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

Archive for October 2010

Your neighborhood & Your Health

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UPDATED November 1, 2010

The Health & Community Design Collaborative held a workshop at the Richmond Cultural Centre today. It was supposed to start at 9am. I got there on time. But it started late – of course – and, as seems to be typical of the City of Richmond, only one microphone could be made to work and no-one could make out anything that was being projected. My guess would be that they simply did not have the right projector for the size of room. Given that everyone seemed to be dependent on powerpoint, this did not make for good presentations. There was no break in a three hour meeting. And despite being called a “workshop” and sitting around tables – so most people had to crane to see or hear – there were no participatory activities. We sat and listened. Mostly. I sat at a table with City of Richmond parks department staff and they spent most of the time on their Blackberries.

Perhaps this was because there really wasn’t much that was new to listen to – for them or me. Now I must start by praising the existence of an ad hoc committee with such a broad range of representation. Once upon a time I tried to organize meetings between the health authority planners and Translink. That was because the way we ran HandyDART had effectively turned it into a delivery service of their patients to increasingly centralized program delivery points. I just wanted to know where they intended to put the next ones, so we could do some planning for the necessary service changes. I failed to meet a single regional health authority planner, but I did meet many health authority service providers who wanted to bitch about HandyDART service delivery – or lack of it.

Things seemed to have changed in part due to a federal initiative – though no-one from the federal government was present. They did have handouts at the side of the room and from them I now know that there is a Canadian Partnership Against Cancer’s Coalitions Linking Action and Science for prevention (CLASP). And I have solemnly copied their spelling and punctuation. They have developed tools for free download. And you can get a quarterly update on their work and resources by email from amiro (at)

Even though they started late and had a long program we were required to sit through three sets of introductory remarks which I transcribed but said nothing of value prior to Larry Frank’s talk. Now again though I made notes it did seem to me to be very much the same stuff that I heard at the recent streetcar seminar. I did this time get my hands on an Executive Summary of “Neighbourhood Design, Travel and Health in Metro Vancouver: Using a Walkability Index” .

UPDATE Vancouver Walkability and Health Exec Summary Oct 2010 (pdf file)

Ellen Dunham-Jones is visiting Vancouver this week and is speaking at a number of venues but apparently they are all booked out. She did say: “I will learn more from this visit than you can learn from me” – which may be false modesty, or perhaps simply reflects the fact that not only have we done a bit better at walkable communities here than most US cities, but we also have not had the collapse of commercial real estate that they have experienced. She talked about dead malls and dead big box stores and how suburban office parks and similar places are being retrofitted to be more like real places. Some of the examples were taken from here – including Surrey City Centre and Big Tom’s SFU campus on top of the Surrey Centre mall.  Apparently SFU are also going to do something of the sort in suburban Vancouver where they are turning a former strip mall into an art school.

I did pick up a key phrase that I am sure I am going to be able to use in future: “underperforming asphalt”. Suburban shopping centres overbuilt their parking lots to be ready for the rush on Black Friday (the day after their Thanksgiving when Christmas shopping starts and all the shops finally get into the black.)   And while she gave a lot of evidence on what has been working in the US, and why the demographics of suburbia have changed and point to the need for a very different future. (She did not mention peak oil, but did talk about the need to reduce dependance on “foreign oil – I did not get the chance to ask her if that included Canadian oil.) I really did not hear very much about walkability or health – or indeed what is going to have to happen to large swathes of single family homes on the cul de sacs across Canada where to get to anything within a 1km crow fly radius you have to walk at least 2 kms. It’s all very well to say that the next generation doesn’t want to live there, but there was not one suggestion that I heard about how it could be changed.

