Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for July 2010

Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives

Just announced by SFU City Program – a new lecture on August 12,at 7pm

Venue: SFU Harbour Centre, 515 West Hastings Street, Vancouver

Admission is free; reservations are required.

Reserve at

In their new book, Carjacked, authors Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez present their unprecedented, controversial yet hopeful look at car culture, while discussing the complex impact of the automobile and how to develop cheaper and greener relationships with cars.  Supported by anthropological findings and research, the authors argue we are at a tipping point in car culture and transportation economics, where the future of active transportation and transit use will be strong, particularly if cultural ideas and actual experience with the car are made more visible.   More details can be found here:

The book will be sold at the event for a discounted price, and the authors will be available for book signing and a question and answer session.

Catherine Lutz is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Anne Lutz Fernandez is a former corporate executive who specialized in management and marketing of consumer brands, and is now a writer and teacher of English

Written by Stephen Rees

July 27, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Posted in Transportation

Surrey housing complex becomes model for energy efficiency

with 16 comments

Vancouver Sun

The province took over some townhouses from the feds (CHMC) which had been gravely neglected.

The foundations were leaking, basements were flooding, windows and walls were drafty, heating systems were aging, roofs needed replacing and the building envelopes needed to be sealed.

Instead of pulling it down and selling the site for private development, as they did with Little Mountain, they decided to renovate. At the same time they upgraded the buildings’ energy efficiency with heat pumps and solar panels.

Of course the first question ought to be what on earth is wrong with CHMC that they let the property get into this state in the first place? How long had it been like that and what impact did that have on the tenants?

features include better perimeter drainage, insulation and building envelope upgrades, as well as solar electricity panels on the roofs of 11 of 28 townhouse blocks.

The solar panels have a rated electricity generating capacity 139 kilowatt hours — and are expected to provide enough power to replace 10 per cent of what the complex would otherwise pull off the BC Hydro grid.

Why less than half the buidlings and why only 10%? At a guess I would say its probably something to do with the orientation of the roofs. But that does seem to me to be a remarkably modest target. There is also absolutely no information about how much all this cost and what the pay back of the energy efficiency measures is supposed to be.

It is important that this sort of thing is done. In general, energy efficiency is usually more cost effective than adding new generating capacity. New solar panels are a bit of a side issue for us, for we do not need to get any power from carbon based fuels – we just choose to, so that the generators can make money selling peak power at high profit margins to California. Frankly, using existing hydro is about as zero emission as one can get. Making new solar panels not being carbon free.

But for many homes in this province, and especially in this region, since they are not in the public sector and thus do not have the government’s deep pockets to delve into, things like up front costs and payback are very significant figures. Many town homes are either condominiums (strata title) or co-ops. There are a lot that are of a similar age: built when hydro was a cheap source of heat, and insulation was minimal. Many still have single pane windows, with no thermal breaks in the frame. Lots of other condos, of course, have had – or still have – other issues which are being expensively dealt with at the owners’ cost with little or no government help.

Could you persuade a strata council to set up a new levy on all the residents to pay for a program of energy efficiency retrofits which would pay back through lower energy bills? Even with the new carbon tax, I would regard that as being a very difficult sell. But I also do not see this government actually doing very much. A “role model for the province’s Green Building Code” is not actually going to do very much at all to help existing home owners or tenants – much less reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Nice little summer story – gives the minister a bit of positive media that the BC Liberals desperately need, but not actually very useful at all.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Posted in energy, housing

Tagged with ,

Translink’s Smart Card Faregate

with 5 comments

Railway Track and Structures (bet that doesn’t feature on your regular reading list) reports on the progress towards selecting one of three qualified bidders.

What caught my eye was this bit

The province is providing C$40 million for the Smart Card and Faregate project, while the federal government is contributing C$30 million from the Build Canada Fund. TransLink is covering the remaining costs – approximately C$100 million of the estimated C$170 million capital project.

