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

Archive for November 2009

The Road Ahead: Learning from Toronto

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Elyse Parker, Director Public Realm Section, Transportation Services, City of Toronto

November 26, 2009 at UBC Robson Square. Last of the SFU City Program “Changing Gears” series

This post was updated on  May 3, 2010 to include this link to the SFU video of this event

The idea of creating better streets is tied into both dealing with climate change and creating a more livable city. Toronto is Canada’s largest city and sixth largest government, has 2.6m residents and is a result of the 1998 amalgamation: half of that population was born outside of Canada.

On May 25, the City examined a change to Jarvis Street. The area has been “intensifying” and the engineers were examining alternatives to the reversible centre lane. The best alternate was to eliminate the fifth lane entirely and add bike lanes and sidewalk width. The removal of the fifth lane would add 2 minutes to vehicle travel time. The debate lasted seven and a half hours. However, this approach is preferred to that adopted by New York City. That means that change happens slowly, but that is because it is democratic and intensely political. In NYC the process is one driven by executive action.

Clean and Beautiful City

Mayor David Miller introduced a five point action plan –

  • sweep it
  • design it
  • grow it
  • build it
  • celebrate it

Much of the city was showing a lack of continuous maintenance. The new approach required the planners to sit down with solid waste management which in itself was an innovation. The objective was to re-establish civic pride. “No one could save us but ourselves”. The city has a complex management structure, which meant that in many places it was not clear who had responsibility for a given public space. The idea was to  “find a home for orphaned spaces”.

Neighborhood beautification – The first example was the Bathurst Wilson mural. The wall was a sound barrier for Highway #401, which was painted after the famous Seurat picture of a beach. This is a process started to create places, bottom up, with change through small actions: doing not talking, but that will happen in all 44 wards of the city.

The next project was at Senlac and Burnett (unfortunately not on the City web site so far as I can see)  a neglected intersection where what instigated change was the support of city. It was succesful due to the speed of action which she described as  “urban acupuncture”

What Makes a City Great? – Mayor David Millar’s vision for the City (the link is to a pdf file) commits the city to spend $100,ooo per ward on improvements to the public realm.

Take BAC 13

St Clair W TTC Station was a major project (which a web search shows was not free of controversy)  which was made possible by a “convergence of owners”. Her presentation relied on images which are not on line.

She then spoke about “boulevard transformation” essentially inserting small strips of green along Sword Street between the roadway and the sidewalk. She that this simple act of replacing bare dirt with grass had  significant community impact. The work was done by the city but the community had to accept responsibility for maintaining the boulevard. The picture she showed was just of grass but she said that other types of planting would have been equally acceptable.

She argued that actions such as this are a real tool for community development. She then cited the Jameson Ave photo project – an outdoor gallery of photographs on tree planter boxes which features local residents

The Rexdale Drainage Swale, on the other hand, replaced the usual grass median with an open planted ditch designed to slow water run off and through increased permeability recharge local ground water. She remarked that the engineers who design and maintain such places are some of the lost “hard nosed” of the city employees, but they seem to have been won over to a more green approach to storm drainage.

One of the main sources of action came from the need for a new street furniture contract. The city choose to seek a new, co-ordinated contract  as set out in the  Vibrant Streets guidelines. This is an advertising based system which will see 25,640 pieces of street furniture installed over 20 years at a cost of $1bn. This is the largest harmonised system in the world. The Public Realm Section was created as the formal unit to take responsibility for the revenue stream from this program. It is dedicated to be spent on beautiful streets, pedestrian projects and  street furniture (bus shelters, waste bins, newspaper boxes, benches etc).

Toronto is a member of the c40 Group which was created from the observation that national governments are falling short on the necessary action to deal with climate change while cities are getting results.  One of its first initiatives was to set up a Sustainable Transportation Plan.  Dr. David McKewen, Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, recently released a report stating that traffic related air pollution contributes to about 440 premature deaths and 1,700 hospitalizations per year in Toronto. This clearly demonstrates the health benefits of moving to a more sustainable transportation system.   The Toronto Walking Strategy will, among other initiatives eliminate ten right turns on red (its most controversial proposal). She said that this is not just a feel good campaign. We know that getting people to walk more, and safely, is one of the few things we know will reduce the incidence of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

She talked about the  guiding principles (which can be downloaded as a pdf from the previous link) and showed a map of the incidence of diabetes in the city which is strongly correlated to the outer parts of the city which are auto oriented. The way to tackle this she said  was through the  Transit City Priority Neighbourhoods. The plan is to greatly expand the reach of good quality transit by switching to surface light rail rather than the cities earlier approaches based on subways and ALRT (which had stalled due to high costs). There is she said a “walkability challenge” of the outer parts of the city. The first priority is keeping children safe: giving priority to car traffic means road death is principal cause of child mortality. The most vulnerable people are the elderly and the young.

