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

Archive for September 2009

Are we ready for road pricing?

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The amount of coverage that Martin Crilly’s report got surprised me. After all it was not as if he was saying something new, or that anyone was bound to act upon his recommendations. The only substantive issue covered was would he approve next year’s fare increase if the Mayors endorse it. All the rest was editorial.

In an opinion piece in today’s Vancouver Sun, Craig McInnes forecasts that it will be up to the province to decide if the Evergreen Line gets built.  Which is also hardly a stunning insight. The decision to build the Canada Line that was forced through the former Translink board was achieved by “promising” that the two lines would both be built. And there is both federal and provincial money lined up to do that. Just no way for Translink to come up with its share. The Canada Line is now open, and there is no sign that the Evergreen Line will ever be built.

McInnes accepts Crilly’s assertion that there is now spare capacity in the transit system. He also endorses the idea that simply increasing capacity has not been enough to tempt people out of their cars and onto transit – which, of course, has not happened to any great extent. Transit ridership grew but only as total demand for transportation grew – transit share of the market has hardly changed. Therefore, the argument goes, since just providing capacity “didn’t work”, we need sticks as well as carrots.

I am not sure that this analysis is adequate. Firstly, the claim about spare capacity is new to me. It is not backed up either by figures in Crilly’s report or, so far as I am aware at present, in figures that Translink has made available. As I noted in my previous post, Crilly says that he has seen unpublished data at Translink. I regret that I am not prepared to accept his word for that. Firstly, because I have too much experience with the way that Translink creates its ridership “data” – and any statements about capacity utilisation have to be based on ridership data. But secondly, given that Translink is in a desperate cash crunch and badly needs to convince us all of its situation, why has this data set not been made available publicly?

But passenger demand was not just driven by new and more frequent services. The biggest increment in demand was due to the introduction of the UPass – and we are still seeing significant impacts on operating costs of that decision. Much of the new capacity that will start next week is to relieve overcrowding on routes serving UBC. Wherever this “spare capacity” might be on the system it is certainly not on Broadway. (And maybe Gordon Campbell cares more about his tube to UBC than the north east sector?)

There are indeed passenger counters at the new Canada Line stations. But they have only been working for the last three weeks. I have heard talk that the small number of passenger counters installed on a few buses are not proving reliable – but that’s just talk. And it also reminds me of the time when we first started getting data from the electronic fareboxes. The idea that everyone would swipe their ticket when they boarded a bus was quickly relinquished even before the new machines were put into use as they were not “swipe” but “dip” – which meant it took too long to board if all pass holders lined up and waited for the machine to return their pass. But, if we had data on cash payments and transfers – as well as good survey data on pass usage – we could factor up  farebox data to produce estimates of boardings by route and time of day. A huge advance. Except the service planners refused to even look at the data, since it did not confirm their “professional judgement” of ridership. The absence of “good survey data” was also a handicap. We had some data, but not nearly enough to be confident at the route and time of day levels.

So unless things have changed greatly since I left, I remain skeptical. But I also recognize that the bus operators themselves have a vested interest – and an on going campaign – on overcrowding and pass ups. And Translink themselves are saying that on Tuesday morning, when school starts again and everyone is back from their vacations, there will be overcrowding and stress on the system. As they always say just before Labour Day every year. If there really were plenty of capacity on the system to absorb new riders – as Crilly and by extension McInnes assert – then, surely,  there should be no problems on Tuesday.

The figures are needed since it is essential to understand how much capacity we now have, how it is utilised, and how much more would be needed if some or all of these new “sticks” were to be deployed. Forget road pricing for a moment (that is the least likely after all) Translink had its own parking tax quashed by the province, and the prospect of  increasing the current sales tax on paid parking vanished with the switch to HST. ICBC commissioned a study on pay as you drive insurance years ago – and has sat on it ever since. We know it would work, we know it would also be a much better way of allocating risk – the more you drive the greater your chance of a collision. ICBC refuse to even discuss the idea- even with the man who wrote the report for them!

