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

Archive for August 2010

Portland streetcar success has fueled interest elsewhere

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USA Today

Sightline’s daily says this piece appeared yesterday, but there does seem to be something very familiar about it. Anyway, I am just back from San Francisco – which seems to be a place which really understands how to use transit – and there is going to be a UBC symposium on streetcars on September 29th. I have been encouraging people to go to this, but I want to pre-empt some of the debate. Mainly becuase I do not think there is any value at all in once again revisiting the Skytrain vs light rail debate.

My point is that the real battle should be transit vs the car – not which type of transit we should build. Indeed, I do believe that the rail vs bus debate is worthwhile either, since what we need is a lot more transit and very quickly.  The pressing need in this region is to stop the expansion of freeways – the widening of Highway #1 and the new Port Mann Bridge are steps in the wrong direction but arguably too late to stop.  I would like to say the same of the SFPR, but building that is now well advanced too – for instance the earthworks on Highway #17 north of 28th Avenue for the new intersection and railway overpass.  Very simply put, if we actually cared about global warming our first priority would be to reduce the need to use cars for every trip. The quickest way to achieve that is to expand transit service. Instead of that we are stuck with a transit system that is at capacity and cannot grow due to fiscal constraints that are not being applied to the rest of transportation network.

In San Francisco there is one street – Market Street – that is perhaps the best illustration of what we need to aim at. Streetcars, buses and electric trolleybuses (SF has one of the largest fleets in the US and Canada)  share the surface street with cars. But the combined service is so frequent that the centre lanes are almost de facto bus and tram lanes.

SF Muni PCC 1053

This streetcar was built for Philadelphia in 1946: MUNI bought a bunch of them for the new F line service they introduced when the Embarcadero freeway was taken down after the 1989 earthquake. The picture below shows a former Milan streetcar on the reserved right of way that is now the centrepiece of a wide boulevard that actually carries more traffic than the old two level elevated freeway. (There is also a neat video from StreetFilms about that.)

Peter Witt SF Muni 1893 rear

These heritage cars are now a very important tourist attraction in their own right and supplement the historic cable cars linking downtown with Fisherman’s Wharf. The cable cars climb over the top of Russian and Nob Hills, the streetcars run around the bay shore at the level. Travel time is not too different – cable cars being limited to 9 mph. Both see long line ups at peak travel times.

SF Muni Cable Car 1

But to get back to Market Street – not only are there buses (11 routes) and streetcars on the surface there are two levels of railway tunnel. The upper one has light rail service – six routes with a common trunk that fan out across the city outside of the downtown area. This provides a mixture of fast rapid grade separated transit – partly due to terrain but also because surface transit on a very dense grid provides complementary local service – and on street convenience and ease of access in suburban areas, with a significant feeder bus route system.

Breda LRV on N Judah

And at the lower level BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) connects to the neighbouring cities – Oakland, Richmond, Pittsburgh and Fremont across the other side of the Bay as well as the airport and the Caltrain service to San Jose and Gilroy (which also gets in to San Franscisco near Mission Creek).


There does not seem to be the same mindset at Translink, where we still hear the old story about buses must not compete with rapid transit, and passengers must be required to transfer to rail in order to boost the ridership figures. Well, that is the story but the reality is that trolleybus #19 has always paralleled the Expo line and provides a local level of service that the Skytrain can’t. Even though BART and MUNI are separate agencies, there is clear evidence of fare and service co-ordination everywhere. Muni sells two kinds of monthly pass – $60 of Muni or $70 for Muni plus the BART system within San Francisco. BART and CalTrain both have the fare by distance systems that longer distance services need, but are also integrated with Muni. Muni service accepts transfers from Almeda/Oalkand, Golden Gate ands Harbor Bay ferries and BART plus half-monthly passes. Inter-agency monthly passes are available with AC Transit, Golden Gate, SamTrans, Caltrain and so on.  Yes, we have the “golden ticket” because we have one regional transit system – but we get a lot less transit. I would suggest that the geographical constraints on the Bay Area are far greater than ours – and of course their population (approaching 7 million) is also far greater. But the direction they have taken in recent years seems to me to recognize that they understand the limits of what could be done with cars – and have been building and refurbishing their transit systems in ways we can hardly imagine here.

We need to look at what kind of transit is needed to meet travel requirements in different parts of the region. Actually I think cable cars would be kind of neat in North Van and New West – but I know that is a low priority. I also doubt we will see a sunken tube (like the BART Bay crossing) from Waterfront to Lonsdale any time soon. But can you imagine the reaction I would get if I seriously suggested a Market Street approach for Broadway? Yet that is what we need. Local service on the surface and regional service – grade separated and probably in tunnel – as well. Yes we have Canada Line, but that it seems to me does not replace what a streetcar/light rail could still achieve along Arbutus – including the line all the way out to Steveston just like the N Judah. Which could conceivably interwork with a downtown streetcar to Granville Island. Where, by the way there are still rails embedded in the streets, and there are far too many cars!

I am all in favour of incremental low cost expansions that use existing rights of way to keep costs down. Starting off with bus lanes and B Lines is no bad thing at all. But they will be of limited use and life  – and can then be redirected as they are replaced by better rail service as ridership increases. Just as the #98 B-Line did (not that Glen Clark expected that when he authorized it!) But our vision has to be long term, and consistent and has to be geared to reducing the use of fossil fuel for personal transportation. We have to adopt a serious metric – transit mode share must increase, not just ridership rising as population increases, which is about all we have done up to now. And it must not just be about moving students to University, or commuters to downtown, but meeting the travel needs of the whole of the population, all day, every day and every which way!

