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

Archive for April 2012

YouCity Innovation Contest

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“Below the fold” is another Press Release. This one gets through my very fine sieve since it is actually relevant to the readers of this blog. Who knows, someone reading this might actually get a trip to Berlin out of it. If you do, please let me know.

BUT – there’s always a “but” from the acerbic Mr Rees – I want to throw some cold water on the idea that innovation is what is needed – at least in terms of gee whiz technology. We know what works in cities – and we know the places which have been showing the way. Generally speaking the ideas were concepts which have been around for a while and most meet consistent opposition from the embedded spokespersons of the elite and corporate interests. In no particular order, here are some of the innovations that we have already seen work to make cities not just sustainable but more livable. All of them could be adopted here. Most of them will be, eventually, as the oil runs out and the climate gets steadily worse. I would like to see them here in my lifetime – I should only live so long! And a lot of them are not innovative at all – they are putting back what we once had, that did work but did not suit the suits.

Get in the way of the cars

This is simple to do. Just about any changes that impact urban traffic are opposed by car drivers and those who make their money from selling cars and their fuel. But cars are the problem in cities – and if you are upsetting motorists then you are probably doing the right thing. For instance, look at the pathological opposition to bike lanes – the Burrard Bridge being one of the best and most unequivocal stories in this region. Taking a lane away from cars was supposed to bring about chaos and economic decline. It didn’t happen. The same thing is being said about bike lanes downtown – and will be said if anyone dares to come up with any proposal that counts people as opposed to vehicles. The metric of vehicles per hour must be replaced by persons per hour. In Central London many years ago, we did this to the traffic control system. We did it by using the same cost benefit values that we had already been using for years for capital projects – which kept down the noise from the engineers, who tend to be car drivers themselves. The result was a whole raft of bus priority measures. Janet Sadik-Khan did it in New York. She simply observed that in Times Square pedestrians far outnumbered car users – a percentage of whom did not actually need to be in midtown Manhattan at all since they were just passing through.

Some road reduction measures actually improve traffic flow. For instance, turning the standard four lane arterial into three – with the centre lane used for left turns only (bi-directional) and the curb lane being used for bicycles instead of parking. Williams Road in Richmond got this treatment many years ago, it works beautifully, but it has not been replicated. Roundabouts also work this way – and greatly reduce both collisions and collision severities. Yet they are still regarded as alien invaders.

Speed is still the biggest traffic problem, and speed limit enforcement using cameras works. Photo radar still is in operation to enforce red lights – and ought to be brought back for speed limits. Average speed cameras would make most bridges much safer and reduce collisions – the major cause of traffic delays in this region judging by the coverage on AM730. If it is called a cash grab (and it will be) just smile sweetly and tell ’em there’s an easy to avoid paying – just don’t speed.

Tear down the viaducts – sooner rather than later. Just do it.

Impose a congestion charge. This one is actually tricky here since it cannot be the sort of straightforward cordon price used in London so well, and which paid for so much improvement in bus supply. Road pricing works – we know that – and we need the money. The arguments will all be about how we do it and how to prevent diversion of traffic off the arterials and on to the back streets. But this needs to happen – so we might just as well bite the bullet and get on with it.

Expand transit

We have known that we are undersupplied with transit service for many years. Until people have a viable alternative they will keep driving. Spending billions on widening freeways was stupid and short-sighted but at least proved that we have both the money and technology required to expand the transportation system. Expecting that the new lanes of highway would not fill up with traffic just because the Port Mann bridge will be tolled is sophistry.

The easy fix is to get a lot more buses rolling and increase service frequencies – and put in bus lanes (not HOV lanes) with effective enforcement again (cameras on the front of the bus controlled by the bus driver). Only buses in bus lanes – and the lane surface should be coloured – then there is no argument about what should be where.

London bus lane

Again, this happened in London with the congestion charge and worked. Rail is needed (see below) but takes too long to build to have the immediate impact that bus service expansion had.

More passenger rail – choosing appropriate technology by need. The arguments about streetcars vs light rail vs grade separation ought to be resolved by looking at the purpose of the service and the expected load. Different tools to perform different jobs. In urban areas where getting a new right of away is either difficult or ludicrously expensive making use of existing  under-utilized or abandoned rights of way should be obvious to everyone. And the concept of a “heritage boulevard” should fool no-one. We need streetcars – which get their own reserved lane – and we need light rail and we need high speed trains for longer distances. The electric interurbans were really effective – and the line is there and what freight moves along it now can easily move overnight, leaving the track free for people. No, it is not an ideal route, but like I said, waiting for the best is no longer an option.

Don’t let the truckers plan your transportation system

I acknowledge my debt to Gordon Price for that thought. One of the reasons it is top of mind is one of the press releases that didn’t make it here. It began

Talk of transit and how to finance it continues to make headlines.  While finding new ways of funding subways and LRTs is essential, this single-minded focus has left the freight industry — and the transport infrastructure they use – out of the conversation.  With this in mind, Transport Futures is proud to be hosting the first-ever Goods Movement and Mobility Pricing Forum …

If the Gateway has taught us nothing it is that the armageddon forecast by the truckers would not have happened either – but the one forecast by the Livable Region Coalition sadly will.

