Stephen Rees's blog

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

This isn’t Pixie Dust

with 5 comments

That’s the trouble with talk radio. In between the adverts for cars and the best deal on tires, someone accuses you of saying something you didn’t say. It is not “either/or” (roads or transit) – at least becuase the road expansion is well under way and in the case of Port Mann/Highway #1 nearing completion. And I really do not expect a magic bullet or a tooth fairy to fund it – both things that got discussed before we got to the callers. In fact I think the callers got lined up before I started speaking. They evidently weren’t listening.

But just supposing someone was listening to CKNW this morning and got intrigued this is what I am prescribing.

Funding transit

We spent $3bn on a bridge and have to pay that loan down, so users are stuck with tolls for the bridge until it’s paid off. Meanwhile we have to find a way to fund transit expansion. It is not enough to come up with a formula that enables Translink to carry on as now – or allow some modest increase. We need a way to to ensure that transit can grow its market share. The current plan for 2040 is way too modest in my view. We need much more and quicker than that.

I am also disenchanted with dedicated funding sources. The problem is that if you tie your funding source to something that is also going to change behaviour – and you are successful – then you are stymied. To some extent that has happened with the gas tax – and also happens with the carbon tax. I also dislike user fees – for the same reason. Pricing something is a good way to reduce consumption. It is also unfair to those who have little income – and therefore very little discretion on how to spend it. Of course those who are comfortable are quite happy to state that since they can afford the fee, everyone else should be willing to shoulder the same burden. Except, of course, they do not share the same ability to do so.

The right wing has seized the agenda on taxes and made us convinced that income and corporate taxes have to be reduced in order to make us  more competitive. That has simply got us engaged in a race to the bottom. We now work longer – households need multiple sources of income – in order to just stay where we were. Real incomes have declined. We may have the lowest income tax but that is only because we now pay through a variety of fees and charges for the same services – or rather in many cases, a reduced set of services. Plus a greater reliance on sales taxes.

We continue to subsidize fossil fuels – both nationally and provincially. The latest expansions of natural gas exploitation are being achieved with a concession of NO payment of royalties to the province. The expansion of the oil sands in Alberta is only possible because of an extraordinarily favourable tax treatment. In both cases we would be much better off leaving it in the ground. For one thing the planet cannot tolerate the current rate of increase in carbon emissions. Since the IPCC’s warnings on climate change, CO2 output has not only increased, the rate of change has also increased. Fossil fuels left in the ground would also become much more valuable in future – because there are so many other things you can do with them other than simply burning them, all of which have much great value added and many of which are going to be very difficult to do in future.

So I am advocating a two pronged approach.

1. Stop funding silly things (subsidies to oil and gas, F35 jets, mega-prisons ….)

2. Increase income tax for the rich and corporations – as well as a switch of enforcement away from chasing small amounts from the poor to the huge sums squirrelled away illegally in tax havens.

You will note that these funds then have to come from the federal government as well as the provincial government. This is intentional. Canada is the only advanced western economy that does not have a national transit program.

Senior Government support has to extend to operating funds as well as capital funds. We also should stop collecting tax from transit agencies – it is ludicrous that we levy a tax to pay for transit on fuel burned in transit buses.

I am not going to suggest that we abandon private sector partnerships altogether. But if we are going to do them, we have to transfer the risk to the private sector. Translink revenues are being dragged down by the deal on the Golden Ears. It is unconscionable that money raised to pay for transit is being paid to a private company who built a road bridge we don’t need – and which cannot be paid for from tolls – which is what they promised initially.  We also have to look long and hard at why Macquarie Bank is still getting paid long after the P3 for the Port Mann fell apart, and the project proceeded with public funding.

Expanding transit

There are two aspects to this – what we build and where we build it.

Currently the priorities appear to be first the Evergreen Line and then – probably – a subway to UBC (though that is not set in stone, yet). Like the Port Mann, let us assume that the Evergeen Line is a done deal. It may not be the best one, but it is too late to change.

If we commit to building a subway to UBC it will be because the current B-Line “cannot be expanded” and is overloaded, and the idea of light rail down Broadway, or more elevated concrete structure for SkyTrain, is intolerable on the West Side of Vancouver (but not anywhere else in the Lower Mainland, apparently). It will also mean that the part of the region that currently enjoys the best transit service will get more and, absent a new funding arrangement for transit, that means less everywhere else.

