Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for October 2008

Group wants interurban back on track

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Quite a decent piece on Rail for the Valley. John Buker has apparently decided to get in ahead of Monday’s Abbotsford Council meeting which I wrote about earlier. The idea of a demonstration poroject is the one that seemed to get most response at public meetings in both Abbotsford and Chilliwack. But it seemed to get less response from the Interegional Transportation committee and therefore is not the main plank of their report.

One of the things that I tried to stress was that is is feasible for this to happen without expecting a lot of money from the province. It would need a partnership with the current freight operator (owned by the Washington Group) and one of the companies that operate passenger trains. It would almost certainly be a limited time temporary thing, but it would meet the objection of the sceptics “I’m from Missouri, show me”.

Rail can capture people’s imagination, but a demonstration would be a practical way to allow people to experience what is possible and at relatively low cost. In my view this is more likely to actually lead to a real service in the near future – and much mire likely than any report or plan to shift attentiion away from freeway expansion to a much more efficient mode – and one that can be implemented in a shirt time scale. It would also increase choice – something that is notably missing now and in the current plans.

Ken Hardie’s response stressing the north of the Fraser and the suggestion that West Coast Express could get to Chilliwack seems to miss the point completely. Chilliwack has very little long distance commuting since it took the idea of a complete community seriously and is relatively self contained. The growth of the valley population will be mainly in the south – Surrey, Langley and Abbotsford – where there are no real current plans to do more than small increases to bus service. This is not nearly enough to meet present needs let alone the expected growth, which will all be highway oriented absent any other alternative. It is also clear that the current FVRD councils have no interest at all in getting swallowed up in SoCoBriTCA. No is there any expectation that Kevin Falcon is actually listening to what people in this part of BC are saying. They do not want SkyTrain – which in current plans is too little, too late and at huge cost. They want a lot of rail now and at low cost!

Written by Stephen Rees

October 31, 2008 at 8:39 am

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

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Europe on the brink of currency crisis meltdown

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Daily Telegraph

On the ferry yesterday I decided to try out the $10 “quiet area”. That fee includes tea, coffee and newspapers, so for the first time in a while I read the dead tree version of the Sun. In the print edition a lot is content from other papers that you do not see in the on line edition. Like this story, which expanded my knowledge of what is going on in the world, and in particular why the US dollar has been getting stronger despite their financial crisis. I had thought bad mortgages and asset backed paper was a mainly US issue. What I did not know is that exposure to bad debts (mostly loans to other countries in Asia and South America) has created a much bigger crisis in Europe.

The latest data from the Bank for International Settlements shows that Western European banks hold almost all the exposure to the emerging market bubble, now busting with spectacular effect.

They account for three-quarters of the total $4.7 trillion £2.96 trillion) in cross-border bank loans to Eastern Europe, Latin America and emerging Asia extended during the global credit boom – a sum that vastly exceeds the scale of both the US sub-prime and Alt-A debacles.

No I don’t know what “Alt-A debacle” means: probably some computer glitch that got missed by the Telegraph’s subs.

It is also my impression that the version I read in the dead tree edition was much longer than this on line version, because I thought the  analysis on the impact on China would be relevant to update other things that I have been writing. And, of course, there was none of the huge number of on line comments.

Anyway, just in case you missed this too, I think this is a useful heads up.

And, if you think $10 buys you peace and quiet on a ferry, think again. Despite being nearly empty, and lots of notices about respecting others need for quiet, the cell phone yackers and the loud personal conversations were much worse there than in the adjacent no charge seating area I had to cross to get to the washroom.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 31, 2008 at 8:09 am

Posted in Economics

Breaking News

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The hearings into the poposed Silverdale developmnet have gone on so long that the council has now conceded that the decision cannot be made before the next civic election.

