Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for May 2009

The Great Ethanol Scam

with one comment

A search of my blog shows I have posted about ethanol 21 times – none of them favourably. Perhaps these two will give the flavour to new readers. Now Business Week turns up the heat a bit.

Not only is ethanol proving to be a dud as a fuel substitute but there is increasing evidence that it is destroying engines in large numbers

It is of course written for an American audience. The basic thesis is that when cars fail – especially fuel pumps – the fuel quality should be tested. Because the amount of ethanol blended into the gasoline is critical, and that is not tested often enough.  Canadian readers are not so much at risk since we do not have the same mandated ethanol content  as the US: the proposal here is for only 5% and the damage occurs at higher percentages. And often the failures have been found with ethanol much higher than intended. 

But I have disliked the idea of ethanol ever since,as an analyst with the BC Ministry of Energy I got lobbied regularly by the industry rep. Actually they all did that – but the ethanol guy seemed particularly persistent. I don’t suppose I was the only civil servant he talked to – and some may even have had some level of influence on decision making. Fortunately most of the lead on the issue was taken by the Ministry of the Environment – and they wanted biofuel to be made from forest waste (of which BC had a lot then – and was still using beehive burners to get rid of it) not grain. No one was producing ethanol from that source then and I am not sure if anyone has made it commercially viable even now.

What I did hear from people in the auto business were stories about people with older cars who used ethanol to get an AirCare pass – and then had trouble because the solvent action of the additive in the system loosened lots of old crud (that is the technical term they used) and bunged up the fuel filter. Not a big problem to be sure – unlike these poor souls identified by BW with fuel pumps actually failing.

The US political system – and to some extent ours – has been undermined steadily by lobbyists. Even now it is difficult for President Obama to get the much needed greenhouse gas legislation through congress because of the pressure of special interests. The only way to get legislation through there is to allow for changes. Our parliamentary system is less malleable – but still subject to pressure. Ethanol – as BW lists – is not good for the environment (either air quality or ghg) nor has it reduced US imports of oil. But large amounts of money have been diverted into a few pockets – agribusiness rather than farmers – and much of that could have been much better spent. But the worst effect is created by the need for presidential hopefuls to get through the Iowa caucuses early in their primary campaign. Which is when they have to take the ethanol pledge if they want to get onto the ticket. They grow a lot of corn in Iowa. And as we have seen here recently, self interest trumps general well being every time.

Anyway, I no longer buy my gas at Husky – which is, as far as I know, the only local source of ethanol blended fuel here.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 15, 2009 at 12:32 pm

In German Suburb, Life Goes On Without Cars

with 7 comments

New York Times   

Vauban is a suburb of Freiburg in Germany near the French border. It is car free. People give up their cars to move there. It is a very useful antidote to the sort of thinking that insists that the only way to absorb another million people is to widen the freeway and add more low density, car oriented development. It accommodates 5,500 people in one square mile – and 70% of households do not own a car. They get around by walking, cycling and a tram (though there is a car co-op if they need one). 

Here is a slide show 

In California, the Hayward Area Planning Association is developing a Vauban-like community called Quarry Village on the outskirts of Oakland, accessible without a car to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and to the California State University’s campus in Hayward.

There is nowhere like this even contemplated here – least of all South of the Fraser where most of the next 1m people to move here will be living. It is simply impossible to conceive something like this being proposed here because we do not have anything resembling adequate transit in most of our suburbs. We make a big song and dance about how people who live in downtown Vancouver do not need to own a car – and how the number of cars entering downtown in the morning peak has fallen. Avoiding mentioning that more people live in downtown and work elsewhere, or that most of those will be driving to newly relocated workplaces in “office parks” in the suburbs. Even places that have had the good fortune – or political favouritism to get lots of rapid transit – Burnaby – have developed both office parks and big box centres widening existing roads to encourage more traffic to them.

