Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for August 2009

The Canada Line Opens

with 20 comments

I said that I would not get on the Canada Line to-day, simply because I dislike crowds. I also do not much enjoy waiting in line – and if I had tried to ride the Canada Line today, that is what would have happened. In somewhat the same vein as the opening of the Golden Ears Bridge, more people turned up than could be accommodated, and at 7pm they started turning people away. So in that sense to-day has been a success.

My last post on this blog got way more attention than I thought possible. It was, after all, me responding to a third party’s comment on Charlie Smith’s piece in the Straight. Not even repeating what Smith had said – but of course using his headline. And somehow I became the spokesperson for the “nay sayers”. Both the CBC and the Courier wanted to talk to me  – not, so far as I can tell, Charlie. The Courier seemed a bit disappointed that I do not live in Vancouver or use transit to commute to Vancouver every day. The CBC mucked me about all morning – changing the planned location at the last minute, getting me out to the airport and even having me ride the escalator with their reporter as though we had ridden the train there – of course we hadn’t: we all drove. But only one sentence I spoke actually made it to air. I am not even sure it made a great deal of sense and if you had been eating supper or coughed at the wrong time you would have missed it anyway.

And now there is a thing going on Twitter which at 140 characters per tweet is almost irresolvable.

It comes down to figures – and in this case a claim that Kelly Sinoski put in a Vancouver Sun article back on August 4. Which is something I am fairly certain comes from the premier’s office since I know he has used the “lanes of freeway”equivalence as I have also commented on that before. Here is the quote

The $2-billion Canada Line is touted as equivalent to a 10-lane highway and is expected eventually to take 200,000 one-way automobile trips off the roads.

Somehow this got confused with the other important figure of 100,000 riders per day on the Canada Line at which time it “breaks even”  Ken Hardie says “Target is 100,000 per day by 2013 for sure, maybe by 2010” and “At 100k riders per day, we’re covering operating costs and private contributions. New data says we’ll hit that mark in 2010.” (So far i have no citation for that “new data”.)

Note the difference. The Sinoski figure is undated and talks about avoided car trips. Ken talks about riders (note for transit geeks, not “boardings”) and gives a range of years in the near future.

One of the people who did ride today asked the question – if the Canada Line today is having to make people line up to board, how do they expect to achieve their ridership target? (except he didn’t say that clearly enough and used the Sinoski figure.) The Buzzer (on Twitter) reported “65,000 in 6 hours” which apparently is counted by automatic passenger counters. So if you do the usual rule of thumb math – or perhaps I had better admit the sort of rough and ready calculation I use especially when asked questions in public and have to come up with a fast answer – a day’s ridership is around ten times the peak hourly ridership. So since the Canada Line today showed it could carry around 10,800 people per hour it clearly has the capacity to shift 100,000 per day as presently configured.

It clearly cannot handle 200,000 people per day – but then we get into the “eventually” time frame and what might happen in the future. That as about the only thing that survived from my CBC interview – my doubts about the expandability of the Canada Line. But I will not go into that again now.

Because what has to be said – and if necessary repeated until someone admits they were trying to mislead us – is that the Canada Line does not take 200,000 cars a day off the road. Now or indeed in any foreseeable timeframe. Because most of the Canada Line passengers (I dislike the term “riders”) were transit users before the line opened and have simply been required to change from buses to trains for part or all of their journeys. If there were no Canada Line, the people who would have used it would be using the bus, not driving cars.

The critical issue for me in the transit debate here – and I keep returning to this figure – is to what extent will the Canada Line improve the region’s transit mode share? All the other figures to me are smoke and mirrors. The $2bn we have spent ought to have significant impact on mode choice. But SkyTrain did not have that effect – especially not the Millennium Line. Not only were most of SkyTrain users already transit passengers, but the expense of supporting SkyTrain reduced the region’s ability to provide anything like decent bus service – especially in the areas that had no other transit choice. Yes there was some gain – but not nearly enough. And other places which built cheaper systems – both rapid bus (BRT) or light rail (LRT) – did as well or better in terms of mode share. Partly because those systems tend to get in the way of the cars.

