Stephen Rees's blog

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

Shall we repeat the same mistake?

with 2 comments

This video was made in 1996. Some things have changed since then. For one thing General Motors has been back in Washington again recently – this time lobbying for its very survival.

It is astonishing that the myths – and outright lies – that the conspirators of the last century spread, still have so much currency. The program which destroyed the US public transportation systems, wrecked most downtowns, ruined the air and created the Interstates has been shown to have been a corporate plot to drive up the profits of some companies at the expense of the public interest. There is nothing new here – but it is worth watching again. And then it worth wondering why it is that our government is pressing ahead with a freeway widening, but casting doubt upon the transit system’s ability to raise funds through innovative methods, and only promising transit expansion for the future – after the new roads have been built, not now – and indeed repeating all the same policies that the US followed from 1945 to 1996. We know what the outcome of that era was – and most places have reversed that trend.

And they did that before the crisis of climate change became such an immediate and pressing problem. There is no doubt that the reason North Americans produce so much ghg per capita is because they live in suburbs, in big houses well separated from jobs and services which they have to access by driving – and they use large gas guzzlers to do that. Canadians live in much the same way that Usonians do. And if Mr Falcon gets his way residents of the Fraser Valley will have to continue to live that way for the next forty years in a world that is rapidly running out of fossil fuel, and increasingly getting warmer. And he is ignoring all the evidence that this is the wrong choice – and one that not even the bankers on Wall Street will fund!

And if you are interested in the system that we tore up here at about the same time take a look at the Buzzer blog

Written by Stephen Rees

March 24, 2009 at 12:41 pm

2 Responses

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  1. The movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit introduced me to this, but I had never followed up to learn just how extensive the destruction of public transportation really was. It’s almost inconceivable for someone today to imagine a city where every street has a tram, yet in the film you embedded I learned that Philadelphia once had such an extensive system.

    100 years ago nobody needed a car because every place with houses and/or businesses got a streetcar line. In many cases the streetcar was there before any buildings and was, in fact, the reason people chose to build there.

    By the 1920s jitneys and other private vehicles were reducing demand for the streetcars and development was outpacing expansions to the transit network. We can’t blame the auto makers entirely for that, but demand would never have fallen to the point it did without a lot of “help” from GM and its allies.

    I noticed in the film that there was a perception that the streetcars were getting in the way of other traffic. What amazingly backwards thinking! In many cases the road itself only existed because of the streetcar. Private vehicles were guests on the road and needed to show the “owner” some respect. It could be said that being “stuck” behind a streetcar is like showing up for a movie 5 minutes before it starts and being annoyed that 200 people got there ahead of you.

    Here in Vancouver we touted “Rails to Rubber” as a step forward when it was a very inefficient move. Buses provide a lower quality ride, hold fewer passengers than rail cars and they need replacing much more frequently. Moving to buses increased the cost of running the transit system while reducing capacity.

    We have this ridiculous notion in Metro Vancouver that rail systems are more expensive than buses when they’re not. Many believe it because we’ve been force fed 30 years of SkyTrain lies.

    Another ridiculous notion is that building more highways will help when they are, in fact, the source of the problem.

    Finally we need to look at our streets from the perspective of moving people and goods. On many major streets removing two lanes of asphalt and replacing them with rails would increase throughput and therefore should be done. Having a street to drive on is a privilege, not a right.


    March 25, 2009 at 12:03 pm

  2. Skytrain is the logical extension to the thinking that streetcars “got in the way.” Building Skytrain holds the same underlying notion behind building highways and removing the streetcar: the city is a place for cars, not people.

    Joyce is one of the best example of Skytrain based urbanism, and yet it pales in comparison to any area shaped by the streetcar like Kerrisdale.

    I believe one day we will regret our choice of Skytrain just as we are beginning to regret our highway madness.


    March 26, 2009 at 9:58 am

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