Young and Dundas “Barnes Dance”

How clear was my running trail

the first in a pilot project that sees the city clearing snow on a priority basis from Coxwell to Lower Sherbourne in the east end and the Humber River to Bathurst in the west, each a stretch of just over five kilometres.

It sounds like a small thing – a trail length of 11 kilometres compared with the thousands of kilometres of roads the city clears every snowfall. But the decision to clear the Goodman may indicate that the city bureaucracy is growing to
understand the needs of cyclists and pedestrians. And initial reports show the newly cleared trail is having a transformative effect on the lives of the winter athletes.

Jane’s walks – “An annual extravaganza of urban love” . Kensington Market is closed to cars on last Sunday of the month in Summer. Toronto Islands are car free year round, and the two downtown universities (Ryerson and UofT) are looking at street closures.

The city organisation has split the cycling and pedestrian areas and the emphasis for cycles is for bikeways that are continuous and connected. They intend to concentrate on infrastructure and will introduce bixi bikes next spring. They have also built a “bike station“, will provide secure bike parking at all TTC stations and have erected 16,000 post and ring bike parking devices

Selected Q&A

(I have only recorded questions that got a substantive answer. Where she said she would get back to questioners, the question has not been recorded below)

The first question referred to a Spacing Magazine article which contrasted the  elected vs executive  approaches in Toronto and New York.
She replied that beautiful streets are non-partisan, but the tension has been about active transportation. The suburban  councillors are dubious about such approaches in their wards compared to the downtown councillors.

“I would love to just do it!”

2    “What is going to happen to car dependent suburbs?”

One of the strategies is the transit city plan, and the tower renewal programme which redensifies neighbourhoods and adds more shopping uses. But it is an uphill battle

3    Street furniture – what is the city’s ability to control where those things go?

Lot of concern to us and city council. The “Vibrant Streets” document issued at the time of the request for proposals was very specific about this issue  and how much advertising can be on the furniture. It is not allowed on bins or benches. We work with the street furniture company on location and we meet with the city councillor and the adjacent land owner(s). The city has the absolute right of refusal on ads.

4   What about temporary public spaces? Can they have a transformative impact on community?

Kensington Market is exactly that. But we do have to get more sophisticated how we do these things

5   You mentioned the breakdown of the silos in your department. Is that happening elsewhere?

Toronto is moving towards an integrated service delivery model.  We are at the tip of the iceberg. We have the resources to implement these things. I am one of 13 director champions for the 13 neighborhoods. We add another layer of thought for social services in the priority neighborhoods.

6 The need for more public toilets –

Toilets are part of the street furniture program. In addition a local by law requires that stores over a certain size must provide a public washroom –

7  Are newspaper boxes a blight or a source of revenue? We have heard about the need for more  freedom of expression and the papers are  “pushing back” on multi publication racks (mpr)

We don’t have any mprs up yet. We are aggressive on licensing and management.  We are now seen as a way of saving costs. We won’t have them everywhere and we will monitor and enforce licences. As well we will provide the boxes and maintain them.

8  The City of Vancouver has tried to integrate programs. On priority neighborhoods, who gets them and how it is prioritised?

The ability to redevelop streets especially  old heritage streets only comes with new development. The determination is based on statistics and excludes  downtown simply because that area has better access to social services. There are 44 wards and our job is to serve everyone – keep detailed lists and always try to balance – dollar value is not always an indicator of effectiveness of performance. The source of funds is only from development charges on neighborhood streets. The only capital fund is on arterial roads.

9   TIF?

Capital financing is not the biggest problem – new programs for BIAs – Bloor St – may happen on major street but not for neighborhoods

10.  Does the introduction of a bike lane improve streets?

Not aware of that

11. Wayfinding?

Currently none – but eager to develop one

12   Healthy walk proposal?

An academic idea not yet implemented.

13   Swales and storm water management

The funding makes the difference: we can add on to the base funding to make innovation possible e.g. the first truly green parking lot

14  What is the relationship with the parks department? For instance, Cloud Park has degenerated as has the linear park along Front St in the distillery district.

We are aware of that are we are trying to get better maintenance. We need to connect people with the street and we have been impressed by recent work in New York.

15   Community Consultation

We will not put any dollars into projects if they are not willing to maintain the project but this is a “gentle persons agreement” which may not be enforceable, but the city councillor usually has an interest.

UPDATE Saturday November 28, 2009

In a nice piece of synchronicity, when I turned on the radio this morning, Stuart McClean was reading his story of Emil, the homeless man, who created a garden in “One of the planter boxes on Bloor Street where the city put a small tree and sometimes water”. The story also appears in one of his anthologies of stories from the Vinyl Cafe. Recommended.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 27, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Cost Comparisons of Transportation modes

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The following has been circulated to a number of email list serves. I am copying it here in its entirety and without further comment from me as this issue has been frequently raised here, and I am sure that my readers will find it useful.