As we know, traffic expands and contracts to fill the space available. Grade separation of transit is used to avoid transferring road capacity to transit. System wide capacity is in fact increased, and therefore more traffic is generated. In Toronto, when the Yonge Street subway replaced streetcars running in mixed traffic, traffic actually increased – as the streetcars were no longer hindering the automobiles.  In several cities in Europe, when trams were put into tunnels through the city centre (a technique known as “pre Metro”) car traffic increased – so they stopped doing that. In many places the tram now operates on streets closed to other traffic. I have seen this in Nottingham and Grenoble at first hand – and no doubt Malcolm and M. Frog will provide more examples.

It is to Vancouver’s credit that the resurfaced Cambie Street is now mostly two lanes with a cycle lane and parking where it used to be three, at least at peak periods peak direction. But equally, Granville Street (three lanes nearly all the time in reality) will see far fewer buses from September 7 onwards, and cars will quickly take up that space. If we are serious about sustainability – or eco-density – or whatever other term is applied – we have to get more people carrying capacity out of our road network. This goes back to that illustration about the number of people a bus can carry compared to the same space filled with single occupant vehicles. And of course the fuel efficiency and carbon footprint – especially with electric transit – is far superior. As is the quality of life for those who live, work and try to operate businesses on busy arterial streets. For they have multiple uses: they are not just “traffic corridors”.

The opportunity to have light rail on Broadway was lost, when Glen Clark surprised everyone with his choice of SkyTrain for the Millennium Line. For the same price the needed “T” surface  line (Arbutus at Broadway – Lougheed – Coquitlam and New Westminster) we got two bits of it, grade separated (VCC – Lougheed – New Westminster) and no reduction in vehicle capacity anywhere. So transit mode share pre-Millennium of 11% stayed about where it was after it opened.

Pretty much the same thing has been designed into the Canada Line – so I do not expect a different outcome. Indeed to do otherwise is a pretty good definition of madness. I continue to judge transit investment by the yardstick of mode share – but that is simply an easy way to measure something much more complex and harder to define but very recognisable when you see it. We used to call it “livability” back when we had a Livable Region Strategic Plan. Which everyone – every municipality and the province – all signed onto. And then tried to forget about. My problem was that once I understood what the LRSP was about – and when I got to Vancouver first I was not at sure what it was supposed to achieve – I became convinced it was a good plan. That was cemented for me when we tried to create a 100 year plan for the region called citiesPLUS – and won an international competition – and it was basically the LRSP projected forward.

Yet now we have the Golden Ears Bridge, the Gateway Program – SFPR and widened Highway #1, port expansion, and all the rest – and do not, repeat NOT, tell me that was what the LRSP envisaged.Because whatever you might say about its graphics, the principles – the simple 14 words – are inconvertible. And we ain’t doin’ that. Are we.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 17, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Posted in Transportation

Canada Line subsidy will be felt for years to come

with 19 comments

Charlie Smith in the Georgia Straight forecasts “bad news for taxpayers and transit riders.”

it might take until 2013 before the Canada Line generates 100,000 riders per day

He adds that peak oil will also add to Translink’s woes and rehearses the history of the decision. But what caught my eye was a comment beneath his article

A quick search on the internet shows that the 98 B-Line has approximately 18,000 boardings daily or 9,000 passengers daily:

http://www.apta.com/research/info/briefings/documents/mills.pdf

The annual revenue from the 98 B-Line might be $20 million if you really push it and do some creative accounting, and maybe 10% of this $2,000 million is left over after paying for the light bulbs at the stations, security costs and other operating costs for the RAV Line.

