Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for August 7th, 2008

Guest Post

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I have been trying to persuade Meredith Botta that he should start his own blog, but he says he is too busy right now. This is an example of what you are missing – his title was simply “more links”


This one is to ASPO ( and links to a Washington Post article on the effects of higher fuel prices on suburban housing price and demographic trends. There is an interesting debate between pro-transit officials and the Texas Transportation Institute, which appears to be pro-car.

[Stephen’s note – same link that inspired the previous post]

This one is to today’s Vancouver Sun editorial, which I find not a little infuriating. They state that market forces alone are responsible for a 3.2% decrease in US gasoline sales in July as compared to July ’07, and imply that is a very significant drop while contorting themselves into knots to keep government, peak oil, and CO2 emissions away from markets.

What the Sun editors aren’t acknowledging is that American (and I would bet Canadian) car / oil dependency is still 96.8% of last year’s, and any further price spikes – market caused or not — will have far more profound effects on society, but especially in sprawling suburbs as iterated in the Post article. The Sun ignored a corresponding decrease in US housing prices at the urban periphery, and a record increase in transit demand. Unlike the Post, they failed to admit that it is governments through their policies that set new trends and good solutions in planning and urban design that work marvelously in relieving car dependency and increasing not just sustainability, but the building of vibrant communities. They go absolutely nowhere in promoting a decrease in our subsidized dependency on oil and act as though there is no such thing as geological evidence. Further, they are at odds in the editorial with the majority of the scientific community on deliberate action to mitigate climate change.

Perhaps they can afford to be wrong when they are owned by narrow interests.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 7, 2008 at 3:19 pm

Posted in Transportation

Gas Prices Apply Brakes To Suburban Migration

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Washington Post

This link was recommend by Nicholas Marchildon – but he did not send me anything but the link. It may have been a response to another post but I think on review that it is worth a new thread. For one thing it is part of a much larger project “Oil Shock: Drilling for Answers on High Prices” and this is but one of several articles.

I think is is aimed at the republican proposals to open up drilling in hitherto protected areas. What most commentators are pointing out is that this idea is especially brain dead. It will not produce anything soon – and when it does, it will not be nearly enough to cover present “needs” let alone a BAU scenario. And anyway it will get traded on the world markets – it will not mean more oil for the US, but a drop in the bucket of global demand.

Cheap oil, which helped push the American Dream away from the city center, isn’t so cheap anymore. As more and more families reconsider their dreams, land-use experts are beginning to ask whether $4-a-gallon gas is enough to change the way Americans have thought for half a century about where they live.

And as this blog has been tracking for some time now, people are already voting with their house moves. And they are moving into town, not out.

But there’s been a radical shift in recent months. Americans drove 9.6 billion fewer highway miles in May than a year earlier. In the Washington area and elsewhere, mass transit ridership is setting records. Last year, transit trips nationwide topped 10.3 billion, a 50-year high.

But the debate in Washington continues. Some see a “tipping point” – others would not recognize one if it came up and bit them. And they are the people who are promoting relocation of jobs out to the edge. To be closer to the people, but no easier to serve with anything but everyone driving on their “many to many” origin destination pattern. They just will drive shorter distances to save gas. And if you believe that …

Written by Stephen Rees

August 7, 2008 at 2:49 pm

On transportation woes: The planning void

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An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle coudl eaily be rewritten and addressed to Gordon Campbell and his greenhouse gas advisers rather than the Air Resources Board.

Assembly Bill 32 – the landmark global-warming legislation – it proposes a reduction of a scant 2 million metric tons of emissions through better land-use decisions. Incredibly, that would be less than the air board plans to achieve from encouraging proper tire inflation.

California can and must do better. Transportation accounts for about 30 percent of greenhouse gases.

Anyone who has studied Bay Area traffic patterns would recognize the effect of land-use decisions on congestion – and its corresponding level of pollution. New housing developments are built with the expectations of long commutes. Too many have been built far from employment centers and in suburbs where public transportation is insufficient or nonexistent.

The same is true here. The Sun has a big chunk today on the curse of the business park. But the LRSP never had business parks – it thought business would go to the regional town centres, not cheap edge land, preferably near a freeway exit.  The great thoughts of the Premier’s Climate Change Team do mention the need to check sprawl, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) shy away from the obvious conclusion – Stop the Gateway. Becuase the Big Lie is the Gateway is about the Port when in fact is is about giving the suburban developers what they have been asking – more freeway and a nice big slice of the Green Zone.

This blog is directed to better understanding of the relationship between land use and transportation. They are, as I keep saying, just two sides of the same coin. The reason the traffic is bad is we got the land use wrong. the reason the land use is wrong is we did not build a transportation system that supported the regional centres. We obsessed about serving downtown Vancouver (which was anyway switching away from office towers to condos) and ignored the suburbs. Kevin Falcon is a suburban developer and is in the pockets of suburban developers. Huge amounts of money have been made by turning farmland into subdivisions. And money talks.  They want to keep on doing that. We cannot afford to let them.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 7, 2008 at 2:35 pm

Costly fuel brings dozens of airlines to their knees

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International Herald Tribune

This article is directed in particular at the good folk out at Abbotsford, who are enjoying ther air show this weekend. Every time we have a meeting of the Select Committe on Inter-regional Transpoprtation the airport people start banging on about how important expansion of thier faciltiy is going to be. I don’t think so.

The article tracks the fate of an increasing number of airlines either seeking bankruptcy protection of going out of business completely. In some cases bizarre regulationd are to blame –

Aeropostal, a South American airline with a nearly 80-year history … ran into severe financial difficulties, a casualty of business regulations that tied its hands while fuel and other costs inexorably rose. It now operates a handful of domestic flights.

