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

Archive for April 22nd, 2009

Book Review: Plan C

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“Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for peak Oil and Climate Change” by Pat Murphy published by New Society Publishers 

First Printing May 2008 Paperback ISBN 978-0-86571-607-0 $19.95

I was sent this by the publishers but only in the last month. I was quite surprised to see that it was now a year old – and it becomes apparent early on that this was written long before the advent of Obama – let alone his election. Because it is written by an American for a US audience.

Pat Murphy is the Executiuve Director of Community Solutions, a nonprofit organization which focuses on achieving sustainability by reducing energy consumption in the household sectors of food, housing and transportation. …  Community Solutions has hosted annual Peak Oil and Solutions conferences since 2003 in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

I was hoping when I picked up the book that I would actually discover an alternative to plan A (Business as usual) and Plan B (New technology). And while there is certainly a well argued case for such an approach there is not nearly enough in my view about how one goes about creating communities in places which have to a large extent lost them. There is of course a great deal of explanation about how we lost our sense of community – and who is responsible for that – but not nearly enough about what we can do to recreate that.

In fact this evening – because the CBC is taken over by hockey – I was watching Global TV news and they had a short bit on community gardens in Vancouver (for Earth Day, of course).  The demand for these gardens is greater than ever before – and the recession seems to have stimulated even more people to grow their own food. But what got the City of Vancouver really interested was how the establishment of these gardens improved neighborhoods. They made them safer because people started to get to know who their neighbours are. People who had lived in the same apartment building for years actaully found out who the people were on the other floors! We really have very little contact with the people who live closest to us – and gardens do build communities. This simple idea is not referenced at all in the index to this substantial (300 page) volume. How to start building a community seems to me to be the key to getting Plan C working.

There is a lot in the first third of the book which makes it  a useful reference source – the whole thing is annotated in endnotes – but much of it will be reasonably familiar to people who have been concerned enough about the problem to pick up this book in the first place. Since it is American it has to deal with the widespread misconceptions about climate change and peak oil – but if you do not need to be convinced you may skip that part. It will also mean you can avoid a long and quite vitriolic condemnation of the history of imperialism – which to some extent explains why the third world is so angry that the first world seems so determined to hold back their achieving our lifestyle. But there are odd gaps – for instance the very short section on electric cars omits the current organizational developments in Israel around leasing batteries which may well overcome the serious issue of lack of range.   And unfortunately  the book misnames “the father of the fuel cell” George Ballard (he was actually Geoffrey Ballard) – and also neglects to point out that Ballard Power Systems themselves have abandoned the idea of developing a fuel cell powered car.

I naturally turned to the transportation section hoping for better. But nearly all of it is devoted to the idea of the “smart jitney”. Now this is an idea that I have also thought would be very useful in civilizing suburbia, and technically I think it would be reasonably easy to do. The problem is the very real legal and social barriers. In my own view, this is going to be a very hard sell to politicians – and against the considerable and well entrenched opposition of people who currently operate both taxis and transit. We do need something that is smaller than a bus and cheaper than a taxi – but I think that self drive vehicles are still going to be the answer (through car co-ops) long before we resolve the issue of getting into a car with a stranger driving. Since the book is about community organizing most of the obvious ways of improving local transportation through better transit are simply ignored. About the only extensive reference is to what Cuba cobbled together when it lost access to Soviet oil. 

Apparently one of the essential things we must do is “kick the media habit”. And, yes, I can see why that would be a good way to reclaim some time and get away from the very narrow world view presented by the mainstream media. But it also seems to me that is a very patrician view: that most of us are incapable of seeing through the spin and sorting out our own alternative sources of news. For people who can find their way around the internet there are many other ways of getting news and information. But according to Pat Murphy you have to get away not just from the tv but your computer as well. As a blogger I cannot recommend that approach.

And as an activist, and now an aspiring politician, I am also not ready to give upon the political process. Much of the change we need to bring about needs to be at the various levels of government. Much of the first Greenhouse Gas Action Plan for BC that I worked dealt with regulatory issues – and many of those still need to be dealt with. For instance rules that prevent people from taking simple effective steps to cut energy use like using a clothes line or  installing a solar panel.  But also of course stopping governments doing stupid things like widening freeways and getting them to do sensible things like converting more of our streets to bus lanes.