Free download here:

This research has been improved by inclusion of a longer list of external costs associated with each mode. Pollution costs and the value of GHG reductions are not included in these externalities. They are things like cost of road construction and upkeep, and parking charges. The biggest change here is moving away from the average cost to park a car downtown to the average cost to park a car generally, which lets the cars look better cost wise. If our focus is narrowly on trips within and to center cities this would change back.

At any rate, the Prius does slightly better than the tram per mile in this work. Buses, skytrain, and light rail behind them.

Of significance, we also have a cost per trip. Given that cars make longer trips generally than do busses or trams, in this computation trams do far better than the prius. This to us is significant as its not the distance that matters to the traveler, its the destination. In areas where there is a synergy between landuses and mode, as is the case in “streetcar city” neighborhoods generally, trips tend to be, on average, and whatever the mode, much shorter.

Finally, as we state in the work, this is not a definitive set of answers to the question of what mode is “best”. There are too many variables, too many assumptions, and too much future uncertainty. At the same time we do believe that the work help clarify a set of issues that are quite muddy, and most often dealt with in a disintegrated way.

Professor Patrick M. Condon
University of British Columbia
James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Liveable Environments
2357 Main Mall
Vancouver, BC – V6T 1Z4
604 822 9291

Written by Stephen Rees

November 25, 2009 at 11:12 am

Millions of dollars in transit fines go unpaid

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It never ceases to amaze me what passes for “news”. This story, which appears in today’s Province, merely confirms what fare evaders have known for years. And everyone who has worked for Translink or its predecessors in the area of fare evasion. If you are caught without proper authority to travel within the fare paid zone, and you are issued with a fixed penalty notice, nothing happens subsequently if you do not pay the penalty. Translink can take no further action since the collection of unpaid fines is not their business. The fine revenue goes to the province of BC. Not that there is very much.

This year, transit cops checked 374,000 people and handed out 11,500 tickets for fare evasion. …

The Insurance Corp. of B.C., which keeps track of ticket collections, was only able to provide The Province details through the end of June: 9,909 tickets handed out and 1,423 paid. There were 142 tickets partially paid and 6,829 unpaid — leaving $1.181 million in outstanding fines.

In 2008, 14,400 tickets were handed out and 11,300 went unpaid, for an unpaid-fine total of $1.95 million.

The scofflaws were even worse in 2007, when 24,200 tickets were issued and just 2,400 offenders paid up.

By the way, that’s a 3% fare evasion detection rate. Also well below the ludicrous claims made by local and provincial politicians. The installation of gates is the only thing that has ever seriously been discussed here. And will, of course, do absolutely nothing to reduce fare evasion or improve net revenue.

The penalty, by the way, is $173. So there is not a great deal of incentive to follow up each individual ticket. There are other ways of handling the problem. One would be to replace the provincial fixed penalty by a “penalty fare” levied as part of the transit tariff.  This would be less than the “fine” ($40 might be about right) but would be collected immediately, or the passenger escorted off the premises and told not to return without the ability to pay.

Secondly, attention should be directed at the “frequent flyers”. Most people are law abiding, and even if caught once or twice, will usually pay if they think there is a chance of being checked. But some regard fare evasion as a kind of sport. This has also been a problem with parking fines in the past. What is needed is some sort of system to identify those who regularly abuse the system. This is the old 80/20 rule in action. 80% of the offences will be committed by 20% of the offenders. The Province piece even uses the term “scofflaws” – which indicates to me they were talking to someone who knows his stuff, but they ignored the important bit. If you can target the “scofflaws” you do not charge them with fare evasion but fraud. This is a criminal code offence and is based on a record of regular, persistent behaviour designed to evade fare payment. The penalties for fraud can be significant. This approach has been used in London since the 1980’s. A $173 ticket can be ignored: a criminal case with a really significant penalty and a criminal record is something else.

This situation, left in the hands of ICBC, will continue indefinitely. The fare “scofflaws” are not the same people who prey upon transit passengers and pose a danger to the safety of their persons or property. They are also not the people currently being lifted by the transit cops for outstanding warrants and other offences. To have effective policing of the system, we have to be able to distinguish between real and imagined threats. Unfortunately, we are governed by politicians whose main qualification is party loyalty and adherence to the party line not experience in any field, or the ability to review evidence and reach sensible conclusions. The sorry story of Kash Heed being only the most recent example.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 23, 2009 at 11:46 am

Green group questions economic sense of hydrogen buses

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It was a while ago now that I questioned the hydrogen bus plan for Whistler,  in fact May 1, 2007. That post attracted a comment from someone using the pen name “Astrolounge” who is obviously an insider, since (s)he revealed that the “plan” was even worse than I imagined. Over two years later and long after most of the money has been spent, Ian Bruce of the David Suzuki Foundation has caught up – and is now being quoted by the Province yesterday.

Bruce says he is concerned about the priority of spending on the hydrogen buses as part of the 12-year $14-billion provincial transit plan announced in January of 2008.