Written by Stephen Rees

August 30, 2010 at 11:13 am

Posted in transit, Transportation

London switches from PFI to conventional contact

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TRANSPORT for London (TfL) has ended its Prestige public finance initiative (PFI) contract with the TranSys consortium of Cubic Transportation Systems and HP Enterprise Services and replaced it with a conventional contract with Cubic.

The PFI contract was awarded in 1998 for a period of 17 years to install new fare collection equipment and so introduce the Oyster smart card system in 2003.

TranSys took on £190 million of debt to fund the PFI and TfL has repaid the outstanding £101 million. TfL has also purchased the rights to the Oyster brand for £1 million. TfL says the new contract with Cubic for all transport ticketing will save about £10 million a year.

That’s the complete story from the International Railway Journal.

We don’t call them PFI – we call them P3s – butt he idea is the same. And in London, they have been a disaster and this is just the latest in a series of decisions to save money by going to a conventional contract. The savings, as noted, are significant.

BC has a politically dogmatic approach that says that while they recognize that it does cost the private sector more to borrow for capital projects, the private sector is so much more efficient that there are savings. Of course they do not have an objective private sector comparator requirement as part of the project evaluation – a British requirement. There could well be objective data that shows that the P3s are very good for the private sector bottom line, but at the expense of the taxpayer. That is certainly the experience of most of these arrangements.

Translink is of course forced into such deals – and as we have seen with the Canada Line – there is more than just the cost of capital to be concerned about. Contracts that are so inflexible that it is not possible to utilize the available capacity when demand rises faster than original expectations – that should have been the story yesterday, not cupcakes given away. It should also be of concern that the funding gap on the Evergreen Line is still not yet filled – and a P3 is supposed to be part of that too. Even though the majority of the funding in place  comes from the public sector it means that the contractor will have a disproportionate amount of power. Just like the way that Translink now cannot divert empty trains from the Airport branch to serve Richmond, where demand is much higher.

I do not think it is likely that the current administration will change its policy with respect to P3s, but the longer they stick with it, the dumber it is going to look.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 18, 2010 at 7:21 am

All revved up with no place to go

with one comment

Andrew Clark calls himself “Road Sage” – meaning he is a motoring columnist at the Globe and Mail. He follows the tradition of Jeremy Clarkson: nothing matters to him except cars – preferably fast cars. His piece on Friday was inspired by the story of a 19 year old, given a BMW M5S who wrote ““What’s the point of buying an M5,” he wrote, “to drive as a daily driver and feeling like u are 70 years old?” Except he didn’t buy it, and he went on to admit to driving at 140 km/hr in a residential area – for which he was successfully prosecuted. Clark mentions three reasons why that might be a good thing (“put aside” safety) but then says “I have to admit that “Vlad Max” was onto something”.

No, he wasn’t. There is no compelling reason why anyone needs to drive at more than 110 km/hr. The fact that the Germans still have autobahns with only advisory limits simply reflects the political clout of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche – and the fact that German politicians and others enjoy these status symbols too. Not that it is a Good Idea. Unsurprisingly, Clark ignores the main reason why speed limits get imposed. Not safety – even though collision severities increase with speed. Fuel consumption – which also increases (geometrically at high speeds) is the main reason. The US introduced a nationwide 55mph limit in response to the 1970s oil crisis. The fact that also lead to a reduction in deaths and severe injuries was a bonus – but not nearly enough to keep the limit at 55, once the immediate crisis of gasoline supplies was passed. A lot of attention was paid to air quality – especially in California, which other places needed to follow so that folk could breathe – but not much to fuel efficiency. Wasting fuel was one of the main things that got tackled once emissions standards were raised, since more effective combustion reduces tail pipe emissions – but most of that gain was devoted to higher performance, and hauling around ever bigger, more luxurious personal vehicles – many of which were light trucks to try and get around Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards.

Clark simply ignores the need to reduce fossil fuel consumption. It is the most pressing need in the world: the current floods in Pakistan being an indication of what global warming means to human beings, given that we clearly do not give a stuff about charismatic megafauna like polar bears.

What North America needs is a system like Germany’s Autobahn.

No mention of course of how that would be paid for. Taxes – or tolls? Not a hint. Just bad puns. OK, I will accept that it is a silly season story. And I do recognize that cars as objects are both interesting and indeed desirable. A lot of design effort – and marketing savvy – has gone into making cars as objects cultural icons. Just last night I was watching Hilary Kay going all gooey about an Aston Martin DB5 – one that was used in the early Bond films. (The original James Bond – in the book – drove a red label Bentley.) I am determined to get to the Steamworks Concours d’Elegance this year  – not least for the delightful people who love to show off and talk about their beloved cars.

1928 Bugatti Type 44 Roadster Vancouver BC 2006_0902

There is a real car culture – and for many the point of owning a car that goes far beyond “a daily driver” – and I do not expect anyone aged 19 to fully comprehend that. Apparently males do not fully mature until they are 25.

The fact that someone who writes about cars can ignore greenhouse gases is not surprising either. He depends for his living on the automotive industry – and as that Carjacked piece goes on about at some length, most of that requires the public to be persuaded not just to buy personal transportation – but to spend far more than is sensible, far too often to keep the whole system going. We have not yet abandoned the idea of economic growth, though we OECD countries clearly passed the practical limits of that some years ago. And that requires planned obsolescence – something the automotive industry invented. We could have cars that lasted much longer, or that could be upgraded like many PCs by parts replacement. Except that even there we mostly don’t.

