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

Archive for November 4th, 2008

Environmental degradation comes with real costs: Think-tank

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Vancouver Sun

What really annoys me about this headline is the use of that last hyphenated word “think tank”. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development is not a “think-tank”. That put its on a par with such self appointed “experts” as the Fraser Institute. And the OECD is both far more objective and authoritative than them.

For a long time now, it has been apparent that what are so airily dismissed as “externalities” do have a real impact. We all pay. I can clearly remember in 1970 a senior engineer at ICI telling me “there’s no money in pollution” when it was his company that was paying my organization to take out of the river the wastes they were dumping in it. We were just concerned with keeping the navigation open, so that ICI’s products and raw materials could keep moving. No one had ever thought of fishing in the River Weaver below the ICI works in living memory.

$277 billion US in estimated total damages due to emission of air pollution in the U.S., or what the report says are “even higher” costs of air pollution in China, which it says have been estimated to be equal to 3.8 per cent of that giant economy’s annual economic output.

I assume that this is talking about the common air contaminants that have been a concern for so long. It is not clear if greenhouse gases are included in this tally or not. Certainly the price of a ton of CO2 on the open market for offset suggests that we are far from taking that problem as seriously as we should.

But it is one thing to note these costs. It is something else to get the people currently obsessed with short term financial issues to turn their attention to this issue. Becuase it is the single moost important one that faces us – all of us – us humans. The planet will still be here long after we have gone. And life will eventually return and the ecosystem will recover, once we are out of the way. Though we may not recognize it, that will not matter becuase we will be long gone. And sentient beings of some kind may even one day look at the puzzling remains in our garbage tips (that’s where most archaeology is done) and wonder what possessed us. The collapse of our civilisation will be as big a puzzle to them as the end of the Maya and the Inca to us.  And no-one will think of blaming “commonly accepted standards of accounting”.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 4, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Posted in Economics, Environment

A Canadian in Amsterdam discovers the downside of a cyclist’s paradise

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Toronto Star

It is an old article (October 25 this year) that has been doing the rounds and found its way to my in box today. I was going to ignore it but then I decided that as the sun was out I would take my bike on some errands rather than use the car.

The contrast between Richmond and Amsterdam is what made me want to write this. If you cycle at all in Greater Vancouver you needn’t bother to read this. Nothing new here. And I somehow doubt that any drivers who need to will actually be bothered to.

There were lots of motorized vehicles in the city’s core, but there seemed to be many more cyclists, and they all looked confident sitting upright on their sturdy bicycles, the handlebars rounded toward their torsos, allowing them to keep their backs straight and heads high looking out over the rest of the traffic.

Here the cyclist is a lone warrior in a hostile environment. I live on Steveston Highway, which has no bicycle lanes – or indeed any other acknowledgment that there may be others who want to use the road. On the eastbound side of the road there are no sidewalks either. I have to put on a helmet, of course, and since my bike does not have a chain guard tuck my trousers into my socks. I have a special hi-vis cycling jacket too, and proper cycling gloves. My handlebars are straight, so the posture is – different.

To get across the road to go in the direction I want, I push the bike to the nearest traffic light and wait, and wait, for the pedestrian signal. Even so, turning traffic weaves around me. It does not wait for me to cross. Once on the bike I try to keep clear of the broken glass and uneven inspection covers that make the right side of the road an uncomfortable place to be. This obviously upsets everyone behind me, but I simply ignore them. There are two travel lanes for vehicles but at the middle of the morning quite sparse traffic. So they could get over, if they felt like it. They don’t. The posted speed is 50. Anyone who drives at or below this is exceptional.

I get to the shopping centre at Ironwood but stay in the vehicle circulation area. I do not think it is reasonable for cyclists to weave around pedestrians in such places. Car drivers seem perplexed by my presence, but I am not alone and there are lots of bike parking racks. Of course, I have to lock up my bike and take everything off it while I am in the shops.

On the way back, it is the same as before. To leave the parking lot and turn left back on to the Highway I simply claim my rightful pace in the turn lane – and go in front of the vehicles at the stop line to make my presence obvious. So I manage to get onto the highway home without dismounting and pushing.  Except there are road works. Only one lane open for a short stretch of road. Traffic lines up in the left lane, so I go through in the open right lane to the point of closure. Here I rejoin the traffic. Note that I have done nothing illegal. But the Dodge Ram van cannot stand the idea that a cyclist is now ahead of him, so he forces forward – knocking over pylons. The lane is narrow, the traffic is literally inching forward at walking pace – yet it is inconceivable to this driver that he should be behind a cyclist – for even a few metres and a minute or two at most. The flag lady simply looks in another direction, and pretends to be fascinated by the excavation she is guarding.  And of course at the next traffic light there is the same green van, who has arrived at the light perhaps 30 seconds before me, in triumph.