But let us suppose for a moment that a sudden light goes on somewhere in Victoria and some new and really effective policy is introduced that changes the way that people view the cost of driving. Now we have a good example of that – the dramatic rise in gasoline prices to $1.50 a litre here and $4 a gallon and more in the US not so long ago. And, as far as that goes, the increase in unemployment and the loss of easy financing, that has encouraged more Americans than ever to try to use their transit systems. All over the US demand for transit has increased, and car use is down. But not a single system can cope with this – they simply do not have the operating funds. Every system is both cutting service and raising fares because its tax base has fallen due to the recession. We can see quite clearly what happens when you start applying the “stick” but also have inadequate capacity to cope with demand. All you have to do is set up a Google news alert with the search term “transit” and you will get a page full of links to US local news sources bewailing the current crisis of transit there every weekday morning (it quietens down at weekends).

I will even accept, for the sake of argument, that there may be some spare capacity on Translink – but I cannot accept that there is anything like enough to cope with the sort of shift in mode share that we actually need to see to make any real difference. And, for the want of anything better, I will restate that in 1999 we said that 11% mode share was not good enough and that by 2009 we should be at 17%. Without seeing any data, I am willing to bet that it is nothing like enough to accomodate that sort of shift from single occupant cars to transit.

Road pricing is a very good idea indeed.   It was a very good idea in 1967, too, when Gabriel Roth published “Paying for Roads”. At that time the technological requirements seemed a bit like science fiction. These days, that is no longer the case. But it is not the technological issues that have held back road pricing. There is nowhere, yet, that has adopted a comprehensive system that charges for road space that varies by location and time of day. There are a few places that levy a flat fee to enter a central cordon. There are a few others that charge varying amounts for queue jumper lane usage depending on congestion (so called HOT lanes – High Occupancy or Toll). If Metro Vancouver were to adopt regionwide road pricing it would be unprecedented – and for that reason alone I think it is unlikely. But even if we accepted some system that made the best use of available technologies – such as GPS satellites and cell phones – I think it would still take a great deal of time and effort to create the necessary billing and payment system, even if we could resolve the obvious concerns about privacy.

It could be done, but it would require a major shift in public opinion. Because the reaction that can already be seen is the common belief that we have already paid for these roads through our taxes – and that we are “entitled” to use them whenever and wherever we want to. The notion that road space at peak periods is a scarce resource that is either rationed by queueing (as we do now) or pricing is way beyond common understanding. Not that that could not be overcome. But again that would take time and resources.

Oddly enough, we do have a provincial government that prefers user fees to taxation for government provided services. They just promised us another income tax cut, which they promptly took back in higher MSP fees. Post secondary education used to be supported by taxes, now it is supported by fees – and student loans. We now even pay to use provincial parks – and we always have had to pay for healthcare services such as ambulances and prescription medications. So in terms of political dogma there should be no problem. But then there is the prospect of public outrage such as we saw over the vehicle levy (a flat fee not related to road use at all) – or, come to that, the HST. Which they seem to be sticking to despite the furore and fuss.

We cannot use a cordon price system here. We no longer have a single, dominant central place that creates a “many to few” (origins – destinations) morning commute. We also have very little through traffic in downtown to be diverted to a ring road. Geography also does not help. Simply tolling water crossings (another much discussed option here) misses off the predominant movement east-west on the Burrard Peninsula which has no water crossing. Congestion is widespread, but occurs only at limited times of day. So a real road pricing system is needed which varies the price by location, direction of travel and time of day. A driver westbound towards the Port Mann at 7:30am (lots of congestion) ought to be paying much more than one southbound on Highway 99 at 9:30pm (none at all). And it needs to cover more than just the major and provincial road networks if there is not to be a major impact through diversions to minor roads.

At present Gordon Campbell seems to be in denial. He was on the box again last night saying the Evergreen Line will be built. He is convinced that Translink has the resources even though the Commissioner doesn’t. And nor does anyone who knows much about the system expect there to be discovery in the next month that will turn up more than relatively small sums compared to what is needed. Actually, the decision not to proceed with the Evergreen Line is one of the easier ones. After all, we don’t have it now and thus won’t miss it. That is not the case with the the current threat to transit service. If that is cut – and it costs more to use the system – there will be significant anger. And I can only hope that it is directed at Gordon Campbell – since it will be the result of people doing his bidding. But history shows that it was Translink that has always borne the brunt of the consequences of Premiers’ incompetences (and there has been plenty of precedent there).

Written by Stephen Rees

September 5, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Regional Transportation Commissioner Reports on TransLink’s 2010 Ten-Year Plan

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I must admit that it had slipped my mind that Martin Crilly, who is the Ferry Commissioner, was also appointed Translink Commissioner as well. That is until Jim Goddard of News 1130 called me and asked for comments on Martin’s latest report. Of course, I had not read even the press release (not being aware of it) let alone the report itself.

