Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for April 2013

Light rail touted as cure for city’s congestion

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The city in question is actually Copenhagen. Which is why it piqued my interest. You mean Copenhagen has a congestion problem? I thought they were the model we were supposed to be following. It has all those bicycles – and the space between the buildings is dealt with properly. People can not only walk they can also sit outside if they want to. But they still have congestion?

Partly the answer is of course they do because congestion is not so much a problem  as evidence of success. Detroit does not have congestion any more. Moreover, in a flourishing city, traffic expands to fill the space available and congestion occurs at the times when most people want to travel. That is why traffic engineers and transport economists spend so much effort on peak hours and the journey to work. Indeed if congestion is just the banal observation that it takes longer to drive when everyone else does than when the roads are empty, it is a pretty pointless pursuit trying to “cure” it at all. Something Todd Littman has dealt with far more effectively than I could.

There is no magic bullet, but there is a set of approaches which can be adapted to the needs and geography of places – which are all different. No single solution or technology solves every problem – and not all “problems” are going to be completely resolved. We can, however, aim for better solutions and compromises which dissatisfy everybody to the least extent possible.

So what this article identifies is a set of schemes to serve areas which do not have the sort of public transport mode share as the rest of the city region. In fact it is the same problem we have. Copenhagen has a metro and all day, every day, bidirectional passenger rail services. I have to use that awkward phrase in case any of my readers still think “commuter rail” exists outside of a few North American cities. The reason they get 25% of the trips made by the population living near stations on trains is that there is a service all day and every day – and it goes to more than one destination.

Actually that in itself is a significant figure. What do you think they do for the other 75% of the trips? Yes bikes will take care of some of it, as will walking but most will be in cars. And these light rail lines are proposed for the areas that only get a 5% mode share for transit – just like most of our region.

I think it is also significant that the entire article has not a single money figure in it anywhere. If you tried to write a newspaper piece about transit here, someone is bound to ask “How much is this going to cost?” and “Who is going to pay for that?” (which actually means “not me!”) What it does stress is the importance of the network – and of selecting the ” best value corridors that the city ought to prioritise” – which sounds familiar, doesn’t it? “political opposition and questionable profitability could derail these and other proposed light rail lines” – is that Copenhagen or Surrey vs Vancouver? Except here no-one would use the words “profitability” and “transit” in the same sentence.

It also points out the silliness of thinking in terms of some future point when the present set of schemes have all been realized as an end state. It isn’t, and never will be, because there is always going to be more to do. The important thing is chose the right direction to go in. That was something we had done once – the Livable Region Strategy – which was not perfect by any means but did make the priorities clear. And then the provincial government simply ignored it and went on doing what it has always done – built more and bigger freeways. If those resources had been devoted to transit network expansion, we would be looking at a different set of problems – but we would not have solved them all. Let alone “cured congestion”. But then we weren’t trying to. We were just aiming at “increased transportation choice” – which was expressed as a target transit mode share at various dates into the future. Except that the mode share target was always 17% of all trips and the years just kept being put off into the future.

I understand that the Mayors and the Minster are now sitting down and trying to come up with some funding proposal for Translink. Presumably something that she can flourish on the eve of election day. Yawn.

“When free enterprisers have something worth fighting for, we win,” Christy Clark last night

“Win” meaning “win elections”. Free enterprise has also brought us ocean gyres full of plastic waste, global warming trending well beyond 2°C, unaffordable housing and persistent homelessness, the crash of 2008 … the list is endless. When they “win” everybody else loses.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 9, 2013 at 10:37 am

Margaret Thatcher and me

The Guardian this morning explains why “do not speak ill of the dead” does not apply to politicians. Even so the overwhelmingly right wing mainstream media are full of hagiography today. They have had plenty of time to get these puff pieces ready.

I am not going to do a sort of rebalancing act here. Though if I find anything suitable I will probably link to it. I will stick to my preferred format. Since this is my blog, I use it to record my thoughts and experience, since they are not expressed elsewhere much these days. The events I chose to focus on are those that  I was involved in. Not her worst crimes by any means – nor even, given the length of her rule and the extent of the damage she did, of very much significance perhaps. But they seemed bad to me at the time, and on reflection still seem worth noting.

