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Archive for December 2011

Translink’s Year in Review

with 5 comments

Ken Hardie has just tweeted “No mayhem, no political fireworks. – TransLink’s evidently-not-newsworthy release of good 2011 results”

So just in case main stream media continues its silence and in case you cannot be bothered to drag yourself over to the Translink web page, here is the entire text of that Press Release unedited and without any comment from me at all.

But don’t let that stop you

To all my readers and frequent commenters (you know who you are) may I wish the very best of luck in 2012 – and a great deal more transit service for every major conurbation, not just ours.

TransLink’s 2011 Year in Review

December 27, 2011

2011: Shifting to a new gear
Upgrades and new funding herald a year of ‘Moving Forward’

It has been, for the most part, a year of consolidation and making the most of what we have, but as 2011 pulls into its terminus, TransLink is looking back on major accomplishments and ahead to another period of growth.

2011 was a year when record numbers of people chose public transit and TransLink’s strategic road improvements drove network efficiencies.  All of this happened while TransLink operated with no overall growth, maximizing services within in a set budget by promoting efficiency and effectiveness.

The Mayors’ Council decision late in the year approving new funding for the long-awaited Evergreen SkyTrain Line to proceed also launched a process the Council will undertake with the province to support the next phase of transportation expansion, set to launch in 2012.

TransLink’s Board of Directors and its management focused the organization on the pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness, both internally and in its service deliveries to the public.  With transit funding outpaced by customer demand, bus services were reallocated from routes and times where they were under-used to address crowding and pass-ups on major routes. Those measures, plus the new funding put TransLink in a position to maintain and improve overall service levels at a time when other agencies around North America were cutting back.

Among the highlights of 2011:

Transit Ridership – proof of the need to increase service in any way possible can be seen in the amazing increase in ridership on the entire TransLink system. From January through October, 2011, the number of revenue rides was 192.1 million – an increase of 5 percent over the same period in 2010, which includes the extraordinary increase associated with the Winter Olympics. The fact that these additional customers have been accommodated without an overall increase in service hours indicates the success of TransLink’s Service Optimization Initiative.  Overall customer satisfaction with transit services remained at a record high 7.7 out of 10 throughout 2011.

Transit Efficiency – Service Optimization plus ever-rising transit ridership has boosted overall efficiency.  To the end of September, TransLink’s cost to move the average passenger one kilometre was 30.5 cents; 11 per cent lower than forecast.  Transit fares are covering 53 per cent of operating costs, a higher-than-expected return.

Sustainability – Both Coast Mountain Bus and BC Rapid Transit (SkyTrain) are active in BC Hydro’s PowerSmart Continuous Optimization Program.  Results to the end of September show projected savings of 3.3 million kilowatt hours of electricity and 11.7 thousand giga-joules of natural gas energy, which equates to $330 thousand in annual utility cost savings at Coast Mountain alone.  The American Public Transportation Association awarded TransLink the only Gold Level award among 77 agencies that have signed a Sustainability Commitment.

Funding breakthrough – the agreement by TransLink’s Mayors’ Council to increase the gasoline levy by 2 cents per litre (bringing the total levy to 17 cents per litre as of April 2012), will bring some immediate relief to crowded routes and help TransLink emerge from a period of “making do” into one of “making more”. The revenue from this tax increase will help launch the Moving Forward plan, covering TransLink’s share of funding to build the Evergreen Line and beginning a number of sorely-needed projects. The mayors also agreed to work with the province of British Columbia to identify new, long-term, sustainable sources of funding.

A less-publicized but innovative financial move in 2011 has already been effective in providing a stable funding stream.  For the second year in a row, TransLink floated a bond issue, bringing in $200 million in 30-year bonds at 4.7 per cent interest. This was helped by two major bond-rating agencies – DBRS and Moody’s — re-affirming a strong credit rating for TransLink with “AA” and “AA2” ratings, respectively: both cited the agency’s flexibility, management strengths and diverse revenue streams as reasons for their confidence.  The bond issues were readily taken up by the financial markets, demonstrating the confidence the business community has in TransLink.

As soon as the gas tax increase had been approved, the province of BC, which has the lead in building the Evergreen Line, let contracts for two “pre-build” projects. At the same time, TransLink and Coast Mountain Bus Company increased service on some heavily-used bus routes outside the regular service adjustments. These routes include two between Langley and Surrey, and a third from New Westminster to Richmond, all of which connect to SkyTrain. Routes serving colleges and universities, where ridership has increased gradually but definitely since the introduction of U-Pass BC, have also received increases, with more slated to come in April 2012.