Some of the better suburban development around our two universities – well served with transit since the introduction of the UPass – might have followed this pattern too. But again the “standards” that are most stringently applied to all new developments are to ensure that there is plenty of parking for residents. And not much expectation that they will be people who work or study at the university: the generation of revenue being a much more important consideration.  

And of course out in Delta, Surrey or Langley a development that relied on transit would simply never be thought possible. There is almost no transit – and none proposed for the next thirty years. We are going to be too busy building freeway expansions to even think about this idea, even though the reality of peak oil (it now takes the equivalent of one third of a barrel of oil to get a barrel of usable fuel out of the tar sands) means that internal combustion engine vehicles are not going to be affordable long before then.  


Written by Stephen Rees

May 12, 2009 at 8:09 am

More brains, less blacktop, needed in Victoria

leave a comment »

Abysmal record should see change but likely won’t

Brian Lewis, The Province

Judging by its performance, the B.C. Liberal government can’t tell one end of a cow from the other, or perhaps it believes cabbages grow in grocery stores.

How else can its inexplicable failure to protect agricultural land be explained, especially the fertile soils in the 22 provincial ridings south of the Fraser River between Delta and Hope?

The ability of Fraser Valley farmland to feed the burgeoning Lower Mainland and its future generations has been seriously constrained by a government that, frankly, has blacktop on the brain.

Read the rest. 

Written by Stephen Rees

May 12, 2009 at 7:42 am

Posted in food security, Gateway

The real threat is Cul de Sacs

with 14 comments

Timely – this short video sums up why we have to be concerned about the plan to expand the freeway. Both the BC Liberals and the NDP are determined to replace the Port Mann Bridge and widen the freeway. Some foolish NDP supporters have even suggested that this is OK since the NDP membership – or public pressure – will be able somehow to stop the juggernaut if the NDP are elected – even though that has not happened so far when over 70% of people south of the Fraser have said they want transit expansion. It is not just the freeway – it is the mindset that sees universal car ownership and cheap gas as some sort of birthright. Only the Green Party has taken a contrary position and proposed a new way of organising ourselves. That is what this election is about. Is it one of two versions of business as usual or real change? 

Winner of The Congress for New Urbanism CNU 17 video contest.
This short film explores the connection between New Urbanism and environmental issues.
Created by independent filmmaker John Paget ( with First+Main Media (Drew Ward, Chris Elisara and John Paget).

Written by Stephen Rees

May 11, 2009 at 10:24 am

A guest post from John Cummins MP

with 4 comments

Astonishing – on the same day that I give space to Christy Clark I am also giving space to the Conservative MP who’s riding overlaps the provincial electoral district I am running in. I got this from Bill Tieleman’s blog. I just hope it turns up in the mainstream media too

John Cummins
MP Delta-Richmond East

I am a free enterpriser, a federal Conservative with deep roots in the Reform movement.

I cannot support Gordon Campbell’s Liberals in this provincial election because of their complete indifference to quality of life issues here in South Delta.

· The industrialization of irreplaceable farmland to serve the interests of Port Metro Vancouver.

· The construction of “industrial strength” power lines through Tsawwassen after an election commitment not to do so.

· The promotion of rail and road infrastructure for the Gateway program that gives no consideration to quality of life issues across the Lower Mainland but particularly in Delta, Surrey and Langley.

From a provincial perspective I cannot support Gordon Campbell because he is giving away and putting at risk the public assets of the province for which he is only the present custodian.

· Run of the River Hydro projects which will destroy the remaining wilderness areas in British Columbia and commits us to higher than market prices for the power generated.

· Campbell’s unequivocal support of net cage aquaculture has put at risk precious runs of wild salmon.

· The Recognition and Reconciliation legislation proposed by Mr. Campbell will give about 30 yet-to-be created native groups aboriginal title to over 95 percent of the province. These groups will have veto power over development and will receive the lion’s share of revenue that flows from what’s now Crown land, money that currently goes to the provincial treasury.

· The giveaway of the UBC golf course and other valuable properties to buy peace with native-agitators during the Olympics.