If there is demand, I could transcribe my notes – when I have more time – and look up links to dead malls but for now if you are interested I suggest you start at

Suzanne Carter Huffman gave an express tour of the City of Richmond’s City Centre Plan. I learned that each of the four Canada Line stations are now seen as the centre of an “urban village” – plus of course the one yet to come at Sexsmith. Another urban village is also going to pop up next to the Oval where there is no transit at all. There was much about waterfront – and the apparent problem of the dyke. Not that it is too low and will offer no protection against the inevitable sea level rise associated with global warming but rather that it does not allow for a river view from ground level.   She also managed to talk about the city centre without once referring to the private ownership of all the parking lots – which generates an inordinate number of short driving trips. I have dealt with that here more than once. Dave Semple talked extempore about Richmond’s parks and dykes. About the only relevant point was his observation that the one metre wide tarmac paths which Richmond has built around all its neighbourhood parks are too narrow and should be two meters wide. He did not say when they thought they might achieve that. And he also hopes that kids exploring Richmond will have plenty of opportunities to get dirty.

When I get invited to a “workshop” I expect to be involved in some activity – not just listening. I also expect to hear – and hopefully discuss – practical things that are going to be tried out to improve our current situation. I heard a lot about why we need to act, but not what needs to be done here. I did hear about some design features, but none in any context that I felt applicable here. It may have been that other participants got more from it than I did – after all I do not pretend to be an urban designer. But I will never know since there was no opportunity for any discussion. There was not even a coffee break. When you go to a thing like this and there is a long line up for the men’s washroom, then you know that there is somehting wrong with the arrangements.

I am pleased that Translink is talking to the Health Authorities – and that Metro is involved. I suspect that it is as yet early days and that they have not very much developed they can talk about. I hope that, as they get their act together, subsequent workshops will be more practical. Maybe the odd design charrette might be a better idea. But for now I regret that I can only report that we are not very far along the road to doubling the market share of transit, walking and biking from 25% (where they say we are today) to the 50% they think they will have by 2040.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 25, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Posted in health, placemaking, walking

Translink’s Surrey consultation

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This morning I attended a meeting with Translink – I think the first time they have invited me (personally) to anything in six years. They want to get the word out on line about their current consultation exercise and to do that they also invited Raul Pacheco, Rebecca Bollwit, Karen Quinn Fung and Carrie Saxifrage from the Vancouver Observer .

Curiously, someone organised a kids event today downtown. The Canada Line at 07:30 is already crowded: adding an additional load of 12 year olds – who also seemed to be highly caffeinated – made for an interesting ride.

The process, we learned, is already under way with the first workshop last night in Langley. Apparently 60 people came out and sat through a 3 hour process – open house, presentation and break out into tables – that simply looks at the scope of the possible projects to be evaluated. Translink does not want people to make a choice yet. They simply want confirmation that the range of routes and technologies is reasonable. They also think that people need to be educated about the differences between bus, BRT, LRT and what they now call “Rail Rapid Transit” but we know as SkyTrain. Or, as Malcolm would have it, mini-metro.

My first reaction is that getting 60 people out to a hotel in Langley to talk about transit is a considerable achievement. I shows how much has changed in the last fifteen years. That was the first time I had to run an open house in Langley for what was then BC Transit (I think). We mostly talked among ourselves then. I think in the course of three hours perhaps half a dozen people looked in – none stayed longer than 5 minutes. There is a great appetite now for transit in the South of the Fraser area that there was not then. To some extent promises of SkyTrain – and interest around the interurban – have played their part. As has a growing awareness that business is not going to be as usual in the future.

Of course regular readers of this blog will need no education on these topics. And have probably already been to the Translink web page to check out the information on line. Basically what they have are a variety of “hub and spoke” routes for higher quality transit and a range of four transit technologies. Oddly, “best bus” is illustrated with a #9 trolleybus – which fails to meet my definition of rapid transit. The illustration of BRT was also notably not a BLine – not even the former #98 (short length of) exclusive right of way on No 3 Road. There is also an “underlay” on the maps of bus routes – I think (but someone will doubtless correct me) the planned “frequent bus network”. I am not of the opinion that 15 minutes headway is necessarily the same thing as “frequent”  – but if it were clock face it might allow for what Translink wants – a service you do not need a schedule for. It does not show that these routes do not really form a grid – as they do in Vancouver  – but wander around looking for passengers to haul to a hub. Indeed, even “best bus” does not mean a grid service. So in terms of meeting the “many to many” origin/destination pattern of Surrey, no-one is suggesting Vancouver quality of service for Surrey.