It is going to be a long time before drivers willingly give up any space to cyclists in Greater Vancouver. And until we start managing traffic as though we were trying to achieve people movement (not vehicle movement) this will continue.

“We are not blocking traffic, we ARE traffic.”

Written by Stephen Rees

November 4, 2008 at 2:57 pm

Posted in cycling

Hints of Comeback for Nation’s First Superhighway

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Erie Canal

Erie Canal

New York Times

Thanks to Ron Richings for passing this link along

The Erie Canal was once very important indeed. It never exactly closed and now is seeing what may be the beginnings of a revival. Mainly due to high fuel costs.

The canal still remains the most fuel-efficient way to ship goods between the East Coast and the upper Midwest. One gallon of diesel pulls one ton of cargo 59 miles by truck, 202 miles by train and 514 miles by canal barge, … A single barge can carry 3,000 tons, enough to replace 100 trucks.

What the report misses is also important. The Erie Canal is not isolated. It is part of a massive network of Waterways, most of which are maintained at the public expense by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Most are rivers which have been kept navigable as part of comprehensive management schemes to reduce flood risk, improve drainage and irrigation and ion some cases power generation.  This system of waterways moves massive amounts of freight – and not just in the summer either.

On the other hand, while inland waterways are fuel efficient, there are other costs which need to be considered. Perhaps the biggest issue is that many places are not on canal or river banks – so freight has to be handled more than once.  Secondly, transport by water is very slow. In times when the new science of logistics was being developed, the cost of maintaining large inventories became a critical part of most shippers’ calculations. All those goods belong to someone, and while in transit represent a cost – often the money borrowed to acquire them – or the capital tied up in inventory that could not be used elsewhere (lost opportunity cost). When interest rates are low, and good investment vehicles hard to find, this is of less significance.

“Short sea shipping” is being promoted here – or was until the Port Authority was asked to pipe down a bit, as it seemed to undermine case for the Gateway. But what is also happening here is that companies that are on the river banks and do use the river for transport are increasingly under pressure to move elsewhere. A large area of the Middle Arm now sees hardly any commercial traffic – and the last remaining businesses have been clobbered with new tax assessments based on the potential for their land to become condos. A somewhat odd outcome for a “business friendly” council you might think, but then some businesses are friendlier than others.  And since the big issue was always supposed to be containers double handling them on and off barges just to be put on trains makes no sense as long as there are tracks at the dockside where the deep sea vessels unload.

I spent quite a lot of my earlier career trying to deal with these issues in the UK. Of course back then oil was much cheaper and no one cared about greenhouse gas emissions. But no-one except the companies who used them liked “lorries”. It turned out that was not enough to make the economics of waterways work then. Perhaps if we started pricing things we care about properly, and planned land use and transportation in an integrated fashion this would change. I will not hold my breath on either.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 4, 2008 at 1:24 pm

Public Transport and Neighbourhoods

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Hank Dittmar at SFU Surrey Centre City November 3, 2008

Hank Dittmar

Hank Dittmar

This was the first of a series of lectures being given this week to introduce the new Visiting Fellow in Sustainable Development at SFU’s City Programme

The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment is one of 29 charities set up by the Prince of Wales. This one has a focus on the built environment. It is an educational charity practice based learning and is creating exemplars and models for the practice of Sustainable Urbanism. There will be exemplars on every continent by 2011. Each one includes strategies of climate mitigation and adaptation.

The following “Timeless principles” are used to guide the design
– mixed use, mixed income neighbourhoods: this allows for everyone to be be able to access the goods and services they need in a short walk: “the 5 minute pint”
– interconnected street network
– transect
– location efficiency and access to public transport
– design by hand

Local intelligence and adaptation

Appropriate technology
– renewable energy
– sustainable urban drainage
– financing and affordability
– materials

Cities and CO2 – There are two views of the city. Traditionally cities are looked at as concentraion sof the problem. On the basis of emissions per on square mile cities appear to be a problem. But when shown as emissions on a per capita basis it becomes clear that cities are very efficient places. City dwellers produce less GHG per household than those in suburbs – mainly because they do not have to drive so much.

The idea of the Transect was originally developed by Andres Duany and is covered in the link to his earlier lecture. Mr Dittmars has created a Typology of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Places. He stressed that different parts of city need diff transit types from“5 minute frequencies in the urban centre” to lower frequencies in the outer suburbs with a fast “line haul” to the centre. He showed a number of examples they have evaluated and observed that Zurich most effective transit system in the world.

