Stephen Rees's blog

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

Federal NDP promises 15-year national transit strategy

with 5 comments

The Georgia Straight covers an NDP announcement today

Fin Donnelly, the MP for New Westminster-Coquitlam, told reporters that if New Democrats form the government after the 2015 federal election, they will bring in a national transit strategy…

“What we’re committing to is a 15-to-20-year window of predictable, accountable funding that municipalities, provinces, and First Nations can access, so that they can do the planning they need in their cities, in the provinces, in the territories to make the certainty of moving goods and people in their region,” Donnelly said today (September 8) during the news conference in Vancouver.

Which is certainly an improvement over the present arrangements. But it is not nearly enough.

First of all, what is needed is a permanent commitment. This is not a temporary problem that is going to be solved in a fifteen or twenty year time frame. Given the present imbalance between roads and transit, and the fact that federal funding has only been available for – usually major – capital investments (i.e ribbon cutting opportunities for politicians of the ruling party) a different approach needs to be established that provides certainty not just for now but into the future. And which has to support transit operations as well as expansion.

Secondly the assistance is to be tied to the gas tax, which is a dreadful policy. Predicated taxation ought to be anathema to elected officials. While it may buy political support from the right wing, which distrusts most government spending and wants to hog tie future government as much as possible, representative and responsible government must be able to look at all spending and revenue needs equally and make continual adjustments between them. A consolidated fund is the only way to do that, and is why budget debates and votes ought to be the centre of the democratic process. The federal Conservatives have, of course, been utterly and openly contemptuous of the parliamentary process with their sneaky omnibus bills.

The tax on cigarettes helps fund healthcare, but its revenues are not dedicated solely to the treatment of lung cancer or coronary artery disease. Nor should they be. The tax on alcohol is not regulated to being just enough to generate the revenue to treat alcoholism.

The gas tax is not a good and reliable source of revenue into the future.  As driving miles fell and engine efficiencies improved in recent years, so gas tax revenues fell at the same time as the need for transit spending increased.

Transit ought not to be regarded as a free standing object. It has to be considered as part of a wider strategy to deal with growing urbanism and its impact on the environment in general. It has to be part of making the places we live happier, healthier and more efficient. Reducing the need for vehicular movement has to be part of this process. There is no point at all in funding only those rapid transit projects that promote ever more urban sprawl, which was well under way long before the first automobiles appeared on the scene.

(Added as an afterword – Jeff Speck tweeted “Why good transit isn’t enough” citing Arlington VA, a suburb of Washington BC which has good transit but is a sad and soulless place. The author of that piece could be writing about much of the urbanized Lower Mainland outside of Vancouver. )  

It is not going to be just about “getting people out of their cars” either. If those cars are much better utilized, carry more people, require less parking space, produce much less or no pollution – all of which can be achieved by technologies now appearing in the marketplace – then we have to recognize that in suburban areas (which will continue to have their current form long into the future) where conventional transit has so much difficulty penetrating, cars are going to be part of the solution. They will probably be electric, self driving and shared. And they will be just as important as bike share programs and improved pedestrian accessibility and greater decentralisation of service provision of both public and private services. One way to reduce the need for HandyDART is to decentralise healthcare services. Some people will need door to door service, others will be happy with better services that they can reach by walking or cycling. Most will be even happier if there is a shorter journey involved. Location of workplaces and post secondary education both need to be revised significantly. If the university is not at the top of a mountain or the end of a peninsula – or includes affordable on campus student accommodation –  then much of the recent increase in transit demand stimulated by UPass would evaporate.

This a good announcement from the perspective of a party getting ready to fight a federal election next year. It is not nearly Good Enough as a formal policy statement tackling some of our most pressing problems and needs. But it is better than anything we are likely to hear from the Conservatives.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 8, 2014 at 1:05 pm

5 Responses

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  1. ” in suburban areas….where conventional transit has so much difficulty penetrating, cars are going to be part of the solution. They will probably be electric, self driving and shared”..

    We already have in Vancouver share cars from a couple of companies..
    Some Euro towns have had shared electric cars since the late1999.. La Rochelle, for example.

    To be fair it is still very hard to attract suburbanites to such cars..and it would be costly right now to have dozens of cars—that may not be used a lot—in every small suburban district.