Now I am impressed when a comment not only provides statistics – but also a source and a link where it can be verified. The “briefing note” itself is undated – but it seems to be from around 2003.  Now while I applaud the anonymous “Vancouver Resident” for his research skills, the math used is based on a false premise. The Canada Line replaces a lot more bus service than the B-Line. Every express bus from south of the Fraser will be short turned at the new Bridgeport Station. It would not be hard at all to go look up the Translink web page and get the list of truncated services.    (I find hard to take that this represents “increased choice” that this release claims: it is a forced transfer.)

· #311 Scottsdale
· #351 Crescent Beach
· #352 Ocean Park
· #354 White Rock Centre / White Rock South
· #601 South Delta / Boundary Bay
· #602 Tsawwassen Heights
· #603 Beach Grove
· #604 English Bluff
· #620 Tsawwassen Ferry

I poked about a bit – including on the one designed to inform about Richmond changes – but I do know that the following routes will cease to run

  • #488 Garden City
  • #490 Steveston
  • #491 One Road
  • #492 Two Road
  • #496 Railway

These routes appeared at the first sheet change after the B-Line was introduced, as Vancouver passengers were filling all the buses and preventing Richmond commuters from getting home. Some duplicate parts of the  B Line route on Granville – some run on Oak Street.

And, of course, there will be some people who used to use the #15 on Cambie itself.

Now all of these buses carry passengers – but I do not know how many and I am not at all sure I would believe Translink’s data – even if I could find it. But certainly a goodly percentage of passengers on the Canada Line on September 7 and thereafter will be people who used these buses. So “Vancouver Resident’s” calculations need to be revised.

But the second assumption about revenue is also misplaced – because you do not pay a fare to ride a bus route or a train line but a transit system – and on weekday  daytimes you have to pay more depending on how much of the system you want to use.  So there is no way to determine how much revenue the B line now collects – because many people who board the bus have a pass or a transfer.

Thirdly, there will be some people who will now start to use transit because there is now a train. It has to be said that there is a demographic difference in Vancouver between bus passengers and SkyTrain passengers. Males between the ages of 20 and 50 – especially in higher income brackets – who would not be seen dead on a bus will happily board a train. And the new route will make some journeys that previously required transfers – or slow rides – will be faster for some. So that will attract additional  transit passengers. Though I will be very surprised indeed if it makes a significant difference to the overall share that transit takes  of the region’s transport market. Because that forced transfer – and the routing along Cambie – will also deter some users, and they may well decide to drive instead. Because while the train  may be faster than the bus it is the overall journey time (door to door) , its comfort and convenience, that will count.

All of which seems a bit long to add to the comments section on the Straight’s page.

R8062 sb on No 3 Road on #98 B-Line

Written by Stephen Rees

August 16, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Posted in transit

A transport tax would get us moving

with 4 comments

This is an opinion piece from Rob Williams published by the Guardian. He compares the method of raising funds for public transport (what we call transit) in Britain and France.

In Britain, he notes, public transport funding is now uncertain – partly due to the notable failures of what we call P3s to come up with workable solutions,  and cites the collapse of the privatisation of London Underground.

Leeds, Liverpool and Portsmouth, proposed tram schemes were scrapped by the Labour government, after millions of pounds had been spent developing the plans, in large part because of the uncertainties about costs and funding. If funding was one of the main impediments – even before the credit crunch – to providing a public transport system fit for the 21st century, then maybe we should look across the Channel to see why the French have one of the best local transport networks in the world.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? The three schemes mentioned here might be compared to the on again off again Evergreen Line. Things do get built in the UK – for instance Nottingham has recently announced it will extend it tram system both south and west – schemes which have been in the planning phase for many years. But the contrast with France shows that there is an alternative that gives regional authorities both significant cash flows for capital schemes and support for running costs. It is based on a payroll tax. Not a big one – just 1% of the payroll for employers with more than nine employees, which can go up  to 1.75% if there is a big project (more in the Paris region). And it can only go on transit projects – not roads or bridges.