· Campbell’s sale of BC Rail at a discounted price to CN after adamantly denying during an election campaign that he would sell it.

The Gordon Campbell government has not been the prudent manager of the province’s fiscal affairs that his supporters would have us believe.

His ill-considered carbon tax will mean higher fuel costs for all drivers with commuters and residents of the interior and northern parts of the province taking the biggest hit. It is estimated that a long-haul trucker in B.C. will pay $6,000 a year in carbon taxes by 2012. Home heating costs will also increase with the biggest impact on the residents of the north and interior of the Province.

Cost overruns on the Trade and Convention Centre and Campbell’s disregard for the economic upset experienced by the Cambie Street merchants during the RAV line construction paint a picture of a detached Premier who cares little for how he gets there just as long as he gets there.

The Gordon Campbell Liberals would have us believe that only they are capable of governing British Columbia and managing its economy. That no longer works for me. A vote for the B.C. Liberals means they can continue to disregard our legitimate concerns with impunity.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 8, 2009 at 11:48 am

Posted in politics

Watch this before you vote!

with 2 comments

I never thought I would find myself agreeing with Christy Clark


Popular broadcaster, columnist and former provincial Liberal cabinet minister, Christy Clark, called on her thousands of listeners across BC to join her in voting yes for BC-STV in the referendum on May 12 to bring civility and fairness to British Columbia politics.

Please forward this on to all your friends. Visit for more information.

Power Up Your Vote with BC-STV

Written by Stephen Rees

May 8, 2009 at 10:27 am

Burrard Bridge Decision

with 5 comments

The City of Vancouver has now decided to close one sidewalk to pedestrians and make it one way for cyclists, and close one traffic lane to general purpose traffic for the use of cyclists in the other direction. I was going to write a lot on this but I think I will simply cut and paste the following, which Anthony Perl sent to the Livable Region List, so obviously he expects it to be published widely

Below is a copy of my letter to councillors Reimer and Meggs.  This was Vision’s chance to demonstrate their ability to make Vancouver the ‘greenest city’ and they failed the test.  But failing one test can enhance anybody’s education if s/he is willing to learn from the experience.  It will be up to the public to teach our municipal leaders what sustainable transportation really means, and how to achieve it.

Dear Andrea and Geoff,

I was deeply disappointed by your decision to remove pedestrian space from the Burrard Bridge during the upcoming bike lane trial. Instead of showing leadership in making Vancouver’s transportation more sustainable, Vision Vancouver has endorsed an inane compromise that penalizes the city’s most effective sustainable transport option – walking.

Vancouver’s pedestrian volume has been growing steadily over the past decade – faster than bicycle traffic and it is incredible to me that Vision councillors would risk a proven contribution to making our city the ‘greenest in the world’ in order to appease motorists and the road gang. This kind of political ‘triangulation’ is what has positioned our society on an ecological precipice.  I had thought that Vision would be able to move us away from the brink, but I my confidence in your leadership is now shaken.


Anthony Perl,

Professor and Director 
Urban Studies Program
Simon Fraser University at Harbour Centre
#2111 – 515 West Hastings Street
Vancouver, BC  V6B 5K

Miro was probably right. This is another experiment that will fail – but in this case I suspect it was designed to fail.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 8, 2009 at 8:53 am

Posted in walking

The real impact of the SFPR

leave a comment »

Mark Hume in the Globe and Mail picks up the story released yesterday by Donna Passmore

Province warned Gateway project would hurt wildlife


May 8, 2009

VANCOUVER — Before it began construction of the controversial Gateway transportation project, the provincial government was warned by its own environmental experts that the development could cause “permanent and irreversible impact to wildlife and ecosystems.”

According to documents obtained under Freedom of Information requests and released yesterday by a group opposed to the project, the government ignored the advice of Ministry of Environment scientists and went ahead with the highway, making only modest changes to construction plans.