What North America actually needs is more railways – especially electric railways – and ones that allow passenger trains priority over freight. This well known, existing technology can be implemented effectively, and will be much quicker than any  other plausible route to reducing internal air travel and quite a lot of driving of IC vehicles. The current US program for High Speed Rail is a very small step in the right direction. Not that Canada is even thinking about anything similar. BC of course is only spending money on more and faster roads. And one reason advanced for that is the pressure from people who influence the BC Liberals that it was necessary for them to drive faster on the Sea to SkyHighway. NOT that the road was unsafe: it wasn’t. It was just that there was no effective enforcement of the speed limit. Of course photo radar was unpopular – but that does not mean that it was a bad idea. Quite the opposite in fact, even in the incompetent way it was implemented in BC.

But you can bet that many people will pick up the idea that we need more and faster roads. After all that fits into what they have been sold. And also fits into the currently dominant denial that we face imminent annihilation if we do not change direction now.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 17, 2010 at 10:12 am

Weekend reading

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Southbound train

Frances Bula does a comparison of the Canada Line to the Central Link in Seattle in the Globe and Mail. Its a bit short on the basic math and geometry and heavy on the personal/cultural stuff, but worth a look nonetheless. The Central Link is not low cost light rail either – except for the surface running bit in the middle – so the comparison is really between the kind of city it serves – and the key question of drivers vs driverless. So a change from the usual tram vs Skytrain debate. I think what is needed is a quick reference chart with the basic data – but I am not sure I have the time or energy to compile it.

Light rail trains sit in a yard in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on Saturday, Jan. 17, 2009.

Light rail trains sit in a yard in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on Saturday, Jan. 17, 2009.

Don Cayo in the Sun does a thing on why we don’t use ferries here as much as they do in Sydney – another one of those things that came up at the Jarrett Walker SFU talk. Otherwise I do not see why he is trotting this out now: its not as if Translink is actually proposing to do any more ferries any longer. And he also gets the number of SeBuses wrong. They ordered a third one in time for the Olympics – not because they intend to run three from now on but because they are going to take one out – almost certainly for scrap since it is unlikely to fit anywhere else.

Translink's Proposals for Commuting by Water

I think this graphic comes from the 2003 study – which only looked at the Burrard Inlet. There is no mention of the other crossings that have been suggested – such as the passenger and bike ferry over the top of the Deas Island tunnel that GVRD Parks were once keen on.

To his credit, Cayo does look at the basic math and geometry

While it’s true that, depending on the route, the travel distance may be shorter, fuel consumption per passenger mile — and therefore greenhouse gas production — is much higher. This drives operating costs way higher than land-based travel.

But fuel costs are usually not a great concern for transit: 80% of operating costs are labour costs. And fuel consumption varies hugely by size of vessel and hence load. In the case of freight, water transport is much more energy efficient per tonne  kilometre  than other modes but only because it is so slow and is confined to very large bulk loads – sand, gravel and woodchips are some of the most significant internal cargoes on this region’s waterways. Also log tows – one of the few places I have seen this practice. Passengers usually need to be moved more swiftly but of course the False Creek ferries do a magnificent job and are not subsidized at all. They even pay HST!

Passing ferriesCyquabus II

And finally a very necessary read from the Guardian, earlier this week.

‘Environmentalism’ can never address climate change. The shape of modern US environmentalism isn’t fit to tackle the scale and scope of climate change, argues David Roberts

I do not know why they left that US qualifier in there: its a global problem, though obviously without the US doing something effective, the rest of the world’s efforts may always be inadequate.

Environmental issues take a very specific shape.

The thing is, that shape doesn’t fit climate change. Climate change — or rather, the larger problem of which climate change is a symptom — isn’t like the issues that American environmentalism evolved to address. The solutions that American environmental politics are capable of producing are not commensurate with the scale and scope of the challenge climate change represents. A clear understanding of that challenge renders comically absurd the notion that it can or should be the province of a niche progressive interest group. It’s just too big for that.

Worth reading but also worth thinking about what that also means in other countries like Canada. Are we to be hobbled by our current governments’ attitudes? Federally – we think oil revenue from Alberta is more important than anything – and we can use US inaction as an excuse for our own “we must be integrated with the US economy” means we do less than nothing. Provincially we will do a buck and wing with carbon tax and cap and trade but stay with business as usual for the largest emitters oil, gas, transportation.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 14, 2010 at 12:48 pm


with 5 comments

Car Myth, Car Realities: An Anthropology of Americans and their Automobiles
Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez

SFU August 12, 2010

BEST and the  Car Co-op were co-sponsors of this talk which was the last of the book launch tour. The authors said that they had been able to do the transcontinental trip without once stepping in a car.

There is in the US a massive government policy preference for cars. There are now

  • 250m cars and light traucks
  • more cars than drivers
  • 91% of households own a vehicle
  • 3 trillion miles are driven annually
  • Each person spends 18½hrs are spent in the car per week (equivalent to a part-time job)
  • 162k gas stations
  • 750m parking spaces

The car is the most important object in the world but is “little studied as an artefact or cultural system”. Their backgrounds are one in anthropology, the other in business and marketing, and it is these perspectives they bring to the study.

They started by noting the power of nostalgia. Americans have happy early experiences in cars and they recall fondly how it used to be. But humans notice least what is most ubiquitous – fish is to water as humans are to culture. We were raised in a car culture. They interviewed lots of car drivers and owners and  went to car museums, auto shopws, dealeships, car lots, emergency rooms and funeral homes as well as the Detroit vehicle proving grounds. They examined people’s attitudes and behaviour as elements of the car system. That looked at the cultural ideas – like freedom, and family values, which have been co-opted by the car companies and their advertisers. People are now being motivated by marketers to stay in their cars. The question that they wanted to ask was “How do we encourage people to get out of cars?”