Now I may be wrong, and I have spent too long on the other post  I just put up to go look, but that does not seem to me to be the same figures I have seen quoted before. Can someone put me straight?

Otherwise just the same guff we have seen before

Written by Stephen Rees

July 13, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Posted in transit

Tagged with

Life in the bus lane

with 2 comments

CNN has a story today about Jaime Lerner – they called it “Transit guru: My life in the bus lane” which, as usual, sounds like a young sub-editor trying to get noticed, not an accurate summary of the story. I suggest you look at the accompanying video as well as reading the text, so that you can see why the Curitiba bus lanes are not like anything you will see here – or elsewhere in Canada, come to that.

What I want to emphasize is that the busways (or what the US calls “BRT” Bus Rapid Transit) are really only a small part of the story.

He and his young fellow architects conceived Curitiba’s Master Plan in the mid 1960s, which soon resulted in the bus system as well as pedestrian-only streets, more parks, and later, a unique trash-for-cash recycling program that encouraged people to turn in garbage and reusable materials in exchange for food and other goods.

Curitiba also boasts plentiful parks — there are 51 square meters of green space per person in the city — one of the highest per capita rates on the planet.

“Most of the programs that Jaime Lerner and his team started 30 years ago….have been left alone or neglected.”

The busways are exclusive transit rights of way that were taken away from general purpose traffic on existing wide boulevards. The traffic in the rest of the system has become very congested – so there is both a stick and a carrot to switch modes. We do not do this. When we put in rapid transit – or even HOV, we do the utmost to ensure that traffic capacity on the road system is unaffected. We do this by adding lanes, not converting them, and for our rail based systems, grade separation at huge expense. Lerner’s system was designed to be easy to install and cheap to build. Ottawa is probably the nearest comparable system of busways, but there again it was grade separated, hugely expensive and did not penetrate the core of the city. The buses are left to fight it out with the cars. On the other hand Ottawa also did not force transfers, by pretending that the busway was like a train system, so commuters get a one seat ride from their suburban origins to work in downtown. They have also decided that they need LRT now.

Lerner was trying to change a lot about his society – but when North Americans go to Curitiba they tend to focus on the buses. That’s a shame – and there is much to learn from the experience there about community involvement, empowerment of marginalized people and so on. Not that I claim to be expert in those areas, nor am I going to spend much time on them here. But I do think we need to see this in perspective and note that he is not the Mayor now.

The Provincial government now makes all sorts of promises – as does Translink – about BRT. They are going to be used in Surrey. We can also see that some things have changed here in recent years. For instance, under the present administration actual bus lanes are being built on Highway #99. That is to try and soften the blow of the forced interchange to the Canada Line for people from Delta and South Surrey. Of course, bus lanes had existed for years on this Highway on either side of the Deas Tunnel. They were steadily degraded until they got to 2+ HOV as a sop demanded by then Mayor of Delta Beth Johnson as a condition for signing on to the GVTA. There were no bus lanes on either side of the Oak Street Bridge, where they were sorely needed, and now are only being built on the south side to help buses get in and out of the Bridgeport Road interchange quicker. Not sure the southbound lanes now being completed will actually help much. To work as a queue jumper, there has to be a queue to jump, and south of Oak Street bridge in the afternoons traffic usually moves well until it approaches the ghastly Steveston Highway interchange which should have been rebuilt many years ago. Even the closure of the weigh station has done little to change the daily congestion here. So far as I know, there are no plans to make that any better, any time soon.

