Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for January 2012

SFU Gondola: Great BCR, Shame about the Business Case

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Translink released the CH2M Hill Burnaby Mountain Business Case report (dated October 2011) yesterday. And the story got picked up quickly by Atlantic Cities.

It seems to me to illustrate what has been going wrong with public investment decisions in recent years. In terms of its Benefit Cost Ratio this project ought to rise high in any comparative analysis of potential transportation projects. There is always a long list of projects that could be done, but not all of them will turn out to be positive. Often the local environmental impact of a major transportation project – or the the cost of its mitigation – will outweigh the benefits – usually travel time savings, especially if all the costs and benefits are measured objectively. In this case, while local residents have objected loudly object the anticipated impact on them, the overall benefits are significantly higher than the costs.

  • 1.5 million hours of saved travel time for current riders and an estimated 500,000 of auto travel time savings as commuters switch to the more efficient service;
  • Fewer transit service interruptions due to snowy conditions on the winding roads up to SFU;
  • Over 26 million in fewer vehicle kilometres traveled annually, which translates into savings on gas, collisions and an overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of about 7,000 tons annually.

“The total value of these benefits, over the 25-year life-cycle, totaled more than $500 million, creating a benefit-cost ratio (BCR) of 3.6,” the report notes, adding that a BCR of greater than 1.0 indicates that benefits surpass costs.

In a world where governments are concerned about such things, even though there may not be enough revenue to cover the costs, a BCR of 3.6 would be significant enough to make a case for public sector (taxpayer) support. Social benefits – or what economists call an overall welfare benefit – are worth paying for, even if the market does not have a mechanism to produce that. But these days governments in general have abandoned ideas of social welfare, and espoused the notion that somehow government is just another business and it is only the financial case that matters. Government expenditure is held to be necessarily wasteful and inefficient – unless it is spent on projects like huge weapons or prisons (which have no discernible  benefits at all, just high private sector profits).

Translink currently cannot finance any new projects beyond the Evergreen Line, since its financial resources are restricted by the province. So there is no way to cover the projected $120m in capital costs or the $10m extra in operating costs. Buses are cheaper. And cheapness, it seems, when it comes to public service, is all that matters. Travel time savings, lower emissions (local pollutants and greenhouse gases) and greater reliability are not worth paying for. Well, not when you have already shot billions on highway projects that will not achieve any of those benefits. Of course, in the case of BC, the assessment process ensured that the highway project would be built anyway and the case for it would never be effectively questioned. Its environmental costs would be ignored, and the case would be based on time savings that ignore induced travel that will quickly overwhelm the short term travel time savings.

I cannot say I like the Atlantic’s use of stock photography. Here is another of my Peak2Peak gondola shots – since that was a favoured technology for SFU at one time

Peak2Peak centre span

Peak2Peak centre span - my photo on flickr

Written by Stephen Rees

January 12, 2012 at 11:26 am

Cambie Corridor plans puts Vancouverism to the test

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Hadani Ditmars in the Globe and Mail examines what is going to be happening at two stations on the new Canada Line.   There is to be a new development at Marine Drive and the Oakridge Mall is getting a makeover. There is a surprisingly positive view given by Patrick Condon, who elsewhere has been critical of this sort of point intensity of development preferring the mid rise, spread along the street style of development that follows streecars. Rapid transit of any kind has fewer stations than streetcars have stops, so the development tends to cluster around the station and density declines as distance from the station increases. Or would do if the planning was done properly – Stockholm being about the best example.

Train leaving Marine Drive station

Canada Line train leaving Marine Drive station my photo on flickr

I do not yet see that the “corridor” itself is going to see a lot of change. There are many home owners now asking for very large prices for their low density buildings along the street, which prompted a reaction from the city planner who pointed out that developers have to pay development cost charges to the city, and the sort of prices being asked and the likely permitted density increase did not add up to viable projects.