The routes they are evaluating did not come out of thin air but previous exercises, notably the South of Fraser Transit Plan. So no surprises there. Do not look for any details like ridership or cost. Those, together with capacity data and environmental impacts will all be available “early 2011” when Translink presents its multiple account evaluation. That is when you get to state your preference. All they want to know now is have they got enough route and technology choices.

They are doing a concurrent study of the Broadway corridor and expect both to be ready for route and technology choice around the same time. That will then give them a chance to ask about priorities. They think they can also credibly ask if both should happen at once. I don’t.

I was a bit reluctant, I will admit, to go to this meeting, but it was nice to be asked. I am not sure that there is a great deal of value in the exercise, since the final choice of which route is chosen, and the technology will be made – as usual – by the Premier. Whoever that happens to be at the time. And, of course, Gordon Campbell is on record recently stating to UBCM that it will be SkyTrain extension to Langley. In reality of course, he may not still be premier by then. And even if he is, I would not believe that he can deliver both rapid transit to UBC and Langley at the same time. They said they would deliver the Evergreen Line and the Canada Line simultaneously too – and didn’t. But the folks at Translink – all new since my days – are fresh and full of enthusiasm, and happy to listen. So do go to a meeting near you if you have three hours with nothing better to do. Just don’t expect that it will make a lot of difference to the outcome. Whoever is in power in Victoria next time.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 15, 2010 at 10:34 am

Posted in transit

Tagged with ,

Federal government extends Amtrak train for another year

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Breaking news from the Vancouver Sun

It is only a reprieve – not an admission that the Border Services Agency is doing anything wrong.

I imagine that in a little less than a year from now, I will be revisiting this story.

This will give time to Amtrak and the hotel association to analyze the business and see if there is enough volume to continue the service.

There is enough volume to continue the service: it is unlikely that there will be enough volume to enable Amtrak to shell out $800,000 a year for additional border service fees.  That is what the argument is about. There is a significant benefit simply in terms of the amount that gets spent here by people using the train to visit Vancouver. There is also a significant benefit in having a train that allows Canadians to have an alternative to flying or driving. The second train is the one that leaves here in the morning and is thus more appealing to people here than the one that leaves in the afternoon.

Of course, in enlightened countries, getting people out of cars and planes and on to trains instead is recognized as good public policy. Vic Toews has not the slightest idea what the words “good public policy” mean.



Written by Stephen Rees

October 14, 2010 at 5:35 pm

Posted in Railway

Tagged with ,

Essential Reading

You probably have seen something about these items already. But just in case you do not lurk on email lists, or follow me on Buzz, here are a couple of recent articles you need to read. I am not going to try to put my own thoughts or responses into blog format – yet, if at all. And I have also disabled comments and ping backs. But because of the way I am posting this, they also go out on facebook and twitter. My hope is that they will go further that way too – retweets and “likes” and so on.

It goes against our nature; but the left has to start asserting its own values

The progressive attempt to appeal to self-interest has been a catastrophe. Empathy, not expediency, must drive our campaigns

George Monbiot in the Guardian a couple of days ago

This quote really resonated with me

Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information that confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them. We mould our thinking around our social identity, protecting it from serious challenge. Confronting people with inconvenient facts is likely only to harden their resistance to change.

As someone who has devoted much of his adult life to rational cost-benefit analysis, I wish I had known that sooner. Perhaps I would have done better to take psychology at university rather than politics and economics.

Seven Rules for Right Here, BC’s Lower Mainland

The author of ‘Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities’ adapts his formula to fit BC’s most populous region. Last in a series.

