Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for October 18th, 2008

Crunch puts M25 revamp in jeopardy

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Last weekend I was reporting that the head of Partnerships BC Larry Blain was “comfortable” with the prospects of raising private sector funds for the SFPR and the PM2/H1 projects. He shouldn’t be.

The Observer (The Guardian’s Sunday paper) reveals that a similar scheme to the PM2/H1 is proving difficult to finance. The M25 is the ring road around outer London. The day war broke out, in 1939, was the day that sprawl was stopped in London. There was too much of immediate need to deal with, so London stopped spreading out and the planners took the opportunity to draw a line to stop London coalescing with any more of the towns on its fringe. It was called The Green Belt – and is much bigger than anything that uses that name here. Development of course restarted after the war, and just leap-frogged over the Green Belt. But other powers ensured that “ribbon development” along the major roads was also stopped, and new towns (“complete communities” in the words of the LRSP) were established.

The Green Belt became the only possible route for one of a series of motorways proposed to ring around London. The other, inner rings were never completed because they went through established areas where protests were loud and effective. But the M25 was not big enough almost from day 1. People drove out of London, drove along it and then re-entered from another angle – routes which looked like slices of a pie when mapped. Grotesquely indirect, but with the bonus of a few miles of speed. Over time the M25 has been widened, and every time the traffic just gets worse, not better. The futility of road building to cure congestion has no better model in my experience. But as usual, the traffic engineers and politicians think that the next time will be different.

Britain’s most expensive road improvement programme, the £5bn upgrade of the M25, is struggling to raise finance as a gathering cash crisis threatens the government’s controversial £44bn private finance initiative (PFI).

The reluctance of banks to lend money is sparking delays in the delivery of new schools, hospitals, roads and other key facilities.

A ‘funding competition’ to pay for the M25 upgrade and widening, scheduled to begin next April and to be completed before the London 2012 Olympics, is in danger of failing to attract backers. Delays could mean improvements are not ready in time for the London games.

Bizarre really. £5bn is being sought for a project which will almost certainly not work but is thought to be needed for a few weeks of a sports festival. The Brits are as blinded by Olympic bling as we are. It seems to me that if it cannot be financed that may well turn out to be a Good Thing. £5bn would buy a lot of public transport – the only thing known to cure traffic congestion when combined with road user pricing.

‘The current state of chaos in the market is definitely having an impact on the PFI market,’ said Richard Tierney, corporate finance partner at BDO Stoy Hayward. ‘Firstly, the problems in the banks mean that PFI project funders are now restricting the amount they will lend on individual projects.

‘There is an increasing tendency for banks to club together to fund even quite small projects which is delaying some projects. The problem is even more acute on bigger projects such as waste PFI schemes. And banks are now charging higher rates of interest on PFI deals. The credit crunch could become a real issue for PFI projects.’

Britain’s PFI is fishing in the same pond as Partnerships BC. I think Larry Blain is either misinformed or overly optimistic. At the very least the current mood in the market means that current timetables will NOT be achieved, and I will be very surprised if anyone from the private sector will be willing to sign anything until they can see how to raise the funds. Becuase right now – despite every G8 government pumping in funds as fast as they can, banks are not lending. That is what term “credit crunch” means. Not higher interest rates or more difficulty putting together funding packages. Just no money until … well until the banks start to believe they may have a chance of getting it back, and not just swallowed up in the current mess

Written by Stephen Rees

October 18, 2008 at 10:16 pm

Mobilien in Paris

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My battle with WordPress and video continues. I found a really nice flash video I wanted to embed into a post here. But it won’t. So please click on this link to visit my other blog (which uses Google’s blogger) that likes embedded videos better than WP

Bus Rapid Transit, so called, is cheap. Very cheap indeed by SkyTrain standards. And yes, Malcolm, we know you don’t like it. But I think that one of the best features of the Parisian implementation is that it shows what can be done with existing streets. A bus lane is a much better user of space than a general purpose lane in terms of people moving capacity.

A gp lane can move around 1,000 vehicles per hour which at our average vehicle occupancy is around 1300 people. A bus lane can move  well over 10,000 people per hour – it is simply a matter of bus frequency. The ideal implementation is to use a section of road which has several bus routes so that the combined headways produce a very high frequency service along the exclusive part.

So taking a lane away from cars and dedicating it to the exclusive use of buses, bikes and taxis makes a very powerful statement. This street is a public space. It is not solely for the exclusive enjoyment of those who insist on driving themselves. Far too many transportation decisions in this region are based on not upsetting drivers – for example the Burrard Bridge bike lane proposal, or the long rancorous debate over a short length of Granville Street which is closed to cars. But if we are going to make this region more sustainable, reducing car use has to be high on the agenda. Since traffic expands to fill the space available we must reduce the amount of space that cars are allowed to use – both moving and parked. A steady war of attrition with a target annual reduction (like they did in Copenhagen) is essential. And once that lane is freed up the easiest thing to do is use it for this type of combined service. Note that the lane width is greater than the average traffic lane – which allows bikes and buses to coexist peacefully.

Not getting caught up in traffic is what makes bus service reliable. This allows for better use of the resources to maintain headways and thus make bus journeys much more predictable for users. It also means there is less need to wait at bus stops – an important gain as time waiting is valued much more highly by users than in vehicle time. Would a tram be better? Probably, but it would cost more and take longer to implement. Is this a good first step to take to get more people onto transit? Of course! Is it going to require an act of political courage – yes, unfortunately. But maybe in this region we can start showing the rest of BC what progressive, sustainable policies look like if we elect someone other than the usual small c conservatives who tend to dominate municipal politics. Of course we are still stuck with a provincially stifled regional transportation authority but that could be changed next year.

Or we could just go on voting for more of the same, just as we did nationally.

To be absolutely clear – I do not think BRT is the sole solution to every transit problem. There is no single, one size fits all solution for every problem. BUT solutions that are on the surface – not under or over it – should be looked at first. Solutions which have been shown to work elsehwere should be adopted before any new innovations are considered. (Let others pay for R&D) And solutions which are cheap and adaptable are much better than those which are expensive and very difficult to adapt once adopted. BRT has to be one of a  range of tools, and there are plenty of guides around to show how to determine which tool is appropriate for each set of circumstances. Ideally we should plan ahead and adopt technologies than have the capacity for “scaling”. Rebuilding the Expo line shows the weakness of the current system. It is going to cost a fortune and will get only a small step forward in capacity. Trying to do that on the yet unfinished Canada Line will be even more costly – because it is in tunnel.   But turning the bus lanes on No 3 Road into tram tracks would have been cheap, easy and effective. Just as utilising the Arbutus line – or the old BCER Interurban – would have been a very much lower cost proposition than what we are about to do now. But even if neither was ideal from some perspectives – and almost any project has to make compromises – the Cost Benefit Ratio nearly always works better for low cost projects.

Dead B Line shelter No 3 at Lansdowne

Dead B Line shelter No 3 at Lansdowne

Written by Stephen Rees

October 18, 2008 at 8:58 pm

Posted in transit

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