“The new money was roughly $11 billion and of that just under $5 billion was committed from the province,” said Bruce. “Yet in the last budget we had roughly $150 million (toward public transit) so it is not even putting us close to being on track.”

The so called “transit plan” was bogus. I said that at the time as well. There was never any money – other than the funds committed to the Canada Line and this daft Olympic showcase as part of the “hydrogen highway”. The plan relied on money from the feds, and from the municipal level as well. Neither was consulted – and no commitments by either were ever made. The “plan” was simply a hasty rehashing of earlier proposals, designed to look like a plan. And there was never any thought given to how these projects might get enough operational funding.

The Gordon Campbell government was, as that time, looking forward to the election, and trying to appear green. Somehow they managed to work this trick with a totally inadequate carbon tax. Carol James seized on this as her (failed) strategy, when it would have been much easier to discredit the BC Liberals due to their much greater commitment to greenhouse gas increases through the Gateway – a major freeway expansion – the expansion of oil, gas and coal extraction and the yet to be realised plans to build more pipelines to export tar sands output, as well as the very real threat to open up drilling for oil around Haida Gwai.

Added to the question of costs is the fact that the hydrogen has to be bused in from Quebec, as it cannot be produced in B.C. in great enough quantities.

Actually that’s nonsense too. If you are going to spend these sorts of sums, a new electrolysis plant running off our own abundant hydro resources should not have been too difficult. After all, how can you have a hydrogen highway without the hydrogen? Of course, the fact that apart form these buses there are no hydrogen vehicles that need the fuel now or in the foreseeable future is just one of those nitpicking details that can be readily dismissed.

But, said BC Transit spokeswoman Joanna Morton, investing in future technologies is a must.

Actually, it isn’t. There are all sorts of well proven technologies that would increase transit use, reduce car dependency and start building a greener future. The problem is that would require a government that understands how transportation and land use needs to be changed to a more sustainable model. That would, for a start, mean abandoning freeway widening – something that Gordon Campbell has made clear he has no intention of doing even though studies the government themselves sponsored show will increase ghg emissions. It would also mean that some new funding source would have to be found to ensure that the proposed capital projects would actually be able to be operated. This is the most pressing problem in Greater Vancouver – not for BC Transit, since none of the other cities in the province will ever see modern transit investment in anything other than buses. Translink  (SoCoBriTCA) cannot afford any system expansion – and has simply raised fares and taxes to keep operating the same system it has now for the forseeable future.

The real question that needs to be answered is why this government can find millions for hydrogen buses which cannot operate effectively in Whistler and meets no identifiable needs at all, when all sorts of worthwhile projects that would increase transit use and enable a more efficient land use pattern are neglected. The Evergreen Line is the one that springs to mind, but let’s assume that BC Transit has to be involved and needs to spend in other places – so perhaps Rail for the Valley and on the E&N on the Island  come to mind. Or perhaps streetcars for Victoria. None of these looks Olympic of course. None offer photo ops with the Governator. But they would actually work to increase transit use and encourage transit oriented development, and thus actually do something effective about ghg emissions. Something that can not be claimed for hydrogen buses in Whistler.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 23, 2009 at 10:12 am

The Granville Street effect

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There was a story on the CBC News last night that I would have liked to link to. Unfortunately it is not on their web site so I will have to summarise it from memory. When the Canada Line opened, bus service along Granville Street was significantly reduced. This has had a significant effect on the merchants of Marpole, at the southern end of the street. There used to be many bus passengers getting off buses there to walk to their homes. The surrounding streets being mainly four storey walk up apartments. The removal of bus services has also meant that many parking spots have been “restored”  on Granville.

The merchants have been having a difficult time recently. In the months before the Canada Line sales had been falling due to the recession – the figure of “up to 40%” was quoted. Now the Marpole shop keepers are saying that the loss of bus service has cost them another 10% – hitting “impulse purchases” hard. For instance, a nursery still sells as many plants to people in cars but far fewer bunches of cut flowers. The loss of foot traffic is the cause. People who drive and park do not, apparently, spend as much as people who took the bus.

If I had not wasted so much time, prior to the introduction of the #98 B Line, dealing with the intransigence of the “Say NO to Granville Highway” crowd I might have let this go. But I want to know why Linda Meinhardt was not interviewed. She runs a shop, not in Marpole but on “South Granville” which is actually between 16th and Broadway to the north. She was the instigator and main driver of the campaign against buses and in favour of parking. And much misinformation, which worked up the residents into three nights of outrage at the hotel on 12th at Cambie, kitty corner to City Hall. She was especially contemptuous of the staff who had worked on the proposal. And she has now been proved wrong.

It is an important lesson too for the Downtown Business Improvement Association who have also consistently campaigned against buses and in favour of more parking – especially on streets like Granville and Robson.

