Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for November 14th, 2008

What is our Premier Thinking?

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Richmond News

“More than 200,000 people a day will be taken off the road thanks to the Canada Line and travel time to downtown Vancouver will also be cut. “It’s the equivalent of ten road lanes heading in and out of Vancouver. Looking at this today I think it’s been worth the effort and worth the wait.”

The first run of a passenger carrying service is really just another PR event that really doesn’t need any attention. But the Premier got carried away and loved playing train driver.

Canada Line trains parked on the running lines OMC 2008_0929

Canada Line trains parked on the running lines OMC 2008_0929

The quote is what he said afterwards.

So obviously he can understand the basic math. A lane of freeway can move at most 2,000 vehicles per hour: at current average occupancies that is 2,600 people. The same space is needed for a train track but that can move over ten times as many people – or more. That is where he gets the “equivalent to ten road lanes” from.

Now the question he has to answer is, “In that case why are you so determined to build more freeway lanes?” He also wanted to get ahead of his peer group with a carbon tax. So the reality of global warming is also on his radar. Building more freeway lanes is going to induce enough additional traffic to more than offset the reduction in ghg emissions from the carbon tax. Worse, the spread of low density, car oriented suburbs locks us into a high carbon production mode for another generation at least. Premier Campbell even admits that more transit is needed – he just wants to put it off until his freeways are built.

Clearly, the decision is not based on reason. Building freeways does not solve traffic congestion. He said so himself when he was Chair of the GVRD. The Gateway idea has no place at all in a world which is facing a prolonged depression – and even less when the north west passage is open and trade from Asia can come by open sea over the North Pole. There is not only plenty of spare capacity in pacific coast ports now, but there is likely to be even more as trade contracts with the declining US dollar. And yes, like the oil price the trend is other way right now, but that is short term effect of destabilisation. Most economists now expect massive inflation in the US once these huge sums of new liquidity work their way through the system.

The incumbents in Washington have paid the price for their recklessness. And we have a provincial election next spring. His once unassailable lead in the polls now looks much less secure. And the financial institutions that have been doing the P3s all now look very dodgy indeed too.

I think Gordon Campbell is a lot smarter than McCain or Palin – actually I think the average spaniel is smarter than Palin – and he really needs to be working out a strategy to cope with the very different circumstances we now find ourselves in. And when he goes into the election he has to be able to convince the electorate that he has an appropriate set of policies to deal with this situation. It seems to me to be obvious that the Gateway program has to be scrapped – as unneeded, unnecessary and unfinanceable – if only to allow himself the financial leeway to stick to his preference to avoid deficits. It would be much better to be positive and simply shift from freeways to railways – just because they are so much better at moving lots of people, and also allowing a more sustainable land use pattern to emerge. And really this does not need to look like a flip flop (which is what Falcon’s remarks about light rail certainly do). It can be easily made to look like a statesmanlike adjustment of priorities in changed circumstances. Easy because that is what it would be. Sticking to the current plan is going to make him look daft.

Or just serving some very narrow interest groups who have been given far too much power in BC lately.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 14, 2008 at 11:12 pm

SkyTrain no slam dunk: Falcon

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Jeff Nagel on BC Local News

This is an astonishing reversal – because he is talking not just about South of the Fraser but also in Vancouver to UBC. Gordon Campbell has always been very clear that he wants a bored tube tunnel all the way from VCC (I wish still it was called Glen Clark Station) to UBC – with a price tag of $2bn.

“Light rail could be the smartest, wisest thing to do,” Falcon told Black Press.

“I wouldn’t rule that in or out. But for goodness sakes, let’s do our homework first and make sure we actually know what we’re talking about before we make a decision on what the answer should be.”

Which is also a reversal. Lots of us have been working – on and off – on evaluation of various alternatives, and some of us were on the provincial or regional payroll or as consultants at the time. Not that it made the slightest bit of difference how much analysis was done, or who was in charge. The outcome – expensive, grade separated, automated – was never in any doubt.

Falcon denies the province has settled on SkyTrain.

“That’s subject to further analysis,” he said.

And he says light rail fans shouldn’t blindly champion that technology either.

“I’ve just got to believe people aren’t so woolly-headed about these kind of things that they think we should just plunge forward with a solution they’ve come up with before anyone’s done any homework to determine whether or not that makes any sense for taxpayers and transit riders.”

The cheaper per kilometre cost of light rail is just one part of the calculation, he said, adding capacity and expected ridership are also critical.

Actually there is no such thing as “light rail technology”. There is a whole spectrum of available cars and methods of fitting track on to both existing rights of way or building new ones. And while there is a rough and ready US set of “definitions” usually for regulatory reasons, there are all kinds of examples where the line between “Heavy” and “Light” rail gets very indistinct. Many countries have adopted light rail approaches to such issues as train control and accessibility, and it is not unusual to see things that look like trams running on main line railways, and very train like vehicles on streets.

