Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for July 2008

Olympics will increase road traffic by 15%

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Vancouver Sun

Don’t anybody say that they are surprised by this headline. This is not actually “news” to anyone who has been even remotely aware of what the government and VANOC have been planning for years. Any involvement I had ended 4 years ago and even then was peripheral – which tells you a lot given my previous position was with Translink. Essentially, all the decisions were taken centrally – as is the case with most things under the Campbell administration. Agencies are not consulted, they are told what they will do.

All the planning rejected any rail initiatives – though somehow the Canada Line got included in the mix, even though it has always been portrayed as not an Olympic project. You have to understand doublespeak to make any sense of this. Electric trains are a feature of most European or Japanese alpine resorts. In fact some are not accessible by road. We don’t do things that way in North America of course, giving places like Aspen dreadful headaches.

Campbell was, of course, determined to sell BC Rail – despite his campaign commitment not to – so any evaluation of the Sea to Sky had to discount rail. In fact paving over the tracks was a very early favourite. For a two week sporting festival, hiring in trains used elsewhere for summer peak traffic is an obvious solution. So it was discounted very quickly since it was said that any rail service had to serve downtown Vancouver directly. Not that any reason was given – nor were any other options seriously looked at, such as including a new BC Rail station as part of the lower Lonsdale development. That would have made perfect sense, of course.

The only surprise was the choice of Richmond over SFU for the speed skating. And the lack of planning there is glaringly obvious as the Canada Line stub ends in a single track miles away from the Oval site – and the access road was built along a former CP rail freight line. Of course, now it becomes apparent that the real plan in Richmond was to get rid of industry as quickly as possible, and recent tax valuations demonstrated how to close functioning, viable businesses so that property development can proceed unhindered.

The choice of an upgrade to the Sea to Sky Highway was also mostly to help the development of land (mostly in Squamish, but other roadside locations benefitted too) for housing. In utter contempt for the principles of regional planning it was always clear that this would encourage long distance car commuting.

What this article talks about is what happens during the Olympics. What it does not say is that the problems the Olympics have created in terms of distorting development patterns will be with us for another generation.  Also recall that this was supposed to be the “greenest Olympics ever” – but with one of the major sponsors being General Motors please do not say you expected better.

I intend to be out of town for February 2010 – but I will be in a good position to see how London is going to be building its way into a similar mess for 2012.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 24, 2008 at 12:17 pm

Translink fare evasion dropping

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Just two days ago I was writing on this topic and today the CBC call and want my reaction to their story

PricewaterhouseCoopers staff accompanied TransLink’s fare inspection officers on the September 2007 fare audit of the SkyTrain, SeaBus, bus and West Coast Express to conduct the recent study.

In other words all the accountants did was verify what Translink staff have been doing. And they did not “take into account the number of people who might be reusing tickets obtained from other riders or illegal ticket resellers outside transit stations, or the illegal sale of cut-rate tickets”. So what we have an estimate of is the number of people who travel without any ticket – or who have a ticket that is not valid in the zone they are found in.

The point being , of course, the people like Kevin Falcon and Malcolm Brodie grossly exaggerate the amount of fare evasion, and then make the leap from that to “feeling safe on the transit system”.

The only way to calculate fare evasion reliably is to have a good data on travel. And for as long as I have been around Vancouver, that has not been the case. In fact ridership data was always calculated from the revenue based on a mythical “average fare”. For if you don’t actually know how many riders you have, or where and when they travel, this “average” is at best guesswork. Other cities have much more thorough travel surveys and passenger counts. Since I left, Translink has been getting automatic counters for some buses, and they may even have decided to get a bit more ambitious about travel surveys – though if they have they have been very quiet about it. And if we are still using a sample size of 5,000 individuals for the (five year interval) trip diary survey, then I have to say that I  still have very little confidence in the data.

If you casually stop by a SkyTrain station you will see very few people buying a ticket from a machine. That is because most people have either transferred from a bus – so they have a transfer – or they have a monthly pass, which has been selling better in recent years due to various employer incentive schemes. And UPass, of course.

AND just to hammer the point home, the sort of people who make passengers fearful on SkyTrain are not the same as the people who think they are very smart and have figured out ways to beat the system.