The talk examined five myths of car ownership

  1. cars make financial sense
  2. cars are safe
  3. cars are more comfortable than other modes
  4. cars make me an individual
  5. cars provide opportunity – economic especially – “people without cars are losers”.

Cars are a lot like guns:  “Try to pry my steering wheel out of my cold dead hands!”

1. Is it cheaper to drive?

People tend to focus on the price of gas vs the price of a train ticket (for example). The obsession with gas pricesmeans that people do not tend to look at the entire cost of a car which is $8,000 pa,  of which gas $1,581. This is based on a new midsized car in 2009. Transportation now accounts for 17.9% of household spending and is second on the list: shelter is 19% and No 1. The average vehicle loan was $15,000 in 1970, but rose to $27,000 2010. The personal savings rate dropped from 10% in 1985 to 4% in 2009.

Government policy initiatives have all been about the  health and well being of the car corporations. For instance the  “cash for clunkers” program tempted individuals  to over borrow: they were encouraged to buy new cars when they woudl normally replace their old clunker with another used, but somewhat newer, car. In recent years we have see the  “gigantification” and luxurization of cars. Car loans are up to eight years long. It is often the case that people go “payment shopping” what they can acquire for a given monthly payment, not what they “need”. In recent years the market share of small cars has been dropping.

2.  Cars are safe

We now think that there is such a thing as “safe car”: it is not seen as an oxymoron. She showed a Mercedes Benz commercial which emphasized the feeling of safety. At the proving grounds when putting new cars through their paces they were constantly asked, after driving over a skid pan for instance “Do you feel in control?”. We have been easily sold on feeling of safety: technology, we think, can help us solve problems that cars introduced. This is seen also in insurance ads – (in Florida 25% of drivers now have no insurance).

Drivers tend blame other drivers, weather etc not themselves for crashes. Driving is not seen as a dangerous activity. The idea is that cars can make us safer in an unsafe world. The car makers play to a generalized fear of violent crime – people think that it is rising when it is fact falling – dangerous weather – illustrated by an On Star from GM automated crash response. We believe that  kids are safer if we drive them rather than allow them to use transit and a car with the right air filter can protect us from air pollution. However the relaity is that for people aged 3 to 34 the car is the No 1 killer. The rates of fatalities have remained remarkably steady over number of years but the number of severe collisions increased because we drive so much more. In  2008/9 the roads got safer because we drove less. Fatalities are actually the least part of the problem: the huge number of serious and severe collisions produce lifelong suffering for those injured to the extent that there is now a “hidden nation of the disabled”.

3  Cars are comfortable

This section was introdued with another ad that showed a mother deciding to spend a “spa day in the back seat” of her car. Once again the car is presented as the solution to the problems created by the car in this case the solution to traffic induced stress. Many people say “I hate driving, I am sick of it” but then go on “If I had a new car …”

Car ads have now moved to the city but there are still no other cars on the road: “even the pedestrians part like the Red Sea for Moses”. Research shows that people with long [car] commutes are unhappier – and so are their spouses – and it is the unpredictability of commute time that drives us mad.

4  Cars make me an individual

The myth is that buses and trains are for the masses, whereas the make and model of car you drive can distinguish you. When people paid cash for cars it was a fair marker of social class. These days people want to believe that their car matches their personality. The car is an accurate self expression for around 40% of drivers: the others said they can’t afford “the car that is really me”. In many ways we express ourselves through “social skin”, our choice of clothes for example.  The car industry has capitalised on this – if you are eco minded you need a hybrid!

5  Cars provide opportunity

Most people see the car as essential to attaining The American Dream. There is a  $20bn pa budget for car advertising, and a popular belief that if the poor had a car they could get a job. Cars are in reality the  most significant factor in inequality: transportation takes a proportionately bigger bite of the income of the poor. At the edge of car ownership many are just one car repair or parking ticket away from carlessness. The poor are subject to higher rates for loans, dealer fraud, and insurance rates by zipcode. There is a business called Rent a Tire – it may be the only way for some people to to get their car through a mandatory vehicle inspection. However renting a set of tires for a year costs far more than compared to ownership.  There has been a great expansion of car title loans, where the value of the car is used as security for a loan and of course leads to  repossession in default.

Challenges and opportunities

  • financial literacy

  • misplaced fears

  • ease and comfort of alternatives

  • alternatives will promote mobility, prop[???] and equity

  • attractive social identity around alternatives

  • generational changes – children now are not as keen on car ownership as their parents

  • positive form of identity

One sign of hope may be the recent drop in car sales.

US Vehicle Sales Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate

US Vehicle Sales Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate

Q & A

Q Can you say more about your perceptions about new drivers

A   I teach a lot of 16year olds: while there is  joy and delight at getting a driver’s license, it is a rite of passage, the parents seem to be more excited than the kids. The data shows that there are more kids who don’t need to drive, due to the recession there are fewer jobs to get to, and parents are still willing to drive them. But also there is the rise of youth bike culture.

Q I hope you know that the car commercials are filmed in Vancouver. We close the streets off for them. How much were people aware of the allocation of road space – and land use – of the suburban lifestyle

A – There are lightbulb moments – where you live creates the problem – and from that has grown a movement to defend the rights of the suburb dwellers. While many people are feeling trapped by sprawl – when buying a house further out they felt that they didn’t have a lot of choice because that’s where housing is affordable. We did note a sense of helplessness.