The Canada Line has increased business – but that is for the casino, which is a “destination”. In fact I see the diversion of consumer spending into gambling as destructive of the economy. The “wealth creation”of a casino being as illusory as a ponzi scheme. Along its route, which efficiently whisks people through an area, underground, I would expect business to suffer. Yes, it will be better than during the construction phase, but street businesses do well from foot traffic, not high speed through traffic. And there is no station near the major on street shopping area known as Cambie Village, which suffered the worst during construction.

Every transit trip is an interrupted walk. Transit stops and stations ought to be seen as key to retailing. Far too often in Greater Vancouver bus passengers are banished to remote, sterile areas like Phibbs Exchange, or the Ladner bus loop. Always this is forced by local merchants who have only contempt for what they see as the low income bus passenger, and who regard buses as noisy, smelly nuisances. Of course, transit’s selection  of large diesel buses only confirms that view. We do have to learn from our experiences, and acknowledge our mistakes. Far too often, transit advocates are expected to be cheer leaders for a system which, sadly, often lets us down, and seems incapable of learning from its past mistakes. Let’s all learn from this when we design our next system change.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 21, 2009 at 11:47 am

Marvin Shaffer: Flawed analysis props up B.C. public-private partnerships

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An opinion piece by the SFU economist appeared in the Georgia Straight yesterday. It was prompted by the release, back in August, by Partnerships BC of a draft discussion paper, Methodology for Quantitative Procurement Options Analysis, for review and comment.

As Shaffer points out this paper comes “after more than six years in the business of assessing and promoting P3s” by Parnerships BC. This blog, of course has consistently exoriated P3s in general and BC’s process of analysis of them. In Britain, where this process was a centrepiece of Thatcherism there was at least the appearance of objective analysis. There every P3 was held up to a “public sector comparator” to determine if there really were benefits to be had from a private sector approach. In the early days of these projects, some savings were garnered simply by having the project conducted by one proponent. Often major public sector projects were developed in several stages or in multiple contracts, and simply bringing the whole thing together as an integrated whole produce efficiencies. Initially these were “turn key” projects, like the Docklands Light railway where the construction of the line, stations and trains as well as all of the supporting systems were the responsibility of one contractor and not several as has been common up to that time. Later, maintenance and operations were added to design build contracts. In some cases much of the savings of this type of contract came from not being obliged to employ public sector union labour. The great push for the privatisation of bus services, for example, was driven by Thatcher’s determination to end the practice, as she put it, of putting subsidies into bus drivers’ pockets. If anyone was going to get public sector largesse, it was going to be her friends and supporters. (Though, of course, she did not say that bit in public.)

The methodology – which is said to be “proposed” but has clearly been in use for some time – from Partnerships BC bends over backwards to ensure that P3s are to be the favoured procurement method. The assumption is made, says Shaffer, the the cost of capital is the same for both private and publicly finance projects. This of course is false, as governments pay lower interest rates for capital, as they cannot go bust and, as a last resort, always have access to the taxpayers’ pockets. The governments ability to raise taxes effectively underwrites the risk to the lenders. That is why government debt is referred to as “gilt edged”. Shaffer also draws attention to the fact that while risk is supposed to be transferred to the private sector in a P3, “Partnerships B.C. doesn’t explain why risks can’t be transferred under traditional fixed-price design-build contracts, and why long-term performance can’t be guaranteed with bonds or similar mechanisms as is commonly done in traditional (non-P3) contracts”. Indeed, the risk transfer was supposed to be the justification of higher cost of capital, which PBC actually does not acknowledge.

But what surprised me is that Shaffer does not talk about profits. When a company bids for a public sector contract, it includes in its bid an estimate of what it needs to stay in business. Public sector contracting can be very profitable, but competition is supposed to ensure that profits are not unreasonable. And in a fixed price contract, if there are cost overruns then the profit gets eaten away. Of course there are models of public sector procurement where the price is not fixed but “cost plus”. This is the sort of contracting that companies like Blackwater enjoy from the Pentagon. Indeed, there is now a long track record of companies making grossly excessive profits in the defence business. One of the most scandalous contracts in BC was the result of the privatisation of health care support services, where the public sector unions won an important court case over the government’s contemptuous action in ripping up contracts. That action may have cut costs but also greatly reduced the quality of services delivered and put patients’ health at risk through poor performance of essential tasks like cleaning.

The rush to sell off BC Rail certainly had a negative impact, if only due to the shocking safety record of CN after it took over operations, largely through irresponsible cost cutting measures such as the removal of locomotives with effective braking systems for the steep, winding route. The collapse of the P3 to build the PMH1 project was blamed on the financial crisis, but also saved significant sums in financing costs alone. In Britain, one of the greatest failures of privatisation was seen on British railways, where the companies that look after the track and now the one that operates the east coast mainline had to be taken back into public ownership. Costs of running the railway escalated as the interlocking contracts required scores of consultants and lawyers were brought into conduct negotiations that were never necessary in an integrated public sector corporation. The train drivers’ union also did very well since instead of dealing with one employer, there were now many, all competing for a shrinking pool of expertise. That was certainly not the Tories intention, but also neither was the appalling safety record – and on that they were most definitely warned, repeatedly, by the civil servants.

