Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for March 2009

Electric cars

with 9 comments

Better Place chief executive Shai Agassi talks to David Pogue of the New York Times about how his system of providing the infrastructure for electric cars is going to work.

This interview is for those who have not been paying attention since I know I have heard this before and blogged about it. Actually nearly a year ago.

Electric cars – with energy from renewable resources – are going to be one essential component of weaning the world off fossil fuels.  But just as every other solution, it will not be the magic bullet that solves every problem. The land use we now have was designed and built around mass car ownership – as was the transport infrastructure – and that will be with us for a long time after fossil fuel has become rare, expensive and socially unacceptable. There are going to be all sorts of bumps along that road – and in some places low density suburbs will be slums – or even deserted and torn down to be replaced with windfarms – or maybe even real farms.

Cars are also not going to be as welcome in urban environments – even if they are zero emission. Because cities are for people not their mobility devices. And since many of us still have legs that work (and of course we must make better provisions for those that don’t) we will be using those a lot more in future – because that will help us keep healthy and also produces a better social environment. There is no sociability in a traffic jam.

One of the current bumps in the Usonian road is that funding for transit is getting cut just at the time when more people have started using it. That might happen here too. All it takes is continuing inertia.

But what I think is really interesting about Agassi is the role that he has identified for himself

Well, I’m more of an integration guy. …  What I bring in is that understanding of complexity of both the technology and the economy. When you look at the problem mobility with a fresh set of eyes, sometimes you find solutions that the guys who are sort of locked in the inertia of day-to-day business–have missed.

It is because of his Usonian origins that he thinks of cars as the solution to mobility problems. But in fact cars are one of the least efficient systems we could have devised. They spend most of their time parked – empty and idle.  The space they take up is out of all proportion to their utility. They are inconsistent with nearly everything that makes city living desirable. Electric cars will be part of the solution for the suburbs. But we will also need lots of other solutions too – starting with places that are walkable and adding other transportation systems that are efficient and effective. This will not just be transit. Some of it will be the expansion of car provision that allows for much better mobility and utilisation by eliminating individual car ownership. Car co-ops, but also shared ride taxis and other innovations yet to be seen.

Electric cars will not help solve traffic congestion – and I doubt they will do much to reduce collisisons either. And neither of those are trivial issues. But this sort of thinking is a step in the right direction. And, boy, do we ever need more “integration guys” like him!

Written by Stephen Rees

March 19, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Posted in electric cars

$700/year for TransLink

with 8 comments

Abby News

Jeff Nagel calculates that

two-car family in Langley could soon be paying close to $700 a year more than their neighbours to the east in Abbotsford.

Due in part to the proposed vehicle levy. But also to the gas tax

Motorists already drive east out of Metro Vancouver to avoid the 12-cent gas tax that funds TransLink

But are gas prices 12c a litre cheaper? My recent experience suggests that the difference between GVRD gas pumps and Abbotsford is usually much less than 12 cents. But that of course is anecdotal so I checked on the gas price web page. They get gas prices from the – and the difference  when I looked was not 12c a litre but around 4c.

It seems to me – based on this unscientific survey – that gas stations in Abbotsford are doing very well out of the 12 c difference!

UPDATE March 30

I should have pointed this out when Ken Hardie posted a riposte. While Translink gets the product of 12c/litre from the gas tax, half of that is a transfer of the provincial collection. So the net effect is that gas tax is really 6c per litre higher inside Metro than most of the rest of BC

Written by Stephen Rees

March 18, 2009 at 8:01 pm

Posted in Transportation

Greens Nominate Stephen Rees as Candidate for Provincial Election in Richmond East

with 8 comments


Immediate Release

March 18, 2009

Greens Nominate Stephen Rees as Candidate for Provincial Election in Richmond East

Richmond, BC – Green Party of BC leader, Jane Sterk announced today that resident of Richmond East, Stephen Rees will be the Green Party candidate in the upcoming spring provincial election.

Stephen Rees has been involved at the community level in Greater Vancouver for five years as a member of the Livable Region Coalition, campaigning against the Gateway programme and in favour of Rail for the Valley. He was recently voted No 1 political blogger in BC (

“We are pleased to announce candidates of Stephen’s caliber,” said Green Part Leader, Jane Sterk. “Stephen will also be the Green Party of BC spokesperson on transportation issues.”

