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

Archive for February 12th, 2014

Easing Congestion in Metro Vancouver: Prices without Subsidies

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Instead of my former practice of using “Upcoming Event” as the title, I have just cut and pasted the announcement from an SFU email.

That is because I want to make a couple of points even before I have heard what Andrew Coyne has to say – and I am looking forward to hearing that in due course. But all you ever get to do – if you are lucky – at these events is ask questions. And the points I need to make are not the sort that get dealt with properly in a Q&A session.

Firstly the subsidies that underlie our present land use and transportation pattern are not going to change any time soon. As we heard from Todd Stone, there is to be no road pricing on the provincial highway network no matter what the newly empowered Mayors’ Council might think. They can have more control over the region’s transportation – just not nearly enough. But the subsidy to the present level of car use is built in to the fabric of our society. We subsidize fossil fuels – and especially liquid fossil fuel for motor vehicles, which remains overwhelmingly the chosen method of propulsion and will not change very significantly for a very long time. Car makers get all kinds of assistance (as Coyne himself points out): if they look like moving that increases, because we think we need those jobs. If they look like their business model is failing, they are bailed out. We do not expect to see  that money repaid. We have never seriously considered for very long if there might be a better way of spending public funds to increase accessibility because we are still obsessed with mobility – which is not the same thing at all. We are still stuck at the point where we feel that land uses must be separated and that the single family home on its large lot is still the basic unit of residential development. Anything else is viewed with deep suspicion: “social engineering” is suspected – as though we had not been engineered into our current mess.  The pattern of urban sprawl has been produced by subsidies and is economically unsustainable – as well as unsustainable in every other dimension too – but very few people accept that inconvenient truth.

Suburban Cornrows

“Suburban Cornrows” by Jan Bucholz on flickr
Las Vegas Nevada suburbs

Secondly the faith in the ability of markets to produce optimal solutions, as long as governments do not interfere, is misplaced. There is no evidence that the people who control corporations will ever do anything else than profit maximize. Yes, subsidies distort their decisions – but so does greed and willful blindness to “externalities”. We have had plenty of  experience of the failure of the free enterprise model. It has not served us well at all, and unless we start to assert some very necessary political controls over businesses, our future on this planet seems very gloomy indeed. As long as money is protected as “free speech” and as long as profits can be squirrelled away in off shore accounts with little fear of penalty the present broken system will continue. And no private corporation is going to step forward to build us new transit systems unless it is paid handsomely to do so.

Rethinking Transportation: New Voices, New Ideas 

Brought to you by TransLink in collaboration with the SFU City Program 

Easing Congestion in Metro Vancouver: Prices Without Subsidies

February 257 pm
Goldcorp Centre for the Arts (at SFU Woodwards), 149 West Hastings, Vancouver
Admission is free, but reservations are required. Reserve

Live Webcast:

Andrew Coyne, a national columnist for Postmedia/National Post,  will talk about a unified approach to pricing cars and transit. Transit advocates commonly suppose that subsidizing transit more heavily will induce more people to give up their cars, thus alleviating congestion. The evidence for this is scant, while a better solution is at hand: pricing roads. Not only would road tolls automatically make transit more competitive with cars, but surface transit users would also benefit from the faster traffic flows that result. Pricing road use is the only effective way to induce people to drive less: indeed, as road use is at present rationed by time rather than money, other proposed methods (wider roads, carpooling, synchronized lights, etc) end up inducing people to drive more, since they reduce the time-price of using the roads. Put the revenues from road tolls toward subsidizing transit? No: subsidized transit suffers from much the same defects as subsidized roads — both mask the real price of resource use, and both encourage sprawl. Moreover, to the extent subsidies make transit less dependent on riders for revenues, they lessen incentives to innovate and improve service.

Lecture Series Details


Written by Stephen Rees

February 12, 2014 at 9:00 am

Posted in Transportation

Freeways Without Futures

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This Press Release from the Congress for New Urbanism landed in my email inbox yesterday. And despite the specification that the list was limited to US urban highways, I was pleased to see that the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto made the top 10.  (By the way I have now discovered, thanks to one of his tweets, that Brent Toderian helped select them.)