Damion Gillis is claiming this as a big victory for opponents of the devlopment, which will now become a “wedge issue”  in the election. Of course the proposal has not been stopped yet, but it is an encouraging sign that sanity may prevail.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 30, 2008 at 1:21 pm

Oil Prices

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Over at the Guardian there is a nice little graphic on oil prices I cannot embed here. But it is worth a look as it has explanatory spots on each of the peaks and troughs over the last ten years.

The real question is “How long can it last?” And, thanks to Andy in Germany we have a guide to that too.

There is no doubt that demand is down – and that includes places like China which have been one of the biggest resaons for increases in demand recently

Over the next two decades, some experts say, oil production will peak at around 95 million barrels a day.

Other experts say that it has peaked already

One big problem is that oil fields have a natural rate of decline as oil gets pumped out. The rate varies widely from field to field, but the global average is about 5 percent a year. So, just to maintain output, producers around the world must find and develop about six million barrels of oil a day. To increase global oil production by 1.5 million barrels a day, that figure rises to 7 million or 8 million barrels a day, or at least 2.5 billion barrels a year – a monumental task that gets tougher as production grows.

“The energy crisis is fundamentally a problem of supplies, not of energy demand,” said Frédéric Lasserre, the head of commodity research at Société Générale in Paris.

And the great chorus of “drill baby drill” to the south of us ignores the reality that the reserves in places currently thought to be untouchable due to environmental concerns are going to take a long time to be exploited even if the unthinkable happens and the Republicans manage to steal another election.

the cost of producing extra barrels of oil is rising. As prices fall, this might cause high-cost producers, like those working Canada’s vast oil sand deposits, to shut down production or curb their expenses.

Which is, I think, the first time I have seen that suggested. Of course, the tar sands have to be shut down – and quickly – if we are serious about stopping the current disastrous slide into global catastrophe, but no one in any Canadian government is going to even think about that. Indeed the opportunity for more drilling in the Arctic is about the only official reaction so far to the new predictions on the rate of change in global warming. But it might put a crimp in some of the pipeline schemes which threaten our coast with a lot more tankers.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 30, 2008 at 12:08 pm

Posted in Economics, energy

Tagged with

The Choice in Vancouver

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Don B wrote

Would you consider doing a post on the NPA/Vision policy platforms wrt transportation? I know you live in Richmond but it would be great to hear your opinion on these concrete proposals that deal with the issues you write about.

So I went to and downloaded the “NPA Action Plan” which contains the following

• Work with the provincial government, the federal government and TransLink to secure funding for the Broadway-UBC rapid transit line.

I have written often about this proposal – and it has been the subject of much debate int he comments section.  I can understand why the City would regard this as a priority – I just do not think it should be a regional priority. It is about time that rapid transit provision reached beyond the Burrard Peninsular. Coquitlam and Surrey should be the next two priorities for majort investment, not Vancouver. The City can however, on its own, do a lot to facilitate better transit and bus lanes on Braodway woudl be a great start – but the NPA has no intention of doing that.

• Work with TransLink and the provincial government to implement a public bike-sharing system in

Again, the City could do this on its own. In Paris the whole velib scheme is funded by J C Decaux out of billboard revenues – but of course Vancouver hates billboards. The invovement of outside agencies just gives the NPA an excsue for not moving faster.

and also

• We will continue lowering parking requirements in new housing developments to foster sustainability and encourage housing affordability.
• We will investigate the feasibility of redeveloping surface parking in existing multi-family residential zones to provide for the development of purpose-built market rental housing.
• We will investigate using City parking and parking revenues to fund the development of non-market housing for those in need.
• We will relax regulations for secondary suites

all of which are good things but should have been happening mush faster. The NPA, of course, is very careful to protect its voter base which is small c  conservative and fundamentally opposed to much change in existing neighbourhoods

• We will explore options for closing streets for pedestrian-only use, based on experience during the 2010 Games.