Come to think of it what we do need here is what works so well in Europe. An electronic tachograph in every truck  “the spy in the cab” which enforces drivers’ hours and is so useful after collisions in determining responsibility. This can be coupled with going back to earlier levels of random roadside inspections for vehicle safety and checks on overloading. Are there any weigh scales next to the highway in the region that are actually in use?

Priority for walking, cycling and transit

That was the principle espoused by the City of Vancouver Transportation Plan which took a while to get implemented – and is now on a roll. It must be adopted region wide – and the province must accept that.

Public space in cities is not mainly so that cars can speed through. The idea that people like to sit down and enjoy the place is not new – but its application is done much better in most other places.

Governance and funding

The present arrangements do not work. We have to stop kidding ourselves that other people think we are some sort of example to follow. On the contrary, we are an object lesson on what is wrong. Of course it would be different if Canada had a national transit program  – but we cannot wait for that. We also know that local government does not have the revenue stream it needs to play an equal role with federal and provincial contributions. A so called “balanced” approach has always favoured road building. Democracy is the least worst form of government we know. Metro Vancouver needs to adopt it . We need a directly elected regional authority that does all that Translink and the former GVRD and its other acronyms have been doing – and much more. Yes, that will provoke howls of outrage from local councillors and provincial politicians alike. So when did protecting their turf become the deciding principle and not what was best for the region? Again, the idea is that we have regional services where that makes sense (transport, waste disposal, land use planning, major parks) as well as local ones. And some recognition that this is not about either/or but always about both levels working together.

Make the rich pay

The fiscal revolution of the last thirty years has not delivered what it promised. It has manifestly failed even in its own terms. It is time to return to a progressive taxation system. Public services are important – too important to be left to the profit motive. This applies to health and broadcasting as much as urban development and transportation. Expecting poor people to pay the same as rich people is unjust – but is the effect of moving from income tax to sales tax, and all the other fees and levies – and that also applies to fares. This will be unpopular, but the socio-economic justification for UPass is pretty weak. It did help UBC avoid having to put in lots more expensive parking structures – but that is not an objective that trumps social inclusion, mobility and accessibility. And, by the way, government ought to be getting back into the business of providing housing – current levels of homelessness and the ludicrous housing market here should be reasons enough.

Protecting the environment

Amazing, isn’t it, that this even needs to be said. But it is everywhere under attack – and mostly by the government itself. Enough. Clean air, clean water and food that is actually nutritious is essential to life – and not just for us humans. The economy is a subsidiary to the environment, not the other way around. We are rapidly running out of the resources we have  become dependant upon – mostly because we did not place the right value on the things too easily dismissed as “externalities”. The market has failed.  Inter planetary travel and mining asteroids are still too far away to save us. We only have one habitable planet and this one cannot support all of us the way a small percentage manage to live now. We – the rich developed nations – have to change. There is no alternative except extinction.


Looking for innovative ideas about the future of public transportation in cities – The Bombardier YouCity Innovation Contest

Bombardier, a global leader in aerospace and rail transportation is inviting people to submit ideas for sustainable mobility in the urban environment.

The YouCity competition seeks to identify a whole spectrum of new innovations and ideas to demonstrate what smart urban mobility will look like in the future.

Ideas can be presented for projects in existing well developed cities or as theoretical projects for emerging cities of the future.

The YouCity contest is receiving some very unique and innovative project ideas.

Here are some of the creative submissions posted:

MegaProp Transport System – Automatic transport, pollution free without a driver.

Basic Principle – Take two magnets and a sheet of cardboard. Place one magnet M1 above the sheet and one magnet M2 below. If you will move the magnet M2 the magnet M1 will also move. You can test it by placing a toy car with ferrous base above any cardboard. Place a magnet below the cardboard surface on which toy car is standing. Now if you will move magnet along the surface of cardboard, the toy car will also move along. This is the basic principle of MegProp vehicle.

New Polyvalent Hybrid System for Intermodal Transportation.

This proposal is an increased capacity multimodal monorail system which allows for a new class of small electric vehicles to be integrated into the system in an organic manner that enables the entire system to operate as one.

Connect Public Traffic System with Individual Traffic

Connect public traffic System with Individual traffic! Create system that combines narrow streets with broad ones! Combine existing traffic systems with new ones! Adept system to target city of London!

The YouCity Bombadier contest is open to students and professionals from anywhere in the world.  Ideas can be submitted from individuals or teams of up to 5 participants. Ideas can focus on:

  • engineering (product definition, technical concept)
  • business (business model, stakeholders, financing strategy)
  • urban planning (network layout, urbanism concepts, integration)

Winners will receive 2,000 euros (approximately $2,600) and receive an all expenses paid 4-day trip to Berlin, Germany to participate in an exclusive Innovation Workcamp, the results of which will be presented on September 20th, 2012 at InnoTrans in Berlin, the world’s largest trade fair focused on the rail transport industry.