He sees an increasing role for trams which goes beyond that of the regional metro. he was not inetersted in debating bus vs rail since different modes have different applications. He showed examples of seven different alignments and noted that there is a growing interest in on street running. One of the Best Case examples showed Zurich where the inner urtban area (T3 in Duany’s transect) has curb lane trams. He had a wide range of images to demonstrate that public transport is not something to be tucked out of the way.
He was especially impressed by the fact that the City of Portland financed its streetcar by “value capture”. The provision of the system had increased the value of the land along the route and some of this was transferred to the City to pay for thge system. It is also worthy of note that Zurich voted against metro for upgrading tram system. It was he said a rare expample of a system designed to benefit the users and not the operators.

Sherford Plan

Sherford Plan

Sherford is a new town near Plymouth planned around the distance people are prepared to walk. They first determined what is within the walkable distance of the houses. They also drew “desire lines” showing where the trips would be concentrated. They created four neighborhoods with activity centres but 40% of the land is reserved for a county park,  which alos houses the wind turbines that provide much of the local power needs. This has shown what it takes to make a town work well is to make it work for the pedestrian.

Walthamstow – is a suburb in North East London. Since it is the terminus of the Victoria Line and has suburban rail servcies too is is one of the most accessibe places in London. However most of it was developed in the late nineteenth century with mostly two storey buildings. The plan was to make Walthamstow a reception area for higher density to capitalise on its accessibility but this was met with a  storm of protest against high rise developemnts. Earlier developemnts in the East End had imposed tower blocks which were not only very unpopular but had also become very unsafe. They held an  enquiry by design which showed that mansion blocks of 5 to 8 storeys with internal courtyards, and terraces with more than 2 storeys woudl be acceptable and increase net resiential density. They also developed a plan to rebuild the existing one storey shopping mall into a 5 to 7 storey building with retail on ground floor. They also “increased permeability” of the centre to create easy walk to station. In a survey this design was preferred by 60% of the respondents. When built out they will have added 2,438 new households and also  reduced emissions of CO2 by 4,654 tonnes.

Opposition to development is based on the impact that people have experienced. Development has usually made the place worse. The aim now is to produce developments that enhance the quality of people’s lives.




Q – You seem to have only very traditional architectural designs. Poundbury has been laughed at for its quaintness
A – It is laughed at only by the people who don’t pay a premium to live there. It has also been copied by architects all over the world

Q – how much of public acceptance is due to what people are used to?
A – environment doesn’t determine behaviour but it does enable it

Q – affordable housing – how is that achieved?

A – It is a typical requirement of the UK government that 15% to 30% of a development must be affordable housing. Housing Associations can apply for central government grant to help offest the cost of development. Dvelopers also use shared equity: the developer sells a portion of the freehold. Affordability is created by central govermnent policy and funding

Q – Do you have anywords of advice for municipal councils on streetcars
A – You can start small and you can save large amount of money by staying with the lightest, leat complicated system. It is a city development strategy not just a transit strategy.  Portland provides a model of value capture from upzoning. Streetcars don’t exist in isolation: they are a neighborhood scale distributor and collector, they are not a line haul transport system.

Q – How do you finance mixed use developments? And how do you get employment?
A – This is covered in his book New Transit Town. They found that there is not a problem with financing mixed use development in city centres. So the answer is to go and find the people who are used to doing it. People don’t know how to finance complex sustainable development. He wants to create an asset class of mixed use since he knows that “if you measure it, they will finance it”
For employment it starts with retail and commercial development which has to be in places on where people want to go. Since initially at least there will be few people around, they must be on a desire line to somewhere else. The first phase will be the high street where there will be strong traffic from day one. In other words build the neighborhood along the arterial roads.

Q – What is your view of the UK’s ‘town centre first” policy  and of suburbs in Vancouver
A – Town Centre first is under attack in UK by the big box retailers who calim it is “unfair restraint of trade”. Many cities in the UK applied the  wrong standards to big box stores in town centres – he cited the example of Lincoln – which had unintended consequences
– He said that he had not had the opportunity yet to walk around suburbs but it seemed that SkyTrain did not think through the role of stations. He was also critical of the idea of the tower in the park. This provides density that is not well connected – “a vertical cul de sac”.  However he acknowledged that it is very hard to go into established single family neighborhoods and change things

Sherford High Street

Sherford High Street

Q – Your design of a High Street seemed wide and lacking intimacy and seemed to be car dependent. It is also noticeable that shopping malls are pedestrian streets in private space
A – Sherford is modelled after Marlborough – which is what people wanted and  is very successful. There will be pedestrian streets off the high street. And ” we crank every wide street to slow traffic. We have to accommodate the car – for now. We have got to get people close where they want to go. Even in Amsterdam 40% of the people drive.”

Q – ecodensity – is there an example of retrofit density that has been succesful anywhere?
A – No I don’t know of one within the blocks. Many places have increased density on arterial streets e.g. Pasadena. Mostly increase in density in neighborhoods comes from allowing accesory units and alley units

Written by Stephen Rees

November 4, 2008 at 12:15 am