While the Commissioner refers to himself as a regulator, his role is in reality somewhat limited, but he does get to rule on fare increases – so the key point in this report is that when he reviewed the Ten Year Plan “approval is warranted for only the first of TransLink’s four proposed fare increases” – but that is just a preliminary finding.



Well, that’s alright then. The Commissioner is not the one who makes that decision. The provincial government has set things up so the Mayors carry the can, even though the legislation is what creates the real problem.That, and the lack of support from senior governments for operating costs.

The proposed cuts, drastic indeed if made today, would be much less so if TransLink had not, over the last several years, expanded service and invested in capital projects that it knew to be unaffordable under its existing funding constraints. These investments were made with the hope and expectation that senior governments would agree to bear a large portion of the operating costs, which they have not done.

Indeed, the lack of operating support is not unusual in Canada – or North America come to that. Most transit systems have seen a huge increase in demand in recent years, but have had to respond by raising fares and cutting services, simply because they have not have revenue sources adequate to meet the operational cost of the service. Senior levels of government have made significant contributions to capital projects, but no operational support at all. Indeed one of the interesting observations in the report is that if Translink adopts the “Drastic Cuts” approach, then it has to forgo some of its expected federal funding, as it could not operate the new capital equipment without increases in operating revenue.

There is very little new or surprising in the report. But since the “findings rely on an examination of vastly more data and analyses than have been publicly released” I did look carefully for new information. Perhaps the only thing that surprised me was

There is now available capacity—that is empty seats—on much, but not all, of the bus network which can accommodate future growth in ridership.

Really? I suppose that is because the people who experience pass-ups and overcrowding are the ones we hear from. There are always empty seats at some times of day and some directions of course, but overall my understanding is that capacity has not been available where it is needed at peak periods. Perhaps Translink should release some of this data.

It is not just that Translink invested in capital projects of course: it did not have much choice in some – the Canada Line obviously is the biggest one  but also the upgrades to bridges which had been long neglected when in provincial care. And then there is the Golden Ears Bridge, which we are now subsidizing and will be for some time to come. Which was not actually a major priority except that it was one of the few things that could be paid for – eventually – from new tolls. But the point is that it did not chose the best value for money projects in terms of those that would increase the share of trips. As I have often said, ridership increase means nothing if population is increasing. It is the share of the trips that matters. It was supposed to be 17% by now but remains at 11% or thereabouts. Martin Crilly places some of the blame for this on the municipalities, for their planning and but also for the lack of “some form of road pricing (notably on highways in the hands of the Province) and a region-wide, coordinated policy for tighter management of parking (belonging to the municipalities).”

So it hardly surprising, or indeed newsworthy, that an independent, objective view is that we need better co-ordination of transportation and land use, more co-operation between the various levels of government and a sensible way of allocating a scarce resource (road space at peak periods). I just have no expectation at all that any of that is going to happen – or indeed that the byzantine structure we currently have in this region is capable of responding to independent and objective advice. But I am glad that it is being said.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 3, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Cars vs Cyclists

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This post is prompted by two articles on the vexed issue of cars and cyclists trying to co-exist on the same roadway.

The first is in and makes the point – unhelpfully – by stating the obvious “When cars and cyclists clash, cars always win”. The car is bigger, heavier and its driver is much better protected than the cyclist. So in a collision the cyclist gets hurt worse. That doesn’t mean the car “wins” – nor does might make right. While there are some drivers who hate cyclists and think they should not be on the road, there are even more drivers who care about other people, and cyclists themselves – who would rather have a safer place to be than most of our roads as presently designed and used.

Some of the citycaucus piece describes first hand experience – in Toronto but that hardly matters since most places in North America are the same in this respect – but also refers to the Michael Bryant incident. And concludes

If any good is to come from the death of Darcy Allan Sheppard it’s that Toronto will get serious about cycling safety.

I think that is unlikely. That is because Bryant is now asserting his innocence, and as CBC tv last night pointed out, it is all about how the PR people handle the incident – not the incident itself. For if the cyclist can be seen as an aggressive attacker and Bryant merely trying to defend himself, then the incident takes on a whole different meaning. As that comment I linked to above by Kelly McParland says, bike lanes had nothing to do with it.

Which brings me to the second article from Seattle which reiterates a point I have made more than once here. Sharrows are a sham solution for bike lanes. They do not actually mean anything or change anything.