What I think is remarkable is how late the development is occurring. Most of it has yet to have much of a physical manifestation and it is only occurring at two points. Contrast that to the way Richmond’s city centre has been expanding – upwards – since the announcement of the line was made, with new developments open as soon as the line was and more on the way. In fact some of the development – out by the Oval and No 2 Road is quite remote from the line – and, indeed, any transit at all. There used to be a #492 express bus on weekday peak periods over the No 2 Bridge and direct to downtown. That went when the B line came in and was quickly revived when the loadings far exceeded expectations. The current idea is that people will take the #402 to Brighouse Station and wait in line for the single line shuttle  service. Actually people wanting a seat tend to get on the southbound train at the previous station to ensure they get one and put up with the slower journey time. Brighouse still does not have a purpose built bus station – unlike Marine Drive.

I think there is very little point spending huge amounts of money on rapid transit systems unless you are willing to allow much greater densities. The lack of development along the Expo line in East Vancouver being something that I used to take groups of people to see, since they had heard so much about the success of Vancouver’s downtown and thought that somehow this progressive attitude extended geographically. Until now, within the City, about the only place which has seen significant change has been Joyce-Collingwood where industrial land was converted to dense, affordable housing – by reducing parking requirements.

The new buildings going up on No 3 Road have not had their parking requirements reduced. Indeed they are actually building underground parking – something hitherto only seen at City Hall. That recognizes that for a lot of Richmond residents employment is not in Vancouver but in other suburbs, and that the car is still the dominant form of commuting. Despite the raised bike lanes.

No 3 at Firbridge site

Underground parking construction Firbridge at No 3 Road my photo on flickr

Development which actually increases parking supply (these sites were formerly car showrooms) inevitably increases car use – even if there is a rapid transit line nearby. Indeed, when the first Toronto subway opened along Yonge Street, traffic got worse. The removal of streetcars allowed more road space for cars, but the new high rise buildings at the stations had parking included in them.

I certainly congratulate Translink on its performance last year. It was a very good lesson in getting quarts into pint pots. I just think that they will hit the limit of what that can achieve fairly quickly. The Canada Line was built down to a price, and is going to be a problem when expansion become necessary. And if the development along the Cambie corridor exceeds the present two sites and becomes more widespread, the limits of that capacity will be reached very quickly indeed. In the meantime, what money is being spent is wasted on the pointless gating system.

Vancouver – and its region – desperately needs more and better transit and much more transportation choice. That is not news of course. And so far the region as a whole seems not to have embraced the idea that underlies the Vancouver Transportation plan  – that human powered modes and transit should have priority. Density is still a dirty word – just like traffic congestion. And for a good summary of the history of that I recommend the ever more prolific Gordon Price – and endorse his recommendations.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 5, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Urban Planning

Tagged with ,

Planning Students Conference

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At the request of the organizers: no, I won’t be going and I received nothing for doing this


Canadian Association of Planning Students 2012 Conference and AGM – PLANNING HORIZONS:The Edge, Future, and Potential of Planning

Dates: February 2nd – 4th 2012


Location: Vancouver, British Columbia – Simon Fraser University’s Downtown Campus, Harbour Centre (515 West Hastings Street)





The national CAPS-ACÉAU conference is the premier event for planning students from across Canada. Join us in 2012 in the beautiful and inspiring setting of Vancouver, BC for a three day conference to share your research and projects, network with planning students and professionals from across Canada and the Pacific Northwest, and explore leading planning initiatives in the Greater Vancouver region.

Keynote speakers include: Larry Beasley, Julian Agyeman, and Gordon Price. See our complete program online.

Call for Student Presenters: Deadline Extended to Jan.13th 2012!

The priority of CAPS-ACÉAU is to provide students with an opportunity to present their research in a professional conference setting. Prizes will also be awarded for those students recognized by their peers as giving the top presentations. In addition, our professional development sessions will provide practical planning skills as you prepare for your career as a planner.

Conference Registration & Fees


  • Three day registration $85*

($69* Presenter rate)

  • One day price $50

  • Three day registration $150
  • One day price $100


*taxes/service fee may apply

Discounts for air travel and accommodation are available to delegates, details online.


Detailed conference information available at:

For more information, please contact:

Written by Stephen Rees

January 5, 2012 at 8:45 am

Posted in Urban Planning