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

Archive for February 2014

The Natural Gas System is Leaky and in Need of a Fix

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The first thorough comparison of evidence for natural gas system leaks confirms that organizations including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have underestimated U.S. methane emissions generally, as well as those from the natural gas industry specifically.

That’s a really neat summary of a new study from Stanford. The mainstream media is reporting this – often behind paywalls – so the link I have posted is to the original not them. It also seems that they have decided the story is to be about buses. That’s in the report but a ways down

the analysis finds that powering trucks and buses with natural gas instead of diesel fuel probably makes the globe warmer, because diesel engines are relatively clean. For natural gas to beat diesel, the gas industry would have to be less leaky than the EPA’s current estimate, which the new analysis also finds quite improbable.

“Fueling trucks and buses with natural gas may help local air quality and reduce oil imports, but it is not likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even running passenger cars on natural gas instead of gasoline is probably on the borderline in terms of climate,” Brandt said.

At first this was the item that made me think I should blog about it. I have long been critical of the way that in BC we have glommed onto to NG as an alternative transportation fuel and have so often found it wanting. I won’t repeat that here.

What struck me was much closer to the top of the story

Natural gas consists predominantly of methane. Even small leaks from the natural gas system are important because methane is a potent greenhouse gas – about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. A study, “Methane Leakage from North American Natural Gas Systems,” published in the Feb. 14 issue of the journal Science, synthesizes diverse findings from more than 200 studies ranging in scope from local gas processing plants to total emissions from the United States and Canada. [emphasis added]

“People who go out and actually measure methane pretty consistently find more emissions than we expect,” said the lead author of the new analysis, Adam Brandt, an assistant professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University. “Atmospheric tests covering the entire country indicate emissions around 50 percent more than EPA estimates,” said Brandt. “And that’s a moderate estimate.”

So instead of me ranting about buses I am going after the more significant target. Our Premier’s obsession with LNG, and how this is going to be both our fiscal salvation – and will help other countries wean themselves off dirtier fuels like coal.

The problem with natural gas – methane – is that is far more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2. As noted above “30 times more potent than carbon dioxide” which means while burning methane is cleaner than burning coal, if just small amounts leak unburned then the advantage in terms of impact on climate is negated. Since the leaks have been underestimated up to now, that means we now need to rethink some of our strategies. I think it is very common for the people who promote fracking to downplay the destructiveness and carelessness of their activities. So the phrase “some recent studies showing very high methane emissions in regions with considerable natural gas infrastructure” is striking even though in context it is stressed that these levels are not characteristic of the continent as whole. The frackers keep secret the chemicals they add into the water – and deny that these chemicals damage the water supply of people downstream. Rather like the way the tarsand developers prefer us to not pay attention to what happens to the water supply people who live near the operations depend on.

Even though the gas system is almost certainly leakier than previously thought, generating electricity by burning gas rather than coal still reduces the total greenhouse effect over 100 years, the new analysis shows. Not only does burning coal release an enormous amount of carbon dioxide, mining it releases methane.

But I do not think that justifies a strategy that throws LNG in as the be-all and end-all. Recent developments in solar power, for instance, are showing that the competitiveness of this source of electricity has been greatly improved. BC has all sorts of renewable energy sources that remain virtually untouched. Geothermal energy, for instance, seems to be mostly confined to a few spas and hot tubs. Wind and wave energy generally is ignored, despite our location on the shore of the Pacific.

There are also very real doubts about the viability of some of the proposals being floated for LNG plants, which seem to me to based more on wishful thinking than clear headed analysis of the realities of a market place that has recently seen a flood of new production for a product that is difficult to package and transport to market. It is still the case that what I was taught in that CAPP course all new employees of the Ministry of Energy were required to attend, that what comes out of the ground is either oily gas or gassy oil. And what the market demands here is usually liquid fuel, and the gas is flared. About half of the volume produced I’m told. Using lots of energy to liquify the gas and then ship it around the planet to be sold at competitive prices to places that can pipe gas in from much closer locations does not seem very likely to be viable.

But mostly I am very tired of this administration pretending to care about the climate (because we had the carbon tax implemented before other places) while doing their very best to undermine the limited success we have had in reducing our own ghg. Which may not be entirely due to good management but simply reduced levels of economic activity.