Highway #99 at Deas Tunnel

Traffic moving well July 14, 2010 - transit buses merge into #99's traffic here

Lerner’s system has novel bus stations to ensure prepayment of fares and speed loading. If you use low floor buses, elevated station buildings (he used simple plastic tubes) are not needed – and as Broadway Station demonstrates, you just need somewhere for waiting passengers to be marshalled. What is notable is the service frequency. A bus a minute! Now that is something that very few systems even try to emulate. On a rail based system, with signalling, 30 trains per hour (tph) is usually the accepted limit for service frequency, and that is dictated by the ability of people to get on and off the trains. London has shown that if you build platforms on both sides of the train and use one for unloading first then open the doors on the other side for loading, you can get more than 30tph – but they only do that now on the Docklands Light Railway which has other much more significant capacity constraints. For a deep level bored tube, I worked out that it was nearly always going to be a better rate of return on capital to build a new line and stations that try to retrofit existing stations with additional platforms for the same number of tracks.

In Vancouver, Translink tries to sell us the idea that a 15 minute service is “frequent”. Hah!

When bus lanes got discussed here with the City of Vancouver engineers, prior to the #98 B-Line, I got very little from them. Their view ten years ago was that if the bus could keep up with the traffic, that was enough. They were appalled by the idea that a bus might be made  more attractive by giving it an advantage. Now that attitude seems to have changed – at least as far as bikes are concerned. Bike lanes have been made by taking gp lanes on Burrard Bridge and Dunsmuir. Somehow buses hung on in Granville Mall too, and will return in September. But when you look at what other cities have been doing for many years in terms of bus priority – and not just for express buses on special routes – we have a long way to go. But do not expect much movement in that direction until Translink can deliver a lot more bus service. Right now they are too heavily indebted and hobbled by payments to P3 projects to contemplate any service expansion anywhere, and will be “re-allocating” bus service (i.e. cutting the service where it is currently least provided).

If, when we do see BRT here, and there is a reduction in car capacity at the same time, as well as a lot of improvement in feeder services to the BRT (which other cities seem to understand too) then we might see a shift in mode. After all, Surrey at 4% transit mode share has a long way to go, so it shouldn’t be hard.  But one reason that I doubt it will happen that way is that there is no thought here that we need to change our way of life very much at all. At least not at any government level – and I include the City of Vancouver in that judgement. They may talk a good line and do more than most, but that does not have to be a lot to be seen as different around here! No politician that I know of is actually willing to get up and say we have to reduce car capacity on out road network. And no one is seriously suggesting that we could increase transit service service to levels that would make that a workable solution – even though that was what happened during the Olympics. If it did happen that would be a legacy I could celebrate: and it is not going to happen.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 13, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Posted in transit

Tagged with ,

Petition Pushes ‘Fairer Form of Auto Insurance’

with 2 comments

The Tyee continues the campaign for Pay As You Drive car insurance, which this blog also has done for some years (as you can see from those links). As has the Tyee: in fact that was where Cliff Cipriani read about it. And he has now launched an online petition and this video

There is some choice in car insurance in BC. ICBC however is compulsory for “third party risk” – in other words the costs that might be incurred by someone else – also known as “legal minimum”. To cover your own risk – “optional insurance” – can be taken out with ICBC or private insurers. When ICBC was set up, as a way of keeping local insurance brokers on side, the new corporation was required to only sell through a brokerage. It is not allowed to sell insurance directly. Of course, as with many other things, you can do lots of things for yourself on line these days. that’s the way a lot of people buy air tickets now – so much so that travel agents now cannot get commission from the airlines but have to charge a feee to their customers. You can buy optional car insurance on line – and over the phone – too, and I would recommend  that if you live in BC, you check out the costs compared to ICBC. I know I save money and get better coverage by buying mine on line. YMMV.

What is mistaken is the assumption that ICBC is “supposed to pursue the public interest”. If that were the case, there would have been PAYD years ago. After all, ICBC commissioned the report from Todd Littman – and then sat on it. And their spokesperson is willfully misleading when he talks about Norwich Union. They wound up their PAYD pilot due to other market pressures – nothing to do with “lack of interest” – and actually some longer time ago than “last year”.