One of the strongest influences on her political approach was her relationship with her father – a grocer in Grantham: a small shop keeper. Local authorities in general – and the Greater London Council in particular – were becoming concerned about the way that retailing in Britain was changing in the 1970s. Town centres had been identified across London, and policies were put in place to try to preserve and promote their diversity. They provided a broad range of social and economic functions – not just in terms of shopping but a whole range of public and privately provided services and amenities. They tended to support each other, and create a sort of local ecology of urbanity. The larger, chain retailers were seeking to increase their market share, and by adopting a model where their stores were larger, with extensive car parks and combined several functions would actually replace entire shopping centres. They also argued that such places were a better urban environment since they provided shopping without having to deal with busy streets and through traffic. They created a pedestrian realm which was safer and pleasanter than the traditional High Street, with heavy trucks and buses at close quarters to shop fronts.

In London, the boroughs were looking for ways to reroute the the traffic and make the shopping areas easier to use. But the retailers and developers were eyeing both large greenfield sites on the edge of town, usually with a motorway access nearby, or failing that some of the large areas of land being freed up by the modernization of the railways. These brownfield sites were more expensive to develop but were usually closer to where people lived – and could also be reasonably served by short diversions of established bus routes. Of course, none of this could be done on the fly: there had to be plans and a planning process. Data had to be collected and analysed. There would then be public consultations before the plans were finalized. The data source all relied on was the decennial Census of Distribution. This noted the location and style of every retail outlet – and calculated the total retail turnover of a given area. It was generally accepted that retail turnover was pretty much set for each area – and in real terms was not expected to grow by very much, except in areas identified to attract new populations (like the Docklands or Thamesmead – the former Royal Arsenal).

When someone proposed a major new development the borough impacted would consider the planning application, but if they decided to reject it there was a process of appeal. This usually resulted in a public enquiry – a quasi judicial process with witnesses, evidence and cross examinations. This is where the data came under direct scrutiny. The authorities had no ability to create a protective zone for established businesses, but they could question the need for the development and object to its location, usually based on the established local plan land use designation.

One of Mrs Thatcher’s “reforms” was to cancel the Census of Distribution. She said that small shopkeepers – like her father – had no time to fill in all these forms the bureaucrats demanded. Their time was valuable and their were more important things for them to do, so the burden of bureaucracy should be lifted from them. What that meant was that when Tesco or Sainsbury proposed to build a new large supermarket – or even a whole new out of town shopping centre – there was no longer any objective, reliable data on the impact that would have on established centres. Only the John Lewis Partnership went on record as opposing the decision – as most small shop keepers adored Mrs T and anyway had always voted Conservative. They resented local planning controls as much as any other business.

There are now very few traditional High Streets left in Britain. The only retailers interested in small shops are those run by volunteers for charities: payday loan sharks like them too. Stricter drinking and driving laws, combined with very low price alcohol in supermarkets put paid to the local pub – often the social centre of many communities. The Post Office saw its role shrink too.  The small shopkeepers that Mrs T so admired have been, pretty much, eliminated. But many of the people whose livelihoods have gone, and those communities that have seen their centres wilt and fade, continue to read the Daily Express and vote for that nice Mr Cameron.

Parenthetically (and regular readers will know how fond I am of parentheses) the whole thing about preferring real town centres to shopping centres – aka “malls” is spelled out here  with respect to what is now going to happen to Oakridge, Brentwood and Lougheed. We were just ahead of out time, that’s all.

The other huge impact her decision making had on me was the abolition of the Greater London Council. I have written about that a lot here. I got promotion out of that. Initially I was tasked with organizing the research that backed up the campaign against abolition. We thought that facts and figures, carefully collected and documented and clearly presented, would win the argument. I think they did actually, but that makes no difference if the person who you are trying to convince makes her stock in trade implacability (“The lady is not for turning” – “There Is No Alternative”) and she has a secure majority in the House of Commons.  So the GLC was abolished and I was recruited into the Civil Service in part to help clear up the mess.

That was also why I decided to emigrate to Canada. I did such a good job at Traffic Management, further promotion was offered to Water Privatization. There was never any convincing economic case advanced for the abolition of the Regional Water Authorities. They were very efficient indeed, producing plenty of clean water for homes and businesses at extraordinary low cost – as well as a variety of related services in environmental protection, public health and leisure facilities. So what would an Economic Adviser actually do?