A message from the Green Party of Canada

Green Party of Canada Your Name

Written by Stephen Rees

February 13, 2014 at 1:40 pm

Travel comparison

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I have just booked online a train journey between Rome and Florence – and back. That’s 284km and will take about 90 minutes each way, on one of these.

And just to compare I asked Google how long the trip from Vancouver to Seattle would take. That’s 227km and it says 3 hours and 10 minutes “in traffic” midday and ignores the line up at the border. By train the Amtrak Cascades schedule says 4 hours and 25 minutes.  Or 3:45 on the bus!


Written by Stephen Rees

February 13, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Kinder Morgan Pipeline Threatens Ecology and Economy of Salish Tribes

Tribes on both sides of the border intervene in proceeding to address tanker traffic and oil spill risks

 Seattle, WA & Vancouver, BC, Coast Salish Territories – Opposition to Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain proposed pipeline project ramped up today as Coast Salish peoples on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border vowed to oppose the project as intervenors before Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB). Coast Salish intervenors include the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Tulalip Tribes, Lummi Nation, and Suquamish Tribe in Washington state, and the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations in British Columbia. The deadline for application to participate in the NEB process was last night at midnight.

“Over the last 100 years, our most sacred site, the Salish Sea, has been deeply impacted by our pollution-based economy,” said Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby. “Every kind of pollution ends up in the Salish Sea. We have decided no more and we are stepping forward. It is up to this generation and future generations to restore and protect the precious waters of the Salish Sea.”

“Our people are bound together by our deep connection to Burrard Inlet and the Salish Sea. We are the ‘People of the Inlet’ and we are united in our resolve to protect our land, water and air from this risky project,” said Chief Maureen Thomas of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation. “We will use all lawful means to oppose it. This is why we have applied to intervene in the NEB hearing process.”

In December, Kinder Morgan filed an application with the NEB to build a new pipeline to bring tar sands oil from Alberta to Vancouver, B.C. The NEB is the Canadian federal agency that regulates interprovincial energy infrastructure. It is responsible for reviewing, recommending and regulating major energy projects, such as the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.

If approved, the proposal would see the transport of tar sands oil expanded from its present level of approximately 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000 barrels per day. With an almost seven-fold increase in oil tankers moving through the shared waters of the Salish Sea, an increase in groundings, accidents, incidents, leaks and oil spills is inevitable. More information here.

Experts have acknowledged that a serious oil spill would devastate an already-stressed marine environment and likely lead to collapses in the remaining salmon stocks and further contamination of shellfish beds, wiping out Indigenous fishing rights.

“The fishing grounds of the Salish Sea are the lifeblood of our peoples. We cannot sit idly by while these waters are threatened by reckless increases in oil tanker traffic and increased risk of catastrophic oil spill,” said Mel Sheldon, Chairman of the Tulalip Tribes.

The proposed tar sands pipeline expansion is one of several projects that would dramatically increase the passage of tankers, bulk carriers, and other vessels through Salish Sea shipping routes and adjacent waters on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. In addition to oil, regulators in both countries are reviewing controversial proposals to export huge quantities of U.S. coal.  Taken together, these projects would greatly increase the risk of oil spills and other accidents that threaten the Coast Salish economies and cultures.

“Today we are taking a stand to honour our ancient connection to the Salish Sea. The threat of oil spills and industrial pollution continue to threaten our way of life.” said Chief Ian Campbell of the Squamish Nation. “We stand in unity with all who care about the health of the Salish Sea and defend it for future generations.”

Chairman Timothy Ballew III of the Lummi Nation stated, “I am a fisherman, a father and a member of the great Lummi Nation. As the northernmost Washington Treaty Tribe of the Boldt Decision, we are the stewards the Salish Sea and will not allow the Kinder Morgan proposal along our waterways that will threaten our harvesting areas and further the detrimental impacts to the environment and natural resources.”


Written by Stephen Rees

February 13, 2014 at 10:24 am

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

“Vancouver’s transit system needs a face”

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Actually, no it doesn’t. It needs money – lots of it. There is indeed a desperate need to improve transit in Vancouver. Marketing is not a priority – and a face is not necessary at all.

Jordan Yerman in the Vancouver Observer 

“How do we get people to love a transit system? Find out why penguins and bears are so important for buses and trains, and how we can get TransLink to stop sucking.”