I think there may well be a Plan C – and it does have a lot to do with people discovering the power that they still possess when they get together to do things. Stopping a P3 in a provincial park for instance – but also positive things like organizing car pools and community gardens. There does need to be a handbook to help that along. This is not it.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 22, 2009 at 8:01 pm

No new funds for Port Mann buses

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Globe and Mail

Cars and trucks will be crossing the new Port Mann Bridge a year earlier than promised, but transit riders may be out of luck without substantial new funding for bus services.

Ken Hardie, a spokesman for TransLink, said in an interview that the agency is facing an annual shortfall of $150-million based on current demand, and it will have evaporated its reserves within two years. To pay for the additional services that have been promised across the system, it would need to find an extra $300-million each year.

“We have been lavished with funding from the federal and provincial governments but it’s all for capital costs,” he said. The cost of operating the buses is the more significant part of the equation, he said.

This, of course, is not news. It is a reaction to the province’s announcement that the bridge will be “open a year early”. (It will also be slightly cheaper – interesting how once the P3 was cancelled it got both faster AND cheaper). Obviously Translink was not consulted – because they are still in the throes of trying to get people interested in their “long term plan” – when the real question is the short term cash crunch. Equally obviously it really does not matter what the agency wants to do – now or in the future – since it can only do what the province decides. And that is never based on regional priorities but short term political advantage. And both the Liberals and the NDP play that game.

And, once again, Kevin Falcon is out there lying in his teeth.

Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon vowed the promised rapid buses will be running on the new bridge. He said the province will pay part of the cost, but it is up to the regional governments to find their share as well.

“The day it opens, the rapid bus will be in place,” Mr. Falcon said in an interview. “The regions have to contribute. It’s never easy, but I think the public wants public transit.”

He said there has been no regular bus service on the existing Port Mann Bridge for two decades because of chronic congestion, and the increased transit services are a key part of the government’s climate action agenda. 

There has been no regular bus service since the previous one was cancelled due to “low ridership” after the Expo line was extended to Scott Road. And since Translink was told not to introduce a direct North Surrey to Coquitlam bus by Mr Falcon’s minions. “Chronic congestion” is not an excuse used for taking off bus service – and has never been used on any of the other very congested routes. What is done is that bus lanes are put in – just as the province is now doing on Highway #99. They have long been needed on the northbound approach to the Oak Street Bridge but are only now under construction as an afterthought, to deal with South Surrey and Delta express buses being diverted into the new Canada Line station at the casino. 

Increased transit service is also an afterthought. Since the main plank of this government’s transportation objective in this region is to increase traffic . Again, they lie about that, saying it will reduce ghg emissions as traffic will flow better on a wider freeway. But of course we all know – as do they – that has never happened anywhere. Last night I watched “New York: A Documentary Film” on KNOW. It was about the new bridges and freeways built by Robert Moses in the 1930s. Same justification as Falcon and Gordo still use – it would “solve congestion” and be a useful stimulus in times of economic depression. But soon after the Triborough Bridge opened, New York experience the worst traffic jam in its then history. Because new highways and bridges generate more trips. There is always more traffic when networks are expanded.  People use their cars more when offered new trip making opportunities – and those trips are usually longer. Congestion eventually settles back into a sort of equilibrium. As long as there are no major incidents, traffic reverts to about 10mph on average in nearly every city on earth. Enough people give up marginal trips, and enough people insist on driving to ensure a level of not too much misery every day. Until there is a collision. Or a truck overturns. Or the potholes need fixing. 

He is right, the people do want transit. They have been wanting it for years. And the provincial politicians have preferred to build roads and bridges. Because that helps their friends make money (Moses was very popular with the construction companies). And they have always told municipal politicians that their voters will have to made to pay more for transit and at the same time refused to sanction new revenue sources.   