The coming year promises more service increases – with the majority of the new hours going south of the Fraser River – and an increase in the number of SeaBus trips, extending the periods when two-ferry service (15-minute interval) will run Moving Forward also calls for restoration of $6 million per year in funding for cycling initiatives.

Faregates/Smart Cards – in January, TransLink awarded the contract to Cubic to design, build and operate the Smart Card/Faregate system to be operational in 2013. The $171-million project includes funding support from the provincial and federal governments – $40 and $30 million respectively – and will create a more efficient and secure system, including a one-card solution to travel across the system using the Compass Card (named via public contest in early 2011) Signs of the project became evident through 2011, as construction got underway to prepare the stations for faregate and validator installations at all 49 SkyTrain stations plus the two SeaBus termini.

Among its benefits, the Compass Card will provide TransLink planners with hard data on passenger movements, so resources can be allocated as efficiently as possible. This information will also allow TransLink to restructure its fare zone system, to bring it more into line with the realities of today.

Construction will continue through 2012, including the installation of the first faregates on the system in the spring and initial system testing late in the year. Updates to the public about construction are available through TransLink’s website

Dude, where’s my bus? – advanced technology played a key role in advancing TransLink’s commitment to customer service, as TransLink rolled out and developed some important tools for helping customers better plan their transit journeys.
• Next Bus now offers a real-time component along with the already-established bus-stop-specific SMS text service, with the mobile site Thanks to the growth of GPS bus-location technology – used primarily for the management of bus movements throughout the system – customers can “see” where their buses are.
• Twitter ( enables customers to interact with Customer Information staff in real time, where answers to service queries can be dealt with and complaints addressed quickly. (It’s also a welcome venue for compliments regarding our front-line staff, too!).  TransLink’s number of ‘followers’ on Twitter burst through the 17,000 mark in 2011.
• The Buzzer Blog and Facebook page continue to keep customers informed and engaged with informative articles, lively discussions and fun contests like the “Transit Pet Peeve Battle”, which allowed customers to vent their feelings about various etiquette offenders on the transit system. (This year’s “winner”: Funky Ferret, a creature for whom nothing is in moderation, in the olfactory sense.)

Silver anniversary makeover – SkyTrain marked its 25th anniversary year with a number of events, including a ceremony, which featured Grace McCarthy, the minister responsible for BC Transit at the time SkyTrain was built, and former solicitor-general Bud Smith, representing former premier Bill Bennett. The anniversary has been a time for looking back over the way SkyTrain shaped the growth of Metro Vancouver, both by making areas like Surrey, Langley and New Westminster “closer” for those living there and commuting to downtown Vancouver, and by encouraging development focused on SkyTrain stations.

SkyTrain’s 25th anniversary is also a time to look ahead, and the OnTrack program, which kicked off in 2011, does just that. Faregate installation is part of OnTrack, and so are other projects, including replacement of running and power rails and the start of installation of a long-awaited new elevator on the west side of Scott Road Station.

Accessibility – the new elevator at Scott Road opened for a trial period in early December, makes it much easier for people with disabilities to transfer from buses to SkyTrain, and in 2011, TransLink’s public transit system achieved full accessibility. The entire fleet – buses, SkyTrain, SeaBus and West Coast Express – has been accessible since 2008, but the system itself now meets the criteria set out in the Access Transit Strategy (adopted in 2007) for route accessibility. Those criteria state, among other things, that at least 25% of the stops on each route must be accessible – including the complementary stop in the opposite direction. TransLink and individual municipalities split the cost of upgrades needed to make a bus stop accessible.

Providing alternatives – TransLink has never been just about buses and trains: its mandate to move people and goods efficiently across Metro Vancouver entails finding ways to reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles (SOVs) on the roads. 2011 saw the re-launch of TravelSmart, dedicated to sustainable transportation options. Part of the legacy of the 2010 Winter Olympics, TravelSmart helps people look for alternatives to “peak of the peak” commuting, such as teleworking, carpooling, cycling and walking. The new website – – includes tools to help people develop a sustainable commute that fits their own needs.

In a similar vein, TransLink released its Regional Cycling Strategy, a blueprint for cycling’s role in the integrated transportation network.

