRT show modal shifts, not a peep here about a modal shift.

    If one wants to really wants a realistic solution to congestion and pollution, try building a 300 km. LRT network, which would cost about the same as Gateway. It wouldn’t be a panacea, but it would go a long way in providing a viable transit alternative.

    It’s not going to happen because no one wants affordable LRT operating on a few city streets because it will run over every pedestrian in sight or make me stop my car at a red light for 30 seconds more or take 5 minutes longer to reach my destination.

    The region has been spoilt with politically prestigious, expensive and very poor planning, with absolutely no thought for the future. The Carbon tax is nothing more than a tax on the poor and the elderly.

    If one really wants to reduce ones carbon footprint, design an electric regional transit system, from Vancouver to Hope. It can be done, its done in other countries, yet we still ‘rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic’.; spending great sums of money and achieving nothing.

    Malcolm J.

    June 21, 2008 at 7:15 am

  12. By the way Dejan, here in Vancouver cars were for the most part preceded by electric streetcars and electric intercity rail that was probably a number of orders higher in terms of efficiency than the clusterf*ck we have going today.

    The first streetcars ran on Vancouver’s streets in 1890. If there were cars around back then, there certainly weren’t very many. I also doubt they were much of a technological achievement compared to the streetcars.


    June 21, 2008 at 9:24 am

  13. Corey,

    If you watch the early movies from the turn of the century you will see that streetcars were running next to horse drawn carriages of all kinds and shapes with pedestrians crisscrossing the streets and a few cyclists thrown for a good measure. (see So it seems to me that we had a multi-mode transportation, but Vancouver was much smaller place then, so traffic was much less of a clusterf*ck.

    In the meantime we replaced out streetcars with busses. So are you saying that if we kept the streetcars we would be better off?

    Dejan K

    June 21, 2008 at 8:06 pm

  14. We’ll have car-driving masses as long as reasonable alternatives aren’t available for most of the population — but even after the ‘burbs get service as good as the core cities, there are still going to be jobs that cars will be more suited to than bikes or buses. (Pretty much anything involving cargo or going to areas not readily accessible by transit comes to mind.) But there can be less — though even if you cut car use in North America by half (not unreasonable), there’ll be more demand as the rest of the world develops. Then there’s the need to fuel all our freight carriers. So it’s good to hear about more attempts to create the fuel that we will need — even if it’s used differently than it is today.

    I don’t share this belief that Vancouver had some wonderful public transit system that was better than we have today, only to be shortsightedly trashed in the postwar years. The streetcar network was not as extensive as the trolleybus network that grew from and replaced it. By going to trolleys, BC Electric was freed from maintaining the roadbeds where its tracks lay — while still enjoying the benefits of electric transit. While streetcars were more frequent than most bus routes, that was because of high demand because the car wasn’t as competitive an alternative as it is today. The streetcar fleet would have shrunk due to declining ridership even if it had been renewed, just as the trolley fleet did in the sixties and seventies.

    Most of the interurban lines ran every half hour at best; that’s a capacity of 200 passengers per hour, 400 or so on Arbutus. No wonder the car won out. If the Canada Line is just a replacement for the Interurban, then a Boeing 737 is just a replacement for a DC-3. This is not the case. I don’t want to take away from the icons of that age — they did their jobs well in their time, but they’re not always suited to modern demands.

    Ian King

    June 21, 2008 at 11:56 pm

  15. Would Toronto be better off without its streetcars? A matter of opinion maybe, but I’d bet that you’d have a hard time trying to get rid of them now. Sure ridership declined in the post-war years, but I’m willing to bet they’ve had some hefty increases in recent years and will continue to.

    Certainly we would be better off now if we had kept the interurban systems. Not only would they have been relatively immune to increased traffic and higher fuel costs, they also would have made all the expensive Skytrain systems pointless to install, and would have gone much further to boot. A few tunnels and overpasses here and there would have made the system even faster, and one could have gone as far as Steveston or Chilliwack without having to bother with congestion or the price of gas.

    Ian – when I lived in Japan I rode the Hankyu Railway Line to work between Kobe and Osaka. For those who don’t know, the Hankyu Line was one of the first electric interurbans in Japan, and was quite similar at first to what we had here. It has been gradually improved over the years, and it now carries approximately 2 million people EVERY WEEKDAY. My point here is that it runs on basically the same land base it did when it was first installed – and had it been a highway it surely would have engulfed half the city by now in order to carry that capacity.

    So maybe the system back then wasn’t great. Who cares? With a little thought it could easily have been converted to higher capacity and more frequency.

    I’m not saying that trolleys and cars don’t have their place, and I agree we’ll need delivery systems as flexible as cars can be. What I am saying is that the mass use of cars represented a step backwards from the rail infrastructure that we had, and we would be better off to go back to something similar, albeit in modern form. We just can’t afford to have mass automobile use anymore, no matter what the bloody things run on. I mean, how many highways are we going to build? When is it going to stop?


    June 22, 2008 at 11:10 am

  16. Corey, you’re right to argue against building more blacktop, assuming that the car will always be king and building accordingly. Using the Interurban ROWs for modern systems would not be a panacea, though — though the route and land are there, there’s the matter of double-tracking, new electrical systems, vehicles and stations to ramp up capacity. Essentially, it’d be building a new system on an existing alignment — which would hopefully still be a useful one. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the story (repeated once or twice) for Hankyu.

    But we’ve now got Skytrain. for some of the system. I doubt that trashing it makes an ounce of sense, and the money committed in the eighties and nineties is gone. History. No sense re-fighting 25-year-old battles over the existing system. The question is now how to make the best of it, and that probably means some expansion — but only north of the Fraser.

    On the other hand, LRT looks mighty attractive along the Southern ROW as well as post-rail corridors like King George, and elsewhere south of the Fraser. Some sort of rail along the southeast corridor from New West to Coquitlam and west along Marine to Marpole is definitively right.

    (You could also argue that Vancouver would have been worse off had BCE renewed the streetcars to provide local service — most of the system was in horrid shape after the rationing of WWII and would have needed rebuilding or replacement, and BCE would have still been on the hook for both road and rail maintenance rather than just overhead.)

    Ian King

    June 23, 2008 at 1:07 am

  17. Car dependency goes way beyond mere convenience and ownership. We have structured the outer rings of our cities (i.e. the 3/4’s built since 1940) on the premise that cars shall have primacy over all else.

    Therein our cities have become one of the most inefficient constructs ever imposed on human habitation. Inefficiency is measured in several ways, the most telling are the costs to service outlying low density subdivisions (longer runs of utilities fro fewer people, schools, energency services, etc etc), the energy used to support them (more energy consumed per capita than inner city neighbourhoods), and their waste, greenhouse gas emissions now chief among them.

    In all cases, car dependency is subsidized with public taxes and private costs. This is where the feet of clay are located. As we’re seeing now, $1.50/litre fuel prices are just starting to have an effect on driving. But what will occur when fuel touches $2.50 a litre? $5.00? $10.00?

    The higher the price, the weaker the argument is to continue to artificially prop up the car as a primary mode of transportation.


    June 24, 2008 at 1:00 pm

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