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

Archive for February 5th, 2009

Kitchen Table Sustainability

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SFU City Program lecture

Wendy Sarkissian talked about the new book she and four others have written. You can download of the first four chapters of “Kitchen Table Sustainability” for free or order a copy, if any of this grabs your attention. I must admit I found it a bit difficult to grasp the subject and the death of the battery on my notebook did not help. I am working from scribbled notes and hope that I can do her presentation justice.  The presentation was video recorded so will be on the SFU City program web page eventually.

All of us, she says, feel a bit overwhelmed because we are facing a huge problem – climate change  (and that is just one aspect of sustainability) – and very little seems to be getting done about dealing with it. As individuals we may have made what changes we can but obviously individual actions are not nearly enough. So how do we start to get people organised into action? This is known as “community engagement” – the idea being that if enough people all start getting together and doing something we can get a political shift. And the most recent positive sign of such change is the election of Barack Obama. One observer at the inauguration remarked “What impressed me was the suddenness of it” . Dr Sarkissian hopes that something similar can happen and sustainability will enter “normative value space”.

She cited Peter Newman’s Resilient Cities and the Western Australia Sustainability Strategy (2003) and Chet Bowers and David Orr who think we need to “rewrite metaphorical templates”. She said that we need to deal with “denial and collusion” and to do that we will need new stories to shift our thinking about how to change our world. It need no longer be taken for granted that environmental degradation, poverty and social injustice are inevitable. Arne Naess, who developed the idea of  “Deep Ecology” said,  “I hope we can have a conversation that we might not be the pinnacle of evolution”

The book is designed to provide a set of tools and support for community members: it has a model summed up by the acronym “Eating”

  • Education – so that we can have an informed  conversation. This may be thought elitist but no discussion is possible if there is no understanding of what research has now revealed to be happening
  • Trust – which is easily lost – but is needed to heal the expectation of betrayal
  • Inclusion – we are all members of the community, including children and we should not adopt “risk management” strategies that exclude those who cannot accept the basic principles
  • Nourishment – first we need to heal ourselves and our own relationship to the planet
  • Governance – unfortunately this is one of the least regarded but most important components. Currently the bureaucrat’s response is “Your input will be taken on board” but that means almost nothing happens. Jack Kornfield wrote a book calledAfter the Ecstasy, the Laundry and “there’s a lot of laundry that is not being done” ( i.e.  there’s a lot of reports being written but being ignored).

“We are just the community: we must help ordinary people get a grip on the problem. Only we can do it. We cannot leave this to the experts or the mandarins.”


Q –  Can you provide an example where the kitchen table made a difference?

A – Aurora in Melbourne was the last big greenfield development project. At the initial team development workshop a group of “cynical middle aged men” all experts in their fields solemnly built a figure to represent non human nature so that it could have a seat at the table. Community artists can have considerable impact. In Redfern the community eventually decided it would rather build something than argue

Q – The Club of Rome tackled population growth but we now seem to think that if we all adopt third world consumption patterns the world can accommodate a lot more of us because we would live at greater densities

A – It is not true that we do not tackle population issues in the book. Population control has to be part of the solution and the Club of Rome is increasingly being seen to have been right. Since we must transform our relationship with the rest of the world then you must think about population policy

Q – “Deprofessionalizing conversations” – how do we keep them going?

A – The Kitchen table is a symbol of a place where it is okay not to know all the answers. She noted that in Australia there is no professional training for planners in community engagement as there is in Canada.

Q – Two working example of this process: Be The Change Alliance and Pachamama Alliance

A – It is imperative to include all comers. The present processes of community involvement is “drab and insipid”. The “who on earth cares” initiative in Australia is another good example

Written by Stephen Rees

February 5, 2009 at 11:44 pm

Posted in sustainability

Feds can’t prove their costly green programs work

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This is very bad news. Canada does very little in terms of trying to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Now we know that what they are doing is not having much effect.

My eye was caught by the section on the transit tax credit

The report also looked at the public transit tax credit, which was introduced in the 2006 budget and is expected to have cost the government $635 million by the end of the 2008-2009 fiscal year. In 2007, Environment Canada predicted the tax credit would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 220,000 tonnes, but a year later, it later lowered its estimate by 84 per cent, to 35,000 tonnes.

“Given the lowered figure, the tax credit will have a negligible impact on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions,” Vaughan’s report said.

So first of all the government over predicted what this measure could do. That is, I am afraid, not unusual. Hype and spin are the main concerns when launching new programs – when the government wants to be seen to be doing something. And being conservatives, they have never seen  a tax cut they didn’t like.

The very obvious problem with the approach is that giving transit users tax credits is rewarding them for what they are doing anyway. The probability that some one will say  “Hey, if can have a tax credit for a transit pass I will stop driving” seems to me to be pretty slim. What gets people to use transit is good service. In fact, when commuters who drive are asked why they do not use transit money is not the concern – neither fares or taxes get mentioned. $635m in transit terms nationally is in fact not very much at all. But you could have spent that much more effectively – for example by finding ways to cut the cost of increasing transit service. Of course tax cuts might be one route but the problem is that saving service providers money does not guarantee they will provide more service with the savings. Better program design is needed than just “throwing money” – so broad based tax cuts are as ineffective as open ended grants.