In 2011, TransLink continued to promote alternative forms of transportation:
• Signing the “Seville Charter” – committing to develop urban bicycling amenities – at Velo-City 2011 (TransLink will host Velo-City 2012)
• Hosting Walk21, the international conference to promote “walkability” in cities
• Supporting International Walk to School Week – providing free transit to schoolchildren during that week, to promote awareness of sustainable transportation choices

Sustainability – by definition, a public transportation agency is supposed to promote sustainability, but how sustainable is the agency itself? Setting a Baseline, the first report on TransLink’s own sustainability, measured everything from air pollutant emissions to vehicle kilometres travelled to the amount of runoff into sanitary sewers from bus washing. Among other things, the results earned TransLink the first-ever Gold Level Status for Sustainability Commitment with the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

“Convenient to transit” – Transit has long been a selling point for homes and businesses, and with the growth of ridership – particularly along SkyTrain routes – more and more development is focusing on that feature. In 2011, work progressed on Plaza 88, the region’s first development that fully incorporates a SkyTrain station (New Westminster) among the residential, office and retail components. The Marine Gateway project, focused on Marine Drive Station in Vancouver, and more development near Metrotown Station in Burnaby got the go-ahead from their respective city councils.

The finer things in life … – TransLink has long supported artistic endeavours, such as the annual Poetry in Transit event, in which selections of works by British Columbia poets are displayed on interior advertising cards on buses and SkyTrain cars. In 2011, TransLink and the Emily Carr University of Art + Design launched “Art in Transit,” displaying works by ECUAD students, selected by jury.

A great place to work – for the fifth year in a row, Coast Mountain Bus Company was named to the list of Top Employers in BC. As well, TransLink as a whole was recognized by the “Learning Partnership” for taking part in “Take Your Child To Work Day”, across the entire authority. An increase in funding for service hours can be expected to translate to an increase in job opportunities.

For over 122 years, public transportation has been a catalyst in the growth of Metropolitan Vancouver, getting people and goods from place to place efficiently and effectively. TransLink looks forward to 2012 as a year of truly Moving Forward.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 30, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Posted in transit

Upcoming event

Fortunately I will now be able to attend: I hope many who read this blog will join me

in conjunction with the City Program, the following talk and book launch by Jarrett Walker:

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives

Tuesday, January 17, 2012, 6:00pm
Room 1400, SFU Harbour Centre, 515 W Hastings Street

RSVP at:

Jarrett Walker, PhD, is an international consultant in public transit planning and policy, with 20 years experience helping transit agencies, governments, nonprofits, and developers think about transit issues. He was raised in Portland but has lived and worked in many parts of North America, Australia and New Zealand. He knows and loves Vancouver from two stints living here, in 2006 and 2011, while engaged as a consultant with TransLink. He is currently a Principal Consultant with MRCagney in Australia and New Zealand, and a freelance consultant in North America.

Since 2009 he has written the popular transit weblog , which has engaged an international readership in a spirited discussion of transit issues. His book Human Transit was published by Island Press in 2011.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 19, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Ferry Fares

with 51 comments

Vaughan Palmer has another big think piece in the Sun today “Opinion: Fares are the albatross around the neck of new BC Ferries boss”

Queen of Surrey

It is, as one has come to expect, thorough and thoughtful. But there is a very surprising omission. The issue as he states is the fares are too high and that if fares were reduced then usage would increase which would increase revenue. But nowhere in the article can I find the term “fares elasticity” or any discussion about what effect changes in fares have had – or might have – in quantified terms.

As it happens, this has been one of the things that, as a transportation economist, I spent a lot of time working on. It is not at all simple and straightforward – few things in life are. Perhaps not quite as difficult to model as the Higgs Boson – but close – but at least we know that fares elasticity actually exists. The jury is still out on the boson. And the fares elasticity for BC Ferries has indeed been the subject of a recent, thorough and objective study by InterVistas for the Ferry Commisioner (that’s a pdf file you might want to save for future reference).

On Page 19 the elasticity for the major routes is stated to be

  • Ferry demand depends on the price of ferry services, with a price elasticity of roughly -0.28.
  • Ferry demand depends on GDP growth (or reduction) with an elasticity of roughly +0.21.
  • No discernable impact of population on ferry demand is apparent, at least with this data set.
  • The seasonality effect in the total ferry traffic is strong and significant. It dominates the model.Seasonality alone explains 99% of the variation in the quarterly data.