“I don’t think they addressed the concerns raised by their own scientists in any meaningful way,” Donna Passmore of the Gateway 40 Citizens Network said.

By dint of sheer persistence, much of correspondence between the provincial and federal agencies reveals that the proponent (the Ministry of Covering BC in Concrete) was well aware that the South Fraser Perimeter Road would be an environmental disaster and that the proposed mitigation was useless. Yet the BC Liberal government pressed on ahead anyway. Even rushing to get pre-load started before contracts were signed in order to claim “victory” before the election.

Environmentalists and activists have been saying that the SFPR  did not meet even the present government’s weakened standards. Scientists raised serious objections. So did the people impacted by the project. The misrepresentations of the facts by Minister Kevin Falcon and Premier Gordon Campbell have continued – with both of them claiming that there were “extensive environmental reviews”. Of course what they did not say was that the results of those reviews were ignored and they hoped that if they were buried, no-one would have the patience to dig them up again. Well Donna has – and her timing with this release could not have been better.

Delta South has looked like a very unsafe seat for some time. The Delta hospital closure was just the first of a series of decisions unpopular with residents. The Tsawassen treaty, the power lines, the port expansion and the SFPR all made people in Delta feel they were being ignored and dumped on. The emergence of a popular local politician – Vicki Huntington – to run as an independent in what has been a easily held Liberal stroghold showed how much contempt the party has for its own supporters. The gamble was that the locals would not vote NDP – but that did not mean they will not vote against the government.

Wally Oppal was handed the poison chalice. He had a safe seat in Vancouver but was persuaded to run in his home riding. Maybe he has just had enough of politics  and is seeking this way as earning an honourable retirement – taking the bullet for his party. 

I would like to think that this event will have wider resonance. Because the trashing of environmental protection has been a hallmark of this government. They started – under Minister Falcon in his previous job – with gutting the regulations. Then they also cut the responsible ministry by 50% – and eliminated the positions that were supposed to protecting us and our environment. And then they started the swathe of projects – the Gateway, the IPPs and all the rest – that are now comprehensively trashing “the best place on earth”. And every time anyone objected they learned that objection was useless. All the time the same Minister claimed a thorough environmental process was followed. He knew that was not true – and now we have the evidence. He was lying. Not spin, not half truth but deliberate deceit. The BC Liberals are saying that they deserve to continue in government because they can be trusted. We know they do not keep promises – BC Rail proved that. We know now for certain they are liars. They have managed to dodge the legal consequences of BC Rail by prolonging the court case for as long as possible. Five years and counting. But they cannot now dodge the judgement of the ballot box. If we re-elect the Liberals we only have ourselves to blame. 

(By the way if you would like six large pdf files of documents I will be happy to forward them to you.)

Written by Stephen Rees

May 8, 2009 at 8:31 am

Posted in Environment, politics

Tagged with

Passenger rail rights at risk: Langley Mayor

with one comment

The Tyee’s Hook blog has some very important news for those of us concerned to about bringing passenger rail service back to the former interurban line along the valley.

An agreement that protects passenger rail rights in the Fraser Valley is set to expire this summer and Langley Township Mayor, Rick Green is calling for its urgent renewal.

The Master Agreement is between BC Hydro, who owns the right of way, and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), whom bought the tracks and the right to run trains along them.

Green says the agreement’s renewal is critical because it guarantees the province, operating through BC Hydro, the right to run passenger service through the Pratt-Livingston Corridor, a stretch of the former interurban line between Surrey and Langley.

The problem starts with the fact that this agreement was apparently a secret. Quite why that would be I am not sure. Most of the interurban is quiet – with one or two freight trains a week. But the middle bit through Langley is critical to getting frequent, long freight trains to and from the BC Rail line to Roberts Bank. In the long run, if passenger service is to be frequent as well then some re-configuration of the tracks will be needed. But for right now, as everyone seems to be saying, we need to keep the options open. But after the election ….