Ideas are posted online where people can review and comment openly.  Candidates get the opportunity to receive feedback and exposure from people all over the world.  The most active and valuable community participant will also be invited to join the winners in Berlin for the Innovation Workcamp.

To submit ideas and for more information visit:

Written by Stephen Rees

April 26, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Book Review: Straphanger by Taras Grescoe

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I was pleased to get an invitation to read a review copy of Straphanger by Taras Grescoe. I was even more pleased when I got it  straightaway as a download. The download I get, of course, has a limited life – but longer than the average library loan. On the other hand it does not permit me to copy and paste excerpts into a review. This is annoying because that is actually covered by the “fair use” exception in copyright law – but apparently Adobe Digital Editions do not allow for that. Not surprising really given the foofooraw over DRM in general. On the other hand the book has already been reviewed in the mainstream media (here for example is the Globe and Mail’s take on it). More importantly big chunks of it – far more than would ever get into any review – are currently getting on line in Spacing magazine’s various web presences. This does enable one to cut and paste – but much more importantly it means you can read big chunks of it too. You do subscribe to Spacing Vancouver don’t you? For example today’s extract is all about Copenhagen.

But I think, given this blog’s orientation, and the fact that this was the first bit I really paid attention to, you will want to look at what he has to say about Vancouver. It is remarkably upbeat and positive: far more than this blog has been overall – or any of us are feeling right now, thanks to the massive cut that the Mayors have delivered in the ongoing fight with the province over funding. But there are things here that made me react in a much less positive way. For instance:

The Canada Line, completed for the 2010 Winter Olympics, whisks passengers in Korean made electric trains at 50 miles an hour toward the West End. As the driverless light-rail train crosses the Fraser River, I marvel at how thickets of office and condo towers, each cluster corresponding to a SkyTrain station, have cropped up at intervals of about a mile and a half, where once there was only low-rise suburbia.

No you didn’t. What you see as you leave the airport and before you plunge into the tunnel after Marine Drive station looks nothing like that. I mean, yes Taras, you might marvel at that from the distance of your Montreal home based on what you have been told, read and even seen on some visits. But not only does it not look like that as you cross the Fraser River, much of Vancouver does not look like that. There are no “thickets of office towers” apart from around Burrard Station – and the twin towers of Metrotown where Translink is currently located (where there were supposed to be more, but they have not been built). And you will certainly not see anything like that along the Canada Line except the condos at Lansdowne and Brighouse. There’s also a few high rise buildings near Bridgeport but those are hotels and they are there because of the airport and proximity to the freeway exit. Now there will be a massive high rise at Marine Drive – but it isn’t there now to marvel at. What most of us notice is the lack of development at Broadway and Commercial – where two SkyTrain lines meet and Safeway’s car park is the most noticeable feature – one that Brent Toderian points out to visitors as an example. Nothing happened at 29th Avenue or  Nanaimo either. Joyce/Collingwood is the Vancouver exception.

Burnaby and New Westminster did get Skytrain stations, and have also concentrated development at one or two stations. (There is a long piece in the Straight on New Westminster’s transit oriented development.) Burnaby continued with dispersed office parks and low density commercial sprawl both unrelated to transit. Surrey is now making the best of the Surrey City Centre – but for much of the intervening period (between the Scott Road extension opening and a couple of years ago) also pursued sprawl at highway intersections. In that case actually with the enthusiastic support of the province, which used highway land sales to developers to help pay for intersection “improvements”.

What Translink’s recent release of its frequent transit map shows is that most of Metro Vancouver is just like most of the rest of North America. Yes we may be doing a bit better than Portland (the chapter in the book is a head to head comparison) but that is not saying much.

Part of the problem is that we have started believing our own spin. For instance, Gordon Price tells him

“The amazing thing is that, even today, highways don’t go through any part of the City of Vancouver,” pointed out Price. “They just stop as soon as they reach the city limits.”

That is just not true. Highway #1 is a freeway, and it runs through the City of Vancouver’s North East Corner. From the Second Narrows Bridge to Boundary Road, through the Cassiar Connector tunnel, that is City of Vancouver. And the freeway expansion is going to dump lots of traffic into Vancouver’s east side.

Vancouver, like Portland, opted to use federal highway money for public transport

Eh? What federal highway money? There was a small one off federal contribution to the original Skytrain. A grovelling provincial government even stuck Canada word marks on the trains as part of its campaign to get more federal contribution to the Canada Line – so named to attract the same funds. But Canada does not have a federal transit program – and its highway money comes as specific grants for favoured projects in critical ridings too. I would also balk at labelling the 99 B-Line “Bus Rapid Transit” as he does.