Trained as a Regional Planner at the London School of Economics, Stephen worked for the former Greater London Council and the UK Department of Transport. He came to Canada in 1988 and worked as a consultant economist in a number of Canadian cities as well as overseas. He arrived in BC in 1994 when he was recruited by the Ministry of Energy to work on transportation issues and BC’s first Greenhouse Gas Action Plan. He then went to BC Transit which became Translink, where he was Program Manager for Transportation Policy. He left Translink in 2004 and a few years later began his blog ( which is a critical examination of how we currently plan transport and land use in Metro Vancouver. He has appeared frequently on local radio and is often quoted by local media on transportation issues.

“The Green movement represents the world’s future, as without sustainability we have no future,” said Rees. “I know that I can be an active agent for change and am proud to represent a platform that wisely combines sustainability and environmental protection with economic reality. Integral to the comprehensive platform that I will be supporting will be much better planning of land use and transportation. If elected I will be visible, accessible and vocal on behalf of my constituents.”

“Stephen Rees represents a unique blend of social activist and environmental awareness,” says Green party leader, Jane Sterk. “The Green Party of BC believes that this riding is ready to approach the big questions with a view to long term sustainability and fiscal responsibility. Stephen Rees is a great candidate for the job and has the leadership skills and vision to carry us into the legislature.”


About the Green Party of BC The Green Party of BC is part of the global green movement for economic, social and ecological responsibility. As the third largest political party in the province, Greens have consistently polled as the preferred choice of one in six decided voters. Jane Sterk was elected leader of the BC Green Party in October 2007.

Further information at

Written by Stephen Rees

March 18, 2009 at 5:50 pm

Posted in Transportation

Ministers in court?

with 8 comments

The story of the Cambie Street merchants (covered here earlier) will be in court next week. And according to 24 hours so could some of the politicians responsible for the mess.

Former B.C. Finance Minister Carole Taylor may be compelled to testify in a court case brought by an ex-Cambie Street merchant seeking compensation for losses caused by Canada Line construction, a judge ruled yesterday.

Justice Ian Pitfield will decide this morning if Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon can be made to testify as a hostile witness.

When the RAV line – as it was then called – was originally approved it was supposed to be bored tube. This, it was claimed, would mean that there would none of the disruption associated with construction. Many places have experienced disruption when rapid transit is built – subsurface, surface or overhead all cause major issues. “Tube” construction is much more expensive but needs much less surface access. Cut and cover – the method chosen by the Canada line P3 is the most disruptive – but is cheaper for the builder if they do not have to compensate those inconvenienced.

The Canada Line has been built down to a price not up to a standard. This is not unusual for P3 fixed price contracts. They may come in “on time and on budget” but usually this can only be achieved by building much less than the original specification called for. In this case the plans changed once the P3 partner was chosen but of course by then the rush was on. While the proponents (the province of BC) claimed it was not an Olympic project they insisted that it had to be completed well before the games started. The fact that what was now to be built was materially different to what had been approved mattered not at all.  Equally, Translink’s approval had only be achieved by the suggestion that the Evergreen Green line would be built concurrently. Of course that was not a solemn and binding contract either – it was a pie crust promise – easily made, easily broken. The then Board of Translink was then replaced by a more compliant “professional” board more likely not to raise awkward questions in public.

I am not going to make any predictions since judges are notoriously fickle. This could go either way. But I do like the timing. It is just the sort of issue that needs to be raised immediately before a provincial election. Actually it would be much better resolved through the constitutional convention of ministerial responsibility – but of course that is thought to no longer apply in British Columbia, which is why people now resort to the courts.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 17, 2009 at 7:26 am

Posted in politics, transit

Tagged with

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent

with 2 comments

This book is currently being offered for free as a pdf download

co-published with Greystone Books and
the David Suzuki Foundation

Because we at Greystone Books think author Andrew Nikiforuk’s message about the environmental, political, and economical implications of this dirty resource is so important, we’re offering you the entire book for free.