The Canada Line is not SkyTrain – and it is incompatible with it – but from the perspective of the user it might as well be. And from the point of view of the people who will be paying the bills – us. And certainly adding capacity to that line is going to be very expensive indeed (though they apparently now think they may be able to insert a third car into each set if it does get overcrowded).

And as for “expected ridership” let us hold our chortles for a second. The opponents of light rail – and there are many and I don’t mean here the folks who promote SkyTrain – have for many years made hay out of the unfulfilled demand forecasts made for systems (usually to attract funds) which have never got anywhere near where they said they would. Equally, there are systems such as the built down to a fixed price Docklands LRT that were too small from day one. Using the current generation of transportation models and the usually very suspect assumptions that get thrown into them you can produce almost any forecast of ridership you want to, and very few people will actually ask the right questions to reveal how it was done.

And as for people being “woolly-headed” what you are describing Minister is exactly the way you and your friends have behaved over the Gateway program and its planned freeway expansions.

I will take what he says seriously when someone from his Ministry offers me a job. But even then I wouldn’t take it.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 14, 2008 at 4:14 pm

COPE puts a free bus on Vancouver streets

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Charlie Smith in the Georgia Straight notes

For years, transit advocates have called for a free bus service in downtown Vancouver to alleviate traffic congestion and make it easier for people to get around.It’s done in Seattle and it’s done in Portland, but for some reason, TransLink has never delivered this sensible idea in downtown Vancouver.

The reason is that it is not a “sensible idea” – it’s a gimmick. It does absolutely nothing to “relieve traffic congestion” nor does it make it easier to get around.

And just because they have them in Seattle and Portland does not mean we should have them here. For one thing we already have a greater percentage of trips on transit then either of them.

If you ask car drivers why they do not take transit, you will get replies about speed and convenience. They won’t mention fares unless they are prompted to. People who have cars do not do so because they think transit is too expensive. The strongest advocates for free transit are those who use it anyway and like the idea of someone else paying for it. For just as there is no free lunch there is no free transit. Someone has to pick up the tab. In downtown Vancouver that used to be the merchants. Fighting the rise of suburban shopping centres, and seeing the effect of having two main shopping areas – one around Woodwards and one around the Bay – they paid for a bus to link the east and west bits of a larger shopping area than we have today. That service of course stopped when Woodwards gave up.

People who travel by transit every day into the downtown are well advised to have passes. Since they are going to make 10 trips a week, the average fare is cheaper with a pass. And every extra ride beyond those ten commute trips is “free” – or to put that in economistspeak the marginal cost of trips is zero. Transit users with passes in downtown thus have nothing to gain from a free bus. If you want to serve existing transit users better, then provide them with more service. They are already willing to pay for poor service, so any extra funds Translink has should go to making it better – more frequent is the first priority.

If you live and work in downtown, why are you more deserving of a free ride than people who live in less expensive areas? If you now walk or ride your bike to work, why should we try to get you onto transit? If you drive into downtown for work you probably get a parking spot paid for by your company. So you probably do not move it much during the day as you would then have to pay to park yourself.

So what does a free downtown bus service achieve?

The objective for the regional transportation authority has been and should be to increase transit mode share. Free buses in downtown do not serve that objective so they are not to be considered if there is extra funding available. If someone else has a different objective and money to spend then by all means let them put on a free bus – just as COPE has. For instance, if I had a parking lot full of long term contract parking but wanted to redevelop that site and shift those parkers to some more remote location, then a “free” shuttle makes a lot of sense. Just ask YVR who do exactly that at the airport – and will do more once the Canada Line opens. But just because the users do not pay a fare does not make it “free” – users of the airport are paying for that service through their user fee.

I can think of a number of more deserving cases who should get all of their transit costs paid for by the community as a whole. Downtown Vancouver residence is not, in my view, a sufficeint qualification. But I also think if we want to make adjustments in income distribution, there are much fairer, equitable and efficient ways of doing that than handing out bus tickets.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 14, 2008 at 11:52 am

Posted in transit

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Road tolls for whom, Transport Canada asks

with 3 comments

Globe and Mail

Transport Canada is one of the sponsors of a conference in Toronto on road pricing. But there is little political interest in actually doing something – or, when there is an election in the offing – even thinking about doing something. But as David Mac Issac says

“If you look at the evidence … pricing is pretty much a guaranteed way to reduce greenhouse gases in the transportation sector,”

But his boss is warning the Tory party not to be “ideological”

Not that be opposed to new taxes around election time or worrying about budget deficits more than the probability of recession (or worse) is “ideological”.  Oh no, that’s just pragmatism.

In reality the sudden spike in fuel prices earlier this year showed that drivers do respond to price signals. They now look for cheaper cars to drive and in places where the transit system has some capacity to accommodate them, use transit more. It has been a good year for bicycle sales too.

Germa Bakker, project manager of Amsterdam’s road-pricing pilot project, said the Netherlands’ planned national road-pricing scheme, expected to start in 2012, will actually be revenue neutral. All other taxes applied to gas and automobiles will be phased out: “The principle is, the people who drive a lot will pay a lot.”