Q – Your mention of nostalgia reminded me that it is a classic sign of addiction. Perhaps should do the same as for somking and drinking and ban car ads

A – We certainly need to ban car ads aimed at children – the No 1 killer of kids is cars. However cars are now the primary source of revenue thew in US for the media, so they would be at risk to that loss.

Q – I recall that my first joy was the bike. I would like to connect to that: ads for trucks to rip up environment – throw something out of the window – permission to pollute: the message seems to be “Its OK to destroy your world!”

A  – That is an excellent insight into legitimising ads – there are many subliminal messages

Q – Do you look at the impact of car on climate

A –  We touch on it. The  household portion of the emissions that give rise to global warming could be tipping point but we were probably more optimistic then(when we wrote that) than now. Many americnas worry about CC but put their faith in technology is unshaken

Q – GM disassembled the streetcars – and  foretold what was coming with Futurama. Now they are bulldozing Detroit suburbs

A – We met many people who are working on changes. For example one planner who is finding new space for urban commercial development buy simply taking out  turn lanes. There is a growing understanding that the environment should not be held hostage to the car.

Q – Do people understand the economic relationship of transportation and housing? For instance the “need” to drive until you can afford the mortgage?

A – People don’t understand that: while  the idea that 30% is a reasonable share of income to be spent on housing, very few understand that 45% should be the maximum on housing and transportation combined and  lots of education is needed

[POSTSCRIPT There is now another tool that helps

Walk Score — the handy Web site which ranks a person’s home based on how close it is to nearby shops, restaurants and schools — has expanded the service to include a new transit rating. The Transit Score is now available for residences in more than 40 cities in the U.S., helping home owners or potential home owners to determine how accessible properties are to high-quality public transportation. Like Walk Score, it ranks the home on a scale of 0 to 100.

source Puget Sound Business Journal]

Q – Where do we go next? By the way there is a culture of transit for instance “Toronto loves the TTC”, Boston and the T, and so

A – There are both push and pull factors. Recently I became a victim of ebike ride addiction – “I got high” – – take ’em on a trip

Q – US gas prices July 2008 was the peak $4.10 – we pay that now here $1.10 litre – Is there a relationship between price of gas and willingness to drive

a – Increasing the gas tax would make other other options attractive but it is a difficult issue. I am not sure there is one number: moreover increasing the gas tax hurts the poor – and there are widespread anti tax sentiments – so it is not a politically viable option. But peak oil is here and people are now discovering their own limits without  the gas tax increase.  $4 caused people to drive less but it was the volatility and speed it happened that caused the change in driving habits.

Q  – When local communities reach their tipping point, what will the car companies do then?

A – Car ads have relocated, the battleground has shifted. Ray la Hood [the US Secretray of transportation] is now the villain for the right wing. Why does Rush Limbaugh love sprawl? He gets more listeners on the car radios when they are stuck in traffic. They also keep promising us electric cars, but selling us SUVs.

Q – Our prov government is conflicted. We have a carbon tax but also a road building program. The perception is that transit is subsidized, yet the auto is more subsidized.  Do you have that data on that in your book?

A – We do cover that. Oil subsidies and and the car company bail out are now both  unpopular. We do cover how much of your tax dollars go to car industry.



Two Americans have a new book aimed at Americans. Our problems may be similar, but we heard not one word about Canada until the audience spoke. Even then I found it laughable that Torontonians love the TTC! In my experience in  every city where I have been, transit users are always highly critical of their own transit system and especially the body that runs it.

I would like to have heard one thing that was new to me. I did not. I did not feel I needed to buy the book, even though it was being offered signed and at a discount. Not that anything they said was wrong either – just that it wasn’t news. Nor, I suspect, was it to anyone in the audience either, though everyone who spoke was very complimentary. It was a sermon to the converted. Just how many copies of tis book will find their way into the cold dead hands now on the steering wheels? Very few, I’m afraid.

I am also stunned still by their assertion that the car is “little studied as an artefact or cultural system”. I am sure that is not so. Since the appearance of  “Unsafe at any speed” there has been a steady stream of books aimed at car culture.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 13, 2010 at 3:29 pm

Posted in Transportation

“700 Vancouver parking spaces to be transformed into parks”

with 7 comments

The Vancouver Sun reports this morning on an international effort to repurpose parking spaces

On Sept. 17, volunteers from 140 cities in 21 countries will transform more than 700 metered parking spaces into mini public parks.

So, as seems to be common at the Sun, the headline is misleading. The VSPN are going to do one parking space in Vancouver, not 700. And not until next month – so lets watch the letters column for fulminations before then. They hope others will follow suit – but 700 is the global expectation, not the local or regional one.

Actually it is a great headline – if it were true. There are plenty of places in Vancouver which have a dearth of public open space, and a city policy that declared its intention to eliminate parking spaces to reclaim the land for “higher and better uses” – like sitting in the sun and watching the world go by – would get my vote.

Far too much land in North American cities is devoted to cars – and far too much of that to cars that are not going anywhere. As a transportation system, the private automobile is dreadfully inefficient. As a user of urban space even more so. We already know that the Canada Line moves more people than ten lanes of freeway – the Premeir told us so. Of course, he is still building more freeway not more transit. But once those cars get to their destinations they just sit and wait for the return trip.