Every system has some evasion, and none are very open about talking about it. Becuase you do not want to publicise how fare evasion is done OR how easy it is to get away with it. Becuase the real problem in BC is that our court system is so jammed up even if you do get caught without a ticket you almost certainly will not face any penalty. THAT is the problem. And the way to deal with that is to introduce a penalty fare – not a fine.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 23, 2008 at 12:36 pm

Posted in Transportation

Fuel cell cars still 15 years away at best: study

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Reuters via Environmental News Network

The study concluded that the best way to reduce oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions over the next 20 years would be a range of alternatives, including hybrids and improvements in the efficiency of gas-powered combustion engines.

“We shouldn’t be picking winners and losers in these technologies because they will probably all be important in the future,” said Michael Ramage, a retired Exxon Mobil researcher who chaired the fuel-cell study committee.

It would have been better had Reuters actually provided a link to the study itself. And the composition and brief of the committee seems to be worth investigating too. But the point is well made: hydrogen is not ready for prime time and needs huge subsidies.

What is not said of course is that the car itself is not a sustainable idea. The US interstate highway system is literally crumbling. Cities cannot cope with traffic congestion – and the suburbs were never designed to cope with expensive transportation fuels. So looking for a new kind of car is just a way of avoiding the important questions.

North America does not just need to wean itself off cheap oil, it also has to come up with ways of getting around which are not predicated on car ownership. That means tackling the need for lots more transportation options. And as far as technology goes, we know that there are much more efficient systems that have been around for years and work well. So if government funds are going to be spent, there are much more effective, workable options than hydrogen or ethanol.

Electric trains and streetcars served America well before the car took over, and can do again. And electricity can be made in all sorts of ways that do not require fossil fuels. Land use will be slow to adapt – but will. It has to because low density, car oriented development is now a thing of the past, based on economics that no longer apply.

The sensible thing to do is to allow the bridges to fall down – and in many cases, blow them up before someone gets hurt. Reallocate existing road space to transit – and in urban areas make walking and cycling the preferred means of transportation. Copenhagen started doing this 25 years ago. This is a model which we know has worked well. This pattern of change does not require a leap of faith, or future technological changes. We have to stop throwing money at R&D of dubious value, and start investing in building systems which we know will work.

Cars will be around for some time, and will gradually become more civilised. Ownership of a car will become less important – due to innovations like car co-ops, or the funding arrangements planned for Israel’s new battery powered cars based on cell phone contracts. Urban areas will adapt – they always have done – and none of this will happen overnight. But the very first thing to do is stop building and expanding car infrastructure. We simply don’t need it.

UPDATE Wednesday July 23 The Guardian has a piece on the British Motor Show which opens tomorrow and is emphasizing how green the industry is getting. Except that it is isn’t doing very much, very fast. Most of the really innovative vehicles are years away from production. The y clearly are not taking the threat of increasingly rapid climate chaneg seriously – and are not even responding to the inevitability of passing peak oil and having very few years of gasolione left to play with.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 22, 2008 at 8:03 am

Climate Crisis: Roosevelt Revisited

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Truthout – Andrew Simms BBC News

New and cautious calculations by the New Economics Foundation’s (NEF) climate change programme suggest that we may have as little as 100 months starting from August 2008 to avert uncontrollable global warming.

Nothing short of the rapid and wide-scale re-engineering of the economy will be sufficient. Radical change, though, is needed anyway because of the credit and energy crises; the latter driven significantly by the imminent peak and decline of global oil production.

No simple techno-fix exists that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast or far enough to solve the problem.

The answers are going to be economic, political and behavioural. Many countries, not just the UK, are going to need to learn the art of rapid transition.

Lessons From History

The Green New Deal group formed in the summer of 2007 against this background, but before the current full-blown economic crisis.

It took inspiration from President Roosevelt’s response to the 1929 Wall Street financial crash.

Roosevelt is still villified, of course, in right wing circles. But the crisis we face is actually bigger than the Wall Street Crash – and anyway the New Deal was actually directed at the 1931 banking crisis which was almost identical to the present credit crunch.

The New Deal was also about one country – and the present crisis affects the whole world. Quite apart from the difficulty of getting the corportations on side, there are still governments who do not believe that this crisis is their primary concern, and who have shown absolutely no interest in cutting back on their emissions, for fear of slowing their present rapid rates of economic growth.

Even so, we need a ray of hope somewhere, and maybe this idea will gather support. Something has to be done, and there is very little time left.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 22, 2008 at 7:44 am


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I don’t usually write about my present job here, but this morning was so unusual that it set me thinking and then I came across this Globe and Mail article.