I think it is fair to say that prior to Mrs T, the UK civil service was apolitical. Though the incoming Labour Government in 1964 was convinced of its opposition to some of its policies – so ably documented by Minister of Housing R H S Crossman in his diaries, later adapted for tv as the series “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”. Indeed, we kept copies of the books in our top left had drawers for ease of reference, when some piece of political silliness needed to be stopped. But increasingly my masters were looking worried. Mrs T would swoop through the corridors with her staff – and the most Frequently Asked Question was “Is he one of us?” Your future depended on the answer.

To her credit I have to note that she was not so dogmatic as to scrap London Transport (though I credit Prof Christopher Foster’s timely history lesson on the state of traffic in London prior to the LPTB for that) or indeed British Railways, which she hated, never used but recognized was better run than the hodge podge of companies that emerged after John Major’s foolish interference. The Falkland Islands are also still British – after relatively modest loss of lives – and seem likely to stay that way. If you think the British Empire is – or should be – dead instead, well … then you’re A Wet, aren’t you. The worst thing she could call anyone. And,  she did make a conservative case for tackling climate change. Though she switched sides later.

I was mistaken in thinking that Thatcherism was a British phenomenon. The lurch to right was actually occurring everywhere. Interestingly in Canada, it became most noticeable after we elected a Liberal government, which published a Red Book which was mostly Keynesian in tone but then appointed Paul Martin as Minister of Finance, who ran the place like an offshoot of his shipping company. Perhaps those who think a Liberal revival under the Dauphin Trudeau would be a Good Idea should take second thought as it is not at all clear if he has any political convictions  – other than an insatiable lust for power and fame.

Mrs Thatcher had a long and very successful life in which she achieved most of what she set out to do. The consequences were, mostly, dreadful for ordinary people. But those who shared her husband’s priorities – he had a large personal fortune and not much to do as the result of his sale of Castrol – did Very Well Indeed. I am hoping that the current wave of leaks of personal information at least put a brake upon some of their worst excesses.  I would like to think that government of the people, by the people, for the people might once again replace government by corporations, for corporations. But I think far too many people are still bedazzled by the myths and legends those people create. When you read Mrs Thatcher’s obits, keep that in mind. She was not St Margaret and must not be allowed to become that posthumously.

I will leave the last words to the Guardian editorial writer

Her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 8, 2013 at 11:40 am

Posted in politics

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Not the Cherry Blossom Special

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blossom topper
Gordon Price posts several times a day to his Price Tags blog. I impose a much less demanding schedule on myself. But I also use flickr for pictures – because I can put text with them there, so it can be a bit blog like, now and again. One of his posts this morning is about photographing cherry blossoms. And why – in his opinion – the results are not as gratifying as seeing them In Real Life. It is of course quite true that our eye sees things differently to the camera – but then that is what photographers (and painters before them) have always played around with. And also be it noted that we are looking at these pictures on some kind of illuminated screen. So I have much less control over things like size or what else appears in the vicinity on your screen. Lots of flickr posters instruct their viewers to switch to a black background. I also print some of my pictures to go on the wall, or as greeting cards and one off books, which look far better than any photo album ever did. But on paper, they are different to on the screen.

The first one was actually used by the Vancouver Observer on their facebook page – they rotate through their flickr group regularly, but you can see more than one by clicking on their cover picture to enlarge it and then using the right arrow on that image. And the reason I put it there was I had seen a tree in bloom in Quilchena Park on March 18 – a day when the mountains were covered in fresh snow. I liked the deep blue sky as a background so I shot looking upwards into the tree. I would have liked the mountains in there somehow – but that angle wasn’t available at the time. Someone using one of my pictures has always seemed to me to be an endorsement (that’s why I use Creative Commons licensing). And they used a much tighter crop than mine.

Over the Easter weekend many more trees had blossomed. And when we went to get some groceries I took my camera along to take some shots of them.

McBain Avenue

Valley at King Ed 2

22nd Ave at Valley w/b

22nd Ave at Valley e/b


This last image is from a much smaller tree, newly planted, which still had a label attached to it which identifies the species. Hence my title. These are not actually cherry trees. They are, mostly, plums. This one is Night Purple Leaf Plum (Prunus Ceracifera Nigra) which is why when I now post the inevitable, irresistible blossom pictures to flckr, I use the Japanese word “sakura” to describe them. Because otherwise some tree expert will be sure to correct me.

Just enjoy the pictures. When the sun was shining you could have gone out and seen them yourself. Now the clouds have returned, I hope these images brighten your day.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 2, 2013 at 11:28 am