Written by Stephen Rees

May 7, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Burrard Bridge bike lanes doomed to failure

with 17 comments

Miro Cerentig’s column in the Sun is almost entirely wrong in its forecast. He says that since the previous experiment failed this one will too, and he claims that a computer model run proves it. No it doesn’t. A skilled model user can make a model produce almost any result. That is because nearly everything about a model can be “calibrated”. Essentially it is a spread sheet and users can change not only the values in the cells but also the algorithms too.  

Firstly, the capacity of the “link” (the bridge) is not nearly as important as the signal settings at the light controlled intersections (“nodes”) at each end of the Bridge. Currently the three lane each way configuration gives drivers the illusion of a length of free flowing traffic. The bridge is much longer than street sections between lights – and there is no parking or turning activity. Cars on the bridge move very quickly  – and much faster than the posted speed. Then they have to stop and wait at the light. That is what determines how much moves across the bridge – not the number of general purpose traffic lanes. 

Secondly, in any urban environment, people moving ability is much more important than vehicle moving ability. Copenhagen recognized this 40 years ago and has been reducing car capacity steadily ever since. Even New York City now recognizes this is the only way to make Times Square usable – and is going to close several blocks of Broadway to do it.  

Vancouver has always been behind the times. We have people like Charles Gauthier to thank for that. He is the spokesperson for the Downtown Business Association – and he is stuck in the 1950s mindset that car traffic is essential to vibrant cities. He seems to be unaware of the commercial success of car free streets here and elsewhere. He is still determined that drivers matter more than anyone else. Quite why we would want people to bring two tons of equipment with them everywhere they go is not clear. What is clear is that what makes cities work and traffic flow are antithetical.

Any reduction in car lanes will create similar traffic jams and play havoc with the city’s traffic flow.

Twaddle. Traffic expands and contracts to fill the space available. There is an equilibrium of congestion as the trip rate and trip length both can vary depending on available capacity – and the availability of non-car travel opportunities. Car trips into downtown Vancouver can be reduced by making walking, transit and cycling more attractive. Indeed that is what the city’s and the region’s plans have said for decades and only the dinosaur DVBIA seems not to grasp this simple concept.

…reducing car lanes on the bridge will cause gridlock, forcing automobiles and buses to idle, creating more, not less, greenhouse-gas emissions.

Again, more twaddle. Gridlock is not a stable condition. People do not add themselves to traffic when they know they cannot move – they do something else. Gridlock is caused when impatient drivers enter an intersection when their exit is not clear. Traffic management techniques to deter such behaviour are old hat. Yes, it still happens sometimes – and eventually a cop has to intervene to sort out the mess. Collisions and other incidents also stall traffic – but it gets moving again after a while.

The other inescapable fact worth noting is there’s also no cycling crisis that needs solving. In fact, bicycling traffic on the Burrard Bridge has actually plateaued, as the city’s own report notes: “Growth of cycling and walking on the Burrard Bridge, which increased 30-40 per cent between 1996 and 2001, appears to have plateaued in recent years.”

That’s a pre-determined outcome of not doing anything. The Burrard Bridge is not safe or pleasant for cycling or walking – and that deters both. In the rest of the city there has been a steady increase in both as new routes for both have been opened up. Because the car drivers have won every round of the Burrard Bridge battle so far, the walkers and cyclists have been deterred. That’s not what we should continue to do. That is no way to make the place livable. That was never what was intended either. Stopping the downtown freeway was just the start. We knew then that we did not want a city destroyed by the “need” to serve cars. That was the right decision then. We now need to take the next step and steadily reclaim the urban core for people – not cars. And the Burrard Bridge is the line drawn in the sand by the car drivers. They will lose – if not now then eventually – as cars are not sustainable in cities. Even if every one of them was zero emission I would take that position. They simply take up far too much space which is then sterilised and cannot be used for much better purposes – like sitting around and watching the world go by. Which, it turns out, is one of humanity’s favourite activities and a key to “urbanity”. Just read some Jan Gehl.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 7, 2009 at 10:50 am