Those who gain from a good public transport should pay something towards it. As the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) says, “employers and retailers both gain from the provision of public transport services which give them access to a wider labour market and retail market respectively”. The most important source of funding for local public transport projects in France is the versement transport (transport tax), or VT for short.

Interesting view that – retailers actually benefit from transit spending! And again, note that France lead Europe in the development of hypermarchés, the huge big box stores on the edge of town with vast parking lots that sell nearly everything.

I can hear the howls here already. First from the groups like the DVBIA and the local Chambers of Commerce. The exemption for small businesses will be ignored – it will be decried by both left and right as a “tax on jobs” and will be said to kill enterprises. Moreover both will insists that only massive spending on more roads that allow people to drive everywhere can actually help business. You can bet too that the significant lobby that backs highway expansions will start work immediately to undermine the proposal. It clearly runs counter to the interests of the people who sell gasoline, cars and tires – as well as those who benefit from big contracts to build and repair roads and bridges. These are the people who have dominated the debate in North America for years, with the results we see before us now.

There’s also the argument – recently aired by Paul Landry among others – that many people in this region do not get good transit service now so they should not be expected to pay to make it better.  Which I think is a syllogism.

Perhaps someone who has been part of the recent Translink exercise can tell me if the idea of payroll taxes was ever raised as part of those discussions? I cannot recall it getting mentioned in any of the coverage I have seen – and I am sure it would have attracted a lot of notice if it had.

Studies in France have confirmed that the VT does not have a significant effect on labour costs, nor on company location. It has a very limited taxation impact (less than 1% of the overall French tax burden). It is a powerful tool for financing and developing public transport in France, which is why the VT has been introduced in more than 85% of urban areas. Almost 40% of the costs of public transport in France are financed by the VT.

In North America we have become entrapped in a dogma that says all taxation is bad – and all government  spending is inefficient. That taxes must be cut for both corporations and the wealthy must be reduced – or eliminated – in order to promote economic growth, or rather produce increases in the GDP, which is not a very good indicator of well being in my – and many others – view. The fact that the expected results do not happen – that wealth does not trickle down, that corporations end up paying little or no tax, and that government spending is now prioritized to prop up corporate well being while essential social services are allowed to wither – being largely ignored by the corporate owned and controlled media.

It is also significant that France avoids the trap of the “balanced” policy that is often foisted on English speaking nations. Not that the French do not have autoroutes, or have spent lots of government money on car (Renault, Citroen) and tire makers (Michelin). But that they do so at the same time as spending much more on railways and public transport in general. Here the advocates of “complete systems” are really simply trying to divert as much as they can get away with to road spending. In the early days of Translink it was common to hear the argument that – for instance – you can’t put in a bus lane on a two lane highway. And even the very dubious – well the population has grown much faster than the road network in recent years, so now we have to catch up. And of course the entirely specious case for more road spending to improve freight movement. (Even on the Port Mann Bridge trucks are less than 8% of the traffic flow – and that is the busiest freight road in the region.)

Rob Williams ends by making economic arguments to support the idea, but I am not going to take that line. I actually think that we should embrace the notion that we probably have more than enough now – it just is not distributed very well. And we also know that what we have been doing – are doing now – is not sustainable. Exponential growth cannot happen for very long in a finite system – and we human beings have to recognize that we have severely tested the ability of the environment and ecology on which we depend for the essential things in life  – air, food, water – and one of the reasons for this is our relatively recent adoption of personal motorized transportation for everyone. We have known for a long time that this cannot be made to work in large urban regions – but that has not stopped resistance to public investment in better alternatives. We also now realize (or ought to) that reduction of car use and greater development densities are going to be essential components in a more sustainable future – both regionally and globally. Better transit is an essential part of reducing the size of our footprint – carbon or ecological.

