Stephen Rees's blog

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

Easing Congestion in Metro Vancouver: Prices without Subsidies

with 2 comments

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

2 Responses

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  1. That photo of Las Vegas is so depressing. All those people living without a single shop, service or community amenity nearby. My wife tried to convince me to raise our kids in suburbia, but I stubbornly insisted on staying in/near the city where mixed use zoning and abundant transit make living without a car feasible. It wasn’t too hard to convince her: she doesn’t drive. We now have a spectacular view of a large grocery store parking lot. Aesthetics aside we couldn’t be happier with the decision. Now all we need is a good tenant for our basement suite so we can afford to stay.

    You’re right that the current subsidy model is likely to stick around for a long time. Any hope that the next generation of leaders might prove more enlightened was shattered today with the announcement that 58% of Americans aged 18-24 believe astrology is a science.


    February 13, 2014 at 11:43 am

  2. […] is already a post on this blog announcing the talk this evening and with my initial reactions. I have just got back and will attach […]

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