And then the report goes on to examine the other routes

At this stage, I am not going to get into the analysis, except to make a couple of observations. All economic forecasts are based on the caveat “other things being equal” and in real life they never are. Secondly, the consultants were looking at the potential revenue from fare increases i.e how much usage is lost when the price goes up. Elasticities cannot be assumed to be symmetrical. For an order of magnitude estimates, they are not bad, but people react differently to a price cut than a price increase. That is due to the law of diminishing marginal returns – buying twice as much of something doesn’t make you twice as happy even if you got a two for one deal. The second thing you bought was not as rewarding to you as the first and thus not worth as much.

But even so, for an opinion piece in the Sun, and the ease of finding this information, Palmer’s questions can indeed be answered. Now, at this stage I am not going to get into the complexities of the ferry routes and what ought to happen. My point at the moment is the simple one: Palmer should have found this report and ought to have referenced it. But maybe, like me, he does not have the time at present to read the entire thing, or have the energy to actually work out for the new ferry CEO what the answers to these sums look like. But clearly they fall into the category of “known unknowns” right now.

Maybe, when I have a bit more time I can return to this subject, but I am surprised that I have not got more response on the ferry issue in general.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 10, 2011 at 1:50 pm

BC Ferries new CEO

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Vaughan Palmer reports on the appointment of Mike Corrigan (David Hahn’s No 2) with a cut in pay and bonuses.

BC Ferries have always been a political football – just like transit – and the BC Liberals efforts to distance the corporation from “interference” has been a real mess, but one of their own ideological creation. Hahn was simply doing what was expected of him, and behaving like any private sector CEO does these days. Unsurprisingly, this incurred the wrath of the very same people who vote for the BC Liberals, but think that they are themselves a special case, when it comes to public sector cut backs.

Most of the adjustments to the pay package are expected and reasonable. Where I think the discussion gets interesting is when Corrigan describes the challenges

The main challenge,as he sees it, is to deal with the controversy over fare equity. Residents and businesses who rely on the service are bridling at what they see as too many fare increases in recent years. But most of the ferry costs are determined by matters beyond the control of the corporation.

The big three:

Fuel costs –three times higher than the worst case projection when Corrigan joined the company.

Staffing costs – determined by labour contracts and staffing levels set by Transport Canada.

Service levels – set by government contract and, despite utilization rates as low as 15 per cent on some of the smaller runs, highly sensitive to public protest at any hint of a reduction in services.

I think each of these requires some informed debate

Fuel costs – a big chunk of that is taxes. In other jurisdictions, transit and ferries are tax exempt, simply because they are also tax subsidized. It makes very little sense giving a public service entity public funds simply to claw them back again as taxes. This is more than just an accounting principle – and  in Canada is confounded by the ridiculous way that governments levy tax on tax. Actually in terms of total percentage of costs, fuel is nearly always a smaller percentage of the total than labour.

Labour contracts are not of course determined by the feds – this is just sloppy editing. However, Transport Canada does require that there are enough trained people on board to help passengers in case of a vessel sinking. And that is determined by the vessel capacity and not its occupancy. Wage rates, and other work conditions and benefits,  are determined by collective bargaining and the ferries are one of the few cases left where this is allowed to work. In most other public sector jobs, all kinds of pressures are being applied to “cut costs” i.e. reduce wages and benefits for the many in order to financially benefit the very few. Of course, the spin is all about the public interest and the virtue of balanced budgets. But the only reason that BC Ferries wages and befenefits now look generous is that the private sector has been busy rolling them back  – spurred on by deregulation and privatization (or the threat of it).

“Service Levels are set by government.”   This and the statement “utilization rates as low as 15 per cent on some of the smaller runs” are the Post Media talking points – and framed in a way that will get the predictable response from the readership. The 15% is a nice figure to fling around – especially in the absence of any context. Is that 15% on some sailings on the worst routes? Or is it a reasonable rounding of overall performance on all but the Mainland to Vancouver Island  routes? I suspect it is the former, but will be treated as the latter. And I suppose I really ought to go read some of the Ferry Commissioner’s reports as it is bound to be buried in there somewhere. I will leave that to the commenters I expect to attract. Fair warning though – if you cite figures I want chapter and verse and a URL. Opinion is free but facts are sacred.