By Patrick M. Condon, Today,



Written by Stephen Rees

October 13, 2010 at 12:16 pm

A case for free transit in the downtown core

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Other cities do it–why can’t we?

Vancouver Courier

Bizarrely this opinion piece is actually field under “news” – and it is not attributed apart from an email address for “tos”

The idea has been around for a while – you will find earlier refutations on this blog too.

But the simple question that appears under the headline is easy to answer.

Even if this were a good idea (I don’t think it is) we cannot afford it. The US cities that have free transit are much smaller than us, and the ones that have free transit just in the core have a better supply of transit and more resources available to them. They use free transit to fill up empty buses, and often have financial support from the downtown businesses who need this service to compete with suburban malls that have lots of free parking. Free transit essentially distributes shoppers – and others – to a greater range of parking lots. Because even in less successful downtowns parking is problematic, because space is at a premium.

In Vancouver we do not have enough transit supply. We haven’t had enough for many years because the province controls how much is spent on transit in BC. Since transit is not a popular subject in “the heartlands” – where public  money spent in Vancouver is greatly resented – there is more political capital at provincial election times at railing at transit “wastefulness” (something Shirley Bond was falling back on prior to the current fuss) than doing the right thing. We have already given huge incentives to some post secondary students to use transit – and will be extending to the  rest shortly – also due to provincial decision-making. The result has been overcrowding and pass-ups. We simply do not need to promote more transit use in downtown Vancouver because we cannot carry all the people who want to use it now.

Translink is cash strapped – not just for capital projects like the Evergreen Line – but also the daily operating and maintenance of the existing system. The Mayors were dissuaded from cutting service to balance the books, but Vancouver showed during the Olympics that more transit – and less space for cars – would work well if continued. We lost that impetus – a great shame – due to financial imperatives.

“Tos” thinks that the province could divert the $317m a year that is now used to subsidize the oil and gas business. Shame there is no source cited for that figure – I would love to use that argument myself. They won’t, of course. Promotion of oil and gas has been the centrepiece of the economic program of this government – as well as the hideously expensive and wrongly directed Gateway Program. He is right that if we want to do something about greenhouse gas the money could be better spent – but, aside from the token carbon tax, I see no evidence of that. Rather the contrary in fact.

The other thing that “tos” doesn’t notice is that we have a very different distribution of people in our downtown. Vancouver’s downtown is quite different to Seattle’s or Portland’s. Indeed many US cities send their planners here to see how we’ve done it. The vast clusters of residential towers – many in owner occupation and most highly desirable residences – are being copied elsewhere now. We lost a lot of employment in our downtown core too – and that employment did not go to the regional centres but was dispersed to suburban office parks. That is a huge problem for transit. Such places are difficult to serve – and many aren’t. If we put free transit into the downtown core the greatest beneficiaries would be the people who can now afford to live there. This is not like the “inner city” problems that plague other places – except of course the Downtown Eastside.

If someone is going to throw $317m at transit in BC, the best thing would be to use that fund more service in places where there is currently excess demand. Then to start providing transit to places that have supportive local density – the dense “nodes” of townhouses and multiple family developments – that dot the landscape in places that are otherwise remote from journey destinations like workplaces and post secondary education – the sort of trips that transit is good at. Surrey and Langley would both gain a lot of service from that. What has always been found in the transit business is that you win more new users by improving service than anything else. If you cut – or remove fares – there is a short-term bump as people try to get on. But they quickly lose interest when they find that the bus is not going to stop for them. Or they are uncomfortably crammed in if they can get on.

When you ask people who drive why they do not use transit, they don’t mention fares as the deterrent. It’s speed and convenience they talk about. And you cannot provide that if you have no funds.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 13, 2010 at 10:52 am

Posted in transit

Tagged with

More on Translink funding

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Jeff Nagel keeps plugging away at the Translink funding issue. Now he is talking to Lucy – erm – make that Shirley Bond

The premier last month agreed to wide-ranging talks to find innovative new ways to finance TransLink.