Native fishermen on the lower Fraser River got their first opportunity to set nets for sockeye salmon last night amid concerns that the run might be so small there will be few other openings.

“It’s our first chance and it could be our last,” Grand Chief Clarence Pennier of the Sto:lo Tribal Council said yesterday as community members prepared to go out on the river.

It is pretty quiet most of the time on the Canoe Pass/Westham Island Bridge (it’s the same bridge – both names are in common usage). This morning in the space of four hours it opened more times than in the whole of the last four days.

“Only after the last fish has been caught …” is a Cree prophecy – I have a poster of it from a hereditary chief.

I have a very sad feeling that we may be seeing that in the case of the Fraser sockeye. The habitat has been systematically destroyed ever since Europeans arrived here. But the warming of the water is, I think, the final straw. Many years of over fishing – and the disgrace of putting fish farms in the middle of wild salmon runs – did not help either. But global warming has already brought new species into our waters – and the development of the port will see much more salmon habitat go, as will the construction of the SFPR.

Maybe the fishermen are just doing what the people who are buying SUVs are doing. It is the last hurrah. The world will be different – and no-one will be able to eat fresh Fraser salmon or afford to drive a honking big truck for no good reason any more. So make the most of it for now.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 21, 2008 at 5:29 pm

Oyster card hack to be published

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The Oyster card is the smart card used by London Transport, Hong Kong and the Dutch rijkpas. Not only has its security been compromised, making it possible to produce fake cards, but it has been now been done at least three times (that are known about) and a Dutch court has now agreed that one of the research groups can publish how to do it.

The reason I chose to bring this story to your attention is that our government is forcing Translink to adopt tougher security measures in an attempt to defeat fare evasion which it says will make people feel safer. The whole premise is, of course, nonsense. All systems have some degree of evasion. This costs money, of course, but usually not as much as trying to eliminate it altogether.

The Paris metro has gates – and every day someone somewhere leaps over them. The gates do not prevent fare evasion, but they are a dreadful nuisance to law abiding users who happen to have luggage, as there are very few places where the gates can be overridden legitimately. The Paris metro is not accessible – and does not try to be. It is also not a safe place. Pickpockets have always loved the crowded metro trains and continue to operate with impunity. If you feel safe on the metro because every entrance is gated then you are seriously deluded.

Just like computer security, there is a a constant escalation of the fight between the hackers and those who want to keep systems secure. How much do you spend on your computer security? Do you think spending a lot more money would be the best way to protect yourself?

Revenue loss is a problem, but not a very big one. And any rational analysis would be based on a sensible estimate of loss and a realistic appraisal of the the cost of reducing it. Gating SkyTrain has never passed that test.

The idea that fare evasion and danger to the public are the same issue is also fallacious. People intent on committing crimes do not draw attention to themselves, if they want to avoid detection. The daily haul of the average Paris pickpocket far exceeds the small investment in getting legitimate access to the system. But the sort of crime that people fear on SkyTrain is not the pickpocket, but the threat of violence. Now people who use violence to intimidate passengers are not especially rational. And their judgements may well be blurred by the use of chemicals – legal and otherwise. That this risk has not changed despite the extensive use of cctv and now armed police – and some of the most advanced communications seen on rapid transit anywhere – suggest to me that the introduction of turnstiles is irrelevant. Besides, the fare evader is mostly not a career criminal. He or she is exactly the same kind of respectable citizen who thinks that tax evasion, or getting a satellite tv signal for free or jamming a parking meter is reasonable – a way of “beating the system” or “sticking it to the man”. They also think that getting fake id is useful, or buying goods at odd places for remarkably low prices is a sensible economy, or getting stuff south of the border and not paying duty on it on their return. And they never, ever obey a speed limit and run red lights too if they think they can get away with it.

There is a line between being law abiding and not – and it moves all the time. Most people will not deliberately break the law, most of the time. But they will break it, if there seems to be no fear of consequences. You will drive through a red light – if it is late at night and there is no traffic and no-one around. If everyone is driving at 60 in a 50 limit, you will too. And you will all slow down if someone sees a marked police car.

People who feel unsafe on our transit system are simply responding to the information they have been subjected to. And ever since SkyTrain opened it has been associated with crime by the media – and many others. Yet the vast majority of users, most of the time, are safe – and much safer they they are on the street. Most drivers of motor vehicles think they are safe – and many flout the law all the time. And we, as a society, pay a very high price for this delusion. Yet our Minister of Transportation wants to spend large sums on making a safe transit system no safer, but is unwilling to spend small sums to make some of our most dangerous places safer. Because he does not understand – or chooses to ignore – rational economic analysis – and prefers to play to the gallery, and bolster current popular misconceptions.