    But for years there has been in some towns small shuttles “on demand” that pick up every weekday morning X customers and bring them to a transit hub. Then go from the transit hub to several homes at the end of the day.
    As you can guess it is not easy to schedule all that (ideally the shuttle would pick up in the same area workers that leave home at 6 am , then 7 am, then 8am etc.), charge a reasonable fee and at least break even.

    Red frog

    September 8, 2014 at 11:35 pm

  2. In the future car2go will come and get you – and will take itself away afterwards. It will be electric and know when it has go and get a parking spot on top of an inductive coil. You won’t have to drive it, you just tell it where you want to go. We haven’t got those yet: no one does. But we know this is coming. And when they do they will transform how we organize transit. And it will probably happen within the time frame of the NDP’s transit strategy. Just look how much life has changed in the last twenty years.

    Stephen Rees

    September 9, 2014 at 10:27 am

  3. I don’t see Metro Vancouver, including its less dense suburbs, growing much more in area due to the constraints imposed by the sea, the mountains and protected (for now) agricultural land. The Metro possesses twice the population as Calgary in only ~14% more land identified as the Urban Containment Boundary. Yet they estimate a million more people will have to be accommodated in the Metro within the next generation.

    You do not counter sprawl by shrinking the city, but by densifying it within its existing boundaries. There is lots of land available within the boundaries for low and mid-level density increases, even in the City of Vancouver. Almost 7 ½ square km of land is currently locked up in 7.3m front yard setbacks for every 100,000 standard lots, and another three square km in side yards. It’s a matter of using our land resource more efficiently.

    That’s easier said than done in a place like Calgary which is rife with the politics of sprawl, despite its liberal-minded and very knowledgeable mayor who favours moderate density increases and more transit improvements. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of undervalued agricultural land are readily available for instant conversion to massive, car-dependent large lot subdivisions filled with inferior quality McMansions at Calgary’s periphery. We in Metro Vancouver have learned to be far more efficient out of necessity due to our land constraints (this is how the Livable Regions Strategic Plan evolved a decade ago), and given the higher population pressures here, we will continue to improve.

    There may be greater car sharing and more personal electric vehicles owned in the suburbs in future, but these will not be able to meet demand with 70-year old land use practices and commuter regimen, and an energy paradigm based on finite fossil fuels. Electric-based public transit will be essential and I am confident the price of fossil fuels will drive demand beyond politics within a decade and result in better planning for our communities by force on a national basis … if in fact the economy will support these expenditures (we don’t exactly have a sovereign wealth fund, so tax increases will be necessary in economies that may be significantly weaker than today).

    Nonetheless, I am happy that transit will be on the agenda in the next federal election.


    September 12, 2014 at 2:13 pm

  4. Pleading ignorance on automated cars that drive themselves, I am in agreement with the presentation here.

    My take on the suburb is that it is the first phase of urbanization. Time will take care of its worse excesses, though it is hard to imagine these days as I drive the Lougheeed Highway between Coquitlam and Mission.

    The urban area in our region is more or less concomitant with the Fraser River watershed (minus riparian setbacks). Once we develop the ability to be solar, then our urbanization may—for the first time in human history—move away from the water’s edge. But not in the forceable future.

    I’m also going to shy away from weighing in on how to fund transportation. In a big-picture, we fund it just like we fund highways. We have a MUTT (Ministry of Urban Transit & Transportation) fully funded, staffed, riding bikes to work, etc.

    However, it is the concept of transit “not regarded as a free-standing object” that gets me typing (nice comparison to the tower BTW).

    For those of us that have not experienced regular & reliable transit as a daily convenience it is really hard to appreciate the difference that it can make. In North America, i don’t expect it will mean we go car free. But I do expect that most of the commuter trips would be on transit (here it would be helpful to hear from the pros what a reasonable target would be for how many of the commuter trips into downtown we can strip from cars and put either on transit—90%? More? Less??).

    That is my question for local transit: how many of the commuter car trips can we absorb? That done, we can move on to consider the other pieces Stephen is talking about.

    I see the car fleet converting to electrical energy sooner rather than later. I am worried about what that will mean for the global economy. Will it trigger a crash of 1929 proportions or worse? Or can we manage a smooth transition? Obviously there would be huge players in the oil business today that would become big losers almost over night. Among them we can count the troubles in the Middle East. Hard to imagine a Jihad without petro dollars to fight over.

    The conversion of the vehicle fleet away from hydro-carbons of course will have a tremendous impact on the pollution problem. But it could strain electrical energy production.

