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

Archive for June 10th, 2009

U.S. ports take aim at B.C. rivals

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Globe and Mail

All entirely predictable – in fact I am pretty sure I have predicted this in the past.

U.S. port officials yesterday brought their complaints against Canada to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, making the case that government help for ports such as Vancouver is partly to blame for a decline in business at American terminals.

Perhaps the most revealing statement from the Port of Vancouver’s spokesperson is “the fact that almost all imports arriving in Vancouver are bound for Canadian destinations”. Which is not at all what has been admitted by the proponents of the Gateway. Which of course includes the Port of Vancouver. The whole case for port expansion at Deltaport is that shippers will save time and money coming through the new facilities as opposed to using US ports further south. The whole ethos of the Gateway is based on how we are better placed to compete for trans-Pacific trade than they are.

Actually US ports get a lot more subsidy than Canadian ports – but do not expect that to get in the way of this fight. In tough times, the US turns protectionist – as we have already seen with the restriction of the use of federal stimulus funding to “buy American”. In fact when the same policies have been applied to the transportation business, US business has not done well. For instance, the protection provided by various Transportation Acts to reserve federal capital spending for US built buses did not help preserve bus building companies – rather the opposite. Big, heavy inefficient buses with much dirtier engines than their European counterparts have been the result – and more foreign ownership with final assembly and other dodges to try and get around requirements of percentage of US content.

We have also seen how these fights go – just look at softwood lumber and how Canada caved. The facts and realities have nothing to do with who wins these fights. But US protectionism is also going to hurt their own ports too. The economic recovery  is going to have to be based in large part on import replacement – if only because no-one is going to be willing to finance US trade deficits as they have in the past. Imports are way down – and well never recover to pre-recession levels, especially if the US gets serious abut living within its means and  finding employment for its huge skilled and currently idle workforce.

More and more it looks like the Gateway is going to be a white elephant. I wonder how long it will take for this realization to dawn in Victoria? Think they will back down?

Written by Stephen Rees

June 10, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Posted in Gateway, port expansion

Victoria blocks path to improved TransLink: CEO

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Jeff Nagel in the Surrey Leader paints an interesting picture that pits Tom Prendergast head to head with the Minister of Transport. In today’s Cabinet announcement that is now Shirley Bond – with Colin Hansen still Minister of Finance.

Basically he claims that there is consensus that expansion of transit is needed (he’s right about that – and it is not something that’s recent either) but this will need an extra $450 million a year in operating funds. That is not possible in the current legislation which both specifies all available funding sources and also caps them at $275 million a year in total.

Brian Lewis in the Province thinks it’s easy – just use the carbon tax. That would require a a major volte-face from the position the Premier has taken to date which is that the carbon tax is “revenue neutral” – that the increased revenue collected is offset by tax cuts elsewhere, so the overall tax take is not supposed to change. This is actually one of the hardest things to convince skeptical voters about: in fact the current position is that the first year the carbon tax returned more than is collected.

I have a hard time believing that just changing portfolios is going to have much impact on government policy overall. Even though Prendergast is right – transit is underfunded and the province is in a much better position to fund it than the municipalities.  But the province also has a really tough time pumping more money into  Metro Vancouver, especially during a recession when resource based communities in the interior – especially those based on forestry – are hurting much worse economically. They might be able to get away with a one off splashy capital project (which is always their favourite way of new spending) but not a commitment to a large annual payment not made to other communities. For the rest of BC the mantra has always been one of matching funding for transit operations – which of course also neatly limits the province’s exposure, given the very limited taxing ability of municipalities.

But just because we have always done something one way does not mean it is right for the future. The province is already in a clear bind: it wants to be seen to be reducing greenhouse gas emissions (and isn’t) but it also wants to expand the freeway (one of the biggest sources of GHG in the region). The province also claims it has a transit “plan” worth $14bn of capital spending (even through that includes the Canada Line, and needs matching funds from both federal and municipal governments) but has never given a convincing explanation (or indeed any explanation) of how we are supposed to pay for all this new transit service.

It seems to me that Prendergast would do better not to confront his paymaster (or paymistress) in public – after all Translink is now effectively a provincial agency – but rather come up with a face saving strategy that allows the provincial government to come to the table with a realistic set of proposals. Of course the carbon tax seems an easy one for the Mayors – but they aren’t inclined to be conciliatory either since they are still smarting about being pushed out of the Translink driving seat.