Yes, adopting a payroll tax in one region – or one province – may well encourage some firms to think about relocating. But the ones that stay and see the benefits of better transit will be the long term winners. I think Metro Vancouver could actually start to live up to its reputation for a change. It is significant that not only did Microsoft decide to relocate to Richmond recently, but the first ting it did was to set up an employee transit system. Obviously some companies realize that if you want to recruit and retain employees, a favoured spot in the company parking lot may not count for very much in future.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 16, 2009 at 11:15 am

Posted in transit

Tagged with ,

Harvey Enchin: “We want a transit system we can afford”

with 2 comments

The Vancouver Sun’s columnist picks up the cry from Maureen Bader. He thinks that the private sector can solve all our transit problems.

He does get some things right. “It’s not hard to make a case for an efficient public transit system.” But he also has some odd ideas as well. For instance

So far, it is the only transit authority in Canada responsible for roads and land use planning, although other jurisdictions are looking at the model.

Translink is not responsible for land use planning. That is the exclusive domain of the municipalities. The old GVRD used to have some land use planning function – most of it was stripped away by the SoCred Bill Vanderzalm when it looked like they might get in the way of his own money making schemes – and neither NDP or Liberal provincial governments have thought to restore those powers. Though the GVRD (in its current identity “Metro”) still does its best to influence planning at the strategic level, with at best limited success. Translink might get consulted, or it might just be informed late in the day about major developments, and is even intending to be a player itself in the development process. But no, it does not plan land use.

And there’s plenty of elasticity in the parking tax. Vancouver is at the low end of parking costs among major cities, with an average of $16 dollars a day, compared with $68 in Amsterdam.

Do you think he has the slightest idea what the term “elasticity” means when talking about prices? I suggest he reads Todd Littman first. I think what he means is that the demand for parking downtown is inelastic with respect to price – or in other words – prices for parking downtown could be raised  without significantly reducing the demand for parking.  There are two problems with that.

1 Translink does not control any parking downtown

2 When Translink has tried to impose taxes on parking it got slapped down

I have discussed parking policy here quite often and won’t repeat it here – but it is obvious to me that Harvey hasn’t a clue about what can and cannot be achieved with parking pricing. It must also be  obvious that Amsterdam has lots of transit service – in fact so does the rest of the Netherlands – and a lot less of its urban core is devoted to parking cars.

If the Canada Line proves that the private sector can build and manage public transit — and there are many examples of private operators in smaller communities around B.C. doing just that — it should be invited to do so. A dose of private enterprise just might help curb TransLink’s appetite for our tax dollars.

First the fact that the Canada Line is ready three months early is not actually the most important indicator of success. The new line is a lot less than was originally promised – that was to stay on budget. Now they have done that, but on the way they also managed to open up a huge liability for Translink through their chosen method of construction. Legal costs alone of the ongoing appeals are a burden – but the potential payout to business impacted by cut and cover is huge. And – let it not be forgotten – that $10m addition of a pedestrian and cycling element to the bridge over the North Arm between Richmond and Vancouver only got added at Translink’s expense. The private sector does nothing for nothing.

Heading into Richmond

What we have got is a new line which has very limited capacity – and no room for expansion except at huge additional cost. And one of the major reasons Translink needs more money now is that it has to prop up not only the Canada Line P3 but also the Golden Ears Bridge P3 until the levels of use get near to their projections. (Good luck with that, by the way.)

Secondly, while other communities in BC get tendered transit service, Victoria and Vancouver do not. And the last time it looked like Translink might try to change that, there was a four month transit strike. I do not think it would be any different next time around either. It does not matter how the private sector might reduce costs of providing service (though our health service provides a very clear example of how they do that) because it is not going to happen. Unless someone has come up with some new way to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 15, 2009 at 10:34 am

No turnstiles for SkyTrains until 2012

with 16 comments

Fare Gate at Wilshire/Normandie

Fare Gate at Wilshire/Normandie, Los Angeles

The CBC is reporting that not only will the Canada Line be turnstileless when it opens – so will SkyTrain for at least another three years. That is when a new smart card system might start to be implemented.