Vancouver’s greatest strength was the concentration of vision allowed by true regional planning. The Livable Region Strategic Plan, adopted in 1996 as a framework for making regional land use and transportation decisions, is now the game plan for the entire region.

Well that might have been true once, I must say that I disagree. The expansion of Highway #1 and the rejection of even the fig leaf of a bus across the new Port Mann Bridge means that the LRSP no longer applies. And anyway, even when he was talking to Chris de Marco at Metro, there was a new Regional Growth Strategy that has replaced the LRSP. Some of the problem is that events have moved between him writing and the book appearing. Toderian and Shiffer had both gone. But the writing was already clearly on the wall, once the province decided not just to deal with the bottle neck of the Port Mann Bridge but to widen the entire freeway through the region from Boundary Road to the eastern limit of Langley Township. The Livable Region Coalition was formed to fight that, and lost. Long before he started his researches for this volume.

There is, I am sad to report, no chapter on London. (UPDATE I can now report, after a tweet & email exchange with the author, that he offered one in his outline but the publisher was not interested.) It does get mentioned here and there – and no, I have not yet read the entire book. But given that London was the place that first built an underground railway – The Metropolitan Railway – and that most cities subsequently called their systems “Metro” as a result of that – does seem to me to be significant. What is missing is an appreciation of the role of the suburban railway. In London, the mainlines run north and west from the capital, and the Underground network developed in those sectors since the London and Northwestern and Great Western railways were much less interest in short haul commuters than the more profitable long distance “Inter City” market. To the south and east, suburban development also proceeded at the same pace but was driven by the Southern and Great Eastern railways, who had much less long distance traffic. The GE in fact was forced to run commuter trains by legislation. In order to build its City terminus at Liverpool Street it had to pull down a densely populated urban area called The Jago. If those people were to be relocated to the suburbs they had to be given fares they could afford. “Workmen’s fares” were legislated to allow the low paid manual workers on whom the wealth of the city depended to get to and from work every day, to their – much nicer, new homes in places like Walthamstow. The London County Council built huge housing estates – and operated frequent electric tram services to them. But the huge growth of London prior to the first world war was due to the efforts of what became the Southern Railway and its electric trains to places like Surbiton and Dulwich, Staines and Gravesend.

This also seems to have been ignored in the chapter on New York. That is entitled  “The Subway that Time Forgot”. But he forgets that the subway was not the only thing going on. The growth of midtown Manhattan as an employment centre that he ascribes to the subway seems to me to miss the point. Grand Central and Penn Stations were not just the terminals of the transcontinental and the Chattanooga choo-choo. They were the hubs of extensive long distance commuter networks – and still are, come to that. That made it possible for people to commute to their offices from Chatham New Jersey or New Rochelle New York.  The huge growth of the north east megalopolis that stretches from Boston to Washington began when railways offered regular fast and frequent services that people could use for a daily commute. And the farmland and small towns quickly disappeared – and all this started and was clearly evident long before the arrival of the car and Robert Moses. Though I do think he gets that right: Moses refusal to allow railway tracks on “his” bridges was indeed perverse. The Williamsburg Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn carries the subway too.

Williamsburg Bridge

Williamsburg Bridge - my picture on flickr

The lack of track on more modern bridges is indeed bizarre. Can you imagine Sidney Harbour bridge without trains? Well yes you can, since our province has been committing the same sin. The railway bridge at New Westminster used to carry cars, and then the parallel Sidney Harbour style Patullo went up and was – as usual – built without consideration for future needs. And we seem likely to repeat the same mistake.

But to get back to Taras Grescoe, by concentrating on the – admittedly gripping tale – subway, he doesn’t even mention the interurbans. In our current love affair with the streetcar (the relatively slow, town centre transit) we seem to have forgotten that there was once a network of fast electric trains. The Downtown Heritage Railway uses two of the cars from that system. They went out to Steveston, but the lines also went all the way to Chilliwack – and the route through Burnaby is followed by the Expo line. Such systems criss-crossed North America. In his novel “Ragtime”, E L Doctorow has his protagonists escape attention by travelling from Chicago to New York by a series of interurbans, thus avoiding the surveillance of the main line stations by the police. Los Angeles “seventeen suburbs in search of a city” grew up because of the Big Red Cars of the Pacific Electric – and that story is told in Straphanger – and it is acknowledged as an interurban, of course. But he quickly falls back to calling them streetcars, and relies on Roger Rabbit and the great City Lines conspiracy. The point being that the interurban may have been slow when forced to share streetspace, but was very fast indeed when on its own right of way out in the country. The great benefit from the users point of view was that there was no need to transfer from the streetcar to the faster mode – in town they shared the same tracks. But because they were built just before the automobiles really got going, and were lumbered not only with legislated fares but also the costs of road maintenance, the conspiracy was really not necessary, although it was indeed real. I would like to quote more but this chapter is not one that Spacing is allowed to excerpt.