Perhaps the ultimate word on sharrows comes from the City of Seattle’s own website, which today answers the question “What do sharrows mean for motorists and bicyclists?” with this damning bit of faint praise: “Motorists: Follow the rules of the road as if there were no sharrows… Bicyclists: Follow the rules of the road as if there were no sharrows.”

Exactly the point — so why waste the paint?

The reason the paint is there is because it is cheap and easy to do – and gives the appearance of doing something. It enables the city to claim that it has increased cycling facilities when it reality it has done nothing of the sort. In fact it is like most paint on the roads – and the signs and other clutter that engineers have been adding steadily over the years. They are almost completely ineffective in achieving their stated objectives as, over time, everyone simply becomes less aware of them. Even the one line that people do pay attention to – the one that shows the middle of the road and what side you are supposed to be on – gets ignored as soon as there is an obstruction that people want to get around.  Indeed that is where the whole idea of “naked streets” comes from.

If we are going to continue to allow cars to dominate our lives – and our urban spaces – then separate bike routes are really an essential component simply because of the reality that road space that is not shared is not safe for cyclists – or pedestrians for that matter. But that also accepts the notion that cars now have the greatest share of the trips and therefore must be given the greatest share of the space. It is this shift from the descriptive to the normative that is the error. The situation that we now find ourselves is not only not one that should be continued it is also one that is not desirable either. It suited car makers – and other corporate concerns that make money out of car use – to convince us that having and using cars would make us happy, that it would produce a growing economy and improve general well being. But any objective assessment of what near universal car ownership has brought us throws a much different light on what still appears to be conventional  wisdom. Even if we only look at the casualty rates of collisions and ignore all the other social and environmental impacts.

Yes I want to see much safer streets for all users. But I also want to see the spaces in between the buildings used effectively for  a much wider range of activities – and not just for moving some people through as quickly as possible. We have accepted the argument that speed is good – and thus higher speeds better – uncritically for far too long.  Since cars are not going to vanish overnight, and there will be many people striving to come up with better cars that are safer and have lower environmental impacts, we need to come up with strategies that civilize car drivers – that is make them more aware of their impacts on the rest of us. And that does not mean painted symbols on roads, or bigger stop signs. It means drivers having to accept that in a crowded place they need to give way every so often to other road users.

For far too long we have tried to keep the roads free for fast moving traffic. That has not worked, and now we need to do something different. There is no one size fits all solution and we should be very wary of anyone who proposes seemingly simple solutions  to complex problems. Just like building freeways does not solve traffic congestion, building bikeways does not eliminate all conflicts between vulnerable and protected road users. We need a better understanding of how people interact – and the shared street experiments provide a lot of useful data – but also a more determined approach that sees streets as part of a complex urban ecology. Better design will be part of it, but so will better behaviour. And we will also need to wary of adapting the physical structure of places to take account of the exceptional circumstances when one or two individuals behave very badly indeed.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 3, 2009 at 10:14 am

B.C. budget bites into green programs

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CBC, Globe % Mail and the Wilderness Committee press release

Whatever credibility this government thought it had as a result of its carbon tax and its program to expand “run of the river” power projects has now been completely lost. The impact on Translink is important to us regionally, as the current provincial sales tax on parking fees provides $15m each year for the agency – and they were expecting to be able to increase that significantly. The Live Smart program has already been cancelled – because it was “too popular” – and now HST is going to be applied to all appliances and retrofits that consumers could have used to reduce their energy consumption.

Actually the credibility is strained far beyond the environment since many people now think that the Liberals knew – or ought to have known – that their claims to be able to hold a budget deficit to around $500m  were being undermined by much poorer economic performance than they had assumed

“I think that the environment is off the table,” Green Party of B.C. Leader Jane Sterk said. “It’s not unusual when the economy goes down.”

Sterk also took the opportunity to point out that her party had predicted a $1.5-billion deficit in February, much closer than the B.C. Liberals’ $5-million prediction.

“Wonder why it is that the Green Party is able to see something that a minister, with all of his staff, was not able to see.

The waffling last night on the tv news from both Campbell and Hansen was I though quite unconvincing – but equally they hve no real need to worry since, as Ian Hanomansing pointed out, they have more than three years to ride this one out. They clearly think that by the time they get to the polls again, the economy will have turned around.