Critics of commuter rail – like me – point to the waste of resources when a train sits for 20 hours a day doing nothing just so it can make one round trip a day from Mission to Vancouver.  On weekdays only. But many cars in cities do not move at all. They are owned as “just in case” vehicles. Indeed, my impression when I revisited the place of my birth in East Ham, London is that people there now own cars just to be sure to hang on to the space in front of their house. If they moved the car, there would be nowhere to park once they got back! But few people seem concerned that they have tied up a lot of capital of their own – and a lot of land – by buying a car and then leaving it idle most of the time. And having a car available all the time gives one a great disincentive to use any other method of getting around. Since there is all that money tied up in depreciation, maintenance and insurance, one might as well get some use out of it.  All that drivers tend to look at is the marginal cost of car use – sometimes gas but mostly parking cost and the time the trip will take – including searching for a free spot at the trip end.  We know for certain that if we want to get people to stop using cars and use other modes, then tackling parking – making it scarcer and more expensive – is one of the more effective ways of doing so. Especially since few politicians will even talk about road user charges.

I frequently refer to Copenhagen as an example – ever since I heard Jan Gehl mention it. A policy there committed that city to reduce the space allocated to cars by a small amount every year (parking and moving). This was based on the “boiling frog” principle: a little  bit each year is not noticed, but over time is very effective. The policy has to be adhered to consistently for a long period of time. In their case they managed that, something we seem incapable of managing. So forty years later they are much further ahead at dealing with congestion, livability, greenhouse gas emissions and so on – all the things that we say we care about, but not enough to actually do anything effective.

Instead we – and indeed most of North America and many other places – talk about “balanced” transportation policies. This is actually code. What it means is stick to policies which favour car owners – who happen at present to be most of those who vote – and do not rock the boat too hard when decisions on human health, housing, global warming, crime – you name it they all get impacted – have to be made. We stick to what we have always done, and then look surprised when we get the same or worse outcomes.

By curious coincidence, Jarrett Walker who is currently in San Francisco, describes a new experiment in trying to determine the market price of parking there – not to make it more scarce, but to determine the right price.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 10, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Posted in parking

A Field Guide to Transit Quarrels

with 6 comments

Jarrett Walker at SFU City programme

August 4, 2010

This post is giving me problems. For one thing, the talk is by a blogger – Jarret Walker writes His blog has been on my blog roll for quite a long time and I have no problem recommending it to my readers. I hope he reads this – and decides either to comment or send me an email if there is something that needs correcting. At the start of the evening, Gordon Price said that he advised Jarret at the start of his blogging to post something – even if it was short – regularly, to keep people coming back. I am not sure that is necessarily a great idea. I now only post when there is something that I feel I have to say. And even then I am increasingly conscious that I am repeating myself. Blogs need content – and that is my problem. This longish piece is not my content – it is what Jarret said last night – and much of it can be found on his blog. So to some extent this is going to look a lot like riding his coattails.

There were also significant technical problems yesterday evening. I got there on time – which meant I had to sit at the back of a very large room. I needed to be next to an electrical outlet, as the battery on my net book is no longer holding charge (it’s a replacement battery too!). The microphone fitted to Jarret was wireless, but picking up all kinds of interference, and as he himself admitted, he cannot stand still behind a lectern mike.  So what with my slow typing speed, and the speed with which he went through his topic, there is plenty of room here for things to have been missed or misheard. Which is another reason why I hope I get feedback from those who were there – and Jarret himself. What follows after the horizontal rule are my expanded notes of the lecture and subsequent public question and answer session. Then there will be another horizontal rule and my own reaction.


A field guide to transit quarrels

The “field guide” is a metaphor. He is trying to categorize the arguments in ways that describe but do not judge or recommend. He thinks that the quarrels reflect the “chaos of nature”. There are all kinds of claims, put forward with intense fervour and absolute sincerity. He has a book coming this fall that deals with this mass of claims about service and technology which he tries to place upon a “spectrum of authorities”

  • my feelings
  • our feelings
  • culture
  • psychology
  • biology
  • physics
  • math/geometry

The intensity increases as the “sphere of influence” declines. It goes from cold to hot (bottom to top)

The requirement is to “figure out how to do something with emotions that has usefulness”

For example , it is frequently said that  “LA is a car culture”. Now, it is also said that humans tend to underestimate the rationality of others. In this case, the statement underestimates the rationality of the people of LA.  It is not so much a question of culture but that they are responding entirely rationally to the choices available to them.

Another example is urban streetcars. We love how they look and feel. Streetcars signify permanence – the fact that they run on rails means that they are less easy to take away than a bus service. But the fact remains that simply replacing buses with streetcars is not a mobility improvement. You can only go so far with marketing. In mixed traffic there are lots of things that will trap a streetcar that will not trap a bus. It is also claimed by its supporters that people will get out of the way of the streetcar: that is a cultural response to a geometry problem.

The items at the top of the spectrum are hot = subjective, unreliable and urgent. Those at the bottom cold = universal, reliable timeless

The spectrum goes from the dull abstract – practicality to the intense, real – vision

NIMBY (and conservatism in general) is about HOME. Every spring there is media coverage of magpies versus cyclists in Australian cities. the birds attack in defence of their nests – not cars or pedestrians but people riding bicycles. We behave similarly in defense of our neighbourhoods – it has a profound authority – but is not necessarily rational. An attack on what our neighbourhood looks like is not necessarily an attack on us.

Practicality without vision becomes habit – “too much how and not enough why” – this is true bureaucracy in general, and US highway engineering in particular, and is a characteristic of conventional bus operations. Indeed, when a service has to be delivered reliably, day after day, we should expect those organizations good at doing that will not have any vision. “We followed the manual. We do it this way because it works.”

Vision without practicality = boondoggles

Each of these examples are of vision out of control. These emotionally intense visions imagine a finished future but not a way to get there. For instance “slow transit” might produce a better kind of city eventually but will not win people away from the car in the interim. Arcosanti – utopian city in Arizona – has been under construction for 40 years but has not really affected much change.