The mayors now say they’re taken by surprise that only property tax increases are proposed to cover the Evergreen Line.

Bond, however, accuses the mayors of playing politics on the issue, adding she “finds it hard to believe” they genuinely misunderstood the province’s intent and thought a full consultation on new sources could happen before Christmas.

“Once again the mayors are positioning themselves in a very combative way and that’s disappointing,” Bond said.

She said it was made “very clear to the mayors” that a TransLink funding supplement for the Evergreen Line would be before them for a vote by December using existing sources and that a search for new ways to fund more priority projects would be a longer process.

“I am absolutely happy to have a discussion about additional tools,” she said. “But we can’t do that in a thoughtful way before December.”

Why not? Because of the fear that the feds will take their contribution to the Evergreen Line off the table if no agreement is reached before then. That is not what Bond says – or Nagel in this piece. But otherwise the notion that “everything is on the table” – except the Evergreen Line apparently – only starts after the new year was not – so far as I can recall made clear anywhere in the province’s statements.

Pitt Meadows Mayor Don MacLean … said the province could still save money on the Evergreen Line by switching the project back to cheaper light rail technology, rather than SkyTrain.

Well they could but they won’t. Though the “business case” that Jarvis cites seems a bit less than clear to me. But what he really means is that it is not open to debate – and once again that is because the feds bought in, and might use that sort of scope change as an excuse to back out. The Tories in Ottawa like buying military hardware and new prisons: they are not really that keen on something as mundane as decent urban transit.

UPDATE  Wednesday  October 13

Mayors push for gas tax, not property tax to pay for Metro Vancouver transit projects

Vancouver Sun

Written by Stephen Rees

October 12, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Posted in transit

That Lucy Moment

with 25 comments

Gordon Price predicted it last week – but I doubt even he expected it this quickly.

Jeff Nagel is reporting that

municipal reps were told Thursday property taxes are the only source that will be on the table when a vote on an [transit] expansion comes in December.

Not just transit either – they are also expected to cough property tax to pay for the North Fraser Perimeter Road!

An average $600,000 home that now pays $220 a year in property tax to TransLink would pay an extra $31 a year to raise $412 million towards the $1.4-billion Evergreen Line and another $53.2 million for the phase one of the North Fraser Perimeter Road, which would extend United Boulevard.

I am a bit unclear on where the “reps” (whoever they are) might have heard this and who from. But it seems that MoU was – in the premier’s mind anyway – not about everything being on the table right now but in future negotiations about the UBCM promise of SkyTrain to Langley.

So once again, the Mayors have been suckered. Lucy always says when she holds the football for Charlie Brown to kick – usually when the NFL season is about to open – that she will not whip it away as she does every year. This year will be different. So Charlie Brown takes a run kicks – and she whips the ball away and he falls over spectacularly. Which is what has happened now with Translink funding once again. So now we do the head count on the Mayor’s Council and see who really thinks the province will impose a solution if they don’t vote for this one – which, presumably, might be even worse

Meggs said there’s also frustration the province has forced TransLink to embark on costly projects, such as a $180-million smart cards and faregates that many cities doubt will ever pay for itself through reduced fare evasion.

Several mayors say the province has signaled it will impose a solution on Metro cities if they don’t voluntarily vote to provide funding for the Evergreen Line.

I had to put the top para in there as well, since I know I have been saying this ever since it was imposed by Kevin Falcon – I had not heard anyone at Translink admit that yet.

UPDATE  here is Translink’s summary of the options courtesy of a tweet from Ken Hardie

I apologise to Jeff Nagel for an incorrect atrribution which is now sorted out. It would appear that all of this became apparent to the Mayors when they were briefed by Translink staff. Which means to me that the provincial politicians are even more gutless than I thought and that Translink is now clearly a provincial and not a regional agency. Basically the arrangements we have now have even less local input than the old Vancouver Regional Transit Commission – but a similarly uncomfortable relationship that the creation of the GVTA was supposed to correct.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 7, 2010 at 12:41 pm