Download Tar Sands for free!
[4.6 MB]

This offer expires on March 20.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 17, 2009 at 7:02 am

Posted in energy, Environment

Tagged with

A Better BC: Making a Better Plan for British Columbia

leave a comment »

Jane Sterk, leader of the Green Party of BC, will be speaking at UBC about the upcoming election and the Green Vision for our province. There will also be a Q&A period open to the audience after the keynote speech.
Date: Thurs., March 19th
Time: 5-7pm
Location: UBC Point Grey Campus, Buchanan Building D Room D304

Written by Stephen Rees

March 16, 2009 at 9:43 am

Posted in politics

Tagged with ,


leave a comment »


Written by Stephen Rees

March 15, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Posted in politics

Buses and trains and levies

with 16 comments

I spent yesterday afternoon in Surrey. Actually it gave me a bit of a flashback as the first night I started work at what was then known as BC Transit they put me in the same hotel that Harry Bains and the CAW used for their transit forum. And really the problems we were talking about were no that much different to twelve years earlier – the scale is a bit bigger that’s all.

Transit mode share in Surrey is 4% – compared to the regional average of something less than 12% (it gets rounded up by Translink boosterism). And of course everyone blames Surrey for that – not that they have much say over transit provision then or now. It is, of course, the fastest growing city in the region. Peter Holt had all the stats on a Powerpoint, which saved the rest of us having to remember figures. The facts are stark – and quite simply Surrey has been neglected. The villain of the piece was identified by all as the Province of BC – whoever was in power at the time. Because transit spending priority has always been to build SkyTrain and most of it has gone to serve Vancouver and Burnaby. Not that when local mayors had any say they espoused these values. Usually the objective studies that were conducted favoured light rail as cheaper, better value for money and greater geographic coverage. CAW – the bus drivers’ union – is now conducting a campaign for more buses. And bus rapid transit transit – although they say they have nothing against trains.

It was pionted out to me by a regular reader that Pete McMartin had a good column recently on the levy- and it covers the recent history of Translink. Why it is no longer democratically controlled and why it is in such a financial pickle. The burden of the Canada Line is acting the way that the debt burden of SkyTrain has acted since it opened. That cost eats up the available revenue so there is not enough left over for bus expansion. And for everywhere else in the region except Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster buses provide the transit service. In Surrey – and soon in Richmond too – there is a short length of track with inadaequate service that has to be fed by buses to be useful, but does not match the trip pattern. Becuase we no longer mostly commute to downtown Vancouver.

Trip patterns changed becuase development patterns changed. Vancouver lost its industry and most of its “centre of regional employment” function as land was redeveloped for highrise condos. The employmnet did not go to the region’s  town centres because develkopers were allowed to build cheaper office and industrial parks out by the freeway ramps.This shift in employment pattern was not anticipated by the LRSP. Now more people live in downtown Vancouver and work elsewhere than the other way around. And they work in places mostly poorly served by transit. Microsoft (of course) run their own bus service.

In the South of the Fraser the main commuting trip pattern is east-west – but the bus service runs north-south. Because it always has done. Well not always – becuase in 1970 there was no transit servcie in Surrey (I did not know that).  While North of the Fraser developed earlier around streetcars and trolleys most of the development South of the Fraser occurred after the closure of the interrurban. Of course its resusictation would help the historic communities along its route – becuase they grew up around the stations. But the real issue is how do we get transit oriented development everywhere else where there is no transit? Becuase that is the only kind of development that is going to work in a world where oil is scarce and alternative fuels simply fail to make any inroads into the automotive fleet.

And it is not that we were unaware of any of this before. As I said, twelve years ago there was a shortage of buses in the region – so much so that BC Transit bought some second hand from Seattle (they were clapped out and useless) and Everett (small but beautifully looked after). The system was just as cash strapped and just a much a toy of the provincial politicians as it is now. I do not know of anywhere else where that level of government insists that is is the only level that can make important decisions. The vast majority of major cites in the world are responsible for their own transit.