And of course it is fuel costs and the consequent fuel surcharges that are the real issue. How much can the airlines pass on? BA and Virgin are already in deep trouble due to evidence of illegal price collusion over fuel surcharges – legal trouble, that is.

Much of the recent growth in airline business was the result of an increasingly deregulated environment, which saw an end to the old pattern of countries trying to protect their “flag carriers”. This practice dates from the days when the commerical airlines were seen as a strategic resource for military use at need. It also saw a huge growth in leisure travel – especially in Europe. The Brits, in particular, like to fly to places where the booze is cheaper. Not that I am against leisure travel – I do a lot of that myself – but it has to be recognised that as the price of oil increases, these trips are going to become prohiobitively expensive, and more people will be looking for leisure closer to home. Others, hard pressed to pay for their mortgages, credit card bills, fuel and food costs will forget about flying off on vacation.

Abbotsford does have a useful role to play. If there are more flights there, people who live in the valley do not need to drive to Richmond. That is good in the sense of less traffic, but flying is still much the worst in terms of ghg emissions per kilometre travelled. A sensible policy would see airlines paying fuel tax – and the application of carbon taxes to all flights. After all, Translink has to pay those taxes for its buses (as does Greyhound), and planes are really just buses with wings on. It is kind of hard to justify a tax break for a holiday in Hawaii that we don’t give to people who are just going to work.

Aircraft also play a very important role in climate change – not just the fuel they burn but also the impact of vapour trails, which were shown in the week after 9/11 to have dramatic impact on local weather.

Right now there are not nearly enough alternatives. In Vancouver we really need to get busy on Intercity rail travel – the second train to Seattle and Portland would be a very good place to start. It will also be necessary for the aircraft builders to come up with much more fuel efficient planes – and alternative fuels.  And in the meantime I suggest we hold off expanding airports – and building more roads to service them – until we are sure we are really going to need them.

Just about anything can be justified in terms of “incremental investment” when the only alterntive looked at is “do nothing”. But that is a false option. What we shoudl be looking at is what economists call the opportunity cost. The use of resources to build say a freeway precludes the use of those same resources to build a railway line. Investing in airports now rather than looking at ways to get to some of the places planes fly to reasonably quickly and with less carbon used seems to me to be a “no brainer”.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 7, 2008 at 2:05 pm

Posted in Air Travel

Transport: London still gridlocked despite congestion charge

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Not an easy thing for me to report. I have no doubt at all that the business as usual crowd will be leaping on on this to make sure that road user charging does not get introduced elsewhere. But, as always, the devil lies in the details.

When it was introduced it did work. And there are still 100,000 vehicles fewer entering Central London than there were before February 2003. BUT the traffic is now slower. The reason being that there is also less road space now – and the uitility companies digging up the roads are being blamed.

The scheme was also extended to include areas that have large numbers of residents – including Kensington and Notting Hill. Which increased the numbers drivers who could claim exemption from the charge. That extension my now well be rolled back, and there is to be a crackdown on road diggers who have been flouting the rules.

But the real loss will be the attack on pedestrians – who are much more important to any city than many of the people who can afford to pay £8-a-day. There are a lot of very wealthy individuals in London, and also a lot of people who will simply put the charge down on their expenses. In terms of simple numbers of bodies – and probably total spending and time lost too – pedestrians should be given priority. But becuase attention has once again turned to traffic speeds, Boris Johnson, the new Tory mayor will of course bow to his paymasters.

The use of the word “gridlock” is instructive too. It sounds so much worse than “a delay of 2.3 minutes”. “Gridlock” has a technical meaning of course – but that is not the way it is now used. When intersections get blocked nobody can move. That is gridlock. Simple devices – like the “box junction” markings used in London (“do not enter box unless your exit is clear”) , and complaince with traffic signals, keeps the intersection free of queues. Overall slower traffic speeds may not be a bad thing if it has reduced speeding. Some roads in Central London have always been used for a quick blast of speed – the Mall and the Embankment were two of the worst. So if the effect of the pedestrian schemes has been to reduce speeding then what has happened is not “gridlock” but a return to sanity.

Pedestrianisation schemes have been a boon to the areas where they have been introduced. Because they slow the traffic down. That is what they are intended to do. City centres are not places that people should be able to rush through. In fact one reason pedestrian areas are so effective is that they encourage people to linger. The best pedestrian schemes include seats – lots of them.  Cities which work well have always known this. Parisian cafes spread themselves onto the sidewalks – and even in some areas onto the street after 6pm.

Cities are about people, not cars. They work much better the more time people spend in public places. The great function of the city is a place where face to face communciation takes place – of all kinds. The greatest human pass time is people watching – seeing and being seen. In North America, Malls understand this. They want people to hang out at the Mall. That way their revenue increases. They spend a small fortune on making the walkign areas of the Mall as attractive as possible – and there are plenty of places in them to stop for a while. And many malls realise that there needs to be more than just shopping.

Cities, of course, developed aeons before the first Mall, and long before anyone tried to sort them out they were fuctioning effectively. But of course the rich and powerful always complained about the press of the crowds – and their smell – which prevented her ladyship being driven in her coach at the speed she liked. (Pepys waxes eloquent on this issue) And as long as most people walked it was tolerable for the majority. It was only when car ownership became common that “traffic in towns” became the really big deal, becuase motorists thopught they shoudl be allowed to move quickly. But that is not what city centres are for. If you want to drive quickly, use the ring road!

Indeed I find it rather sad that an intelligent paper like the Guardian has nothing about this anywhere in the article

Written by Stephen Rees

August 7, 2008 at 10:09 am