Oddly enough the federal government has in its filing cabinets numerous reports and studies it has paid for. One of them is called the Urban Transportation Showcase Program. It has been running now for several years – and the Showcase projects  in Greater Vancouver will, by now, have collected quite a bit of data on what works and what doesn’t. But then Environment Canada did not fund that. It was Transport. Do you think they talk to each other?

Written by Stephen Rees

February 5, 2009 at 5:36 pm

Posted in Environment, transit

New 10-lane bridge to replace Port Mann

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Vancouver Sun

The link above takes you to the news story and the long list of comments. My point is simple. The only critical comment comes from NDP MLA Bruce Ralston. Everyone else they quote is a cheer leader. Nothing from the community, nothing from any of the various groups that oppose Gateway. Nothing from people concerned about traffic in their neighbourhoods. Nothing about any concerns anyone might have about greenhouse gas emissions – or indeed any environmental impacts. And nobody questioning the extremely dubious financial case either.

This is simply lousy journalism. It is not the function of a newspaper in a free society to accept uncritically what a government and its supporters tell it. The people of this region deserve to be fully informed about what this announcement means. And having seven ‘pro’ and one ‘anti’ commentators is nothing like a balanced approach

Written by Stephen Rees

February 5, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Posted in Gateway

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Four-step program for buying a bigger bridge blows the budget

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Vaughan Palmer of the Vancouver Sun is at last persuaded that this is a story worth his attention.

He is concentrating on how a $1.5bn project [June 2008] came to cost $3.3bn. Which has to be paid back by people (and trucks) using the bridge at $3 a pop – or ” in excess of $100 million” a year – or a 30 year pay off roughly – if the costs of toll collection and maintenance have been properly annualised into that $3.3bn.

Now the risk here is that someone will actually build the proposed rapid transit line which the bridge can supposedly carry. What happens then is that people start switching to transit – or indeed the much vaunted rapid bus that will be on the bridge from opening day. Buses (and trains) won’t pay tolls. So how does McQuarie make lots of money then. Or do they go to court to stop activities that might reduce their revenue (as other private sector toll road operators have done)?

It is of course quite hard for anyone to make sense of any of this since there is still no contract – and the devil as always is in the details. The deal will be signed, then we will be committed to the project, and only then will the voters of BC have any idea of the size of the bill we will be stuck with. If they sign before the election (and I suspect there will be a lot of pressure to do so) my prediction is that this story will resurface immediately afterwards – in a very similar fashion to the Olympic Village.

It is a shame that Mr Palmer does not spare any words to cover any of the other issues surrounding this bridge. I can understand that. He only has a certain allocation of column inches, and he decided to stick to the most outstanding feature of yesterday’s announcement. But the project was created in a time when it was expected that growth would continue indefinitely, and that that was a Good Thing. Times have changed. It is now apparent that we face a whole new range of challenges – and that relying on fossil fuels has become an extremely dangerous way to proceed. The very concept of economic growth as a constant is also being questioned all around the world. Most places have long ago recognised that people need alternatives to driving, and are concentrating their investments into those alternatives. Especially ones that allow people to get around without needing to burn a lot of oil.

If we have $3.3bn to spend (and I am far from sure we do – but let’s take that as a starting point for now) we could build electric powered rapid transit that would penetrate every part of the region. Of course, it would need to be on the surface and other modes would have to yield precedence whenever a train was moving. This does give a lot of people conniptions I know, but it is not unusual for cities to adopt this kind of  approach. And it is becoming more widespread. Whatever happens to oil, we would then be able to operate a region wide transit system on whatever power source proved workable – hydro (obviously) but also wind, wave, tidal, geo-thermal, solar – all options that are sustainable and whose environmental impact is far less than any fossil fuel. At the same time we could rebuild our communities to be walkable and transit friendly. This will take time, but is also a sensible recognition that car orientation has not served us well even when gasoline was cheap.

The days of the climate change deniers are over. It is very clear that the earlier forecasts of dramatic and disastrous impacts were optimistic. Effects such a loss of the ice caps and the glaciers are visibly faster than the IPCC’s prediction. Pretending that we can build our way out of traffic congestion is foolish. Acting as though the climate is not changing rapidly is criminally negligent – because death rates from severe climate events and the consequences of rising sea levels are apparent now. How on earth Gordon Campbell can keep two mutually exclusive ideas in his head (we must fight climate change and build a ten lane freeway bridge) is beyond my understanding.

What really worries me is that our local media commentators are not yet making this linkage. Becuase if Vaughan Palmer does not start into this area soon – who will?

Written by Stephen Rees

February 5, 2009 at 4:03 pm

Posted in Environment, Gateway

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