And if this silly idea goes ahead, fare evasion and security will not be improved but the the system costs will be much greater than they need to be.

UPDATE Tuesday July 22

Metro directors oppose SkyTrain gates

A carefully worded resolution by Metro Vancouver directors is urging the provincial government to give the notion of installing turnstiles at SkyTrain stations careful thought.

They “respectfully” requested that a decision on gating rapid transit stations should be based on a financial and security analyses, telling the transit authority that “the greatest transportation need for citizens of Metro Vancouver is additional service, which means more buses and more rapid transit lines.”

But some directors used less diplomatic language during the discussion Friday.

Surrey Leader

Another UPDATE July 26

London Transport Oyster Card System Breaks Down for Second Time: Bloomberg

The agency opened barriers at London Underground stations across the city, allowing free travel after today’s breakdown.

Sometimes “proof of payment” (or the honour system, of you like) just seems a whole lot easier.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 21, 2008 at 8:19 am

Posted in Fare evasion

Let’s Kick Nuclear Power out of the Climate Change Debate

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By Linda Gunter, AlterNet. Posted July 12, 2008.

A very useful summary – from an American perspective of course – on why the nuclear option is actually not workable. Too slow and too expensive should kill it, but throw in too risky and requiring too much tax payer support and even the right wing seem less likely to go for it.

Canada has been trying to sell more of its nuclear reactors – despite their dismal record in Ontario. I found the practical approach taken by this article bolstered my own thoughts, which were based much more on the visceral dislike of the tecchnology and what it has done to us already. But fundamentally I think the idea that there is some way we can continue to over consume is at the heart of the nuclear proponents appeal.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 19, 2008 at 2:58 pm

Spatial variations in estimated chronic exposure to traffic-related air pollution in working populations – A simulation

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7th Space interactive

With a title like that I would be surprised if it gets much attention.

The data comes from Greater Vancouver and the source is “Author: Eleanor M Setton, C. Peter Keller, Denise Cloutier-Fisher and Perry W Hystad : International Journal of Health Geographics 2008, 7:39”

But the main point I want to make is that if there is a real hard nugget of information in all of this, you need to be a scientist to understand it. I re-read it several times with a growing respect for journalists who make a living explaining scientific journal articles to the general public.  I think the message might be that how you get to work is not really significant in terms of pollution exposure (at least in the case of the one pollutant they looked at – nitrogen dioxide) as you spend longer at home and at work than you do in commuting. So we need to be concerned more about air quality at home and work than outside. Which makes me wonder who paid for this research. It is one thing if it is “pure research” – it is quite something else if the money came from an oil company or a car manufacturer.

It is also probably worth noting that if you run Google alerts, you come up with some quite unexpected sources.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 19, 2008 at 8:33 am

Sorry suburbia, Vancouver is our true economic epicentre

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Miro Cernetig, Vancouver Sun

Myth-busting finding comes from a memo to Metro Vancouver’s mayors

The surprising, myth-busting finding comes from a memo that has been supplied to the mayors of Metro Vancouver from the city of Vancouver’s engineering department.

It is indeed very odd that a memo from this source would go to all the region’s Mayors. Generally speaking, this kind of information comes from Metro staff – and usually to one of Metro’s committees first. And of course it is also being publicised – presumably by the same source sending it directly to Miro. Someone, somewhere inside City Hall wants to get this shoved into people’s faces and not lost in the bureaucracy somwhere.

Not that the information is not useful – but its provenance and source material can now only be checked by some diligent digging through the StatsCan and other sources cited (but not precisely indentified) in the piece.

– According to the latest population forecasts by both B.C. Statistics and Metro Vancouver, the city of Vancouver will continue to have the largest population of all regional municipalities by 2036 and 2041.

– According to analysis by the Vancouver planning department, the city continues to have significant development capacity to accommodate future population growth (mainly outside downtown).

– Between 2001 and 2006, the city had the largest employment growth among Metro Vancouver municipalities. Vancouver counted 37,500 new jobs during this time frame (accounting for 32 per cent of regional job growth). Surrey, Delta and White Rock combined for 26,800 new jobs (or 22.6 per cent of regional job growth) during the same period.

– Vancouver’s core accounts for 60 per cent of the region’s overall office inventory (data from Colliers International).