PRT solves only one problem: “I won’t have to sit in a car with strangers” but until it is city wide it cannot possibly be an effective way to link the multiple origins and destinations required.

Visions fixate on the vehicles, not the service it is supposed to operate.

“Is vehicle love always an escape from the present?” Vehicle choice is something car owners understand. There are enthusiastic claims are either about the future or the past – futurism or nostalgia (illustrated by the Grenoble streetcar and the SF cable car). “The modern streetcar is a perfect marriage of both”.

Practicality is too much “stuck in the present”,  vision is “stuck in the future”. We need voices in the middle. Formalized training tends to emphasize the former – with the exception of the SFU City programme.

He then went on an interesting diversion on how BART serves SFO airport. “It was not built right. It looks good on a map but it doesn’t work.” The triangle looked perfectly fine if it were a highway, but does not fit into transit geometry because branching cuts frequency in half. The service has been changed several times to try and match service needs at Millbrae (connection to CalTrans) and the airport, but all result in excessive service at San Bruno which continues to resist transit oriented development.

Other important basic points about transit geometry are also ignored at the peril of service

line spacing – parallel lines that are too close are competing with each other

connections– “nobody likes to transfer” – against frequency and simplicity  – many routes on each street vs one route on most streets

density to transit demand: double the density is more than double the demand

transit technology choice often makes no difference to outcome: speed reliability and frequency are all unrelated to technology

One powerful thing about simple networks is that almost anyone can understand how to get anywhere easily. For example, the  Manhattan street grid pattern makes it easy within a short time to understand how to walk anywhere. (He did not note, but I will, how that breaks down at Greenwich Village – and how delightfully easy it is to get lost there.)

Another current example is the proposal to build commuter rail to Monterey – objections to transferring lead to a complex service pattern, and one that now is caught up in debate about High Speed Rail. A simple two line service in an X pattern with one transfer would have worked much better.

In the range of densities we have in North America, doubling the density of development will more than double the demand for transit service.

What if we listen to the geometry first? – We would need better manuals but there are some ways forward. For instance, service frequency must be visible on the transit map.

But the main lesson of the lecture is to encourage us to ask the question “Where is the claim’s authority?” (i.e. on the spectrum above)


Q – Why does double the density produce more than double transit demand?

A –  Denseville is twice as dense as Spareville. Within walking distance of every stop, there are double the number of people in the same  range. But there are also double the number of opportunities (destinations) . Moreover  restrictions on car use are higher in Denseville.

Q – Is Paris an example for Vancouver: for instance you say that transit vehicles there seldom have to stop for red lights

A – The bus lanes in Paris happened in the last two decades. The bus lanes came from both moving traffic and parking. The Mayor said we are going to do this. There were no demonstration projects. Yes, you can do it here. Vancouver is ahead of most other [North American] cities of its size and type. Find a path on which to progress which does not look up to anywhere in North America.

Q – Our goals need to be more ambitious – eg reduce carbon emissions – we don’t evaluate our transit success against that sort of need

A. – The recent history of sudden transformative change – the Olympics – is a step in that direction.  Don’t worry solely about funding. Look at streetspace. The Paris bus lanes are also used by bikes and taxis. Our decisions should be based on a goal that has to be reached. And remember we get more from the same [transit] dollar when we speed up service.

Q –  Should transit authorities have powers to do development and land use planning?
A –  Land use drives ridership. We need a constructive relationship, not necessarily allways in the same body. All agencies need to be working to the same plan. It is not always an organizational issue.  Some US agencies do development around their stations [he did not name any].

Q –  In BC all pst secondary students will get a Upass in September at a price of  $30 for all students. But when there are campuses in rural areas there is a huge range of variability in service. We are trying to sell transit to students who have to walk in excess of a kilometre to get to transit. Is walking distance a personal problem?

A – It’s a geometry problem. We need to locate institutions in right places i.e. where transit service is going to be

Q transit vs roads is the same authority – Translink
A – It’s not the organization that matters, it’s the long term plan and the clarity of its resolve

Q faregates
A – This is more about psychology, not the math of fares. It’s the perception of fare evasion – fact versus hunches – it’s about absence. France and Germany have come to opposite conclusions (one has gates, the other doesn’t) based on the same evidence. It is cultural and psychological thing not simple math.

Q – Property taxes that pay for transit are region wide but people in the suburbs get nothing

A –  What I have said that if ridership was then only objective, then this is what you would do. But there are other objectives: social service, fairness and so on. What transit agencies are trying to do is meet contradictory needs. The question I asked was “What is the ridership where that is what you are trying to do?” Poor patronage (ridership) is seen on service that isn’t trying to get riders. South of the Fraser thinks it should get the same quantity of service as Vancouver. I would say no because what you are spending on roads in those areas equals the sum – it is not about fairness!

Q Is there a better or worse way to plan transit?

A It about how they chose to work together – service planning, schedules. There is an intimate connection between the schedulers and operations management (bus drivers). They all have to work together: planning is not about operations. The culture of the organization is significant – there are lots of ways to organise, which can include the private sector – it’s about relationships.

Q Paris – velolib – Montreal/Lyons – does this really work?

A Bike sharing can be one of the elements to increase access to transit. But there are d0wnsides to any system  [and Paris loses lots of bikes, said the next questioner, but the provider is making so much from its advertising contract they can continue to subsidize the Velolib]

Q – The provincial government speaks about the importance of post carbon economy but its MoT is hellbent on supporting Gateway

A – “I would like to work in this region again.”  They are working at cross purposes but you are better off than in Australia, where state governments maintain control of transit. Road investments are contrary to transit investments. The  trouble that you have getting what you want from province is no excuse for not doing anything. The choices that a city makes do a lot.