The ethos of privatisation is born from the belief that competition makes companies more efficient. It is a belief system that has not been supported by experience. There are certainly examples of companies that do well through innovation and improved customer service. But sadly those are not always the most successful companies. The pressure to perform well is often not directed towards satisfied customers but to the satisfaction of shareholders, which is not the same thing at all. Long term growth and stability is sacrificed to keeping up dividends or more often a rising share price. And there are companies that do really well out of providing really bad products and poor customer service – Microsoft being one of the worst offenders, but also these days nearly every airline. Competition is just as likely to produce a “race to the bottom” as in the fast food industry, which is actually killing off its customers (see “Supersize Me) or tobacco companies.

What the right wing ideologues misunderstood, or chose to ignore, was that in public services there is more than one objective. Profit – when it is the only objective – produces quite dreadful outcomes, such as the US “health” industry. Almost no other country follows that model. The health of the patient – or better the community as a whole – is a much better performance measure than the size of the CEO’s bonuses. Most public enterprises were created when former private sector operations failed to produce what society needed. Competition was seen to be wasteful: for example the free for for all grabbing for passengers on busy routes while off peak and low density areas were ignored. When bus service was privatised this was exactly the outcome that occurred. In Britain, the cost of bus services did fall, but the quality of services fell even faster, and lack of bus service and social isolation among the poor and those who cannot drive themselves became a huge problem. And all of that was predicted, and clearly spelled out, because it was what had been happening prior to taking bus service into the public sector.

If recent experience teaches us anything it is that the free market model has not worked. Just as socialism failed, so did capitalism. But the dogma supporting both lives on. Privatisation was the shibboleth of the Chicago school. It has had some successes, in some places, but only when subject to stringent state oversight, and very careful analysis of both proposals and  performance. Partnerships BC has shown that is is in a conflict of interest. It cannot both promote P3s and effectively manage them. Indeed, on the strength of this document alone I suggest that either the Comptroller General or the Auditor General be called in forthwith to ensure that the public interest is protected. For what we have seen in BC (BC Rail, BC Hydro, public health) is an extraordinary giveaway of public assets and well being simply for the benefit of a few corporations.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 21, 2009 at 11:20 am

Posted in privatisation

SkyTrain police catching more than fare evaders

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This is a Vancouver Sun story but somehow it found its way to Global. (The Aspers need to save money obviously.) My only reason for posting this is that I have covered the issue of fare evasion on this blog for some time. And, once again, the real figures are way below what so many claim.

Transit Police Chief Ward Clapham said only 3.6 per cent of people were caught riding SkyTrain without the proper fare in October, which means “fare-dodgers are not our biggest catch.” …

In the month of October, police checked more than 50,000 people and issued 1,000 tickets for fare evasion — 23 per cent below the monthly average so far this year. …

That translates to a 4.7 per cent fare evasion rate: higher than the system-wide fare evasion rate of 2.5 per cent estimated in the 2008 audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers, but considerably lower than the 5.4 per cent rate estimated for SkyTrain.

What this means of course for the cash strapped authority is that the $100m they have been strong armed into “investing” in fare gates will be wasted. The cost recovery – when you add in the additional operating costs – is pushed ever further out. And the idea that gates will make people “feel safer”is also hogwash. Becuase it is the police action that actually catches the real bad guys – “criminal code offences, as well as for breaching probation conditions and being in possession of narcotics, stolen property or weapons.” Though apart from the weapons none really seem to pose much of a threat to passengers. Once the gates are in place, the police will not be so active – because there will, it is claimed, be less need for fare evasion checks. Even though systems that have gates report similar fare evasion rates.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 20, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Posted in Fare evasion

TransLink to raise price of discount tickets, bus passes

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The Richmond Review this morning has a short piece on Translink’s proposal to raise some fares. There is also a very small amount of additional information on the Translink Commissioner’s website. This includes a link to a two page letter of application which was submitted on October 30. Now that’s three links I have provided, but I have to say that most of the questions this raises in my mind are not answered anywhere in those documents.

The Commissioner only regulates “short term fares”, so the increase in monthly passes is not subject to his process. By the way, you might also notice that the Commissioner is based in Comox, so there is not much likelihood that anyone will be doorstepping him over this – or indeed, any other issue.

The justification for the increase is based on the part of the TransLink 10-year plan called Funding Stabilization: unhelpfully, neither the Commissioner nor the Review provide a a link to that. Google’s “I feel lucky” button helped me to get it for you.

