Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for January 7th, 2010

Business chiefs launch attack on parking tax

with 6 comments

Don Cayo in the Vancouver Sun has a longish opinion piece on a new campaign of opposition to the increase in parking taxes downtown. It is all very predictable – with the usual suspects lining up to vent – including Charles Gauthier, who has regularly featured on this blog.

It is perhaps a little late for the campaign. Much more effective, surely, would have been some activity while Translink was still in consultation mode. After all, regional bodies here are much more responsive to organized business interests – the truckers and the Gateway Council for instance – than they are to community groups or public opinion. What transit users think, of course, has never mattered at all.

But campaigns by groups like this have worked. After all, the leaders of these organisations also tend to be, or be close to, BC Liberal Party insiders.  As Cayo notes, an earlier, regional parking tax was killed by a similar effort. Though this one seems to be more aimed at public opinion than politicians.

Actually, the people who pay to park are not a very significant component of the region’s population. Most of the parking spaces in the region are still “free” and a lot are on private land. Most are tied to other activities – shopping or employment. Increasing parking charges ought to be one of the more effective ways of influencing driver behaviour. After all, the parking charge is applied at the end of the trip, when the trip is made. So it can be avoided only of the trip is not made or diverted elsewhere. Except, it turns out, a lot of people do not pay themselves for the space they occupy.  It get claimed on travel expenses or written off as a business expense. Some employers pay for parking as a benefit. Parking charges in Vancouver are, comparatively speaking, quite cheap. Much cheaper than  major urban centres like London or New York – and that is partly because there is still, comparatively speaking, quite a lot of it. Though perhaps now less than there was, and probably it wil become scarcer, at least in the dense downtown core and the major business districts.

I think this is just as it should be. The areas where the new rates apply are those that are best served by transit, so if there is an effect of encouraging car users to switch modes that should become apparent. It cannot happen in most of the rest of the region since transit capacity and service levels are so woefully inadequate, you have to be a “transit captive” to use it.

Translink is, of course, cash strapped becuase it does not have access to adequate operating funding from senior  governments. Not enough from the province, none at all from the feds. And the parking tax is part of a program of funding stabilization that also hits transit users and property tax payers – as well as drivers in general, since the gas tax has gone up too. Again, in a world where carbon emissions have to fall, just as it should be. Transit is well worth paying for: it is a public good which needs to be supported. Translink also pays for roads too, as it happens. So on the whole I do not see that this campaign really has much merit. Nor do they seem to be really on the ball in coming up with some alternative way of keeping this essential service going. Of course whenever taxes are increased there are howls of protest. But since governments in Canada have been doing their best to lower income taxes and cutting services in general, I think the limit to the protesters demands may well have been reached.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 7, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Posted in parking, transit

Tagged with

Why do I talk to the CBC?

with 2 comments

Once again, I agreed to be interviewed for CBC TV. They have been up a Whistler looking at the hydrogen buses, and they wanted to talk to me about what might have been a better way to spend the money. Of course, all they really want is a sound bite. This happens every so often. I stay in. They run up, they spend a while talking while tape is rolling. They then take some other footage which can be used – with other sources of sound – in the editting suite. It might take twenty minutes to half an hour, of which a minute or two at most might be seen (or heard on CBC radio). As with nearly every issue in real life, things are rarely simple – and usually interconnected. But the world of TV news does not allow for complexity.

Of course I have covered this issue in this blog – some time ago actually – which is how they got hold of me in the first place. The key question is “was there a better way to spend $40m?” (or whatever the figure was)

Yes, of course, I replied. If you just wanted zero emission buses the same money would buy you 40 trolleybuses. Or if you wanted to increase transit use, 80 conventional buses. Of course, you would need more operating funds to actually use the buses – they would need operators, as well as some maintenance. By the way, the funding for the BC Transit hydrogen buses ends in 2014. No-one knows what happens to them then.

Would that actually increase transit use then?

Well no, not really. It would be a necessary but not a sufficient condition. We really need transit priority on the street – to make the service attractive and reliable – but we also need to have a land use pattern that makes transit use feasible. Outside of Vancouver, there are not many places where that is the case. And as long as there is inadequate transit service, not really much chance that things will change. And as long as we are spending billions on widening one freeway and building another one, not much chance of that pattern emerging either.

Like I said, there really is no simple magic bullet solution. Gordon Campbell – like most politicians – loves being on tv. He enjoys the ribbon cutting moments, and always has a sound bite ready. And he is all about image. Reality, of course, is rather different. He likes to be seen in front of a hydrogen bus, because he likes people to think he is green. Actually his performance to date on the green portfolio has been worse than dismal. The huge expansion of oil, gas and coal exploration has been second only to Alberta. BC was the only province to increase its industrial greenhouse gas emissions in 2008. The carbon tax has had no measurable effect on car use – or indeed anything else. The pipeline from Alberta to the BC coast will be soon be built for the export of bitumen and the import of distillate, which means the prospect of oil tankers in the inside passage will soon be a reality. When that happens, expect the moratorium on off shore drilling for oil and gas to vanish. The increase in car use in the lower mainland will by then be seen as a minor contributor to BC burgeoning ghg production.   There has not been a lot of green achievement so far – and the prospects for the near future look to be much worse.

We know what we have to do to reduce ghg emissions. We have to reduce the use of fossil fuels – which first means cutting their production. Then we have to adopt a life style that is less carbon intensive. In urban areas that means we walk and cycle more – and use transit for the longer trips. Over time, motorised trip making must be reduced, which means we have to tackle land use. Transit must be electrified – which means we can use a variety of sources of energy, but we are lucky in BC in having plenty of existing hydro. Of course, we have to stop using that for other purposes like export to California to feed their fridges and air-conditioners, or for our own space heaters. There will of course be a long transition period – it cannot happen overnight – which means hybrid and battery cars will have some role – as will diesel buses, which have a service life of around 18 years. In that time we will have also brought in more bikeways, bus lanes and surface LRT. Transit oriented development will be encouraged at the points where transit service is most frequent – and will be very popular, as other ways of getting around get more difficult and expensive, since oil gets very expensive, very quickly in nearly any scenario.   The good news is that we will be both happier and healthier: the more we walk, the lower the incidence of diabetes, heart disease and obesity – the three biggest threats we now face. Public health costs – one of the greatest budgetary concerns at present – could actually start to fall. But there is absolutely no need whatever for hydrogen – in buses or cars. We have all the transport technologies we need – we just need to use them more sensibly. We need a real commitment to change – not a showcase or a Potemkin village. Buying more buses is just step one – and nothing will happen until we take the steps after that – and keep going in that direction.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 7, 2010 at 2:30 pm