So of course I am going to recommend you read not just Spacing’s excerpts, but the whole book. It is indeed highly readable and does look well beyond North America. I was really impressed with the Paris chapter where the RER and the new interurban system both get covered well.  It does get to grips with how cities urban form is shaped by and depends upon its transportation system. Of course there are things we will find to argue about, but that is not a reason to avoid it. Quite the contrary. It is indeed highly stimulating. For as long as it lasts on my hard drive I am going to dipping into it and, should time permit, may well return to it. It is not an academic treatise but it does have both an index (another weakness of digital editions is the need to use the search function but from the front through each mention) and an extensive list of sources. Not that this blog is on that, of course.

By the way WordPress wants to mark the fact that this post is the 1900th since I started.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 25, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Extending the Canada Line?

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UPDATED April 24, 2012

The headline in the Richmond Review actually reads “Extending the Canada Line won’t happen in our lifetime, says Richmond mayor”.

That is his opinion and he is entitled to it. But the – shortish – piece under it also illustrates not only why he may well be wrong, but also why Strategic Planning is too important to be left to politicians – or people who seriously think that perception is reality.

Malcolm Brodie has shown himself to be a capable politician – simply because he has survived in his position for such a long time, not been tempted to get out his depth, and now and again stood up to the bullies in the provincial government who come from the same part of the political spectrum as he does. I do not buy the appellation “non partisan”. Malcolm is no socialist, nor is he in the slightest danger of being labelled Green. But he also shows that his perspective is what the local electorate generally wants to hear. South of Granville, most of Richmond is still single family homes (though many have “mortgage helpers”) and, like most people up to the eyes in debt, deeply distrustful of change in the neighbourhoods. After all, that was why they bought where they did, and they do not want to find themselves living somewhere else without moving. So this kind of stuff plays well with the local Chamber of Commerce, which is where he was speaking.

But Richmond is changing, and changing fast, and not just in the bits served by the Canada Line. Though the massive retail development proposed in the Bridgeport area is getting the headlines, change is happening along the bus routes, because of a council decision that allows that. Even though only of one them is classified as frequent (#410). At one time most change was small bungalows on large lots getting replaced by monster homes. That still happens within the subdivisions, but along the edges (i.e the arterial roads that are bus routes) the development of choice is townhouses. Lots of them, packed in tight and usually with lane way access. Because even though there may be a bus route, most people are still going to drive and parking standards have not been relaxed.

This blog has consistently pointed out that the Canada Line was not, in fact “specifically built with the idea that it could be extended”. Malcolm and other Richmond Councillors might have thought that, but they were not in charge. In fact they wanted surface light rail on the old B Line “central reservation” – which could have been easily extended, much cheaper but was also incompatible with automatic train operation. The Canada Line has significant limitations – mostly short underground stations – and a P3 “concession agreement”. The single track bit in Richmond does limit frequency as it is operated in two directions.

South end of the Canada Line at Richmond-Brighouse Station

South end of the Canada Line at Richmond-Brighouse Station by "indyinsane", on Flickr

As I have said, what could be done is to build a one way loop by tacking new track on the end of the Brighouse Station and linking back to Lansdowne, taking in the areas with significant traffic generating potential. (No 3 to Granville, east on Granville, north on Garden City, west on Lansdowne). Then it can operate at line frequency as there would be no need to wait until the train gets back to Landowne. The loop might have stations at City Hall, and two more on Garden City.  Indeed, I can imagine the sort of people who think concrete would greatly improve the Garden City lands as salivating at that thought. Not that I am proposing such a thing – or even saying that it would be a Good Thing. Just sketching out a possibility.

I think the cited “$107.9 million per kilometre” as the cost of the line probably includes the very expensive underground route in Vancouver. Single track guideway around a couple of square kilometres of high rises might be a lot cheaper. Though don’t expect the people living at track level to cheer about that. Ideally, of course, one builds rail rapid transit before the people move in. Much easier then to get the thing accepted, and a much better rate of return on capital employed. There is even enough room on the ground, thanks to the old BCER tracks which ran along Garden City and Granville, explaining the generous right of way those roads have, and the bizarre layout of their intersection.

This might well happen, if things develop as nows seems likely. Peak oil, and the lack of affordability of electric cars means that finally Greater Vancouver could get serious about providing alternatives to single occupant motor vehicles. This would be because transit is much more fuel efficient per passenger kilometre even if it is in old diesel buses – and exponentially better if it is in modern electric trains. And the majority of people who live in Richmond now are not people like Malcolm Brodie. They know at first hand what very high residential densities and excellent public transport look like. They just have not been very much involved in municipal politics – as the present ethnic make up of Richmond Council makes clear.

Of course, some of the other likely scenarios have to play out differently too. The major earthquake and tsunami might not happen for a while longer – or we may have actually done something effective to mitigate their impacts. Similarly sea level rise – expected to be much higher in the Pacific North West – will happen, but for Richmond to continue to exist will require a radically changed approach to flood prevention. Salt water ingress into the soil may have some impact on the remaining agricultural lands (if they have not all been paved for port expansion) but fresh water flow from the Fraser might hold that back – despite the loss of the last glaciers and much less snow pack.