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 4.16.34 PM

The Gardiner has been a candidate for removal for as long as I have been in Canada – since 1988 – and they are still arguing about it.

No mention of the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts which are also still standing as I write. I did do a quick Google search to see if I could determine their status. If I recall correctly the City is still consulting the neighbourhood. And, of course, no-one has actually accepted that the City’s projections were based on the false premise that traffic would continue at present levels just differently distributed, so of course the neighbours are really worried about the impact on their streets. In reality traffic will quickly adjust – in the same way that it has for the calming of Point Grey Road and the closure of lanes on the Burrard Bridge. As we have seen everywhere that urban highways have been removed, traffic contracts or evaporates or disappears – whichever is your preferred term.

We do not actually need to “serve roughly the same number of cars”. We can confidently expect that the people who currently are making these trips will adjust their travel patterns, and that there will be fewer car trips in future. And there is plenty of evidence to support that assertion.

CNU Releases 2014’s Freeways Without Futures Report 

Today, CNU released its biennial Top 10 list of “Freeways Without Futures”, selecting the U.S. urban highways most in need of being removed. Across the country, there is a growing realization that highways do not fit in an urban context, and that there are solutions like at-grade boulevards that can serve roughly the same number of cars while creating walkable, livable communities. These transformations can even save taxpayers billions of dollars in highway construction and maintenance, while simultaneously bringing economic revitalization to cities.

The “Freeways Without Futures” list recognizes the urban highways CNU believes are, in 2014, doing significant damage to their cities and are seriously in need of replacement with more people-friendly options. More importantly, this list recognizes the grassroots advocates, city officials and others who are working locally to redefine their urban environment. The CNU top 10 prospects for highway removals in 2014 are (in no particular order):

  • New Orleans, LA – Claiborne Expressway
  • Buffalo, NY – The Skyway and Route 5
  • Syracuse, NY – Interstate 81
  • Toronto, Ontario – Gardiner Expressway
  • Rochester, NY – Inner Loop
  • St. Louis, MO – Interstate 70
  • San Francisco, CA – Interstate 280
  • Detroit, MI – Interstate 375
  • Long Beach, CA – Terminal Island Freeway
  • Hartford, CT – Aetna Viaduct
This list is by no means definitive – many more removal campaigns deserve to be internationally recognized for their scope and their resolve. Five additional campaigns are noted in the full report, as well as detail on the progress of each of these highway removal battles.

“There is a real window of opportunity right now for highway removal projects,” explains CNU President John Norquist. “Many of the freeways built in the 1950 and 60s have reached the end of their design lives, and millions of dollars will either go to maintaining these blight-creating behemoths or to creating infrastructure that will improve, rather than destroy, communities.”

CNU received nominations from more than 100 cities, which were evaluated on criteria that included:

  • Age of freeway. Most of the freeways on the ‘teardown list’ are at the end of their lifespans and will need to be rebuilt at great cost, if the highways are to be maintained. Reconstruction of these aging highways would cost significantly more than replacing the road with a boulevard.
  • Cost versus short-term mobility improvement. Often the freeway rebuild option, while costing several millions dollars more than a surface street alternative, will only lead to a few minutes off driving times or even a return to the same level of congestion a couple years out.
  • Development potential. Often including a waterfront location. All of the freeways have blighted surrounding neighborhoods and depressed property values. When the freeways are removed, the revival can start. Often a new boulevard acts as a key improvement that helps improve access to the area.
  • Improved access. Limited-access freeways often disrupt the city street grid, reducing access to adjacent neighborhoods and overall mobility, including transit, traffic, bike, and pedestrian flow.
  • Timeliness. Most of the nominees are under study now by state Departments of Transportation, often for new ramps, costly repairs or full rebuilding.
  • Local support. The best candidates for removals have strong local supporters, including civic activists or key elected officials, who understand that the lands within the freeway corridor can be transformed into community-wide assets.

About the Congress for the New Urbanism

The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is the leading organization promoting regions, cities and towns built around walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods.  Learn more>>

Written by Stephen Rees

February 12, 2014 at 8:35 am