The callers to CKNW this morning were appalled by the idea that they could be expected to use a bus. I cannot say I blame them, given what they know of bus service here. But if we are going to persuade people to get out of their cars and use transit, it is going to have to meet at least some of their needs some of the time. We also need to make the newer, better services widely available. Our current approach seems to – and does – favour some parts of the region over others. In part that is because the operator, being cash strapped, has to concentrate resources in areas where they get the most return. So if there is a ridership, there will be service – not the other way round. That is why things never change. Because we keep doing what we have always done.

So in future we will have to see some innovation. And in some cases that means taking a risk with a new kind of service, in a place that doesn’t see it now. When the railways first got into the commuter business, at the end of the nineteenth century, there were no suburbs. They built out into green fields, and hoped that those would become new subdivisions. A bit like the way the transcontinental railway was built – in the expectation that they would encourage settlement in what were then seen as “empty” areas. Indeed, that was also the way that the interstate highways got taken over by people driving to and from work. Because subdivisions popped up like mushrooms after rain, right next to the off ramps.

So if we have the ability to build rapid transit, it can only go to places that will see rapid and sustained increases in population. When the Expo Line was built through the East Side of Vancouver the residents of the areas around the stations were mostly successful in resisting an increase in density. We cannot afford that again. This seems to me to be a linkage that would allow for investment – and is a model in use in Hong Kong. There, the Mass Transit agency is a property developer. If that makes you queasy, turn it on its head, and come up with an experienced developer who knows how to do high density, mixed use development and create some kind of vehicle that ties the risks and rewards into producing transit and transit oriented development together. Stop thinking about transit – and transportation – as an end in itself. It never has been. It has always been inextricably linked with land use. Instead of building a new transit line and handing much of the increase in land value to a few lucky land owners and developers, indulge in some “joined up thinking” and get a better built environment and less car dependance on the same dime.

But rapid transit is hideously expensive – almost as much as building massive highways and bridges – and relatively limited in its reach. And we need solutions for a very wide area, where mostly people drive themselves around in single occupant vehicles. So we start by tackling the paradigms of ownership and use – since most cars sit idle most of the time, and only one or two of their seats are ever occupied. That means breaking down the barriers we have erected – mostly to protect transit. The rules we now use came into being once car ownership began to spread after World War one, and “jitneys” threatened the viability of the (private companies’) transit systems.  We are already seeing the impact of widespread, mobile information systems on car sharing. It would be even more rapid if it were not for these obsolete rules. Indeed, even those lucky enough to have operating licences apparently cannot make money because of the way the rules are applied.

I do not advocate a free for all deregulation – but I do think that there is obvious potential when entrepreneurs keep popping up with ideas that seem to work but get slapped down – mainly to protect vested interests. It is also the case that even where transit service is good, people can come up with other services that appear to meet local needs better. So obviously there needs to be some kind of oversight, but the rules need to be drawn up to protect the broader public interest, and not just the narrow “economic interest” of the industry, as our current regulator has it. In some respects, with the creation of a new smartcard payment system, giving multimodal regionwide access, Translink actually will have a useful tool to ensure cooperation. So the same card that you swipe to ride the bus or SkyTrain could also get you a shared taxi, or a even an exclusive ride in a shared car, like car2go. It is instructive that modo – the car coop – expands in areas that are well served by transit. It is complementary – not competitive – to the transit system. You cannot expand the reach of transit deep onto low density single family home areas with a 40 foot diesel bus. And there are limits to what can be done with shared rides and demand responsive systems. The DART in HandyDART once meant “Dial a Ride” – but you now have to book days in advance and be qualified. The service that results satisfies no-one, but contains the germ of an idea that ought to be allowed to flourish, and benefit from the extra-ordinary explosion of information abilities of smart phones.

It is significant, I think that the companies that need to hire bright young minds now provide bus service to get their employees to the workplace. The buses they use look nothing like a transit bus – they have wifi on board for a start – and do not pick up at bus stop signs. But a new app allows them to be mapped. I am willing to bet that the man who upbraided me this morning for expecting him to use something as slow and cumbersome as our current transit service would be quite happy to get on board one of these. The IT aspect means that all our current practices of mapping and scheduling can be discarded. The routes can be adapted on the fly, in real time, to meet changing need. The rigidity of regulation means that Greyhound can’t adapt service levels to changing needs the way Bolt Bus (its subsidiary) can. The same paradigm starts to make suburban shared ride services look feasible even of they don’t look a lot like transit does now – and maybe that is a good thing in and of itself.

One of the reasons young people do not want a car – or a mortgage – is because we have loaded them down with student debt. Until they pay that off, a car loan or a 25 year mortgage is neither practical or appealing. Moreover, they no longer use the same systems we did to get in touch with each other. They have texts, twitter and Facebook. Almost anything can be set up on the fly – just ask the Occupy movement.