– According to 2006 census data, Vancouver has about 400,000 jobs or 34 per cent of all jobs in the region. Surrey has the next largest number at 144,240 or a 12-per-cent share of regional jobs.

– Metro Vancouver projects that in 2031 Vancouver will still maintain a dominant share of regional jobs.

That last one in particular needs to be looked at critically. “Projects” usually means “if present trends continue”, but I would suggest that going 25 years forward at the same rate as we did overv the last 5 years is unlikely, if for no other reason than the world has changed dramatically since these stats were collected. The future, it seems to me, is now a lot more uncertain – becuase the price of oil has not only changed significantly but so has the way that we respond to it. “Present trends” are no longer present – that was then and this is now – and in between times there has been a huge shift in understanding of peak oil and climate change. The broader policy context is already different.

But secondly has the City Engineer talked about this work to the City Planner?

For years there’s been much talk about about setting up new commercial districts to encourage the construction of office towers, not simply condominiums, in Vancouver. There have been dreams of creating a high-tech cluster, too, to bring about those green, high-paying jobs that need to be part of Vancouver’s — and British Columbia’s — future industrial strategy.

But nothing much ever seems to happen. These latest statistics, however, make it crystal clear that Vancouver is — and will continue to be — our economic epicentre. We need to stop ignoring that fact.

Is this even accurate? The idea of the “high tech cluster” on Terminal Avenue did see shovels go into the ground and new streets are now visible next to the train tracks. The commerical proposal died as a result of the bust.

An office tower proposal next to BC Place also died – no tenants could be found for such an “out of the way” location.

Miro suggests this is going to be material for the municipal elections – which makes the involvement of the engineering department even more problematic. Civil servants at any level of government are not supposed to dabble in politics.

This puzzle ought to become something of an issue – but I suspect it will provoke a very strong response from politicians, not so much about the content of the message, but how it is being delivered.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 19, 2008 at 8:21 am

Queen Elizabeth Park – the mourning after

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This post is reproduced by permission of the author, Ned Jacobs, who sent it to the Livable Region Coalition email list. I thought it deserved wider circulation.

The Vancouver Parks Board decided to cut down trees which were blocking the view of downtown from the high spot in the park. This is the destination used by many tour bus operators, and was also the site of a proposed commerical development which included a viewing tower, which was not approved after public protests. Ned has also propsed a low cost, free tower which would have achieved the same result without tree rmoval or commercial development. In my estimation, this proposal was not seriously considered by the Board, who acted in unseemly haste to avoid further public discussion.


I want to thank each of you who contributed in any way—large or small—to what unfortunately was an unsuccessful effort to convince a majority on Parks Board that the loss of so many fine trees (exact number unknown) cannot justify the “restoration” of limited and ever-shrinking views of Vancouver’s skyline from the plaza opposite the Bloedel Conservatory. It was to create this corridor that the majority of condemned trees were sacrificed.

As you can clearly see, removing scores of 50-year old trees from Canada’s first Civic Arboretum has revealed the skyline of our fair city in all its world class glory! Now if only we could do something about those selfish red cedars that still insist on getting in the way of Harbourfront, BC Place Stadium, the West End, etc, etc. Thank God we can now at last see Science World (far right). This morning, a group of frustrated tourists were standing on the stone wall trying to get a better view of downtown. It’s not like we planted those cedars; after Little Mountain was logged 120 years ago they just started growing–without a permit!  You can see how overcrowded they are, and what poor form.  Besides, just like those pathetic trees that were “removed” yesterday, they are all infected with an untreatable disease–called “life.” If we leave them alone, not only will they soon completely obstruct these unparalleled views of Vancouver, some of them might fall victim to the ravages of life in four or five hundred years. Or a branch might fall on someone and the city could be sued! Better to put them out of their misery now—those cedars will be much happier as wood chips. But I suppose we’d better leave that to another board–the current crop of commissioners has already suffered far too much verbal abuse from those silly tree-huggers. Don’t they deserve a break? How about giving some of them an opportunity to make equally astute decisions on City Council next year?

Please forgive my lapse into sarcasm —these trees were my companions for many years…

Please forgive me for my inability to reproduce these pictures in the way that Ned did in his original post. I simply cannot understand how WordPress handles images to show these side by side in two columns at their original size. If you know how to do this with (not!) please let me know by email – not as a comment.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 19, 2008 at 8:00 am

Posted in Transportation