Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for May 10th, 2010

Monday mega-post

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I spent much of the weekend at the Northern Voice blogging conference – and, being contrary, did not take the netbook or the MacBook with me. All around me people who were at the front of the line to get a seat in a session were busy. Listening perhaps with one ear to the presentation, but mostly doing other things – tweeting, live blogging (though perhaps not as much as in previous years) but also I saw Gmail and even people building web sites. I thought it was a good idea to take notes in a paper format – using a ball point pen in a real notebook  (which also meant I didn’t need to spend any time looking for a power outlet). But a lot has been happening, and I wanted to draw attention to some of the stories in my inbox this morning piled up from the weekend. If you follow the same listserves I do, some of this may be repetitive of that.

On trans-action the long running debate of rapid transit versus streetcars, that has long occupied the commenters on this blog, continues. This evening I am going to be at the launch of Patrick Condon’s new book and there is also some overlap, now apparent, with the recent controversy here on environmental justice. Richard Campbell posted all of “In Praise of Fast Transit” – so I won’t, but it is worth noting the overlap.

From this perspective, it’s difficult to understand University of British Columbia Professor Patrick Condon’s recent call for slow transit in his home town, Vancouver.

“This perspective” being American, and based on their “suburban dispersion of the poor” – or if you are poor and live in New York you have to live in places like Queens because the better connected areas are not affordable. Now to some extent that might also hold true here – but is not, I think, quite so definitive. People here tend to follow the “drive until you can afford to buy” rule too, but there are other ways of achieving affordable living, often starting with the decision not to own a car – or maybe only having one car in the household. The change of land use around Joyce Colingwood being a good example – and one that is, sadly, all too rare. With the exception of West Coast Express, we did not go for “expensive commuter rail options” – unlike Greater Toronto. And there I used to have to listen to TTC executives spout “no concessions for fat cats from Oakville”  whenever the topic of fare integration got raised. Actually, the people on the GO train I boarded every day had also been forced out to suburbs like Malvern, where the TTC was often the only option for most of the remaining lower paid jobs in the industrial areas as free trade hit. Park and ride was about the GO’s only saving grace.  But that is, I think, exceptional in Canadian experience, and in Greater Vancouver we had intended at least to provide people with a grater range of choices. Not that we succeeded, due to the calamitous decisions that drove industry out of Vancouver into the suburban fringe and usually to the freeway exits, instead of the “regional town centres”. Most Metro planners concede that “office parks” were never part of the LRSP. And putting UBC at the end of the peninsular, and SFU on the top of a mountain, and then declining to provide anything like enough of the sort of accommodations that students need was even more contrary.

Patrick has his own riposte on Human Transit. And it is worth reading. But the point I want to make to readers here – and especially those who spend so much time commenting – it is not the transit technology that we ought to focus upon. It is about the sort of place we want to live in. Obviously in a long established huge urban area like the New York megalopolis, much retrofitting needs to be done – and it obviously ought to be more concerned about everyone – and not just the well to do – than it was in Robert Moses’ heyday. But in this region we have to weigh also in the balance where growth is going to happen next – we can expect another million people in the next twenty years or so. And also where we have been spending most up to now and how little difference there has been in mode choices as a result.

I think the speed question can also be reframed in that speed of itself imposes higher costs on society – firstly because a fast trip burns more energy per passenger kilometre than a slower one, but also – in personal transport – carries with it a higher risk of more serious casualties. Add to that, the extent to which personal transport is tied to fossil fuel use, the inevitable environmental degradation – of which a large chunk is the sprawl it continues to generate. Clearly the debate should be more about transit versus freeways – especially the extent to which recent decisions can still be reversed – than about trams versus SkyTrain. For the ‘burbs the prospects of “rail for the valley” seem to me to be diminishing, not improving. I hope I am wrong about that, but for now Translink cannot even find a way to pay for the much needed Evergreen Line – so the whole “what kind of transit do we need on Broadway” seems to me to be pointless. Whatever Translink concludes in its current round of planning is irrelevant. Translink cannot afford ANY expansion. Anything that does get built will be decided by the province (and the availability of federal funding) not what Translink and its consultees might prefer. If anything at all.

In the Globe and Mail, Frances Bula reports on an important shift in priorities at the City of Vancouver. No longer just “no more roadspace for cars” – the rule in recent years – but now less space for cars.