Street closures do not need to wait for 2010 either. They are either part fo the philosophy of cities for people or oipposed becuase the city is for cars. The latter is the reality that the NPA has protected – not least by its shameful record on Burrard Bridge. They did keep Granville Mall, but they really dropped the ball on Cambie Street – and lost any credibilty on reducing car movemnet space as a result.

• We will ensure that the Broadway-UBC rapid transit line remains a priority for TransLink and the provincial government.

erm , excuse me, but you already said that a few pages back

• We will lead local neighbourhood planning that extends the best practices and legacies of the
planning for Vancouver’s dense downtown with its high levels of walking, cycling and transit use to manage change in a way that improves quality of life in our neighbourhoods.
• We will implement a public bike-sharing system in collaboration with TransLink.
• We will expand the City’s bike routes and lanes with an increased emphasis on safety for cyclists.

The province has been dropped from public bike sharing in the second time it is mentioned – and is that thord point a tacit acknowldegement that there has not been enough attention paids to saftey for cyclcist in the past?

So over to Vision’s website where I tried to find a link to a platform document comparable to the NPA’s pdf and couldn’t. The “policies and issues” section seems to be a long list of things they voted against in the last term – and the news section has press releases on different subjects including a commitment to $1.5m in spending on bike lanes – I am not sure of they mean $1.5m more – or if it is an increase on what is currently being spent.  They want a new pedestrian bridge across False Creek – which of course is not needed if you bite the bullet and take two lanes away from cars on Burrard Bridge. Again I am on record as supporting this plan as the traffic on the bridge simply does not need three lanes each way – the intersections at each end determine that the flow is always going to be less than the need for three lanes.

Now as it happens I woudl not recommend voting for anyone based solely on a platform. The last time I did that when as a neophyte Canadian voter I read all three party platforms, and decided that Jean Chretien’s Red Book looked the best. How wrong I was to trust that man. Neither should you vote on the basis of transport policy alone – even if it is better integrated with land use.

Despite its name, the NPA is about as partisan as it gets. If you do one of those tests (there are several on the internet) and find yourself on the right side of the spectrum, than NPA will be a comfortable home for you. Gordon Price (who is no longer in this racket) and Peter Ladner are at the progressive end of the spectrum – and more than one commentator has pointed out how close Robertson and Lander are in reality. But the NPA owes its large and well funded support to the business as usual crowd.

Vision is, or should be, a bit more left leaning but without the “loony lefties” of COPE. Of which I suppose I must probably count myself even though I would never join any political party that had people like me as a member.

The choice I am afraid in Vancouver is not much. Personally I would like to see some real change in Vancouver – but without silly notions like another pedestrian bridge across a body of water that has plenty of fixed crossing capacity and delightful little ferry boats too. Vancouver’s greatest sin is insufferable smugness. It greatest issue is not transportation but homelessness and the open sore of the downtown eastside. And I blame city politics for both of those – although of course the province and the cannot be given any sort of credit there either. So a plague on both your parties I say.

And what happened to the downtown streetcar – is the NPA dropping that?

If anyone has the Vision or COPE plaforms handy please comment and provide a link

I was going to put a poll in here but there is a gremlin in WP right now. I will try again later

Written by Stephen Rees

October 30, 2008 at 11:50 am

Posted in politics

Tagged with

Killer whales disappearing off southern B.C.

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Globe and Mail

The reason being mostly that they are starving to death. They feed on salmon. Warming waters, loss of habitat but mostly the greed of politically well connected fish farmers have pretty much killed off the salmon. Yesterday was the first commercial opening of a salmon fishery in the Fraser this year – mostly for Chum salmon, not highly regarded for the table (quite wrongly in my view) but commercially valuable for exports of roe to Japan. The orcas fed on chinook, and they have simply gone.

All of this is of course exactly as predicted. And BC shares the guilt equally with Washington and Alaska. Our boundaries making no difference to salmon or whales. Recent research also shows that survival rates in the Fraser (which is not dammed) are actually worse than the Columbia, which is.