$15m may not seem a lot of money when compared to the overall size of Translink’s budget, but once again they are threatening service cuts and fewer buses on the road. Whether or not that particular sum is found from other sources, those will be happening anyway as there is simply not enough money in the system now to keep it going at its present level, and legislation already caps the existing funding sources at levels below those envisaged by the transit plan – whether that is the region’s or the province’s.  One third of this region’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and arguments about whether or not the seldom used Burrard Thermal generating station is decommissioned or not really are beside the point. The current direction is to expand freeways and the port. Add to that the strong probability of energy from burning garbage – as it cannot now be shipped to the south either – and the claims that the government likes to make about being green are hollow. Indeed, in its recent response to the BC Utilities Commission, the government finally admitted that the real intention of its private sector power expansion is simply for export. We do not actually need this new power at all.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 2, 2009 at 10:21 am

Posted in energy, Environment, Green Party, politics, transit

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HandyDart workers vote to strike

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HandyDART T710 Tsawwassen BC 2009_0121

Jeff Nagel broke this story today on BC Local News. I really wonder how this will play out and cannot make any predictions, just raise some concerns.

Seniors, the disabled and other HandyDart users could be affected in the event of a strike, but essential service levels would first have to be approved by the Labour Relations Board.

First off, people with disabilities are the only people who use HandyDART – that is because it is a specialized transit system intended solely for people who cannot use the conventional transit system. That being said, the conventional transit system has been getting more accessible – the introduction of the low floor trolleybuses removing one of the largest barriers. But for many people it is not the transit system that is the problem – it is getting to it. HandyDart provides a door to door service – the driver will help people in ways that are not practical for a bus operator. Even when the bus itself is accessible, many bus stops are not. And the municipalities are all a long way behind making the streets easy to use for everyone. Continuous sidewalks are a rarity in most places – and dropped curbs seem to get put in for vehicles much more readily than for crosswalks.

But how the LRB defines “essential service” will also be interesting. HandyDart users do not get anything like the accessibility that the rest of us enjoy. They have to negotiate for every trip – and only those trips thought to be essential are likely to get a booking. Work, post secondary education and medical trips get priority in the booking system. If your trip request matches an existing van run and there is space you may be in luck. Regular trips also get served before “casual” trips – which was one of the reasons that Taxi Savers were introduced.

There is currently an ongoing ambulance strike – but that does not mean that you cannot get an ambulance if you need one. Though when it turns up it will have an “on strike” banner on it.

Users include renal patients requiring regular trips to local hospitals for kidney dialysis.

Usually that means a trip three times a week. And after dialysis, patients are often tired. I cannot think of a better case of “essential service” – but then that will also apply to many other types of trips which may not be quite so life threatening but will certainly have a devastating impact if they are denied. And most users of the services are among the most vulnerable members of society.

HandyDart is one of the few contracted out transit services in the region. It used to be operated by small local contracts – often by voluntary societies or other non-profits. That changed in recent times when MVT won all the contracts – and one of the reasons was said to be greater operational efficiencies offered by one operator rather than several. The greatest benefit being trips that crossed operational boundaries. Not that, in my experience, that was the greatest problem, but it seemed to me there was always more concern at management levels about efficiencies rather than service levels.  Simply because a specialized service costs a great deal more than conventional transit, and fares cover a very small percentage of operating costs.

MVT has grown up in the US as a “minority owned” business. They have been remarkably successful. As you can see from the brief details of the dispute  they did not get that way by throwing money around.

While MVT is offering modest pay hikes, [union president Dave] Watt said the firm wants to reduce payment for benefits, cut back vacation weeks and switch to a less generous pension plan.

He said MVT also wants the ability to contract out work and to end guaranteed hours, allowing the firm to send workers home early if there’s insufficient call volumes.

It’s a business, not a social service. MVT has to be concerned about its bottom line.

Taxis are not really an alternative. For one thing they cost a great deal and taxi savers are tightly rationed. For another, taxi drivers are one of the biggest sources of complaints from users with disabilities. While more licences have been issued in recent years for vans capable of loading a wheelchair, that has mostly increased the capacity to handle baggage for cruise ship passengers – and they tip better too.

I can only hope that negotiations are concluded successfully and speedily – and that if it does come to industrial action that the people impacted are given every possible consideration.  It is bad enough to have a disability – but to have your support system snatched away is intolerable.

HandyDART T710 Tsawwassen BC 2009_0121 decal

Written by Stephen Rees

September 1, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Posted in transit

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