One thing I would caution people like Malcolm making prognostications like this is the propensity of history to show that they were wrong and often much sooner than you might think. It does seem to me that those who have been saying that the North American style of car oriented suburb was a short lived idea and one that has now seen its heyday pass are much better founded in their understanding than someone who says “you’re going to have a huge expense for really very little value in terms of densities”. Malcolm really does not understand what is happening in the broadest sense. It may play well now that we are embroiled in trying to cut costs and avoid more property taxes, but it is very short term, local thinking.  And that worries me when we say that the Mayors need to be in charge of the agency that plans the region’s transportation system.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 20, 2012 at 10:43 am

Farewell Mike

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Surprising news this morning that a corporate reorganization has eliminated the position of Vice President, Planning & Policy so Mike Shiffer is no longer with TransLink. Service and Infrastructure Planning will now report through the Chief Operating Officer. Strategic Planning will report to the  the VP Corporate & Public Affairs.

He gave a talk at SFU early in 2010 (which was reported here) which showed his depth of knowledge and understanding of the issues. This was soon after he arrived here, so he managed to survive for three years. Apparently he wants to stay here.

The reorganization is just one more indication of the damage that the current insistence on audits and cutbacks is having on the organization.

UPDATE Thanks to a tweet from Paul Hillsdon I have a link to Ian Jarvis memo to staff in a Surrey leader story

The role of planning – and especially Strategic Planning – is always difficult since it seeks to bring objectivity and rationality to an arena where all too often passions and gut instincts hold sway. We are not alone in this as the current pantomime in Toronto over rapid transit expansion shows – or the latest brouhaha in the London Mayoral elections, where the future of the hop-on, hop-off bus is once again at the top of the agenda.

Planning should most definitely NOT be about PR and spin  which is what “Corporate & Public Affairs” are all about. That’s the place where they believe that perception is reality. And we all suffer for that.

By the way, congratulations to Joe Trasolini on winning his by-election, but I am afraid  that means his favourite road project will once again resurface.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 20, 2012 at 8:02 am

Car sharing continues to expand

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The tribulations of our transit system continue to dominate the mainstream. In all of the discussion what I think is missing is any real appreciation of why transit is important – why choice should have been improved, and how despite expansion, the lack of focus on mode share means we are definitely slipping. Our transit provider, of course, continues to boast about how good it is and how impressed everyone else is when looking at us from the outside.

One of Modo's new locations, Surrey Central City, is conveniently located right next to SFU's Surrey campus

One of Modo's new locations, Surrey Central City, is conveniently located right next to SFU's Surrey campus

I am turning to some good news, for a change. This time it comes from the car co-op Modo who spent $1m on new cars since October 1 last year and will be opening up more new locations. Car sharing and transit go hand in hand. What Modo does is  transit-oriented carsharing.

When people join car co-ops, they give up car ownership but retain the mobility that cars provide when transit doesn’t fit the requirement. They tend to make a lot of transit trips than car owners and Modo selects its sites based on transit service frequency. Car sharers are also cyclists and walkers. One of the great benefits of not owning a car is that you can get the size you need for the trip purpose. When you own a car you tend to buy one to fit the very few times you need seven seats, or room for a full sheet of drywall. The rest of the time that space travels around empty. The cars we own spend most of their lives parked and idle, eating up valuable real estate and reducing the quality of life for all around them. More widespread car sharing means fewer resources used for more mobility.

Modo’s new locations were strategically chosen both to infill neighbourhoods with high carsharing demand and to reach out to neighbourhoods where carsharing has room to grow. The new locations span seven municipalities and include River Market in New Westminster, Central City in Surrey, and Modo’s first ever carsharing location in Richmond.

Vancouver – ten cars added at eight locations in seven neighbourhoods:
Commercial Drive – McSpadden Park and Napier & Lakewood
False Creek – Walter Hardwick (2 cars) [this is in the Village formerly known as Olympic]
Gastown – 60 West Cordova (2 cars)
Kitsilano – Maple & W 13th
Mount Pleasant – Guelph Park
Renfew – 29th Avenue SkyTrain station
Strathcona – Admiral Seymour

— with six more locations still to come.

New Westminster – added one location:
River Market

North Vancouver – added one location:
Safeway at 13th and Lonsdale

Surrey – added one location:
Central City

UBC – added one location:
Thunderbird Blvd

Locations to be added:

Burnaby – one location is coming soon near Lougheed SkyTrain

Richmond – one location is coming soon near the Canada line (Modo declined to be more precise at this time as negotiations are still in process)

“We’re also excited to announce that we’ve purchased several new Prius V and Prius C models,” says Douglas Dunn, Modo’s Fleet + Operations Manager. “These vehicles give us an even more diverse mix of hybrids and further improve the fuel efficiency of our fleet.”