    The next area of improvement is on the side of electrical generation itself. One could argue that we want to keep the cars burning fossil fuels so that we don’t ramp up electrical demand beyond what we can produce and produce cleanly.

    However, the other area of good news is that we are improving housing to the point that we can reduce energy consumption by half. Thus, it may be possible to free up enough energy to power the fleet, keeping in mind that the recharging can be done off peak.

    We can cut energy use in half with just better roof insulation and double glazing. Well, at least that was our engineer’s opinion regarding our 1973 condominium if we just invested once on adding a lot of insulation next time we re-roof and we double glaze our windows and sliding doors. Adding shutters to those windows (don’t expect that to happen here) would raise the performance of double glazing even further.

    The same goes for a topic readers here may have heard me discuss before. If we build the tower on its side we half the “exposed building face” and therefore make it so that we can half the energy consumption.

    In both instances, in construction built before 1990 and in new construction, we can improve the thermal performance further with passive-solar design. Sounds complicated, but it can become as common place as donning a baseball cap on a hot and sunny day.

    Many of the changes we needed take the form of changing social norms and forming new habits.

    The daily waste coming out of my kitchen nowadays is about the size of a large coffee cup for a family of four. The recyclables are about the size of an old fashioned supermarket paper bag. One unexpected result is that it is a lot easier to control garbage smells in the house. I think we can improve on the volumes even further.

    Finally, we come to the urban footprint itself. Part of Stephen’s “packaged transit” approach is that we revitalize our neighbourhoods to make them more walkable. That will help take commuter trips off cars as well. Every bike trip, transit trip, and car trip, begins and ends with walking. So, a social change in attitudes here will have huge combined effects.

    So, there it is—cars, transit, waste, buildings and neighbourhoods.

    If we can package them together we can take a big chunk of energy demand off the table. Then, if we look at the way we produce energy and use any savings we achieve to shift from polluting to renewable energy generation we may just get to the point where the snow on Mt. Baker will look white again… In my lifetime!

    Lewis N. Villegas

    September 24, 2014 at 8:55 pm

  5. Overall good points, Lewis.

    I would quibble, however, with this:

    I see the car fleet converting to electrical energy sooner rather than later.

    In my opinion, publicly-funded private transport is increasingly unaffordable to society and it is one of the central reasons why we are in this energy (and by extension economic) predicament of today. Over 90% of energy for transport is in the form of fossil fuels. That energy is very high value and is irreplaceable on the wider scale even with a mix of alternatives with less return on the energy invested to obtain it. Therefore, something must give, and that will have to be the portion of the fossil fuel array consumed by cars simply because alternatives for the car are more readily found in cities and can go a long way in making the energy falldown less precipitous.

    Enter electrically-powered public transit. The per passenger km of energy used in transit is far less than for cars, and of course the other efficiencies of transit are well known, chief among them: moving people more efficiently; using less road space (read: real estate); fostering a significant economic stimulus where development is oriented to transit (the form of development is another story); and in presenting measureable savings in the far greater external costs imposed by the car, such as health care expenditures and the tax burden to maintain a vast road network.

    Over on The Oil Drum site (though the site is inactive, eight years of posts and their associated highly professional commentary is archived) I had an interesting discussion with several people on electric cars and it was determined that no less than three Site C dams would be required to power the Metro Vancouver fleet of 1.4 million cars should they be converted to electric power. It is possible to fund some electrical infrastructure for cars (solar or otherwise) from the savings in energy efficiency measures for buildings, but no one can say how much investment value and time that would take, or how to transfer it over. It also blurs the line between public and private assets when considering cheaper per capita Hydro upgrades, slightly more expensive per capita central neighbourhood power plants (usually publicly / community owned with perhaps a private partner) over more expensive private rooftop solar installed in part to charge up one’s car(s).

    To me the answer rests with big time upgrades to public transit based on energy, financial and land planning perspectives. The per-rider energy use of a trolley / SkyTrain / SeaBus / tram is phenomenally low by comparison to low-occupancy cars. The investments required are easily justified by the external cost savings. And the astronomical waste of land for roads (literally tens of square km in Vancouver) can be reduced and our overpriced land freed up for more valuable uses without imposing new acquisition costs on the public. The detrimental car-based land use and massive infrastructure doesn’t automatically change when one only changes the energy source.

    On the topic of external costs, this fellow recently posted a 5-part series on the higher costs of NOT building more transit:


    September 30, 2014 at 2:11 pm

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