“We could see turnstiles starting to appear in the system by 2012,” Hardie told CBC News on Thursday.

“We hope to actually have some work done a little bit later that will lead to some contracts for not only turnstiles, but also the smart card system that complements the turnstile system.”

The turnstiles, regular readers will recall, were an obsession of the previous Minister of Transport Kevin Falcon. (He now overseeing the breaking of the election promise not to cut healthcare spending.) In his eyes turnstiles would eliminate crime on the transit system. It turns out of course that the two issues are not related. And even though Translink is strapped for cash, the turnstiles do not seem capable of doing much for cash flow either. They do not appear among the many revenue generating ideas that Translink has floated – but they will of course be a significant capital cost to introduce and a major addition to operating and  maintenance costs if they are indeed installed.

I suspect that if Translink does not get all of the new $450 m it is seeking, then this idea may well get quietly forgotten about. After all, since it will not actually increase net revenue  and does nothing to boost ridership, then plenty of other ideas will take precedence – especially if there is no political pressure to make it happen. And that pressure to be effective these days will have to come from Victoria, and they are going to have a great deal more important things to worry about in three years time, when a lot of chickens will be coming home to roost.

That does not mean necessarily that smart cards bite the dust either – but gates are not actually necessary with new technology. Indeed, for safety reasons, some systems with gates leave them open by default, and only close them if no valid media is present near them when somebody tries to get through. You can also use smart cards, proximity readers and mobile checkers in a gate free system and get very high levels of compliance – especially if the users have an incentive to use the readers, as they would with a fare by distance system. But that would require a complete reworking of the current system – which itself may or may not be worthwhile but is well beyond the scope of this post.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 14, 2009 at 9:56 am

“I’ve seen one possible future for Vancouver and it’s scary”

with 10 comments

The quote is the headline for a blog piece by Daniel Fontaine. He is “a former Chief of Staff to Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan and … a commentator for the civic affairs panel on the top-rated Bill Good Show”. He is one of the several authors on CityCaucus.com, which is not a site I frequent, but it got tweeted about.

A trip with his family to Disneyland has convinced him that the LA solution to traffic – building more and wider freeways – has not worked. Someone known only by the intials JP commented

There are some excellent local blogs (Stephen Rees and Gordon Price) that have repeatably mentioned that building lane capacity only invites congestion.

Shame that JP didn’t actually provide a link here, but Google will find me, of course, so thanks go to JP.

But what the tweeters noticed was the way that a former opponent of the Burrard Bridge cycle lane trial seems to have seen the light.

I grudgingly admit that I am even looking at the recent lane re-allocation trial on the Burrard Bridge in a different light. If the future of Metro Vancouver really does look even a little like LA, and facilitating more vehicle use will get us there, then perhaps removing one lane on a six lane bridge wasn’t so bad a decision after all. Dare I say it might even be time to retire our $35 dollar “www.gregorsgridlock.com” investment and prepare for the onslaught of “I told you so” emails. I’ve asked to put this topic on the agenda for our next backroom CityCaucus corporate executive meeting next Wednesday. I’ll keep you posted.

It’s almost enough to make me follow the blog to see what happens. Or perhaps one of my regulars would like to volunteer for that duty.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 13, 2009 at 4:35 pm

Posted in politics, Traffic

Where clunkers go to die

with 2 comments

Danny Westneat is a Seattle Times columnist and he has doubts about the US cash for clunkers program. Now, to be clear, their program is designed for the current US problems and is not nearly as well thought out as our own Scrap-it program.  The US program is about stimulating demand for new cars at a time when the US car industry is in deep trouble – mostly because the big three were not building the sort of vehicles that people need (i.e. fuel efficient cars) but also because of the credit crunch. They made more money out of financing car sales than they did out of building cars.

What bothers Danny is that the cars bought up by the program have to be scrapped. Programs similar to this are common in other countries for similar reasons. Indeed, it is one of the reasons that you can buy cheap, but really good quality old cars here imported from Japan. But some of the cars that he sees on the lot of a dealer clearly have more life in them – and would offer either a good cheap ride to someone on a low income or maybe parts to keep their old cars going longer.