But the BC government must take its share of responsibility. For its blank refusal to deal with fish farms and their sea lice. For gravel extraction in the Fraser, with no mitigation at all. For eviscerating its environmental protection agencies and its environmental assessment process, which allows any development, not matter how damaging. And so must the feds. The DFO has now supervised the collapse of the west coast salmon as effectively as the east coast cod.

Not so long ago, we were celebrating orcas, with painted glass fibre statues in the streets. I hope you know where they are now, because those are the only ones you will be able to see soon. The chances of their being a pod visible from the deck of the ferry this afternoon being slim to none.

A sad day, and one that should give the BC government pause in its rush to eliminate what is left of “super natural BC” (of course we don;t call it that now – probably in recognition of how little we care for the natural world). But is probably won’t.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 30, 2008 at 10:30 am

Posted in Environment

Tagged with ,

Hiring by contractors, road builders head in different directions

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Derrick Penner, Vancouver Sun

There has not been a lot to write about this week. Or at least anything where I felt I had anything worth adding. On the whole I prefer to have things that I want to comment upon rather than just pass along. I assume that my readers are a well informed bunch who probably look at many of the same rss feeds and email lists that I do.

This piece today simply confirms what I was writing fairly recently, that the people who build houses and condos are not the same as those that build roads. So while housing construction is going to slow down that does not necessarily mean that resources can be switched into the road building sector. The skill sets and experience may be related, but they are different.

It may also be worth noting today’s Vaughan Palmer piece on what the economic downturn does to the province’s budgetary predictions. Millions this year (there are still five months to go in the fiscal year) but billions for the next three years (the “planning cycle”). Since contracts have not yet been signed on the Gateway projects, this again may not be bad news. The “fairy gold” of the P3s has also dried up, so the public sector will be required to pick up much more of the tab. Though no doubt Mr Falcon will still be considering how much more of the provincial pension plan funds he can divert. A prospect which, as a future beneficiary, alarms me considerably. It is one thing to see my RRSP dwindle, it is quite something else to contemplate the possibility that civil service pensions could now be at risk to prop up the follies of misguided politicians

Written by Stephen Rees

October 30, 2008 at 9:20 am

Auto makers want a bail out

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The news at 6 on CBC tonight conflated these two stories. Autoparts makers say they need help from the Ontario and Canadian governments. And on the other side of the line GM and Chrysler want a $10 billion rescue package.

On boith sides of the border are Conservative administrations who have been advocating policies that favour businesses. That have repeteadly stuck to the line that the private sector is better at predicting markets, serving demands and being more efficient than government. In the case of the North American banks and the automobile business it is now plain that this was not the case. If government departments has made errors on the scale of the credit crunch or the failure to predict the demand for fuel efficient vehicles, there would be outrage and demands for heads on platters. So far, the financial geniuses who brought the world’s financial system to almost complete collapse have actually been rewarded for their efforts. Bankers have been telling their staff that their bonuses are safe. Now the least competent auto makers want some for them too.

The answer, of course, must be “no”. Because what is happening to GM and Chrysler is the judgement of the free market. Customers have looked at what they have been offered and decided that other makers have better products. And it is not as if this outcome had not been predicted. The Big Three have been busily fighting CAFE standards – or working their way around them – for years. They refused to try to meet California emissions standards and preferred to fight them in court. Meanwhile, other more intelligent companies built cars that better meet the needs of a world rapidly running out of cheap oil.

Yes this will be tough on those with jobs at these companies. Just as the collapse of ENRON was tough on their employees. Just as the closure of many small businesses by the onslaught of big box retailers has been disastrous – especially for “small town America” now being so eagerly courted by the Republican Party. There were no bailouts then. Chrysler has been bailed out once before by the US government. Maybe there needs to be a “three strikes and you’re out” clause for people who make bad management decisions.

