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

Archive for September 27th, 2009

TransLink’s carbon claims challenged

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Jeff Nagel in the Richmond Review does his best to make Mary Jo Porter’s address to Translink mayors controversial, but really it is anything but. She is not saying anything new, or that is not well known – in fact this issue has been the central one for transit in this region for as long as there has been transit. You cannot have transit oriented development unless there is transit there to make it work. Kitsilano did not become a desirable residential neighbourhood until the streetcars started running. And when they first appeared they ran through a very empty area – which quickly started to fill up as houses sprang up almost like mushrooms overnight.

However that was back at the beginning of the twentieth century when cars were a novelty. Fifty years later, growth started to spread out as more and more people bought into the concept of a single family home on its own lot with a garage, and everything within a 20 minute drive – not the 20 minute walk that identifies TOD – or “New Urbanism” or what cities had looked like for most of human history before cars.

The post war history of North America has been one of growing disenchantment with the American Dream. The history of the twenty first century is going to be about how succesful (or not) we are at waking up from that dream and dealing with reality. We cannot afford to live the way that the corporations have been trying to persuade us to buy. It has made us sick, and it exceeds the carrying capacity of the earth – which is the only planet we have found so far that is capable of supporting us. We do not have anywhere else to go – yet if everyone on earth lived like we do, we would need four planets. Greater Vancouver (as it then was) understood this quite well fifteen years ago, when it was agreed that we needed  a region that was compact, conserved resources and gave us more choices. Unfortunately, the politicians we elected do not serve the voters – they serve the people who pay for their election expenses – or rather the corporate interests that now decide policy at all levels of government and do not tolerate any opposition.

Joe Trasolini, Mayor of Port Moody, has made it clear that his community, that embraced greater density ahead of rapid transit expansion, can no longer absorb any of the population growth planned for it, since it still does not have transit. Communities south of the Fraser also now clearly understand that, despite provincial propaganda to the contrary, there will be no transit for them either. So the next million people who come here better be able to figure out a way to afford to run a car, as they will not have any other way to get around in the new neighbourhoods that will be built.  Because no one else is following Port Moody’s example – and anyway the freeway is getting widened – and the perimeter roads built – long before any transit system expansion that way.

There will be some more transit – just not very much and all of it in places that can support it. It will be very expensive indeed – inserting any kind of transit into developed areas always is. That is the rationale being followed by the province – and it is a recipe which has so far failed and will continue to fail.

The mayors and TransLink want the province to deliver new funding sources – like road pricing or regional tolling – to finance the $450-million expansion, without which they say they can’t afford to build and run the Evergreen Line or other rapid transit expansions in Surrey and Vancouver.

Victoria has so far refused and that unfunded scenario will be off the table Oct. 23 when mayors vote on the new 10-year plan.

This is why I have said – and continue to say – that SoCoBriTCA is a creature of the province. The mayors have very little say – and now the province will only allow them two choices – stasis or cuts. The province has gone quiet about its “$14bn transit plan” since that is what Translink would need an extra $450m a year to maintain and operate. The $14bn (which included the Canada Line) was always based on two other levels of government paying equal shares – and neither has any intention of so doing. And the only argument right now is how to pay for the Evergreen Line (which serves an area pretty much built out now) and then the tube under Broadway to UBC through an area where talking about greater density is equivalent to spitting in church.

TransLink doesn’t have direct responsibility for achieving climate change targets, it has inadequate tools to do the job and its proposed plans are basically ineffective on that front.

Local cities wield far more influence in shaping growth and reducing car trips through smart growth policies, she said.

But no city is going to adopt smart growth policies if it does not have the infrastructure in place to support it. What we have now is a system which requires developers to pay for most of the infrastructure themselves – and thus it is the people who buy into the new subdivisions who pay for the new roads, sidewalks, sewers and so on. Electric powered,  rail based transit – which is what we need for smart growth – is far too expensive for a developer to pay for, especially since it will be running empty for the first few years. That model has been rejected by investors since they have become convinced that if that is what society wants then it has to come from taxes. Of course, before mass car ownership, rapid transit in North America was mainly a private sector enterprise, funded mainly by the simple rise in land values brought about by the change in land use from agriculture to residential and commercial. The reason why transit does not get the government funding is that it has already been commandeered by the automobile lobby. In this region billions are earmarked for new and widened roads – and  most of this will be borrowed by a government already deep in debt. While cuts to everything else have been savage, highways have been sacrosanct.

Of course there is a choice. There always was a choice. But that choice has been made for us – and not in our best interests – and now all that is left is for our representatives to decide if we will have a poor transit system at much higher cost to us or a dreadful transit system at a slightly reduced cost. No one is allowed to even talk about what we might be able to achieve if we did what was once done, and done successfully, and made Vancouver’s streetcar suburbs the most desirable place to live. About how we could even revive the old tracks that are still there – and how many other cities have done exactly that and achieved results we can only envy. Because a few men in Victoria, doing the bidding of a small select few, very wealthy individuals – who like to think of themselves as “the elite” – have determined that there is more money to be made from the same ponzi schemes that brought about our present troubles.

The present controversy is a sham and a sideshow. Gordon Campbell has forgotten all about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and whether or not better transit in Metro produces  a small saving or a negligible one makes no difference to anything. BC will be exporting ever more coal to China – and ramping up its extraction of oil and gas as fast as it can. The high prices that peak oil produces continue to promise tempting returns. And, as long as the externalities can be bargained away, we will continue this short term, disastrous trajectory. Cap and trade and carbon capture are part of the showmanship. Neither will make any difference – except for the few smart alecs who will make fortunes – and mainly from government spending, while all the while they will decry the depredations of “big government”.

In times like these, arguing about transit’s ability to attract riders from former car users, is ridiculous. We knew what needed to be done twenty years ago and we did not do it. We are not doing it now either, and are unlikely to do anything else in the near future. But we will make a huge song and dance about not burning garbage and reusing shopping bags. And continue to elect charlatans like Gordon Campbell.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 27, 2009 at 3:04 pm