That seems very pragmatic to me too. For all of my career the big issues have really been about the seemingly unstoppable rise of automobile use.  It has alsways been blindingly obvious that as a society we could not afford the car. Firstly becuase of the number of people killed and seriously injured, which would be totally unnacceptable for any other mode of transportation. Then becuase of the impact on our lungs of all those emissions. Yes governments acted to increase control of both vehicle emissions and fuel standards, but the increase in vkt usually made up for any gains in that sphere. We began to be concerned about the impact on cities – of both congestion and the road building that was supposed to reduce it – usually long after it was clear that our politicians really did not have the intestinal fortitude to do what other places have been doing. And the same is true of greenhosue gas emissions which now sem to have trumped all other environmental issues – but of course not financial or economic ones.

Pricing is going to have to be the way that most sectors deal with ghg emissions, not just transport. And we are going to need politicians who are a lot better than Gordon Brown or Stephen Harper at tackling Big Issues. Brown gets some credit for coming up with a package of measures that were adopted in Britain to cope with the credit crunch. The fact that they looked at all good says a lot about what was wrong elsewhere – espcecially in the US. But again that is a short term issue. And painful though it might be, these things will sort themselves out as markets tend to do.

But the change in our climate is happenning much faster than anyone thought possible and all sorts of tipping points are whizzing by like missed deadlines. And what is now being contemplated are not just distant possibilities but inevitable collapse of systems on which we all depend. And you cannot argue with physics.

Of course Canadian cities are going to have to use road pricing.  Of course carbon prices are way too low right now. Of course politicians are going to have to make decisions that will not be popular and no one ever believes that a tax can be “revenue neutral”. But that does not exempt us from the need to do things very differently in future – and now – than we have in the past. And the sooner politicans get that idea into their heads the better.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 14, 2008 at 9:53 am

E-Stewards commit to no more dumping in developing countries

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There is enough concern about what happens to old computers that even the top cop talks about it.

This is a press release from Free Geek – Activists and Free Geek Vancouver join forces to create certification program for responsible electronics recycling

If you have a computer, someday some or all of it is going to get replaced. Do you take care how you dispose of it? Of course you do – but Free Geek can actually do something to ensure that it is reused before it gets recycled. And there are some places that will actually charge you a fee, for example to take a working crt screen. Though in my own defence I pointed out to one such place that since they were almost certain to resell it – when I came through the door the crt was still in the back of my car and they tried to sell me one – at which point they graciously agreed to take it off my hands for nothing.

VANCOUVER—The Basel Action Network and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition
joined with 32 electronics recyclers including Free Geek Vancouver today to
announce the development of the e-Stewards Initiative — a new certification
program for North America’s most responsible e-waste recyclers.

The e-Steward Initiative will become the first independently audited and
accredited electronic waste recycler certification program forbidding the
dumping of toxic e-waste in developing countries, local landfills and
incinerators; the use of prison labor; and the unauthorized release of
private data.

“Unfortunately today, most of those companies calling themselves electronics
recyclers are scammers,” said Sarah Westervelt, e-Stewards project
coordinator at the Basel Action Network (BAN) in Seattle. “They simply load
up containers of old computers and ship them off to China or Africa. By
choosing an e-Steward recycler, consumers and large businesses are assured
that their old computers and TVs will be safely managed, and not simply
tossed into a local landfill, processed unsafely by prison laborers, or
exported to developing countries.”

The e-Stewards announcement follows Sunday’s exposé on CBS’ 60 Minutes;
the CBC’s recently aired Electronic Dumping Ground; and a recent episode
of the French Canadian Program Panorama, Electronic Waste: The Hidden Face
of Recycling
. These programs reveal that computers given to many
recyclers in the United States and Canada are likely to be dumped in China
or Africa, where e-waste is causing immeasurable environmental and health

“Truly responsible recyclers in the US and Canada face unfair competition
from thousands of unethical, so-called ‘waste recyclers’ in North America
that would more accurately be called ‘waste shippers,'” said Ifny Lachance,
cofounder of e-Steward Free Geek Vancouver. “We strongly support a
certified, audited program to separate legitimate recyclers from low-road
operators. Recyclers should be considered guilty until they can prove
themselves innocent.””

The e-Stewards already include 32 companies in 92 locations that have been
qualified by BAN. Today, BAN announced that by early 2010 the program will
feature an ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB) certification system
with third-party auditing. The funding to create this robust certification
program was provided by 14 recycling companies designated as e-Steward

E-Steward Free Geek Vancouver was founded in November 2006 as a community
technology centre and ethical recycler. Its volunteers help test, refurbish
and dismantle unwanted computer equipment donated by the public.

“The e-Stewards project is a response to the failure of government and
industry to act as responsible global citizens in the age of information
technology,” said Jim Puckett, BAN executive director. “It is also a
wonderful example of how industry leaders and activists can move mountains
when they work together — in this case, move mountains of e-waste to truly
responsible recyclers only.”

Written by Stephen Rees

November 14, 2008 at 7:09 am