Modo is a carsharing co-operative, meaning members who purchase shares in the co-op are part owners. It is the largest carsharing co-operative in North America and a founding member of both the international CarSharing Association and the recently formed Federation of Canadian Carsharing Co-operatives.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 19, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Posted in car sharing

Journal of Public Transportation Vol 15 #1

with 2 comments

Academic journals in general are ridiculously expensive, and often only available in university libraries. JPT is a welcome exception and is free for anyone to download as a pdf file. I get an email when a new issue is available.

Below I have cut and pasted the Table of Contents for Volume 15 No 1, 2012  

In view of the lively debates that break out here in the comments sections whenever transit is mentioned, I trust that readers will benefit from the information from the National Centre for  Transit Research at the University of South Florida

Should Transit Serve the CBD or a Diverse Array of Destinations?
A Case Study Comparison of Two Transit Systems
Jeffrey R. Brown, Gregory L. Thompson……………………………………………………………..1

An Approach to Calculate Overall Efficiency of Rolling Stock
for an Urban Rail Transit System
Qamar Mahboob, Thomas Stoiber, Stephanie Gottstein, Antonios Tsakarestos…….19

Assessment of Models to Estimate Bus-Stop Level Transit Ridership
using Spatial Modeling Methods
Srinivas S. Pulugurtha, Mahesh Agurla………………………………………………………………….33

Transit Coordination in the U.S.: A Survey of Current Practice

Charles Rivasplata, Adam Smith, Hiroyuki Iseki ……………………………………………………..53

Bus or Rail: An Approach to Explain the Psychological Rail Factor

Milena Scherer, Katrin Megel Dziekan…………………………………………………………………..75

The Impact of Weather on Bus Ridership in Pierce County, Washington

Victor W. Stover, Edward D. McCormack……………………………………………………………….95

The Potential Role of Flexible Transport Services in Enhancing
Rural Public Transport Provision
Nagendra R. Velaga, John D. Nelson, Steve D. Wright, John H. Farrington……………..111

Are Smart Card Ticketing Systems Profitable?
Evidence from the City of Trondheim
Morten Welde………………………………………………………………………………………………….133 

Written by Stephen Rees

April 17, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Shocking the Suburbs

with 2 comments

Jago Dodson & Neil Sipe of Griffith University in Brisbane actually entitled their presentation “Oil Vulnerability & Cities” but that is the subtitle of their book – and that has the much snappier title I used. Room 1700 at SFU had 30 people in it at 7pm last night. Is that because Urban Studies talks do not give anyone professional credits? Or was there a hockey game on tv? After ten minutes a few more stragglers arrived and  Anthony Perl did the introductions. Griffith University and SFU have some kind of “twinning” arrangement  which apparently paid for their trip.

Price of NYMEX Light Sweet Crude Oil, 1997-2006

The have been looking at the impact of higher oil prices on Australian cities. In 1990 oil was AU$20 a barrel but by 2004 reached a $140 peak. Since they are  partly transport planners and saw this as a policy and planning problem they thought that this was a useful topic to research since there would have to be a response.  They did not want to engage in a debate on the future sustainability of oil supplies, but showed an IEA chart dated 2008 which showed a steep decline in conventional oil supplies expected from that year forward.  At present Queensland is experiencing an energy boom due to its exploitation of natural gas and coal which as (in his words) “put a floor under energy prices”.

Newman & Kenworthy – produced the first study of  energy use and density of cities in 1989 (the image below was not the one they showed but comes from the same data set)

Unsuprisingly that showed that the US has the most use of energy for private transportation. Australia and Canada are not far behind. They forecast there would have to be an abandonment of car dependent suburbs, which had been the theme of the iconic Australian movie series “Mad Max“. At the time of writing oil prices are $103.80 US per barrel (12 April 2012). The energy returned on energy invested in producing motor fuel which was 50:1 in the 1950s is now 5:1 and for some fuels such as ethanol  1:1  [or worse according to some sources].

They began mapping oil vulnerability using data from the Australian 2005 census. Dependence on motor vehicles was shown by using the variables travel to work by car and number of cars owned and for socio economic status the Socio-Economic Index for Area (SEIFA). These were combined into  the vulnerability index for petroleum expense rises (VIPER) index. They showed maps of Brisbane, where the most vulnerable lived in the outer suburbs with similar results for Sidney and Melbourne. On of the reasons they ascribed was that “public transport is not so good out there”

Mortgage and oil vulnerability in Brisbane


The 2ndgeneration of the index the ‘vulnerability assessment for mortgage, petrol and inflation risks and expenditure’ (VAMPIRE) included  median household income and mortgages. The maps also now had data a from 2001 and 2006  which produces a map of growth in vulnerability. Last year they added six US cities and, more recently, Vancouver. In the US cities they used Census 2000 data, and for Vancouver the  2006 census data but without car ownership (as that data is not in our census) and just based it on the mode used for journeys to work. (see also Center for Neighborhood Technology which was covered here recently)

The maps showed that Atlanta is nearly all vulnerable with a few odd spots of low vulnerability near the centre. On both Boston and Chicago the effect of  mass transit shows up. Both Las Vegas and Phoenix were “not as bad as you might think” but conceded that new areas were few people lived distort the picture. Even Portland looks poor as does Vancouver  outside of downtown core but better than Boston & Chiacgo at the highest value index areas. In Sydney they have added motor vehicle data vehicle age and size which shows that older cars (more than 10 years) with larger engines dominate in the lower income outer areas. A regression of the data showed an r2 of 0.85 which is significant.