I must also mention Councillor Marvin Hunt who has been in power in Surrey and at Translink for years but somehow manages to avoid any blame for the on going mess. He also believes the spin – that Translink is highly regarded by other cities around the world and that they send people here to study it. He may also boast about the winning of the APTA “system of the year award”  – but he did not do that yesterday. He also has a way with figures which I can only describe as imaginative. Every pronouncement he made was followed by hastily scribbled notes being passed backwards and forwards between panel members. He did vote for trolleybuses but he still believes in natural gas – becuase that does require faith, not reason.

The province now has a “$14 billion” transit plan – but of course that includes the $3bn spent on the Canada Line. And of the rest the province is only willing to pay 1/3 and neother the region nor the feds have committed to thier shares. The region becuase it has no revenue – remember that? That is why they need the levy! And not because of much needed capital expansion but they cannot afford to run the syetm they have now with existuing revenue resources. Which is exactly the situation that Kevin Falcon has created.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 15, 2009 at 8:43 am

Posted in politics, transit

Tagged with ,

Palmer summarises the BC Rail scandal

with one comment

Vaughan Palmer in today’s Sun gives a useful summary of the latest development

NDP researchers, thumbing through reports in the legislature library, turned up $300,000 in payments from BC Rail to companies owned by Patrick Kinsella.

The same veteran political insider who co-chaired the B.C. Liberal election campaigns in 2001 and 2005.

Shortly after the first of those victories, Kinsella was hired by the government-owned railway to provide advice on the incoming administration’s plans and policies.

Prime focus on a so-called “core” review that was deciding what parts of the enterprise should be kept in the public sector, what could be safely downsized or privatized altogether.

The BCR brass must have liked what they heard, because they kept him on retainer for just short of 50 months, long after the core review was completed and most of the railway’s operations had been sold off. The contract didn’t run out until September 2005, four months after the second of those two Kinsella-chaired election wins.

He also provides this useful guide to political scandals

if you can’t boil it down to a single sentence, it probably isn’t a scandal

and then proceeds to provide a few single sentences to choose from

Liberal insider gets $300,000 contract. $6,000 a month for the premier’s pal. Government railway hires government insider to explain government policy. Campbell, Kinsella in BC Rail tryst.

He also points that he did cover the famous CP letter – when they pulled out of the bidding a week bfore it was due to close – at the time.

What does seem to be missing however is the same clamour that we once heard over a deck and hunting knife – or prior to that what had happened to bingo proceeds in Nanaimo.  The media in general – not just the Sun – give a much harder ride to NDP scandals than they do to Liberal ones. There is not much surprise about that either since the media in BC are in very few hands – and they are those of big businesses who would rather deal with a right wing government than a left wing one. They also perpetuate many of the myths about the parties – who is “fit to govern” being the most common. That is one reason why the BC Liberals can sit and stonewall questions about this scandal. Because the press is not baying for the blood of this premier as it once did for Glen Clark’s (who was cleared) and Mike Harcourt’s (even though he had nothing whatever to do with Nanaimo bingo).

Of course the BC Liberals hope that the trial will not get going before the spring election. That way they can keep up their sub judice defence.  But Kinsella has not been charged. Only Basi and Virk are carrying the can at present. But what seems to be revealed by this latest development is that there was plenty wrong with the BC Rail sale – and the raid on  the leg may turn out to have been a side show. The documents were not even turned up by the FoI requests, or the release of court documents but were in the legislature library all the time.

I think it is well past time for the BC media to show some of the same spirit it once showed over trivialities – none of the left’s scandals were anything like as scandalous as this one. Campbell dodged the bullet over his drunk driving conviction in Hawaii. But he has been very much a one man government – a control freak who does not share power – so it is well past time that he start wearing that same sheepish grin over being caught red handed in a lie (“we will not sell BC Rail”) and picking an early  favourite (CN) to win what was supposed to be a competitive tender.

Competence is not in fact the BC Liberals strong suit.  They managed to get the benefit of a period of economic growth which happened to coincide with their tenure. But they have also made some significant goofs – such as tearing up the health support workers’ contracts and then having to compensate them. Refusing  to concede that power lines would impact homes and then subsequently offering to buy them. Backing down over a private power project proposal in a provincial park. And no doubt you can add your own favourites to this list. Feel free to do so below.

