Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for October 20th, 2008

Campaign misinformation has set back climate change debate

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Something I missed on Friday was brought to my attention thanks to the ever useful BCEN LW list (hat tip to the indefatigable Bill Henderson).

Getting economists to agree on anything is unusual. It takes hours to get them to agree on where to go for lunch, let alone climate change policy. And most politicians love the idea that all their economists should have a hand cut off to stop them qualifying every recommnedation with “… but on the other hand …”

So the near universal dismay at the tactics adopted by the NDP and the Conservatives on the issue of the carbon tax is worth remark.

Gordon Campbell started the ball rolling – and to emphasize its revenue neutrality he sent a $100 cheque to every “man woman and child in BC” to offset the impact of the new carbon tax on energy costs. Only later did he realise that he would have to give it back to municipalities too – and he has yet to give it back to BC Transit or Translink. But all that did is make everyone cynical. And of course we heard a lot from those who were convinced it would cost them a lot more than $100. And the timing was off, because of a sudden brief spike in oil prices which happened to coincide with the announcement.

Stephane Dion stole the Green’s policy – becuase they had published their platform long before anyone else – but also ran into credibility problems. Probably not his fault either – but we all have long memories of earlier Liberal Red Books, and the rather dismal failings of the Chretien and Martin governments that just seemed to be a paler shade of blue, not green (or red, come to that).

Nancy Olewiler, a professor of economics at Simon Fraser University, was one of 230 economists at Canadian universities who signed an open letter advocating putting a price on carbon. The economists favoured a carbon tax because it provides more certainty on the price of polluting and is less complicated and costly to implement than cap and trade.

Reducing emissions will inevitably cost money and part of that cost has to be passed on to consumers, to encourage the use of cleaner fuels and energy, Olewiler said.

“If a cap and trade system is to work effectively to reduce emissions, it would have the same impact as a carbon tax,” Olewiler said.

And if 230 economists all say it, I think governments had better listen. 350ppm is not an easy target to hit but it is a far more realistic one than Kyoto – and now much more urgent. Business as usual is not a sustainable option, and as with any fundamental change we cannot expect it to be entirely comfortable, although of course there have to be safety nets for the vulnerable. Unfortunately we seem to have used up all our fiscal headroom in making sure the enormously wealthy are taken care of first. Which is like reserving all the lifeboats for the first class passengers.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 20, 2008 at 11:21 am

Posted in greenhouse gas reduction

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Bus drivers union campaigns for purchase of more buses

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Vancouver Sun

“We’re short on buses,” said Don MacLeod, president of Canadian Auto Workers Local 111.

“We need to address that shortage now. We’re recognizing what bus drivers have been facing out there for a long time. The overcrowding, the delays, the pass-ups, the inadequate service. It’s gone on for years.”

I agree and have been writing something very much like that on this blog since it started. Allison Cross puts some Translink statistics at the bottom of the story – no one from Translink is quoted – to give the impression that something is happening. But it is woefully inadequate. Not just the story in the Sun, the response on the ground. Yes some more buses are being bought, but not nearly enough to meet the demand. No distinction is given here between new buses that replace old buses too decrepit for further service. What is needed is to see the number of additional buses added to the fleet.

Jim Houlahan also talks, when he and I appear on public platforms together, of the number of buses that actually get put on to the road at peak periods. Not only is there a shortage of serviceable vehicles, there are not enough drivers. CMBC has been running a campaign to recruit drivers for a long time, but with unemployment low, and many jobs paying as well but with much less stress, and no risk of assault from disgruntled members of the travelling public unable to board overcrowded services. CMBC is having a hard time keeping up with the numbers. Especially as the current generation of drivers get to the point where they can retire. Once again the discriminatory policy that forces retirement at 65 is hitting hard. Now, I am not in favour of allowing those too old to cope with staying at work, but if someone is willing, fit and healthy then they can be found duties on less stressful routes than the Hastings trolley,and their years of wisdom are invaluable as trainers.

The shortage of buses became apparent once the bills for SkyTrain had to be paid. We have invested in a very expensive system which services only a small part of the region. And since the transit budget is not enough, but the bills for SkyTrain are huge, there is less left for the rest of the region, that is not served by the trains. Surrey in particular, where the growth of population has been largest, has been left behind Burnaby and Vancouver – and has constantly reminded Translink and its predecessors of that fact. Even anti-transit Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum – who was chair of Translink – understood the problem, but was powerless to change things.