The risk of collision is directly proportional to distance driven. So in terms of the risk assessment, charging people who drive much further than average is very bad insurance practice. In general, I support the idea of public insurance. The evidence is quite clear that we get a better deal from ICBC overall than similar places that rely solely on the private  sector – even if it is regulated. I also think that ICBC does a very good job at promoting safer roads – for example by their encouragement of the use of roundabouts. Private sector insurers don’t do that. But the mulish resistance to PAYD from North Vancouver has to stop. Please sign the petition.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 12, 2010 at 4:12 pm

“Private-public partnerships back on track in B.C.”

with 2 comments

Globe and Mail

Frances Bula writes on the Province’s Request for Qualifications for bidders on the Evergreen Line.

The provincial government is confident that it’s going to be able to work out an amicable deal with TransLink on how to find its one-third of the money for the $1.3-billion line.

Its confidence appears to be tied to the attitude of the current Mayors’ Council head Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender. But despite them having “quieter conversations” than previous mayors, there is no indication that either the province is likely to come up with a new revenue source for the Translink $400m share of this project or that the other Mayors will allow this to be met from property tax which has always been the Province’s preferred source.

And, apparently, P3s are back on again because they are cutting out the middle men – the (foreign) banks – and going straight to the institutional investors

pension funds and insurance companies, are looking at lending on government projects because they are seen as stable investments that provide long-term returns.

That is to say, the taxpayers are backstopping the deal – so despite the spin that risk is being transferred to the private sector in a P3 that isn’t happening at all.  In fact these same institutions have always bought long term government bonds (known as “gilts” on the London market) because they are at very low risk of default. Unless there is a revolution, of course. Imperial government bonds from Russia and China had a market at one time as wallpaper.

So why is the government convinced it can now get a deal? I suspect because it has the power to force one if it has to, through legislation. And there is still time in its present mandate to do that. Fassbender better have something much better up his sleeve. I cannot imagine what that might look like.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 9, 2010 at 10:48 am


with 6 comments

When I pick a topic to write about, I try not to simply replicate what can be found elsewhere. At the very least, I will have a developed opinion to offer and, hopefully, something to say about how it might apply to this region.

This morning I got an email from its editor alerting me to the latest edition of Car Free Times. This is a free publication produced by one person, J.H. Crawford – who is connected to the World Carfree Network – and whose efforts I have promoted here and at my flickr group Places Without Cars. In the latest edition, there is a link to a free book called Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices by Charles Siegel. That link takes you to the html version – which is easier to read on line than the pdf – but you could use that if you want to print your own hard copy. Or, of course, you could buy it as a paperback for US$12.95.

The last paragraph of the book is an excellent summary of Siegel’s position:

The calls for more planning assume that centralized organizations staffed by experts should provide us with goods and services, and ordinary people are nothing more than consumers. This view made some sense one hundred years ago, when scarcity was the key economic problem, but it makes no sense now that over-consumption is the key economic problem in the United States and the other developed nations. Today, we need to invert this technocratic view, so we can change from clients who expect the planners to solve our problems into citizens who deal with these problems ourselves by putting direct political limits on destructive technologies and on growth.

I admit I cut and pasted that too.

I was trained as a regional planner in the early 1970s when I worked for the Greater London Council. That organisation had been forced by popular opinion to abandon its plan for a system of “motorway boxes” that were said to be needed to solve London’s traffic problems. They also gave up on road widening schemes like that on Charing Cross Road that the engineers had been contemplating for years – requiring developers to provide setbacks to new buildings that could later be taken for wider roads.  My interest, up until then, had been on transportation – and indeed I had wanted to go to Imperial College to do my Masters in transportation planning. Since the GLC paid my salary and my tuition fees, it was not too hard to change my mind. So it was that I learned about all the planing theories that this little book so neatly summarizes.

I also recall now that one of the things the other students had a hard time with was the extent to which these theorists had influenced practice. They tended to have come straight from their undergraduate schools, whereas I had been at work for five years. So one of the things I found myself doing – somewhat to my own surprise – was explaining what it was like to work in planning – both in the seminars and the pub afterwards.