I would like to think that the groundswell of opinion here is shifting as it did recently in the United States. Unfortunately that does not seem to be the case – although we have provincial and federal governments who share the same political philosophy as the Bush adminstration and many of the same policies. One of the things we really need to do right now is convince the people who are going to be voting that there is a need for a change. And the BC Rail scandal is only one of a number of convincing reasons why we need that.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 14, 2009 at 7:46 am

Posted in politics

Tagged with

Drivers face tax of up to $100 to fund transit, roads

with 13 comments


I am not sure there is anything more to say about this story. Translink started off with a very long list of fund raising ideas but has come back to the one that has haunted it since its creation – the vehicle levy. And I really do not see that anything has changed that will make that idea more popular now than in the past. Except of course for the daft notion of a “value proposition” – a universal transit pass.

Is there no-one at Translink now who can do simple math? Or are they as usual just ignored by the communications people?

Universal transit passes only work where there is spare capacity. If you have already paid for your transit system and there are lots of buses and trains running mostly empty, then almost any wheeze to put bums on seats is worth trying. But it assumes that for little or no additional revenue there is also no real increase in costs – just much better load factors. That is not the case here – and has not been for a long time. It was not the case when UBC and SFU students were given UPass far too cheaply. The result was overcrowding, pass ups and a stiff increase in operating cost.

If every driver in the region gets a transit pass in return for their new license plate sticker (or whatever the levy uses to indicate payment) who is going to pay full fare? Twelve three zone passes now cost $1,632. But some bright spark thinks that should be given away for $100 – and that, we are supposed to believe, will result in an increase in revenue. “Yes we make a loss on every unit but we make it up in volume.” Does anybody believe this?

Fares cover around 50% of operating cost – or perhaps a bit more these days. I am sure someone will leap in to nitpick this figure. The rest has to come from somewhere else. Because we have been bamboozled into thinking that public services have to paid for by user fees, and not general revenues, we get ourselves into a neat box which confines our thinking. It was not always thus – but that is how so called “lower taxes” have been finagled – to make sure the rich pay less and the poor pay more. You can see a great object lesson just to the south of us how far this neo-conservative thinking gets you. The richest nation in the world is now bankrupt. It did not work there and will not work here. Both socialism and capitalism have  demonstrably failed. So we need some thinking that comes up with new solutions, not old ones warmed over.

In this region we have recently been told that we will have to pay for a massive road building programme twice – through user fees and taxes. No one thought before this announcement was made that there should be any public consultation. Any more than the roads themselves were actually subject to much analysis – the consultation was cursory and did not allow for a “no” answer, the so called “environmental assessment” was known to be sham before it started. Somehow the provincial government can load us up with another $3bn of debt and we are expected to take that on without a murmur. But the transit system – which has not been anything like adequate for at least twenty years – and probably more – is starved of funds and forced to jump through hoops on a regular basis with threats of fare increases and service cuts as background music. And what money is devoted to it is steadily eroded by loading up the regional body with collapsing bridges and road maintenance bills.

It is time to say “enough” and come up with a better way of running things – and funding them. One over which we have some control. If we are expected to pay for it, then we ought to have some say in how it is spent. And the method for which the gap between fares and costs is covered should be tied to ability to pay. A progressive taxation system.  Or a method which starts a process by which we see a shift  from car use – user fees that have a direct link to use of roads by time of day so that congestion actually gets dealt with. That will not of itself be enough for ever – for the simple reason that if it works then people will drive less and revenue will fall. A bit like the way the gas tax produces less revenue the better the transit system wins new riders. So in this case we need to ensure that the cost to people who drive rises steadily.  Either way we see positive outcomes – progressive taxes produce a fairer society. Road user charges reduce congestion and fund alternatives to driving. I think the latter might also be saleable since it is car use that contributes so much to the other huge problem which we are so good at ignoring. Our cars and the urban sprawl they create have produced our huge greenhouse gas emission issue – and while we seem to be in denial about that too, the realisation is gradually dawning on most people that we cannot keep on heating up this planet.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 13, 2009 at 9:32 am