It is the principle that is important. BC seems to be stuck with the notion that cross subsidy in ferries and transit is inevitable and necessary. It is also applied by the Passenger Transport Board to long distance bus services, but is noticeably failing to secure public service in sparsely populated areas. Of course, it is easier to defend cross subsidy applied in general to a range of services: that way you get a big enough vested interest cheering section. If you piece out each route, and determine a way to fairly allocate overhead costs (i.e. those common to providing any service at all) it is possible to produce data that allows some more informed debate about how much subsidy goes to each route – or even each passenger. It also make it possible for those who have a principled objection to every public service expenditure (“wasteful” “inefficient” “let the market decide”) to pick off each route in turn as they rise up the ranks of “most subsidized” and fall one by one to the axe.

We have seen a steady erosion of public services in general at the same time as we have seen a steady reduction in what we now call “middle class” real incomes. We can be blinded by the impact of new technologies, which has enabled the steady reduction of employment of people who were actually really needed to provide quality services. We have seen this in health and education – and of course arts and culture too. Everything has been cheapened and dumbed down to a marketable commodity. We have lost librarians and teacher’s assistants, care aides and conductors. Anyone who was there to help and make the experience worthwhile for everyone. Of course, this was painted as “necessary” – but in reality was only necessary if you accept the argument that greater inequality was a worthwhile objective. That the “bottom line” actually measured something that was worthwhile instead of all those intangibles that make the right wing so uncomfortable.

At the same time, public spending on arms and militaria, “crime and punishment” and, of course, new roads was pretty much ring fenced against the cuts.

Ferry service is critical to many small communities. Indeed, those in the interior that required a lake or river crossing were generally exempt. But the coastal communities were always marginalized. The right even glorified their treatment of “the heartland” – the large rural constituencies where votes count for more, and the right is usually confident of a safe seat.

For transit systems, the weapon of choice has always been some form of local taxation – usually one as regressive as possible. That has been used steadily to limit the amount of publicly supported service – and, in terms of limiting spending has been quite successful. The costs, of course, have been widespread, borne mostly by those least able to afford them and often quite hard to quantify. Especially when there is a lobby group dedicated to ensuring as much confusion as possible to defend the status quo – which happens to benefit them.

For ferries the lines of conflict are a bit blurrier – but they follow the same fault lines. The truly wealthy have their own means of getting around and do not line up for anything, let alone a ferry. They also like the idea that some places are beyond the reach of the common people and can become steadily more exclusive.

There have also been some rather salutary failures of the private sector in ferry services in BC. Mostly because they tried to “cream” a market that was already well stratified thanks to competition from other modes (helicopters and float planes).

My own view is uncomplicated by attachment to any of the places that are impacted. I have no special affection for them simply due to the accidents of my history. I have been to the Sunshine Coast and Bowen Island, but I have no ties to either. I think it would be useful to see a list of routes with a breakdown of costs and revenues, with ridership data. Indeed, I was quite surprised when such data emerged from Coast Mountain Bus Company, and was used in the discussions over how much the South of the Fraser pays – and benefits – for bus service. I think that since we all pay for the “under utilized” ferry routes, we ought to be shown this information. And we ought to be able to trust the source too, and not be subject to spin and presentation. The more someone is a “communications professional” in these matters, the more they should be treated with scepticism.

And yes, at the end of the day, it is a political decision – and there is nothing wrong with that. Provided we have a representative and responsible democracy. Since the subsidy comes from provincial taxes, it is quite proper that the leg in Victoria has the final word. And that there are open committee hearings to inform their decision making. It is when the political process is corrupted by special interests that we need to be alert.

The BC Liberals have  not ruled this province for the benefit of the entire population. Their track record is dismal and they have indeed lost the public’s trust. So any “reform” from them is of dubious value and unlikely to survive them now.  Mike simply has to hold on until after the next election. The questions will not change very much. Just the way they are dealt with.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 6, 2011 at 11:42 am

Posted in ferries

TED Prize 2012 Awarded to The City 2.0

The prize this year is to be awarded to an idea, not a person.

The following is the TED Press Release as received this morning

New York, NY (December 6, 2011) – TED is pleased to announce the winner of the 2012 TED Prize.

For the first time in the history of the prize, it is being awarded not to an individual, but to an idea. It is an idea upon which our planet’s future depends.

The 2012 TED Prize is awarded to….the City 2.0:

The City 2.0 is the city of the future… a future in which more than ten billion people on planet Earth must somehow live sustainably.