GM has been working hard for many years to persuade people they needed bigger cars – and especially big trucks – for their personal transportation. Pressed by governments to provide more fuel efficient vehicles they grudgingly produced a car which they said nobody wanted. Meanwhile other, foreign owned makers, found that they could sell all kinds of small cars. GM deserves to go to the wall. It did not make what the market wanted and was slow and ineffective at changing. It has also shown itself to be utterly contemptuous of the people who made their cars, bought their cars and paid taxes used to prop up their business. GM has a long and generally reprehensible history – right back to the times when they shut down successful streetcar and interurban transit companies having bought them up so they had to buy GM buses. They have shown how addled the adage “what is good for GM is good for the USA” has turned out to be. And not just in the wasteland of Flint, Michigan.

If governments are considering making investments in transportation it must be in products that meet future needs better than Hummers. Public transportation, bicycles and walking all need significant support and that can only come from taxes. The auto industry has been innovating – just not the Big Three – and the Canadian government has just got in the way of new products getting to market. Low speed electric vehicles being an obvious solution to many urban journeys and deliveries. Governments have also been disastrously wrong in their support for alternative transportation fuels, which have not delivered anything like the benefits claimed for them.

We do not need to prop up automobile industry. What we need to do is rethink how we are going to face a future post peak oil, and in the face of rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change which are all around us. Keeping the companies going that are largely responsible for the mess we are now in makes no sense at all.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 28, 2008 at 7:51 pm

You still think we need a Gateway?

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My thanks to Donna Passmore and Rita Dawson for supplying the following

“The slump in traffic to the West Coast of the United States is hitting the massive Yantian container terminal operated by Hutchison Whampoa. It is suffering volume declines for the first time. A majority of Yantian’s traffic is from shipping lines servicing routes to North America, where demand has been driven down by the American property slump and dwindling consumption of household consumer goods. It is expected to report a drop in volumes for the first half, having declined for five consecutive months.”

source: The Times

“Orders for new container ships are drying up as vessel charter rates and ocean freight rates tumble and volume growth slows on key liner trade routes. The collapse in orders, which has affected all ship sizes, follows five straight years of historically high deliveries. Only 179 container ships were contracted in the first eight months of this year, down 49 percent from the same period last year, Clarkson said. This compares with a record 566 contracts in 2005, 479 in 2006 and 530 in 2007. Container ship contracting has been hit by “a good old double whammy” of slowing trade volume and rising shipyard prices.”

source: Supply Chain

“Container ships are idle because of lowered U.S. demand for goods.

Commodity carriers are going to be hit the hardest with the tightening credit markets, along with dry bulk, where many of the vessels ordered were going toward.”

source: ETF Trends

Ship Rates Plunge as Credit Freeze Strands Cargo, Demand Slumps

By Alaric Nightingale and Chan Sue Ling

Oct. 15 (Bloomberg) — Commodity shipping rates plunged to the lowest in more than five years as a lack of trade finance left cargoes stranded and the global economic slowdown limited raw material demand.

Traders are finding it harder to get letters of credit that guarantee payments for goods, shipping executives said. Together with a slowdown in trade, that has contributed to this year’s 82 percent drop in shipping costs for grain, coal and other commodities. Rates are so low that Zodiac Maritime Agencies Ltd., the line managed by Israel’s billionaire Ofer family, announced today it may idle 20 of its largest ships.

“Letters of credit and the credit lines for trade currently are frozen,” Khalid Hashim, managing director of Precious Shipping Pcl, Thailand’s second-largest shipping company, said in Singapore yesterday. “Nothing is moving because the trader doesn’t want to take the risk of putting cargo on the boat and finding that nobody can pay.”

The Baltic Dry Index fell 11 percent today to 1,615, the lowest since February 2003. Rates for larger ships of the type Zodiac intends to idle fell 17 percent today, taking this year’s plunge to 85 percent, according to the London-based Baltic Exchange.