The decision will change what had been a strategy to convert cash customers to tickets and passes, which has been in place for some long time now. Interestingly I cannot now recall if there was any formal research done to back up this policy, but the idea was that by deeper discounting of monthly passes and books of tickets, casual users who pay cash for each trip would be encouraged to become more frequent transit users.  Of course, plenty of other places use this strategy, but so far as I know there was no before and after market research done to determine how many casual riders would be or were converted to regular riders. Though, of course, sales of tickets and passes were monitored, so if we could see old staff reports, there may well be some data on how this policy worked in the past. If I recall correctly, there was a greater increase in ticket and pass sales in the wake of the increased discounting decision. Use of the system, of course, has always been much more opaque, and bedevilled by inadequate data collection.

In general, the people who do not use transit are not deterred by the fare. It is simply not something that non-transit users refer to when they talk about why they do not use transit. Journey time and convenience are their biggest concerns. The idea of discounting was that people who were already using the system now and then would use it more often if they paid up front. The same idea as the recent book of tickets I bought for the municipal swimming pool which gives me an extra 10% discount per swim. They also have monthly – and longer term – passes for frequent swimmers.

The arguments now deployed are not aimed at increasing transit mode share, but simply topping up the coffers. So the idea is that people who use transit a lot, and are willing to invest in tickets and passes will also not be greatly deterred by a fare increase. Cash fare riders, on the other hand, who are much less committed to transit use might well be more deterred, so an increase there might affect mode share adversely. More importantly, people on low incomes cannot afford to buy expensive passes so the fact that cash fares are held constant will help them, and avoid loss of riders, since they can only walk if they decide not to take transit.

At one time in my life I would have had access to the tables of fare elasticities  – or maybe even a revenue model that had those built in (Eva Hague produced one for Translink) – which would give some insight into the probable effects of these changes.  I think it would still be very helpful if that sort of information was included  in materials made available for public consultation. It is not that I question the strategy – as I said I can think of reasons why it might work – but it seems to me that if the Commissioner wanted to understand – and share – how the decision was made this sort of information ought to be part of the package.

Note that the above increases would have the effect of creating room for TransLink to increase monthly pass prices as well, while still keeping the passes an attractive option, relative to 10-ticket FareSaver books, for frequent transit customers.

One of the shortcomings of the Commissioner’s powers is that since he cannot regulate monthly passes that is all he is prepared to say about the discount. It is an observation that is difficult to dispute, except to say that obviously its attraction after the increase will be less than before. ‘How much less’ is the question I want an answer to.

UPass showed exactly how converting casual or now transit users to pass holders boosts ridership. The discount offered to students by UPass is significantly greater than any other transit user, and the cost to the transit system is significantly higher as well (although costs were never considered apparently until it was too late to change).But again, since UPass is not  a short term fare, he can’t say anything about that either.

One of the reasons that we need proper research into issues like this is that in the real world, you cannot hold “all other things equal” which is the great assumption of nearly every economic theory. So just looking at before and after ridership data, for instance, would include all sorts of other influences, not just fares. The service might have changed: the weather will have played a part, as would the employment situation, the fate of local sports teams getting into the post season and so on. Even if there was reliable ridership data.

My bet would be that no matter what anyone says to the Commissioner, he will approve the increase. The case for backfilling Translink’s coffers after the impact of the bet they made (that senior governments were serious when they said they wanted more transit use) did not pay off could not be simpler. The Mayors have bought into funding stabilisation as the lesser of two evils. It is not what they want or what the region needs but it is the best they can do under the circumstances. And that is probably the only way to view this fare increase.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 20, 2009 at 11:30 am

Posted in Economics, transit

Paying More for Flights Eases Guilt, Not Emissions

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There is a hard hitting article in the New York Times this morning, that rubbishes current carbon offset programs linked to flying.

“The carbon offset has become this magic pill, a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card,” Justin Francis, the managing director of Responsible Travel, one of the world’s largest green travel companies to embrace environmental sustainability, said in an interview. “It’s seductive to the consumer who says, ‘It’s $4 and I’m carbon-neutral, so I can fly all I want.’ ”

Offsets, he argues, are distracting people from making more significant behavioral changes, like flying less.

Except that all the airlines that I have seen reports from recently are noticing greatly reduced demand for air travel. Due to the recession, of course, and probably not that many people are deciding to fly less to save the planet. Though some clearly are.

Guy Dauncey in promotional material promoting his new book observes

Flying represents 2.5% of the cause of climate change. The global livestock industry has a 700% greater impact, causing up to 18% of the warming.

I did not buy any carbon offsets for my bacon sandwich, but I did buy some for my trip to UK in February. It seems clear I did not pay nearly enough:

offsetting the emissions of a flight from London to New York would probably require an extra fee of $200 to $300, far above what any airline is now charging.

But this is what I was told

Your Zerofootprint Offsets purchase represents 1.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

The Zerofootprint team would like to thank you for your carbon purchase. Thinking about your lifestyle in terms of its carbon footprint and doing something about it is an important step towards living a sustainable lifestyle and fighting climate change. The $25.60 you have contributed to offset your flight from Vancouver, Vancouver to London, Heathrow will help sustain the important work of supporting Canada’s forests.

