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

Transport Canada study puts price tag on social costs of cars, planes, trains

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Canadian Press

It has been a long time coming, and it is far from perfect but it is a lot better than nothing. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, it was slipped out without fanfare in August.

Other countries have been assessing social costs of transportation for much longer. Indeed, that was one reason why the Department of Transport (as it was called back then) hired economists, who spent lots of their time running cost benefit analyses of proposals. Again it did not mean that decisions were always based on the lowest social cost – but sometimes the rigour of the analysis did force unpopular decisions on our political (and management)  bosses. For instance, I showed that a bus full of old ladies going to play bingo really was more important that a limo with a chief executive in it being whisked to the airport. Things changed dramatically in Central London when the traffic computers stopped using “passenger car units” to count traffic, and instead used value of time. (In pcu terms a bus is the equivalent of 3.5 cars: in cost terms a bus in peak periods carries over 60 people, far more than the 5 people in the 3.5 cars, whatever value is placed on the persons’ time.)  There was also one major intersection that was goiung to be grade separated at huge cost of land acquisition (and negative CB), which was replaced by a simple traffic management scheme which had a positive CB ratio and “paid for itself” within a year.

My biggest concern is that “air, marine and rail modes accounted for just a fraction of these social cost” mostly becuase of the way that noise costs are estimated, for which air will have been the greatest beneficiary.

the estimated costs of transportation “noise” in Canada were much lower than in any other country, perhaps reflecting a less-dense population in Canada or differing methods of determining the cost, the authors said.

Noise costs were generally calculated as the damage to residential property values from the constant sound of vehicle traffic, trains and aircraft.

The method that was in use around airports in Britain was to base the cost on retrofitting homes with enough noise suppression (usually large air gap double glazing) to make them minimally habitable. The loss of not being able to enjoy your garden due to the constant roar of landing jets was said to ne “too dificult” to calculate then too. The point about house prices being a lot of people need somewhere to live in reasonable proximity to the large number of jobs at airports, which tend to be on very anti-social shift hours. If the property market is as unreasonably buoyant as Greater Vancouver has been in the last 20 years, comparisons of house prices and noise contours will probably be of little value.

What I do want to emphasize is the cost of loss of life due to road transport. Once again the lack of care that society devotes to this subject, in contrast to the excessive attention paid to the much lower death toll of plane, train and ferry “disasters” needs explanation. We do not accept the loss of two people when a ferry sinks – but the steady loss of much greater numbers of people every week has no “news value” and thus receives almost no attention, unless it can be shown that a driver was deliberately intent on causing death. Perhaps we should have a more stringent view about the motivation of people who drive vehicles capable of multiples of the maximum speed limit while their attention is distracted. That seems to me evidence of gross negligence at the very least.

The report

Written by Stephen Rees

September 2, 2008 at 11:33 am

One Response

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  1. It was this sort of study and associated planning that created France’s TGV and LRT (Trains and trams) Renaissance.

    In the late 60’s, the then French government was planning a major investment in regional airports and regional air carriers, as rail transit was deemed yesterday’s transport mode. Sound familiar? Enlightenment in transit planning started measuring other criteria than ‘cost of’ and ‘speed of’ transit mode was used. The result, fast trains were seen as not only faster than aircraft for downtown to downtown travel, but cheaper as well.

    The TGV trains were the result of sound and continuing development over 3 decades.

    This sort of thinking created the revolution in urban transport with the reinvention of streetcars and trams. Road-space was thought of as ‘lanes of capacity’ for transit, thus there was little ‘wailing or gnashing of teeth’ over trams using traffic lanes because the argument went like this – 1 traffic lane carried about 1,200 persons per hour per direction, while with LRT over 20,000 pphpd was possible. End of argument.

    The success of Grenoble’s and Nantes new LRT systems made other cities rethink public transit and compelled politicians to think light rail.

    From a country in 1980 with only a handful of vintage streetcar/tram systems, now has 20 LRT/tram systems, with 6 more being planned.

    Hopefully some of Frances experience will rub off on Canada.

    Malcolm J.

    September 2, 2008 at 12:42 pm


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