The City 2.0 is not a sterile utopian dream, but a real-world upgrade tapping into humanity’s collective wisdom.

The City 2.0 promotes innovation, education, culture, and economic opportunity.

The City 2.0 reduces the carbon footprint of its occupants, facilitates smaller families, and eases the environmental pressure on the world’s rural areas.

The City 2.0 is a place of beauty, wonder, excitement, inclusion, diversity, life.

The City 2.0 is the city that works.

The TED Prize grants its winner $100,000 and “one wish to change the world.”   How will this prize be accepted on behalf of the City 2.0? Through visionary individuals around the world who are advocating on its behalf.

We are listening to them and giving them the opportunity to collectively craft a wish. A wish capable of igniting a massive collaborative project among the members of the global TED community, and indeed all who care about our planet’s future.  (Individuals or organizations who wish to contribute their ideas to a TED Prize wish on behalf of The City 2.0 should write
The wish will be unveiled on February 29, 2012 at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California.  On a Leap Year date, we have a chance, collectively, to take a giant leap forward.

So that is all I know and I did go to the TED web site following that link and found little more. I suppose that once the prize is awarded there will be a line up of people willing to spend it on finding out what City 2.0 is going to look like.

UPDATE Since that was all I knew, or could be bothered to find out at the time, I did not allow comments or ping backs for this post. But Robert B was not to be deterred. He did some research and then sent them to me.

Here is the text of his tweet

I think this is City 2.0 and and

I am just passing this along but with one warning. The second two go to videos: if you command click on all three at once (to open new tabs) confusion will reign.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 6, 2011 at 9:55 am

Posted in Urban Planning

Tagged with ,

The Viaducts

with 61 comments

Thanks to twitter and Price Tags I have been able to find a picture of what could replace the viaducts in Vancouver. I last wrote about this back in April and the City ran a competition

Visualizing the Viaducts - Submission #71

DIALOG, PWL, Beasley and Green (submission #71)

The proposers wrote

Viaducts gone! Let’s realize the dream of our anti-freeway heroes of yesterday with a bold new strategy of parks and public places. Showcasing history and sustainability, let’s reconnect eastside neighbourhoods and Downtown to False Creek with upper and lower green spaces, museums, monuments and elegant boulevards. Let’s repair urban rhythms without impacting traffic, with great improvements for nature, recreation, non-motorized movement, views and living. Why wait – let’s do this now!

I could not agree more. One of the problems I was concerned about was the existing SkyTrain line. They seem to have left it in place.

The idea that the viaducts could be like New York’s High Line is, I think, mistaken (as is the even dafter notion of keeping the old Port Mann Bridge as a park).

According to Gordon, at last nights Re:Connect awards this “won both a judge’s honourable mention (there was no single winner) and the People’s Choice Award in this category.”

Good. Can we get on with it now please?

UPDATE 15 December 2011

Over 50 comments at the time of writing, so I think it is reasonable to add an update here. Spacing Vancouver has been offline due to problems with their web server and hackers. They are now back and catching up: this morning they added an article by Brent Toderian on the results of re:CONNECT. Spacing Vancouver was also able to use my recent panorama of the Georgia Viaduct taken from in front of  the Concord Pacific sales centre.

Georgia Viaduct from False Creek pano

Written by Stephen Rees

December 2, 2011 at 11:26 am

Posted in Urban Planning

Tagged with

Mayan tablet does not predict end of the world in 2012

with 3 comments

The Guardian has yet more on the current obsession on the ancient wisdom of the Maya. And just because I am recently returned from the ruins myself, I could not resist the opportunity to comment.

The Observatory

Mayan Observatory at Chichen Itza – my photo on flickr

This is the Observatory at the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. Mayan astronomy was very advanced and accurate, based on well developed mathematics and careful observations – all without lenses or telescopes. Their calendar was based on their observations of the skies and they knew all about the length of the year and when the solstices and equinoxes occurred. Though since they were pretty close to the tropics, and the length of day actually doesn’t vary very much, I am not at all sure that was all that important. They also knew about wheels – in fact their calendar was a series of geared wheels one within another. The fact that one tablet or one wheel ran out of space around December 2012 is of no significance since they thought that time was not linear (as we do, given our obsession with digital time pieces) but a series of nested, repetitive cycles.