Urban-planning research has found that roads typically account for about 35 per cent of a city’s total land area.

The days when cars had free rein in that era are long over. Planners and city politicians look at which stream of locomotion should get priority and where.

They are also looking closely at how much room cars take. They require 140 square metres when they’re travelling, 37 square metres when they’re parked. And, Ms. Reimer said, one recent calculation she heard was that there are four parking spots for every one of the 1.5 million cars in the region.

“If you could figure out a more efficient use of allocating all this pavement, you could do all kinds of things,” she said.

One thing that we could do is take space from cars (1.3 people per vehicle on average, or 1,300 people per hour per direction per lane) and give it to transit. That gives an order of magnitude increase in people carrying capacity – as Gordon Campbell acknowledges. Even the very limited, down to fixed price budget, Canada Line can carry as much as five lanes of freeway each way  – or ten lanes of Broadway. But you can also do that with surface transit. And don’t bother with the issues of should be  it be steel wheels or rubber tires. It doesn’t matter. What matters is any exclusive lane transit option is far cheaper to build than a subway – and it gets in the way of the cars! Slowing cars down is a worthwhile target as part of the strategic objective of making a city better for people. Less space for moving cars – and parked cars too in the longer term once there is adequate transit – means more space for tables and chairs as well. It is not that streets are just for moving the maximum number of vehicles through as quickly as possible: streets are the public realm. Streets are where we live. Lively streets have lots of people – and they are not moving very fast – or often at all. Yes we need to get about – but that is only part of what cities need to be workable, and pleasant at the same time. Not that you will read that In Bula’s piece.

You also have to make it possible – or even attractive – to get across the street. Especially at intersections. Even more importantly where stupid transit planners have neglected to put in enough entrances to the subway (i.e. nearly every Canada Line station). Once again, please note that your nice new train might be “fast” (and could have been faster had it not had to stick to the bends in the road around Queen E park) but it is the overall door to door journey time relative to the car that matters in mode choice. And access time, in any simulation, is always twice the value of  in vehicle time. Washington DC is bringing back the Barnes’ Dance. I have mentioned that here before too. This is a better name for it than the “pedestrian scramble” which I think has all the wrong connotations as it makes me think of eggs and their fragility.  The important thing being that all vehicles face all way red signal – and no sneaking around the corner either! The current practice of giving turning movements priority at signalized intersections and making pedestrians wait ever longer also sends all the wrong messages. The priority in Vancouver’s plans has been (for many years) pedestrians first, then cyclists, then transit, then, finally, motorized vehicles. But that is still not seen on most streets.

The Staten Island Ferry

In news of transit in other cities, New York saw a nasty incident on the Staten Island Ferry,  which is being blamed on the high tech Voith Schneider Propeller. I didn’t get a ride on what is truly the world’s best harbour cruise (beats SeaBus and anything in Hong Kong becuase it is free) because we spent so much time in line for the Liberty ferry.  Maybe just as well. Seattle is looking at alternatives to its aging fleet of trolleybuses with the likely crunch issue being hill climbing ability. We ought really to have looked at trolleybuses for SFU, North Van and New Westminster. Or, as my trips last weekend reminded me, extending the #41’s wires to UBC. Actually my personal desire is to see poles put on some of the new hybrid buses, so they could use the wires where they are currently installed but little used . A bit of roof stiffening and some extra power control technology might be more cost effective than more kilometres of the world’s longest extension cord. And less wirescape. Note how nice this street looks without all the cables commonly seen on so many arterials in this region. Not just trolleybus wires either!


And finally, the SFPR P3 contract was awarded on Friday. Laila Yuile has all the ghastly details. (Hat tip to Eric Doherty for the link.) As it happens London has got rid of its appallingly bad P3 deal on the tube. Interestingly, under the aegis of a conservative Mayor Boris Johnson.

Johnson was quoted by newspapers as saying the deal freed London Underground and private contractors from “the perverse pressures of the Byzantine PPP structure.”

Bob Crow, general secretary of transport workers’ union RMT, said the buyout was a “recognition on a massive scale that transport privatization does not work” and said RMT would continue to campaign for the renationalisation of Britain’s rail network.

Piccadilly Line Barons Court  20051201

Written by Stephen Rees

May 10, 2010 at 11:38 am