Of course what is really needed is to cancel the Gateway altogether and spend the money on more buses – and trains for existing tracks – as well as putting in measures that reduce the amount of space devoted to cars in order to increase the people carrying capacity of the network we now have. With a few strategically placed queue jumper lanes and a few more “traffic meter” stop lights on the on-ramps, Highway #1 is quite adequate as it is. Because – as Gordon Campbell says – a rapid transit line can carry the same as ten lanes of freeway.  If it has enough trains or buses that is!

Written by Stephen Rees

April 22, 2009 at 7:42 am

Posted in Gateway

Metro Vancouver mayors want carbon tax millions for transit

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Vancouver  Sun

Some inspired leaking of confidential documents that the the Mayors will be discussing today. It does of course make obvious sense that in this region. Transport is the biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions here. Instead of giving people tax rebates (though the initial $100 was a one off) and funding dubious “offsets” (cutting down mature trees to plant small ones may not actually reduce ghg emissions very much)  give them a real alternative to driving.

Of course, this government is only paying lip service to carbon reduction. The carbon tax is too small to have any discernible effect and has been greatly overshadowed by the dramatic drop in oil prices. The Gateway program will produce far more greenhouse gas emissions – even using their own flawed methodology for forecasting. And the real issue for Translink is that it has had capital funds assistance from other levels of government but so far not nearly enough for operating funds. Expanding the system is a good idea only if you can afford to operate it. And there is no new source of funds for this much increased expense. Hiking fares is the obvious response – which of course does not help to fill all those new trains and buses. Property tax is the one thing that the province itself cannot touch – so is the obviously the one that they want the municipalities to raise. That allows them to trumpet how much they have reduced income and sales taxes – simply by down loading as much as possible. The other favourite for “fiscal conservatives” is fees for services. BC is, for example, one of only two provinces that levies a fee (“Medical Services Premium”) for healthcare. Flat rate fees are, of course, deeply regressive. They hit poorer people much harder than the rich. But the rich, it is said, must have tax cuts  – and as a result now pay much less than the poor do.

Of course if the Liberals don’t get back into power, and Carol James axes the tax – as she has promised – then some other source will have to be tapped. Increasing income tax of the wealthiest would be my choice but I wonder if she has the intestinal fortitude for that.

UPDATE April 22, 4pm

Campbell is already pushing back, according to The Tyee’s Hook blog. 

“The carbon levy is not a revenue generator,” Campbell told reporters Wednesday, swapping the word ‘tax’ for the more neutral term ‘levy.’

“… Every single cent that is raised from the carbon levy is going in tax reductions.”

This stems from the notion that somehow the carbon tax is “revenue neutral” – as far as the government is concerned. The revenue coming in to the government is not going to be increased – it is just going to be shifted from one source to another. This is, of course, regressive. Because the tax is on expenditure not income. I don’t now why but I am pretty sure I read something recently about the government buying carbon offsets. Now of course if their theory is right this would not have been income from the carbon tax they were spending but from some other source. But it seems to me that transit would be a better payback in this region: for transport is the biggest source of ghg emissions – and there is very little choice for many people for whom current transit really is not a practical choice. Like the people who need to get between North Surrey and Coquitlam for example. 

“We recognize the difficult choices to make,” Campbell. “But if they decide they want to expand transit services, they’re going to have to be part of the partnership that funds that, just like they are in Prince George, or Kelowna, or Victoria, or Campbell River.”

Now this is just sophistry. Of course we pay for our transit in this region. The gas tax is six cents higher here than in the rest of BC. And Translink also dips heavily into property taxes too. This was of course exactly the same argument that used to play out between the Mayors and the Province in the days before Translink, when the province insisted that the gas tax was provincial revenue – even though it was then 4 c higher here than in the rest of BC. The GVTA was supposed to put a stop to this silliness – but of course we now no longer have the GVTA its now the SoCoBriTCA. And the same tired old controversy that somehow this region is trying to get a ‘free ride’. Which has never been true, but that does not stop premiers from trying it on.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 22, 2009 at 7:09 am

Posted in transit