Their work shows that electric vehicles are not the answer as the owners of old large cars have low incomes. The capability of households to afford electric vehicles poses a policy problem of since market effects will almost certainly lead to the price of older gasoline cars falling as new electric vehicles start to become popular.

Greater urban density is also often suggested as the cure for oil vulnerability.  He questioned the “palatability” of high density using an illustration of high rises in Hong Kong, and pointed out that development  by the private sector is market driven and based on the  distance decay function of land prices (land prices fall as distance from the centre increases). The viability of density in outer suburbs is questionable  due to low land values. A network of public transport with high density development at nodes (stations) was proposed by Newman & Kenworthy in 1999 but  Lenzen et al in 2004 showed that when automotive energy use is compared to total energy use the embodied energy in high rise buildings is taken into account, high total energy use is associated with high density. Is high density development more energy efficient overall? High wealth’s  key to energy use since the wealthy consume more goods and services including international travel. Myors et al 2005 showed that co2 emissions  per person are highest in high rises! The rate of change of land use density is in any event driven by private sector development is is relatively slow compared to the depletion of conventional oil reserves.

There has been some policy response to their work. The South East Queensland Regional Plan 2009 includes a commitment to “actively reduce oil dependancy” which looks good on paper but has not been put into practice. On the Gold Coast, there has been less highway expansion and the building of an LRT.

Paul Mees “Transport for Suburbia” (also available as a preview) recommends a high frequency integrated network. At this point he spoke about “no rush” at Broadway and Commercial at peak periods “You can’t really miss the bus” due to high frequency. See also Zurich’s cross town integrated network.

Their work can be read on google books “Shocking the suburbs


Questions were raised on mortgage data – which may have been related to the CNT work.

Australian cities are highly centralized with respect to employment “No one wants to be in suburban office parks”

Their objective was to produce a simple model with a few variables for ease of use and comparability which has proved robust at the coarse level

It seems likely that saving energy on transport, then gets used on other equally energy intensive activities

Australia now has a carbon tax BUT it is NOT applied to transport fuel. This was ascribed to the political concern that marginal seats in the suburbs tend to decide elections. Queesland had seen a dramatic change in power after a subsidy to petrol was removed.

The forecast is not rapid change in urban areas due to building life.

My question – or rather observation – was that climate change is happening much faster than peak oil. The response was that they were mainly concerned about socio-economic distributional impacts, not passing the 350ppm threshold.

In Queensland a “balanced” transportation policy looks advanced – but is equivalent to ISTEA 1991

Social exclusion was mentioned but has been mainly a concern in the UK as an impact of bus privatization.

In Australia federal gas tax is not hypothecated to highways but the federal politicians area still “fixated on building things, pouring concrete – not better planning”. The rate of incremental policy change is not fast enough and there will be a shock


I do not know if this talk will be on the SFU web page as podcast – there was no evidence of video, and the use of the visual aids a was hampered by some basic fault in the compatibility of video files. It is indeed fortunate that it is easy to to find their work on line. However, I came away convinced that Australia is, like us, sleepwalking where this issue is concerned. I was charmed – but also alarmed – at the perception that we had a Zurich like transit system. Of course we don’t, and our spend rate on transportation is still heavily skewed towards roads and low density sprawl. As I pointed out they are actually fortunate to have retained employment in their city centres where they are served by electric trains (and trams).

But the current rush to exploit shale gas by fracking and the increasing rate of use of tar sands (they are not confined to Alberta) is creating an illusion that the oil shock can be deferred. That is not the case with climate change, and given recent experience with extreme weather events in Australia, their tenacity on holding on to their research focus seems …. perverse? Or maybe just endearing. After all, we all seem to prefer not to contemplate what is now inevitable, most tipping points having whizzed by like publication deadlines.

Australians, just like us, have not seen their personal incomes keep pace with inflation. They did drive until they were qualified to own a home, and are just as much auto dependent in Moonee Ponds as we are in Langley  (…or Richmond, come to that.) We are slowly struggling to produce better urban development patterns and trying to find a way to fund transit (which should not be nearly so difficult as we have made it).But both of us – the whole world in fact – now face a future where the climate is going to be increasingly inhospitable. I think that impact is likely to be as sharp and probably faster than the economic impact of higher gas prices. But then I did notice this morning a pump sticker at $1.51 a litre. Is that enough to produce a revolution? I doubt it. Shame about the polar bears.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 13, 2012 at 11:05 am