Stephen Rees's blog

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


with 9 comments

At this time of year there are two types of story you can do. A review of the year gone by or a look at what lies in store.

I am resisting the review of 2008, simply because I rarely bother with reading things like that by others.

But two forecasts that popped up on Twitter this morning are worth looking at. James Howard Kunstler has a longish piece in the Straight, which takes his usual dyspeptic view of America’s future and underlines his earlier forecasts that have been fulfilled – such as the growing volatility of oil prices.

I am especially concerned about an “infrastructure stimulus” project aimed at highway improvement at the expense of public transit. This would be the epitome of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable. We need to begin planning right away for a transition away from automobiles, not in order to be good socialists but because Happy Motoring is at the core of our unsustainability trap. The car system is going to fail in manifold ways whether we like it or not, and it will fail due to circumstances already underway.

He is of course talking about the new US administration – but it applies equally here. Despite his profession of being green with his “carbon emissions levy” (First in Canada!) Gordon Campbell is still pressing ahead with the Gateway. As long as he can get it funded.

The introduction of the carbon tax has also allowed his minion Kevin Falcon to back down from the “no new taxes” mantra – and even the vehicle levy looks like making a comeback as way of digging Translink out of the financial pit it has dug for itself. Jeff Nagel in his blog post today speculates about how that will play out with the Mayors – and what that could mean. One possibility is that Falcon has to come clean and actually take responsibility for his decisions. And the “new” idea is that the levy if it is introduced will be a “value proposition” – it will give some kind of break on transit fares to those who have to pay it. Which only goes to show that these people never ever learn from their own mistakes. This thing could have the worst elements of UPass added to its appeal – yeah, that’ll work!

For those of you who have stayed with me through the ups and downs of 2008, thankl you for your loyalty and continued interest. 2009 is not going to be an easy year either but at least we have the chance of seeing some change in Victoria as well as in DC – and quite possibly in Ottawa too. We can but hope for a more progressive approach here in BC and in Canada.

Please be safe tonight and let someone else drive – transit is free after 5pm

Written by Stephen Rees

December 31, 2008 at 12:30 pm

9 Responses

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  1. Stephen

    Thank you for your enormous commitment to these issues. It’s a real pleasure to read your blog every day, and I’ve learned a lot.

    Regarding infrastructure stimulus spending, we need to finally fix up the Interurban track to passenger-grade rail, and install the necessary crossing guards. The government claims to want to put people to work NOW. This is one (relatively inexpensive) project that needs to get done, is not at all complex, and could happen immediately.

    John Buker

    December 31, 2008 at 2:07 pm

  2. You are absolutely right. A project which is low cost and has high returns and would enable the low density outer suburbs to start to become transit oriented.

    But instead we will widen the freeway

    Stephen Rees

    December 31, 2008 at 3:07 pm

  3. “James Howard Kunstler has a longish piece in the Straight, which takes his usual dyspeptic view of America’s future and underlines his earlier forecasts that have been fulfilled – such as the growing volatility of oil prices.”

    So Kunstler has changed his tune, eh? Instead of forecasting a spooky spike in oil prices, he’s now calling for “volatility”.

    Hmm. Sounds like he’s hedging his bet. Just like the folks who have quietly changed the phrasing of “global warming” to the again-hedged “climate change”.


    December 31, 2008 at 4:29 pm

  4. Not at all – Kunstler has been quite consistent in predicting that volatility would follow peak oil – and it is. The current precipitous drop in prices means many projects to develop oil have been put off or cancelled altogether. In a few years time, when demand starts rising again this will make shortage much worse.

    Climate change is just a more accurate term. Too many people think that as the world warms overall so their particular bit of the planet will be warmer all the time too – which of course is nonsense.

    Stephen Rees

    December 31, 2008 at 4:38 pm

  5. “The future of the car” is certainly one of the real questions indeed, but only one of them. I think the scariest part of the oil roller coaster ride of 2008 was how quickly prices rose and fell. Such volatility is unprecedented. When we do get to some real shortages, the volatility at that time will pale to what we have seen this year. I think with the abundance of information we have at our finger tips now, such volatile swings in commodity prices and the economy will happen much more quickly than in the past. You could say that our economic situation year by year might become just as volatile as the weather is spurned on by climate change. We get the information almost instantly and we seem to act just as instantly in response. This is uncharted territory indeed.

    Unfortunately, the problems of tomorrow may have more of a root as to the limits of our evolved human abilities. We react very quickly to short term immediate threats, yet seem to have no ability to collectively plan for at act against slowly emerging long term threats. It is more important than ever for humanity to move away from the erratic “knee jerk” short term response and move more towards a measured long term view that is frank regarding the threats that we face and what we need to do to counter them.