The current process of Translink’s public consultation may well be part of the Prendergast approach: he seems to be lining up popular opinion in the region for both transit expansion – and one that others will be paying for, not all of the burden falling on the region. And of course that will be the popular choice. But it cannot be one that a new Minister of Transport is going to embrace – there are no points at all for seeming to give in to local pressure. And the BC Liberals have had a shot of confidence boosting electoral success – they do not see the need to appeal to the transit proponents of the region – or indeed anyone at all at present.

And yes all of this does have a very familiar ring to it to anyone who has been around transit in Vancouver for a few years. It would be nice if someone can cut this Gordian knot. I just don’t see that as Tom or Brian on present evidence.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 10, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Posted in politics, transit

Shifting Gears II – Walking

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Rodney Tolley at UBC Robson Square, Monday June 8, 2009

Rodney Tolley is the Director of WALK 21 and Honorary Research Fellow, Staffordshire University, UK, who was at the end of a cross Canada program of workshops – “masterclasses” – looking at the benefits and barriers of walking, and the challenges of making Canadina cities more walkable. The workshops were organised in partnership with Green Communities Canada and canadawalks.ca. Each was designed to stimulate local walking action planning and from all of the workshops it is intended to document both best practices and case studies.

The International Charter for Walking shows how to create a culture where people choose to walk it identifies the needs of people on foot and provides a common framework to help authorities refocus their existing policies, activities and relationships to create a culture where people choose to walk.

8 principles – “motherhood and apple pie” no-one can be against any of them

1. Increased inclusive mobility

2. Well designed and managed spaces and places for people

3. Improved integration of networks

4. Supportive land-use and spatial planning

5. Reduced road danger

6. Less crime and fear of crime

7. More supportive authorities

8. A culture of walking

The methodology is to benchmark communities against each of the the principles to determine where each needs to concentrate its efforts. This both informs practitioners and provides a structure for how to make things happen.

He said that his talk would be personal reflections on his recent experience in Canada since it was too early for the organisations involved to have reached formal conclusions. In every city traffic was seen as a problem – and the first step to tackling this is breaking perceived link between economic growth and traffic growth and for most places making downtown a destination again. While it is common to talk about “closing streets” he prefers the idea of “opening streets to people”. Many communities have tried to grow health by building facilities ignoring incidental benefit to health of walking as daily activity [this turns opportunity to exercise into a business which can make money rather than a civic responsibility]

In every place they build on the energy of the community. Much of this has to do with reallocating spacefrom vehicles – improving the legibility of walking (even if there are paths it is not usually made clear where they go) and the biggest challenge is making suburban communities walkable. Overall there is a universal desire to future proof communities from auto dependance.

Great Issues

  • climate change

  • peak oil

  • recession

Walking as an effective antidote especially by replacing short distance car trips – there is huge potential in most Canadian cities. The fuel price rise in 2008  had an immediate effect on reducing car trips: when prices fell there appeared to have been a one way shift in travel patterns. There is now a much greater commitment to strengthening local communities and improving local urban environments.

Walking is a key ingredient of new green policies. It is driven by concerns for health. This is the most important benefit and there is no need to buy anything or join anything. It provides cardio vascular disease protection at little cost.

The chart below is taken from another presentation by Harry Rutter called “Transport and Health” – but it is the table that Dr Tolley used

Health costs of transport interventions

But people will often say “walking is dangerous”. In Canada there are 375 pedestrian deaths per year – but 21,000 deaths due to a sedentary lifestyle 1:56 ratio. Walking

  • supports inclusive mobility

  • is not a special interest (unlike cycling – which is often strident and from a dedicated minority)

  • encourages community cohesion

  • increases personal security

  • freedom for children

  • underpins public transport – every trip starts and ends with a walk – quality of walking and waiting environment

In fact we can reduce danger by increasing walking and cycling

  • traffic arrangements will be made to accommodate the increase

  • car drivers do adapt their behaviour

Countries with higher levels of walking and cycling have lower collision rates.

Las Ramblas (Barca)

Walking is a precondition for an economically healthy city – “the slower we travel the more we spend” (this seems to be true but has yet to be demonstrated by empirical research). There is a demonstrable direct economic benefit from improving retail environments.

He then went on an entertaining excursion of illustrations which showed that current practice is based in the principle of “planning cities as if people don’t matter”. [In fact it is observable nearly everywhere that cities have been largely retrofitted or sometimes entirely designed solely for vehicles.]

Obesity and overweight are associated  with the environment: there is a positive disincentive to walk. This is because of the “invisibility of walking” – we do not have the governance or capacity to encourage walking because we don’t bother to collect the information.