Carbon priced at $16 a tonne seems to be a bit cheap – given the cost of repairing the damage that it is going to cause. The effects we are seeing now are not due to current CO2 emissions but those of twenty years ago, and thanks to the “tipping points” we are now seeing the marginal cost of each additional tonne of CO2 is going to be much more expensive in its impact.

But even knowing that, and being environmentally aware, does not make me decide to give up the opportunity of seeing my sister. Just as I still drive a car for trips that could be made by transit but only at double the time and much inconvenience. And I have started the practice of a weekly meatless day – but as much out of concern for my health as for its effect on methane emissions from Alberta steers.

In other places on the web, and not so far very much on this blog, there is a heated debate going on about how much we are going to have to cut back to avoid not the 2℃ of warming  we have been hoping to restrain ourselves for, but the 6℃ that now seems likely by the end of the century if we don’t get our act together at Copenhagen. Much discussion revolves around how people can be persuaded to change their behaviour – and how effective that might be in a country that is determined not to see any reduction in our GDP or production of oil from the tar sands. My choice to go home for my birthday seems trivial compared to Stephen Harper’s choice to do all he can to prevent any agreement on carbon emission reductions which might hurt his friends’ pockets. But I bought the offset ayway. No, I do not view that as a some equivalent to a Papal Indulgence that allows me to sin. Any more than my giving money to Oxfam or Unicef  over the years has changed the ongoing problems of starvation and child poverty. There is some impact – but I acknowledge that it is small and no doubt I could more. Which I think must be a very common view, since the sort of people who voluntarily impoverish themselves in order to take care of others are indeed very rare.

Justin Francis may well be right in his assessment of the effectiveness of the carbon offsets currently available – but simply cancelling the program is not going to make it any better. Children are still dying in Africa every day. Does that mean we should shut down Oxfam and Unicef?  Of course there needs to be better offset programs. Those who can afford to pay for seats in the front of the plane should be paying much more for their offsets – and then price of offsets is obviously going to rise. If it is cap and trade or carbon tax it is going to have to be draconian if it is to have enough impact in time to save humanity. But those who damn current efforts as too little and too late do not help at all to get more people on board voluntarily.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 18, 2009 at 1:55 pm

The Dutch Introduce Road Pricing

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You can read very similar information about this new legislation at either Associated Press or Deutsche Welle (in English)

The Dutch government approved a bill on Friday that will implement a new per-kilometer-tax on drivers. Beginning in 2012 the law will abolish current road taxes and sales taxes for automobiles, cutting the cost of a new car by 25 percent, in favor of the pro-rated distance tax.

Drivers will be charged 0.03 euros per kilometer (7 cents US per mile) in an attempt to reduce traffic jams fatal accidents and carbon emissions.

The tax will increase every year until 2018, when it will cost 6.7 cents per kilometer to drive in Holland.

The government says the tax will benefit 6 out of 10 drivers, with those who drive the most and at peak hours with the most burden to bear.

The system is based on GPS which will track every vehicle. These short pieces say nothing about how the civil liberties groups responded to this.

The system is expected to cut carbon emissions from driving by half and increase cycling and use of public transport. And, of course, the Dutch already have very high rates of use of both of those alternatives to driving  and very good provision of services and facilities. Once again the policy, like carbon tax and U Pass trots out the old “revenue neutral” line, but at least in this case there is a commitment to steadily increase the cost of driving and a note that if the mode shift is not as great as anticipated, there will be greater increases.

Such a system will be instantly dismissed here as politically untenable. Unfortunately, the physics of climate change do not understand that concept. Canada – and also the United States – is increasingly out of step with the rest of the “developed” world. Countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway all saw that something needed to be done about an oil dependent life style back in the 1970s with the first great oil shock. The Dutch had significant reserves of North Sea gas but that has been rapidly depleted. The wiseacres said at the time that they “wasted the opportunity” because they continued to provide a decent level of social services when so many other countries fell into the grip of the Chicago school and slashed public spending and instead gave the rich tax breaks.  The Dutch felt that if anyone deserved a break it was poor people, not the rich or the corporate behemoths.

Our present system is clearly not working well. Not only do we have traffic congestion and an appalling toll on the lives of road users, we also have wasteful land use, unhealthy lifestyles and a carbon footprint greater than nearly anyone else on the planet – and one that is growing. We distribute a very scare resource – peak hour road space – the way they used to distribute everything in the former Soviet Union. It is essentially given away to anyone willing to line up to use it. And we have failed to provide any realistic alternative in most places.

There are similar ideas like distance based car insurance, which is now becoming increasingly available  just tot he south of us, but which we steadfastly refuse to even discuss. If the main stream media do pick up this story I imagine we will see the spin trotted out once again about “punishing drivers” and “social engineering” as if the present system did not punish pedestrians, cyclists and transit users and also socially engineered widespread obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Plus of course social isolation for those who cannot drive, loss of farmland, pollution of watercourses and all the rest.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 14, 2009 at 4:20 pm