Quite why some people now think the Maya were wiser than we are and able to predict the future baffles me – since the great Mayan civilization collapsed. Much like the other great civilizations. Not because of the invasion of the conquistadores, but because of the contradictions of their belief systems and reality. Chichen Itza was a great city where the Toletcs and Maya lived for hundreds of years, building massive monuments like the famous “pyramid” (which actually is not at all like the Egyptian pyramids).


The Mayan “Castillo” at Chichen Itza my photo on flickr

This was actually covered in stucco. The reconstruction has not attempted to reproduce that but it does contain a hint of why the city was abandoned. There were a series of disastrous droughts. The Yucatan has no surface water, but relies on a  network of underground rivers accessible by “cenotes” – natural wells caused by the tree roots penetrating the roof of the limestone caves where the rivers run. When the tree dies, a hole is left in the roof of the cave, and many such roofs collapse over time. The Maya worshipped a god of the waters – including the use of self mutilation and – more famously – human sacrifices. They also dropped people into cenotes – which, given that they depended on the underground river for drinking water, suggests they did not know nearly enough about basic hygiene.

The cause of the drought is the subject of much archaelogical speculation. I use that word since one of the most effective things the Spanish missionaries did was rid the world of Mayan knowledge. All but three of their books were destroyed. It seems likely that the concentration of people on a dry plain was unsustainable agriculturally. Clearing the forest for food crops would have had some impact on local climate. But possibly more important was the “need” for slaked limestone to make stucco. This meant the demand for fuel wood was such that the forest cover was lost much more rapidly.

The elites of the Maya would have been driven to explain why there was a drought and why the harvests were failing – and of course the most likely reason in their world view was that the Gods were angry and required even greater sacrifices and more monuments with even more  stucco decorations. Eventually, the common people simply stopped listening and sacrificing and left the city in search of an easier life where no one was expected to squeeze  their babies’ heads into odd shapes, cut themselves or work all day building stone houses for priests and chiefs while they lived in thatched huts. The stone houses, by the way, were built and decorated on the outside with bas reliefs, but the workers had no steel or bronze tools.

The Maya are in fact still there. Many are trying to preserve the simple life they developed after they abandoned the city in the face of growing international tourism.

The parallels with out own society seem to me to be much more important than speculating about the Mayan’s belief systems. Clearly the Maya did not predict the collapse of their civilization – any more than the Easter Islanders did. It does seem that people have a hard time accepting that there is a limit to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem on which we all depend. Obviously, commentators like Harvey Enchin don’t understand that either. Despite the paper he writes for having major stories about the inevitability of increasingly rapid and severe climate change, he still thinks the economy and conventional employment is more important than long term survival of the species. Just like the elites of the ancient Maya, he demands more sacrifices – more wealth for the 1% – more of what has already demonstrably failed. More oil, more pipelines, more carbon emissions. That is the only way he can see of creating more jobs. The idea that our society is already consuming more of the planets resources than it can replace does not enter into his thought system.

We live on a finite planet. We consume what that planet provides – and we take very little care of the resources we have. If all the world’s people lived the way we do, we would need three planets. Exponential growth on a finite planet cannot continue indefinitely. Our measure of success – GDP – is woefully inadequate since it does not measure the value of clean air, clean water or the ability to grow food. Enchin and his ilk fail to understand that the economy depends on the environment not the other way around.

The world will not end – at least not until the sun burns out and collapses. Long before then, human society as it is currently operating will have collapsed. We could change the date of that collapse, if we got serious about abandoning fossil fuels. After all, the planet gets far more energy from the sun every day than we need  for centuries of power use. We have hardly made any serious progress yet – and the people who make money from coal and oil are determined that we don’t. And in Canada they have done a remarkably effective job in capturing what we fondly believe is a democratically elected government.

Our elite is as misguided and deluded as the Mayan. They did not predict the end of their own civilization let alone the world – or of they did they failed to act in way that ensured their own survival. We do not need to wonder about their calendar – any more than the fact that all our calendars end on December 31 is of any significance. We do need to learn the lesson about carrying capacity of ecosystems. That is what we depend on for our life. The planet will continue long after it has shrugged off what is currently a nasty disease – humanity. We do have the ability to change that. What we seem to lack is the will.

UPDATE December 31, 2011

The Vancouver Sun published an interesting article today by an archeologist who talks about what the ancient Maya did predict – far beyond 2012. And why they definitely did NOT think the world would end.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 1, 2011 at 9:52 am