People will love a transit system that provides good service. That means it takes them where they want to get to in a timely, reliable and reasonably comfortable manner. They will want to feel safe, and that they are getting good value for money. Putting a penguin or a bear on a ticket or a poster is not going to do anything at all except irritate them some more. Right now transit services in much of the region are being cut back. They are becoming less frequent, and thus less convenient, in order to relieve the serious overcrowding on some routes. The system is thus plagued by pass ups, and a lot of standing around – either for a service that you cannot board when it comes – or one that doesn’t come for a very long while. For people dependant upon transit – who rely on bus or HandyDART for most of their trips – their current experience is subpar and their expectations low. A mascot is not going to change that one iota.

There is a reason why transit sucks here and it is simply the deliberate policies of not just this provincial government, but most of them in recent years. Transit has been identified as necessary – indeed essential – to the region, but the provincial government refuses to help pay for it. It is far too pre-occupied spending huge amounts of money on new and expanded roads. Even Translink fell into that trap – and now wastes $40m a year on a toll bridge that not enough people use. More of these are going to be built even though the two we have are financial basket cases.

The provincial taxpayers do support transit. If you live in Greater Vancouver your provincial income and sales tax payments go to help transit in places like Prince George or Kelowna. Just not the other way around. The province has long maintained the fiction that it makes a contribution through the gas tax. But that is only collected in the Greater Vancouver Region – so only residents and some visitors pay that. Except those who are so determined not to pay taxes that they burn more fuel to go outside the region to get gas. There are quite a few of those apparently. And there is a small sum collected in other areas to help pay for hospitals that is not collected here. Not that it makes a great deal of difference.

Transit use has been growing steadily – mainly because of a now provincially mandated fares arrangement for post secondary students who get UPass. They actually have no choice in the matter and are obliged to pay for a UPass with their student fees, so it should come as no surprise that having got that pass they try to use it. I say try, since there are many occasions when transit to places like UBC or SFU is at capacity at peak periods. Other people who used to get a similar pass for their journey to work have seen that withdrawn. There are no funds to provide additional capacity – hence the service cuts elsewhere, presented as efficiency measures by the spin doctors. There is no shortage of marketing and spin – and most people see right through it.

There is actually nothing new about any of this. Even before UPass people were complaining about the paucity of transit in Vancouver. Indeed expansion of the system was one of the reasons the region asked to take over the system from BC Transit, since it did not seem likely that there would be ever enough provincial priority on transit in general and transit in BC’s biggest metropolis in particular. In part that is driven by the way the constituency boundaries are drawn: a vote in the city region is worth roughly half what it is in the rest of the province. But it is also still very much the conservative mantra that road spending is an investment, transit spending a wasteful subsidy for the undeserving.

Putting a funny face on tickets does not make them more acceptable. Compass is an uninspired name but it doesn’t matter. Other payment systems are going to be phased out – or made unattractively expensive to use. You do not need to market such a system. People will use it because they either have no choice or a very poor alternative.  Many systems have introduced cashless payment systems – and use various types of card to do that. They do not have faces on tickets in London, or Paris or New York. Their transit systems do not suffer lack of usage as a result. London Transport has long had a very recognizable symbol – we now call it a “logo” – the simple ring and bar (we used to call it the roundel) so widely used that it seems to be copied by all and sundry with no fear of reprisal. Doesn’t look like a face to me.

Lloyd's of Gastown

The choices that Yerman comes up with are especially inappropriate. The Vancouver Winter Olympic mascots are very unlikely to be available and anyway my memory of their introduction was that they were treated with derision. There were too many of them, none of them memorable, and none with any discernible regional relevance. A bit like the choice of the inukshuk – which is a well known feature of a part of Canada – just not BC or Whistler/Vancouver.

If you must have the face of a cute, cuddly creature one does come to mind. The Sea Otter. Walter. Shot in the face by someone unknown but surviving despite his wounds. Now lives at the Vancouver aquarium. Who I am sure would like a small contribution in return for the use of his likeness. Someone deliberately hurt Walter. But he keeps on going the best he can. A very appropriate symbol for our transit system – if we need one.

Wally Oct 18 2013 01  photo by Neil Fisher  Vancouver Observer

Wally Oct 18 2013 01
photo by Neil Fisher
Vancouver Observer

Written by Stephen Rees

February 10, 2014 at 11:55 am

Posted in transit

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