A 2006 worldwide survey showed that

  • we want to walk more

  • need to be  helped to walk more
  • scared to walk more
  • prevented from walking more

In general experience to date shows that the health message works but the economic message (save money by walking) didn’t work – or at least prior to the current recession it didn’t.  We need to examine the contextual environments for walking – it is not a bolt on extra to more traffic but walking as part of a new way.

Walk21 Conference Series – the next one is in New York on the theme of “more footprints, less carbon”

Applying 5Cs

comfortable

convenient

conspicuous

convivial

c??? [sorry I did not type quickly enough to catch this one – any offers?]

Planners have to put pedestrians at the top of the trip hierarchy. And it is not just about hardware (paths, surfaces, removing fances)  but software too i.e. information. As many cities have found people do change, often you  just have to provide better advice (e.g. Travel$mart individualised marketing).

  • safe routes to school
  • dieting main roads
  • complete street solutions

Walkability = shared space – segregation doesn’t work: “naked streets” rebalance need for traffic and activity. He showed slides of Kensington High Street in West London where there was a 47% reduction in accidents when the city took away the railings that had penned in pedestrians and encouraged faster traffic speeds.

“Shared use is not shared space” shared use is about movement – shared space is about destination. For much of the hard design elements are shared surfaces – undefined area – remove the curb

He then went on to show some recent succesful interventions which have produced much better urban places where walkign is encouraged

Hans Monderman’s Zentralplatz Biel Switzerland

The Bendigo experiment – which first took over the space in front of town hall, on a major arterial wheer through traffic is still allowed but  speeds fell – the walk bendigo project is now expanding to cover the rest of the city

Gehl and Gemzoe’s typology (Gehl, J. and Gemzoe, L. (2001) New City Spaces. Copenhagen: Arkitektens Forlag.)

New York – where Broadway at Times Square and Herald Square have both been closed to traffic

Birmingham – Britain’s second largest city which in the sixties had built a huge inner ring road with multiple pedestrian subways that essentially killed the City centre as a shopping area: the area has now been almost completely overhauled with the removal of both ring road and subways. As a result it has moved from 13th to 3rd place in the national hierarchy of  retail destinations.

Birmingham City Centre

Birmingham City Centre by Steve Oliver

Conclusions

Placing pedestrians at the head of the transport hierarchy had had the following results

  • the stunning renaissance of city centres
  • positive impact on nearly every parameter
  • the creation of a new urban  environment

Sustainability is the key and will become the new paradigm for development – and we will create places where people can survive without cars

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My reaction to this lecture was that I had heard nearly everything in it before. This is not a criticism of Dr Tolley but rather of Vancouver. We know all of this – we have heard it many times – but we seem not to be able to grasp the key principles. For instance, during the question and answer session – which was discursive and unfocussed, Ray Spaxman got up and praised Vancouver as a “walkable city” with “great places” – of which he thought the best example was Granville Island. I almost cheered when Dr Tolley politely demurred: “But it is full of cars.”

I rather wished that Charles Gauthier of the Downtown Vancouver Business Association had been required to attend and listen and then made to explain his implacable opposition to all that this lecture represents. There is in fact not a single space in the City of Vancouver that has been changed to put pedestrians first – even though the City Transportation Plan has long said that is supposed to be the priority. Equally there is almost nowhere in the whole of the region that qualifies. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the world: I even started a flickr group “Places without Cars” so I could collect images of places where putting people first has worked. The range and variety of places is stunning.

Cheung Chau Sunset

After the lecture, the organisers invited people who live in Vancouver and want to see a pedestrian transformation here to leave contact information.   This is because they are meeting with the Mayor (on Wednesday)  and hope to get a local action group set up. Here’s my very best wish for their success. And maybe those of us who live in the suburbs will start organising similar pressure groups in our municipalities.

Perhaps one of the opportunities might be Richmond’s review of parking in Steveston which at least acknowledges the issue of “safer access for pedestrians from parking lots to the waterfront”. They might even think about the recently much increased population’s need to walk to the shops, park and library!

By the way one thing that did come out of the Q & A was the recommendation that full pedestrianization of shopping streets may not be the best solution unless there is some other activity to keep the place lively after the shops close. After hours, when there are no shoppers about, some pedestrian streets become quite forbidding and unsafe. I think it is very instructive that the one section of Granville in downtown that is open to car traffic has to be closed on busy evenings as a safety measure, mainly due to the concentration of licensed drinking places along that section.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 10, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Posted in Urban Planning, walking