Some cars -including Danny’s – are too old to qualify, as they have become collector’s pieces. And here I must confess that I find old cars interesting. As do lots of other people.

1974 Plymouth Satellite Sebring Plus
The fifth most viewed photo on my flickr stream

All I do is take pictures of them, much in the same way that I would of an old steam engine. Historically, old transport equipment is interesting and educational, and it should not all be in museums. The San Francisco cable cars are a national historic monument but they also still provide daily transit service in a very challenging environment. British railway preservationists have managed to build quite a significant business and some lines are being reborn as community railways. Fifty years later, Dr Beeching has been proved quite wrong. And I am sure that a big part of the attraction of Cuba for tourists are the old American street cruisers that still run there thanks to the absurd US embargo that keeps the island impoverished.

But I have also been a bit of an enthusiast for the world view that says repairing things and keeping them going is a better way than simply throwing things away and buying new as soon as something goes wrong. A group of British car owners has kept the Morris Minor going long past its last new build, by constant repair and replacement. The car is easy to maintain for the individual and the parts are still being made, as many have no desire to scrap their old faithful.

Morris Minor Convertible Southwell

Now there have been a number of significant advances in car design, and I am not going to be a complete purist – which is the philosophy behind the ICBC collector plate. A fuel injected engine is a lot more efficient – and pollutes much less – than one with a carburettor. Indeed an old car sitting on a hot driveway switched off can produce more pollution in an hour than a new car commuting every day for a week. Things like basic occupant safety – and reduction of injuries to pedestrians – have also been improved significantly in recent years. Even so I cannot say I like the new “retro” cars – the new Mini is not even a small car, and the new Beetle lacks the charm of the old one.

“I think giving people a gift because they drive a piece of crap, and then encouraging them to go further into debt, is the kind of thinking that got us into this mess.”

That’s the view of a dealer in old trucks – but he has a very good point.

Cars are at the heart of the unsustainability of our society. They created the “need” for highways – and the consequent sprawling nowhere that has replaced real human settlements. But we are stuck with our built environment, and it will take time to change. Getting North Americans into more fuel efficient vehicles is a small but necessary intermediate step, even if only because it costs so much and takes so long to build new electric transit systems and high speed rail lines – but both are what are really needed. Going from 17 mpg to 19 mpg really is not much of an advance. Yet currently that is what congress is voting more money for. As usual, short term thinking and popular appeal counts for much more than careful analysis.

1995 Dodge Caravan 2007_0608
The seventh most viewed image on my flickr photo stream

I wish when I had traded in my old minivan for a Yaris that I had got $4,500: though the Canadian government did send me a cheque for $1,000, I think that money was in reality wasted since I would have made the trade anyway. Though without the incentive I concede I might have picked a cheaper, less fuel efficient car. And $2,000 was not nearly enough to get me into Prius. But I did not think that my old minivan needed to be scrapped – simply because it had a genuinely low mileage, had been regularly serviced and just needed a new water pump. I got rid of it since I no longer had any need for a vehicle that size – or with a tank that big. But I am sure that some low income family was pleased with it. A 1995, low mileage, aircared Dodge Caravan was not, in my view a clunker – but I did not get anything like $4,500 in trade in either.

On the whole I do not think that there should have been any bail out for the auto industry. If there is any credibility left in the ideas of market economists, surely failed business should not be given public funds to keep on doing the wrong things. Society is much better off now that Enron has collapsed and Bernie Madoff is in jail. The failings of the banks and big car companies were not quite so criminal – but the distinction is a fine one. They certainly were not helping the general well being. And by most measures, the US cash for clunkers program is a hugely expensive exercise that does not seem capable of producing very much positive change.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 10, 2009 at 10:39 am

Posted in politics

Tagged with ,