    The love of government bailouts is one example of our knee jerk approach to problems. There was an interesting article in the Business section of the Dec. 31 Vancouver Sun in which Claude Lamoureaux, former President and CEO of the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan, was interviewed regarding government bailouts. In essence, he said that government bailouts remove the discipline factor from the capitalist system. Capitalism has its inherent checks and balances, but we must let the system do its work. Bailing out companies that make bad financial decisions only rewards bad business behaviour instead of punishing it. If you make foolish investments or bad business decisions, you are supposed to lose your shirt. That is what makes the system work. Government intervention disrupts that.

    By bailing out these companies, valuable public resources are diverted from places where they could be better used. It would probably be cheaper, and a better use of government funds to allow companies like GM to fail and spend the money on re-training workers for a new truly sustainable economy. Why not train ex auto workers to make solar cells or wind mills instead?

    I would be tempted to say that if the government were to invest in business that it should be spent on innovation, but there is a poor track record there as well. The hydrogen debacle is a primary example of a technology that has had billions of public funds invested and gone nowhere. Its gone nowhere and will go nowhere because everybody bought into the dream that hydrogen could be the “new oil” and ignored the harsh realities of the physics and chemistry behind what they were trying to accomplish. It turns out the laws of physics cannot be made immutable no matter how much money the government throws at it. Money should go to projects that are sustainable and have real potential….mind you, projects with a real chance will often find they have little trouble attracting private sector investment. The German government’s investment in that country’s now booming solar cell industry is an example of public funds being put to good use to assist the private sector and is a stark comparison to the North American approach of bailing out failing businesses that have made poor decisions in the past.

    So where does this leave us? Getting back to the “future of the car”, I think that is unfortunately only a symptom of a greater problem. The root of all these problems plaguing humanity right now is the love of the immediate, and the ignorance of the slowly building long term threat. The thing about threats that brew over a long amount of time is that once they are immediately evident and affecting every day life, it is far too late to do anything meaningful about them. I don’t want to come across as “the sky is falling” however. It is important that we maintain hope. I don’t want to tell my daughter that the world is lost and there is nothing we can do about it. David Suzuki himself implores people to not fall for the doom and gloom mentality. Such thinking only discourages future generations. Change can always happen and change can happen right now if we decide to make it so. We must look at each day as a new challenge to do things differently, an opportunity to start anew. When too many people lose that perspective, then we may then truly be doomed. If you take a look at it, being optimistic and making small changes every day is the only option we have. The only other option is to accept defeat. Once you have done that, then there really is no point in doing anything. I won’t accept defeat however. Future generations will come whether we like it or not and they are relying on us to try and turn the tide so that they may have a fighting chance. Ignoring the facts or refusing to understand the evidence is akin to giving up. We must be brave, look at our future in the face and decide to take action now. This is the only way that the world can be made a better place regardless as to whether your issue is the future of our cities, climate change, peace in the Middle East, you name it. Its incumbent of all of us to try and do what we can.


    December 31, 2008 at 11:40 pm

  6. That Germany invest a lot in solar panels should be enough of a wake up call but when one go around other European countries and notice that they too have quite a few houses with solar panels (and most of Europe doesn’t have a tropical climate)it does makes one wonder what is wrong with Canada. Actually I first noticed solar panels on average homes on my first trip to Japan in 1995. I have been back many times since and in every new area I have visited there are houses with solar panels. Not 1 or 2 but too many to count. Talking about so-called alternative energies I see in French magazines more and more articles about what they call “un puit Canadien” i.e “a Canadian well” it has nothing to do with water but is a very simple system that cool a house in summer and reduce heating costs in winter. Is it actually used in Canadian homes?

    Red frog

    January 2, 2009 at 10:58 pm

  7. Hi Stephen,

    Could you clarify this sentence please: “This thing could have the worst elements of UPass added to its appeal – yeah, that’ll work!”

    I’m doing some work on the U-Pass program and am a bit confused by that statement.



    January 5, 2009 at 1:17 pm

  8. UPass was introduced into a system that was already at capacity at peak periods and had no plan in place to tackle that by expanding bus supply. The result was entirely predictable – gross overcrowding on routes serving UBC and SFU as well as on others that fed those routes. There was also little ability to do much about that. The most effective response was to replace 40′ buses on low ridership routes with “Community Shuttles”. These smaller vehicles could be acquired more quickly than full sized buses – but even so with a considerable time lag.

    The system needs more capacity. It has done for at least the last ten years to my first hand knowledge – probably much longer. The region has been starved of buses. That is still the case. Before we do anything to stimulate new demand we must meet existing demand better. And better bus service – more frequent, more reliable, more convenient will itself drive up demand. The only problem is “how would you like to pay for that?”

    Stephen Rees

    January 5, 2009 at 1:25 pm

  9. There’s a good piece on The Oil Drum explaining why oil prices crashed and forecasted volatility:


    January 5, 2009 at 7:43 pm

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