As a transport enthusiast, one of the books I read – I think when still at school – explained how London’s suburbs had been developed, mostly by the railway companies in the second half of the nineteenth century. All of a sudden, one of the questions that had bothered me as unanswerable was explained. A french exchange student asked me (in 1964) why all the houses in our part of the East End all looked the same. I didn’t know – and simply rejected the assertion by pointing out the – to me – significant detail differences. But it turned out that the need for more traffic on the radial railway lines from London (in our case, the Great Eastern and London, Tilbury and Southend) coincided with the Public Health Act of 1880 – which tackled London’s slum problem by specifying minimum  standards for things like daylight within rooms, sanitation and so on.

You can date London suburbs a bit like rings on a tree – distance from the central area being key. But also by two other parameters. Towns that developed around railway stations built by speculative small developers, and “estates” that were built by municipal governments and often based on their tramway systems. Especially those built by the GLC’s forbear the old London County Council. East Ham was quite different to Becontree, for instance.

I recommend that you read “Unplanning” – it won’t take long. It is, of course, mostly written from a US perspective. The Garden City movement and Le Corbusier are acknowledged but mostly the analysis is why the United States ended up in car dependent sprawl, and what has been happening there recently. I might be wrong, but I think I detect a whif on anti-government libertarianism here. That seems to infect a lot of political thought there, because of the affection that Americans feel for their founding fathers, and the way that the US constitution has been fought over since by various vested interests. The whole gun thing, for instance, can only be understood if you read the debates about what the 2nd amendment was supposed to have achieved – other than the highest murder rate in the world.

Having been a planner and a civil servant for most of my life, and seen what that achieved – or rather more often – failed to achieve, I have some sympathy for the view that greater citizen input is needed. Certainly I accept that faith in technocracy was misplaced. In the British civil service the maxim was always that experts should be “on tap not on top”. But that was not used to favour people power, so much as the grip of broad generalist mandarins,  who read “greats” (classics) or “modern greats” (politics, philosophy and economics) at Oxford or Cambridge, on the senior positions at the head of ministries. There has always been a distrust of “the mob” – and, with the advent of democracy, the ability of demagogues and “hidden persuaders” to control how people will vote. In the US, the separation of powers is intended to provide the necessary “checks and balances”. Sir Humphrey, of course, knew better.

This blog has covered – thanks in part to the public lectures at SFU – the New Urbanists, as well as some other modern innovators in both transportation and land use planning. And I would like too to mention once again my instinctive response to reading – and rereading – the works of Jane Jacobs. For me the most depressing thing about relying on citizens is their lack of willingness to get involved. It bothers me much more when people do not vote, than when they vote out of misguided belief in failed political theories. But when we are faced with huge projects of a uniquely bad decision making process – Highway #1 expansion, or the loss of Burns Bog – or even small scale but willfully selfish and stupid decisions like the destruction of public housing at Little Mountain – and most people simply shrug and get on with their lives – I have a real problem putting my faith in “citizens who deal with these problems ourselves”.  I do not accept that “we stick with the old technocratic idea that it is up to the planners to deploy the technology”: most people can see through the fog of spin and bafflegab. They just do not think that anyone is going to listen to them. Moreover, they are rightly suspicious of the motives of activists. And not a few of them (activists and the public alike) are both badly informed and in the grip of odd delusions. For instance, that it is necessary to be “tough on crime”, or that all taxes are just a cash grab, or that public spending is wasteful. Or that climate change is scam.

How do we convince people that they do have power? And, if they do actually chose to use that power, how do we protect ourselves from populists? I think the emergence of the movement against the HST is a really good example of how people can be mobilized: but what worries me most about this event is the way it has been built around Van der Zalm – who I trust no further than I could throw him.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 8, 2010 at 12:09 pm