Q – Can you talk about transit pricing specifically no fares

A –  So far these have only worked  in small cities – fare free and subsidized by the university. Pricing has to be realistic compared to other things. A lot of futile effort goes into trying to produce a perfectly fair system – which is not possible.

Q There is a need to improve transit specifically extending SkyTrain beyond King George station.

A That is very expensive. There a lot of people in Langley, but they live far apart . If Surrey is ready to build towers around SkyTrain stations the it can be extended but Broadway is ready now for transit.

Q What can we learn from Sydney – I would say better integration of buses with ferries

A   Sydney’s weather is better

Q – Interurban to Chilliwack – construction of transit – cut and cover vs boring

A – The geometry of cut and cover is that it is cheaper- deep tubes are hard to access.  Cambie was about communications and promises. TriMet in Portland built an unsuccessful commuter rail project (WES  – see comments below)  between low density areas . The development is not dense enough to support rail and it doesn’t go into the central city. It has to be useful, to get to somewhere that is really hard to drive to.

SkyTrain is not at capacity. Lots of trips don’t end up in downtown (Langley to New Westminster for instance) and if it is extended  you will see a lot more “overlapping” trips.

The gap – see his blog – he did recommend that we extend the Millennium Line to the Canada Line

Q Langley City itself is dense – overall we are mainly ALR – the developed bits are dense!

A I have not thrown out any density stats. Towers are the kind of density that SkyTrain needs in a walk from station. You need density right at the station. Visualise towers – but in the range of transit projects – speed, reliability and service is what you need to look – BRT works with 3 to 4 storey development [so do streetcars].

Q Europe is it just density – or is it culture – vs N America?

A car dominance in US. “Canada gets to do its own thing”: different cities get to do what they want to do because there is less direction from the federal government  [as well as less money]. Older cities are better off. Ask “How big was the city in 1945? “We were doing transit well until then. Vancouver since has been going in a different direction than most of the rest of North American cities. Europe does have lots of cities – but it also has cars and freeways – different mix – legacy of older cities – new cities in Europe have lots of bleak suburban sprawl. Vancouver has done res density right. Business parks in the suburbs condemn people to drive. “The  suburban business park is a direct assault on civilisation“. The geometry is against anything but driving so do not expect good transit there.

Q Buses in Vancouver underserve the people. If we dedicate the right of way at the centre of the road we would do better. The Olympic lanes at the curb did not work because of right turns.

A Fast service, fewer stops and people will walk further to get to it.  We have to allow the B Line to get around trolleys. LA now has many rapid service buses. So why not start with limited stop buses instead of slow basic service transit? Then  fill in with stopping, local service later. Note that on the New York subway Local and express need two separate tracks.

Q   Road pricing, tolls and …

A   There are experts on this – people now pay in time what they can’t pay in money – if technology were available you could abolish traffic congestion.  San Francisco is now experimenting with dynamic parking charges. But when you look at the geometry – the basic math of the market – [the transition is] brutal


Converting last night’s notes into readable text has made me aware of the amount of stuff I have added – add the most contentious I have put in [square brackets].

While he said that he would not judge or recommend, clearly he does. He is about expanding transit – just that he has no particular preferences about what kind of transit. It is indeed one of those things that we see continually here – on this blog – that the enthusiasts for one system tend to think that their favoured solution should take precedence over all others. But one size does not fit all, and circumstances alter cases.

I do not disagree with much that Jarrett said last night, but he does want to work here. I gave up on that notion some years ago. The people in charge then were also committed to seeing I didn’t work anywhere else. And succeeded, but that kept me here, snapping at their heels. It is very significant that planning at Translink – when I was there – was run by people who were culturally not planners. They were much more familiar and happier with transit scheduling and operations. Two consecutive VPs of Planning who hated planning!

The point about a plan – any plan – is that having agreed to it, you need to stick to it for it to work. The problem with chaos is that lots of energy gets wasted in contradictory moves. The point about planning is to get everyone moving in the same direction. In this region, we had a plan – one that everyone agreed was a good plan – but then we failed to implement it, and allowed its opponents to go off in their own direction, clearly in contradiction to their formal endorsement of the plan. That happened at the provincial and the municipal level. But the regional plan was NOT just about transit! Transit is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. And we must stop thinking about transportation as though it was separate from land use: obviously it is not – it is the same coin, just a different side. But professionally we have planners for land use and engineers for transport. Politically we have people who understand neither but simply want to be re-elected.

“It is not that conservatives are necessarily stupid. But all stupid people are conservative.”

The resistance to change – the desire  to cling to the familiar – the preference for simple sound bites (even though untrue) over complex policy analysis – the distrust of science over faith – these are the things that hobble us – not just in this region, but all over the planet. The tragedy of the commons that is playing out now is due to the preference for individualism, and corporate profits, over human welfare – and indeed the very survival of life (as we know it) on this planet. Arguing about trams versus buses seems utterly pointless on that scale of disaster. I think it does require us to take sides, and to call out those like Kevin Falcon and Gordon Campbell who tell us one thing while doing another. The LRSP did not “fail” so much as  get sidelined by other “more important” considerations than livability – which did not stand a prayer against greed. The attempt to resuscitate the LRSP as the sustainable region is I think doomed.

I also disagree that the province has left transit under the control of the region. It has simply been boxed in neatly to be ineffective while the great land use scramble is unleashed on the valley. That is what the Gateway is about – not transport but changing land use designations to make easy profits on land speculation.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 5, 2010 at 11:11 am

Posted in transit