Stephen Rees's blog

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

YouCity Innovation Contest

with 7 comments

“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

7 Responses

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  1. There IS a benefit to being older.. like “been there / done it”..

    The “New Polyvalent Hybrid System for Intermodal Transportation” could have been lifted from the pages of the Popular Mechanics magazines we got in Bordeaux in the late 50s/ early 60s, when I was young enough to wear formal shorts (they came with a double breasted jacket) to go to school.

    Every month Popular Mech. had another weird and wonderful scheme that quickly died of a merciful death because it was just too impractical. Like cars that would grow wings as they left a home garage then would freely fly over the city ..along with thousands of other cars..according to the creator of the concept.

    Having cars–electric or not–inside a big “Mother” vehicle only works if all the car go to one destination only. For example from France to England by the Shuttle train. Otherwise that scheme is even way more impractical than normal transit… for so many obvious reasons..

    If people can’t wean themselves from cars, then let’s them have tiny electric cars that are driven– at ground level on the roads we have—by a central computer….This is already possible, as anyone that has visited the amazing Toyota Mega web show room on the artificial island of Odaiba–in the Tokyo Bay–can attest (I first saw these cars in 1999..and they had already been in service for a while)

    Red frog

    April 27, 2012 at 11:58 pm

  2. Enjoyed your tour-de-force summary of ‘sustainable’ urbanism. The usual qualifier ‘whatever that means’ is well represented in your post— ‘sustainable’ means all of those things you posted, plus some urban design bits thrown in for good measure!

    The question that keeps fluttering around my head is the one about using bus lanes as stage-one implementation, and then use LRT on the same space as stage-two once service/demand shows up.

    Since we are saying there is too much room for cars already, the notion of redeveloping our arterials from cottage lots to urban houses, and releasing 10-feet at the front of the lot to widen the arterials, may seem counter-intuitive. However, planting trees in medians to break down the crossing distance of the street; improve the quality of the air; trap carbon; create local access lanes at curb side that can mix pedestrian-bike-and-parking as in the contre-allée; these are some of the examples from the urban design sketchbook that may contribute.

    I also find it refreshing to hear a clean and simple declaration for representational regional transit and for using the BC Electric R.O.W.

    On that last one, I believe it would be much simpler than it may seem at first blush to network into the BCE corridors, and to build human-scale TODs building out at station locations. One problem to solve is that my hunch is that the old BC Electric crosses a lot of ALR on the way to Chilliwack. We only need 120 acre footprints at station areas to do human-scale TOD, but …

    Of course, the biggest hurdle will be competition from new suburbs supported by the Gateway Port Mann.

    I won’t comment on the Congestion Zone, and road pricing, pleading ignorance. I saw London in the summer of 2004 shortly after implementation and at 7 dials, and 200-block Baker Street the imagery I brought back was ‘unrecognizable’ to some.

    lewis n. villegas

    April 30, 2012 at 10:57 am

  3. CORRECTION: Representational regional governance

    lewis n. villegas

    April 30, 2012 at 10:59 am

  4. Love the example of the MegProp Transport System –
    The BIG question is – What’s moving the magnet UNDER the cardboard (and how is that powered)?

    [SkyTrain essentially uses this system (linear induction) on wheels where the “magnets” are induced magnetic fields. Doubt it’s a co-incidence that the example is given, since the contest is sponsored by Bombardier.]


    April 30, 2012 at 3:17 pm

  5. Can you give some reasons why you want to tear down the viaducts?

    I’m trying to be objective about it but I’m of two minds – on the surface I can see the benefits but the deficits will be huge to the residents of the surrounding areas. I don’t think “social impact” will be considered by the planners and developers. These days everyone’s priority seems to be economic and I think if the planners cite the “environment” it’s only as a cover-screen for private profits. In other cases, environmentalists are called “radicals” and “working against public interest”. The decision-makers can’t have it both ways.

    Thanks for your writings – always interesting!


    May 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm

  6. As I said, anything that gets in the way of the cars and makes motorists complain is probably going to work out well for humanity. Removal of the viaducts will enable a large area, presently only used for car parking, to be used for a wide variety of purposes. The impact of traffic will be slight – about the same as the Burrard Bridge bike lane. Please understand that economics does not drive this proposal: it is about creating a place that people want to spend time in. As opposed to those simply concerned to get through as quickly as possible, with as little human contact as possible. The fact that this makes sense at a whole variety of levels – and has been demonstrated many times in many places – should be enough to convince anyone persuadable by evidence that this is a Good Idea.

    Stephen Rees

    May 6, 2012 at 10:29 am

  7. I am (perversely) imagining our blog host in a toga, standing in front of the Arc of Constantine in Roma arguing the case against the horse drawn chariot. Of course, 2000-years-on, we all can all salute his vision, and the fact that he got it right… However, back in the Roman age, I wonder how long his toga would have remained intact and free from abuse from the rabble?

    The question that I have about the viaducts is whether or not they meet earthquake codes. I suspect ‘not’. But, I wait to hear the facts. Then, there is the issue of lessening reliance on cars to get to work downtown.

    If we were to discount all the ‘travelling to work trips’ on the viaducts, chances are nobody would be using them. Even the cyclists, I wager, would rather run on bike lanes that hugged the contours of the land.

    lewis n. villegas

    May 7, 2012 at 11:11 am

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