I really doubt that it is possible to win over everyone to using transit and I am not even willing to try. There will always be some people driving everywhere all the time – just steadily less of them as a percentage of the total. After all, we could not cope with a sudden influx to transit – as the UPass so convincingly demonstrated.  The way we built the Canada Line showed we had not really thought through what “change modal split” actually meant. There already enough people who want to use transit – and who want to use it more often – but are frustrated, to provide a significant increment in transit use. The increase in service just to meet those desires would also bring in more riders, as service frequencies and reach would make those services more attractive. This is the benevolent cycle of growth that has been seen in so many other cities  that have stuck consistently to expanding transit. We, on the other hand, seem so besotted with short term point scoring that we are going to enter the other spiral – where cost cutting reduces service, and thus ridership and thus to further cuts.  I am convinced that these systems will always respond to these dynamics. There is no steady state. It is either growth or decline.

So the strategy I am suggesting is for conventional transit to incrementally add to its service – which means, right now, more buses. And more exclusive bus lanes – by taking road space away from single occupant vehicles. As demand grows, more limited stop and express routes – creating a hub and spoke system based on town centres, supported by an intricate and much more varied web of feeder services. That means space at the hubs has to be provided for bike storage, or shared bikes, as well as park and ride, kiss and ride, shared cars and station cars and shuttle buses. Rapid transit stations are, of course, hubs – as well as centres of mixed use, denser development – because they are within walking distance of so many services and facilities. I doubt that there will be many new rail based services added for a while – but obviously if there is an underused rail corridor available it must be pressed into use. Freight gets to use the lines when people are sleeping. Where there are highways, there will be rapid bus services – with priority where needed. At the very least so that those who insist on driving can have the educational experience of seeing the bus swish past them while they are stuck in traffic. Elsewhere it will have to be more and better buses – and the whole panoply of related “Better than the bus, cheaper than your own car” services.

Since we have hobbled public enterprises, and are convinced of their ineffectiveness, the expansion has to incorporate private enterprise. But we should look long and hard at what we are doing before we do it. Compare and contrast BC Hydro before and after IPPs, for instance. Learn from the experience of Britain with its railway privatization – or the Underground in London – and benefit from their experience.

There is no one simple solution – because although the problem looks straightforward (how to pay for transit) it is in reality complex and difficult because of all the connections. Politicians like big capital projects because they get to cut a ribbon. But what is needed is a whole range of small, incremental changes, and a shift in mind set. Mostly it needs a change in the way that government behaves.

5 Responses

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  1. Mr. Rees…You were very good today on the radio..

    Unfortunately business trolls attack every enviro or anti-pipeline person that comes on cknw..otherwise known as PAB…

    There would be plenty of money for Transit if $billions weren`t wasted on skytrain, ground level trains are the answer..$2 billion dollars for evergreen line..$3 billion for Canada line…UMPTEEN $BILLION FOR BROADWAY SKYTRAIN.

    Rail for the valley….Now Dianne Watts and Fastbender are beating the drum about tolling every bridge, road charges and the like..

    Those mayors knew Port Mann was a toll bridge and now they are complaining..

    Rather than waste money on decals, transponders, cameras to collect, a simple when drivers renew insurance..

    However, I fear if Translink is given big money, stable money, More over-priced elevated skytrain will be built…

    Longtime since I chatted here Mr. Rees…

    Good-luck in the next provincial election….You are indeed….

    One class act.

    Good day

    Grant G

    September 25, 2012 at 4:02 pm

  2. Stephen, I caught a fair chunk of it while *cough* driving this morning. Pretty strong delivery on the points you were trying to make. Also thought Harry Bains, if listening, might be concerned.

    Jeff Nagel

    September 25, 2012 at 9:51 pm

  3. One can only agree with you Stephen!

    “a model in use in Hong Kong. There, the Mass Transit agency is a property developer.” This is what we told the TransLink “suits” that came to our apartment building to give us a pep talk, in 2010. they couldn’t understand that.
    The Japanese have done it since the 1920-30s when a small regional private railways in the Osaka region built a line across vacant lands they owned. Soon after they started building housing on these lands and a store above the Osaka station. Other private railways in the area, then in other regions of Japan, and also the Japanese National Railways did that too (JNR is now JR, a group of private companies working as one).

    European Railways and Urban transit companies also started to do it in the late 20th cent.