Banks are leery of financing commodities and shipping transactions. Rio Tinto Group, the world’s second-largest aluminum producer, may delay the planned sale of $10 billion of assets and Sterlite Industries (India) Ltd. shelved its $2.6 billion purchase of Asarco LLC. Ship owners can’t find cash to finance the construction of new ships.

The reaction so far to the news of the impact of recession from our provincial government is that they intend to accelerate the building of infrastructure projects. Which might make sense as a stimulus package except that these projects are not now justified. It was the government that said we needed more roads to grab more Asian trade – but there is no more to grab. Perhaps if they had been honest and said, ‘we would like to promote a new rash of low density commercial and residential development in some of the most ecologically sensitive parts of the region and rip up the LRSP’ then they might have a case. But they chose not to do that. They stuck to a story that looked thin two years ago, and is totally absent now. The port expansion will be a massive white elephant. The landside development will doubtless be changed swiftly to match the new reality. It is always easy to make money by changing zoning. Though even then I suspect that it will be a while before the property market picks up again.

Recession is being viewed as bad news, but actually it might be our salvation. We have a very short time to make drastic reductions in our ghg emissions. 80% is the target that the UK has picked, though they are giving themselves until 2050 to do it. It is abundantly clear that the path of ever increasing growth is not sustainable. In fact that has been clear ever since the Bruntland Commission. This region is also on the edge. While Metro tries its best to talk a good story. the BC Liberals seem determined to drive us over it. But surely if we are being driven solely by business, common sense would dictate at least a little hesitation before committing us to what now looks like folly. It is not good business to try to increase your share of a declining market when there is already spare capacity.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 28, 2008 at 7:15 pm

Posted in Gateway

Transport: City faces fork in road on tackling congestion

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Sean Ross Financial Times

Los Angeles “lacks a convenient citywide alternative to travelling by car, such as a subway or light rail system, so gridlock is common. Despite years of worsening congestion, city authorities have had little success in alleviating the problem.”

So they are going to vote on a proposal to raise the sales tax – to build a subway (among other things) and congestion charging is also on the table. It they process LA will get the federal funds that would have gone to New York if they had not ducked out.

Pointing to Los Angeles as the fate we wanted to avoid has been the common touchstone of planning in this region. It was not enough that Vancouver fought off the downtown freeway, we also created an alternative strategy, called the Livable Region Strategic Plan. The trouble is that although it is the legally mandated growth strategy, and the revision slowly grinding its way through the process (the Sustainable Region Initiative) looks like building on the LRSP, not scrapping it, that is precisely what is happening here now. And mainly because of the actions of the province and a few unelected “professional” boards at key transportation providers.

Please click on the link and read what is happening in LA. It is a pretty good indication of what will be happening here in future. For after the Green Zone has been hacked to bits to satisfy developers, the ALR reduced to a minor inconvenience to sprawl, and the “Gateway” and the Golden Ears Bridge have done the intended jobs and allowed for low density suburban growth across the outer parts of the region, then we will have to deal with the problem LA has had since they cut up the last of the Big Red Cars fifty years ago. Building freeways did not make Los Angeles livable – and it won’t here either. “Get Moving BC” and the BC Liberal Party are well aware of this. Both Gordon Campbell and Kevin Falcon are on record as stating “We cannot build our way out of congestion” yet there is no funding for the “transit plan” (which anyway has very little for the growth areas). They are also determined to push ahead as fast as they can with the SFPR and the Highway #1 widening and Port Mann twinning, but refuse to even consider congestion charging.

I have been called to task for stating that I think that this plan is “stupid”. So perhaps I should reconsider. How about deceitful and wicked? That probably fits better. Stupid implies that these people do not know any better – but it is clear they do. But they think that developers profits are much more important than a compact urban region with complete communities, a protected green zone and increased transportation choice.  But they can get away with it since regional plans in BC are just like our environmental assessments. Toothless and useless.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 28, 2008 at 10:04 am