And the current administration has made sure the Mayors will no longer be alwed to murmur their discontents – as they did with the flawed Canada Line – and has continued with the Vancouver gets SkyTrain first policy. My current prediction is that they will be boring the tube under Broadway before the Evergreen Line gets started – if (God help us all) Campbell gets another term.

And there is another thing that is simply not understood. If you buy more buses the service gets better. And that attracts more passengers. It becomes a benevolent spiral. Yet what the previous CEO insisted on instead was UPass – which for a system without any spare capacity was grossly irresponsible. Because the current overcrowding started with UBC and SFU students using their compulsory passes much more than anyone dared to anticipate. And the recent spike in gas prices added to the numbers of people trying to use the transit system. If more money had been spent on buying buses, then ….

You get the picture

UPDATE  Oct 22

There is now a web site and a facebook page. The following is taken from the latter

What’s the problem with our bus system?
Consider the following: currently we have only 1100 buses in service in our entire Metro Vancouver system – that’s not nearly enough! That works out to just one bus for every 1800 Metro Vancouver residents. But 15 years ago, Metro Vancouver had one bus for every 1200 residents. That’s also the current rate of buses in Toronto and Montreal. In other words, we have 50% more residents per bus than we used to, or that Toronto or Montreal have now! No wonder you can’t get on. And it’s not supposed to be that way. Metro Vancouver’s Livable Region Strategic Plan called for 1900 buses to be in service by 2006. And Translink’s own first 5 year Strategic Plan projected 1600 buses in service by 2006. It’s no surprise we have a problem – we are between 500 and 800 buses short.

Here’s another way to look at why we need More Buses Now
In 2002 the convention bus system carried 160 million boarded passengers. By 2004 it jumped 30 million to 190 million passengers, nearly 20% more! But during those same two years, the number of buses and service hours only increased by 2.5%, just a fraction of the need. And each year since 2002 bus ridership has increased more than projected, while plans to buy buses do not even meet current needs.

What is the result of this bus shortage?
Compare Metro Vancouver to Toronto and Montreal’s service:
Percentage of bus routes with 10 minutes service or better
Toronto 59%
Montreal 58%
Vancouver 12%
BC Premier Gordon Campbell has announced a Transit Plan to double the current number of buses on the road – but that plan wouldn’t be completed until 2020! That’s far too many years to watch overcrowded buses pass up waiting riders.
It’s time for action – it’s time for More Buses Now!

Written by Stephen Rees

October 20, 2008 at 10:01 am

Posted in transit

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Hybrid Housing

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Miro Cernetig in this morning’s Vancouver Sun on Michael Geller‘s proposal to adopt a new method of making housing affordable. Well, not new exactly but a new for here. It has been working in the UK for some time.

It works like this: Most people — from the working class to the disabled — can no longer afford a house in Britain’s largest cities. With no grubstake from their families as a down payment, most people can only dream of ownership in the city.

This has created a hollowing out in communities, what you might call the Manhattan urban model, where service providers and the poor are forced to the margins of the city. Then someone had an idea. Why not create “staircase” loans, a sort of hybrid between taking out a mortgage and a rental lease.

A person would be able to take a quarter share in a property, say $100,000 of a $400,000 apartment. The bank, housing agency or developer would hold onto the rest and collect a portion of rent on top of the mortgage. With time, a person could up the quarter share to full ownership.

If you talk to Geller, you will quickly find the financing model can also be used in more creative ways.

Ownership could be targeted to service personnel, like firefighters and police officers, who now live outside the city where they work. Government could use the model to help the working poor get out of the rental trap. With a little creativity, it might even be used to help people on welfare move into the housing market.

The point is of course that there has been very little done in this field in Canada since the federal government got out of housing altogether. And even less in BC where the province downloaded housing to the municipalities – knowing that they did not have any source of funding to make it happen. In other words, our poorest and most vulnerable citizens were made to pay for getting the country out of deficit. Or if you prefer, defeicits were seen as a wrose problem than homelessness. Either way a cyncial abandonment of responsibility for a quick political gain. It is not my original idea, but I do subscribe to the idea that the measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. Canadians like to think of themselves as a caring and compassinate society. That is, I am afraid, a delusion.

Michael Geller is someone I like to think of as a friend. He recently twitted me for being too principled to run for office myself. Something that he is doing a a candidate for the NPA in the City of Vancouver. I do not have a vote there of course, but even if he wasn’t a highly intelligent, hard working and personable politician I would endorse him for this idea alone. Because it is long past time for politicians to start tackling issues like poverty and homelessness, and stop pretending that this is somehow beyond our power to help.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 20, 2008 at 9:29 am

Posted in housing

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