    “the same card that you swipe to ride the bus or SkyTrain could also get you a shared taxi, or a even an exclusive ride in a shared car, like car2Go” The town of La Rochelle (population 76 000) has been doing that for a few years now:
    “A single card Yélo:
    Thanks to the unique card Yélo, the user dials his mobility as he wishes: buses, bicycles, ferry boats, tram-train, electric cars, park and ride shuttles, carpooling, taxis … all modes on a single card!” Translation by Google.
    They got their first shared bikes in 1976, their first shared electric cars in 1996.

    To encourage people living in small towns in the Gironde Departement to leave their car home …and to help car-less people to go where they need to, starting September 1 2012, all the regional inter-cities buses now only charge Euro 2.50 per trip, Euro 4.00 return, regardless of the length of the trip.

    An Adult yearly pass cost 636,80€ (53,07€ per month) and also gives free access to the trams and buses of Bordeaux (a yearly pass for Bordeaux urban transit cost 33 € per month).
    They do get better funding than TransLink..

    According to Wikipedia the Bordeaux Metro area is 3,875.2 km2, compared to Metro Vancouver with an area of 2,878.52 km2.
    Gironde (capital Bordeaux) is the largest “departement” in Metropolitan France with an area of 10,725 km²,

    A “departement” is an administrative area (there are 96 in Metropolitan France), artificially created in 1790 by the Revolutionary Government out of the Ancient Regime Provinces, some of them French-speaking, the majority NOT French-speaking, and nearly all hostile to whatever national government was in Paris.
    Since 1982 the 96 departements have been grouped into 22 “Regions” that nearly have the boundaries of the old Provinces..and often the same old flag..

    Then there is Overseas France…the story goes that some of the tropical islands were given by England to France to compensate for the loss of Quebec.

    Red frog

    September 26, 2012 at 2:20 am

  4. An excellent post, Stephen.

    Thanks for being willing to subject yourself to the trash radio verbal bloggers of CKNW, those seemingly opinionated defenders of monster truck rallies, those blustering soldiers of “freedom” who believe a tax dollar is invisible when it comes to funding roads and remediating their health care and environmental costs.

    Your comment about the vacuum in federal transit programs and funding is especially noteworthy, and it’s always valid to oft repeat it in the face of increasing climate instability (and well-funded climate denial and its support by legions of curmudgeon bloggers) and higher liquid fuel prices. A transit program worth two or three stealth jet programs over a ten-year period could set Canadian cities on the course to meet 21st Century challenges, especially if purposely married (a “pre-nup” agreement with cities?) to well-thought out land use planning.

    There is a high demand for decent public transit. The fact that Marine Gateway sold out 400+ units in four hours, and Solo sold out 500+ units in three days merely due to their locus over or adjacent to rapid transit stations proves that a measurable demand for direct access to high-frequency, reliable transit exists. The Expo Line has generated orders of magnitude more worth in development than its capital and operating cost, and new development permits are still being applied for every year along its route after a quarter century of use.

    I would call for better urban design and architecture, but that’s another debate for another time.

    I take issue with Grant’s light rail meme, like prescribing one medicine for every urban ailment. In fact, subways have their place in the dense urban core just as much as light rail does in the suburbs. To limit the ability of transit to adapt to varied urban conditions, to ignore the issue of frequency and its relationship to operating costs, to displace regional commuters in favour of local travel, and to pretend relocating underground services will not pile on the costs to light rail projects is a great mistake.

    We need it all: A subway on Broadway to UBC where the density and demand have justified it for decades already; an extensive light rail network in the suburbs and as a secondary system to the SkyTrain network on the Burrard Peninsula; buses, bikes and ferries everywhere; preconditional land use planning; and, as you put it, a flexible local neighbourhood network, and urban jitney / Handibus.

    Let’s not make this a light rail vs. SkyTrain debate again. Both are justified, yet either possesses unique abilities where it excels in adapting to certain city conditions over others.


    September 26, 2012 at 2:05 pm

  5. Good luck convincing the conservative government of dolling out more money – they see the fiscal writing on the wall and are very much in austerity mode. Don’t count on any new big funding announcements.

    I also wouldn’t count in an increase in corporate tax rate. And as much as you may think it’s a race to the bottom in a global recession an hike in corporate tax could result in a matching decrease in income taxes as companies on the brink close their doors or leave town.

    Oh, and light rail is rarely justified. The 99 Bline has passenger counts that would be the envy of many, many light rail operators. A network of express buses running in dedicated lanes would provide much much more bang for buck.


    October 12, 2012 at 1:28 pm

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