Stephen Rees's blog

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

Outages, breakdowns and responsibility

with 8 comments

I got an email this morning from Car2Go apologising for a disruption in service last night. It was a significant event.

Yesterday, at 4:30pm CST, our car2go vehicles experienced a disruption in service that was directly related to our Germany-based mobile provider.  At that time, our provider had undergone a malfunction within their network that disabled cell phone roaming, resulting in a break in remote connection with all of our car2go vehicles across North America and their network in Germany.  Thus, members were not able begin or end their trips until the issue was resolved at 12:54am CST today.

The letter goes on to explain further and detail what car2go corporately had done at the time and would be doing in future. This incident did not get reported on the CBC Vancouver TV evening news. In fact until I got the email from car2go I was unaware that there had been any problem. What we did see last night was the disruption in the UK due to a computer issue with air traffic control – also a non-trivial impact – and a rehashing of the potential “news story of the year” – Skytrain and Compass problems at Translink. Conflated, you will note, but also problems of a similar nature to car2go and UK ATC.

We have become dependent on computer systems and they are not 100% reliable all the time. When they do go wrong, it is not just inconvenient for a few, but many and for extended periods of time. And we look for someone to blame. CBC reran the video of Todd Stone comparing Translink to the private sector where, he said, “heads would roll” under similar circumstances. Again, no one pointed out that the problems with Compass are the responsibility of the private sector contractor, Cubic, who is failing to deliver what it contracted to provide. We seem determined to blame Translink for this failure (even though Faregates and all that followed result from a decision by Kevin Falcon): as though sacking Ian Jarvis would somehow compensate for that. He isn’t going to resign – though reporter Eric Rankin seemed seemed to be saying he should due to the SkyTrain problems. Actually he was misreporting since Stone was talking about Compass NOT Skytrain. But we will let that go.

Anger gets directed at Translink: this is not unusual. Most cities have the same love hate relationship with their transit systems as they do with their computers. Though again it is not always clear where the fault lies. If the video I want to see (a damning review of “Noah” and much else) does not load instantly, is that a problem with the tablet, its operating system or the internet service provider?  Would replacing Telus with Shaw actually make the slightest bit of difference? I have no idea of the complexities of delivering video clips from remote servers, or the state of my operating system from moment to moment (is it downloading the movie or updating the app?) but my instinct is to blame the hardware, since we all like getting new toys. Similarly with Translink. People have a conviction that because they have used a bus many times, they know enough to criticize Translink. For instance

Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 10.53.48 AM

Now Bob Mackin is a “news, sports, business and politics journalist.” He poses a question – but in reality is implying that Translink is inefficient because a trolleybus is nearly empty. I declined to be drawn because the question betrays the ignorance of the questioner. Of course the trolley bus is going to empty some of the time, on some parts of its route. Unfortunately it is impractical to switch it for a smaller bus some of the time and for some of the route, because its capacity is going to be needed later somewhere else. It is the nature of transportation demand to be peaky. That’s why you can get deals on airlines for some flights on some days – they have a pricing system that allows them to optimise demand. We have not yet reached that level of sophistication with transit, and the technical problems of getting Compass to work with a much simpler (but still complex enough) fare system are a good enough illustration of why that might be. Anyway, the major cost of bus operation is the driver – and the mechanics who look after buses when they go out of service. Translink pays the operators of “minibuses” (community shuttles) a bit less but that was a concession hard won. It is impossible for any transit system to have the right sized bus on part of the route for different parts of the time. Just ask the kids who go to school on Community Shuttle routes. Unlike SkyTrain, where you can turn additional capacity on and off as long as there usable spare trains available, (and not of course on the Canada Line even if though there are) there is no back up of drivers and buses that can be summoned or dismissed easily and cheaply. But Bob Mackin is sure that if he was in charge or Translink, he could make it run better: or maybe he thinks that he could hire smarter people who could. Which was exactly why we had that long bus strike, and why most of us are glad that we seem to have avoided one since. Of course, for Translink critics, like Jordan Bateman, any public sector operation is by definition inefficient. Translink management gets no credit at all for running a pretty reliable service most of the time and avoiding strikes and other outages. Mistakes – such as accommodating demands for greater efficiency by not buying an expensive software package – will be noted as black marks, not rewarded as cost cutting. Most cost cutting leads to impacts elsewhere, as the Mayors elected in municipalities impacted by service rationalisation were eager to stress last Thursday. But how else does Translink get more service hours to increasing demand on overcrowded routes when there is no new funding? And isn’t this exactly the same problem writ large that Mackin identifies?

Bob Mackin is also the reporter who chose to list the cost impact of increasing sales tax. It is sometimes hard to tell when reporters are actually trying to influence their readers, since there is always an editorial process that leaves other stuff out. It is the absence of other information that gives the story its slant. This does not have to be deliberate “spin” but we do expect that all media will at least attempt even handed reporting. This in itself can result in spin. The way that mainstream media has given so much prominence to climate change deniers, for example, when there is hardly any real scientific disagreement. See that video clip above for another example.

I do not pretend to be a reporter. I am unabashedly an advocate. My preferences are clear. More transit is a better outcome for this region than more roads. Congestion is not even the major problem that I would chose to stress, though I see why the BoT would. Air we can breathe, water we can drink and food we can eat are not merely desirable, they are essential. Edible shellfish are currently denied us at our beaches. The weather is dreadful and the seas are rising. The place we get our food from has had a prolonged drought – and we have covered over our own food growing area to store containers. Most of which are empty. People are in general hard pressed financially. Not so much through taxation as its replacement by fees and charges and the unwillingness of many private sector employers to pay wage increases in order to increase profitability. I understand why this inevitably leads to opposition to tax increases, but things have to be paid for – and this current proposal is the least worst option. And as a value for money proposition is, I would argue, unbeatable.

It would be preferable to live in a society that valued all its members – not just the incredibly wealthy. It would be better if we spent money on housing, education, health and public transport than tax breaks for the rich and their corporate entities. We could have had a much more vibrant local economy if we had chosen to develop renewable energy sources – which are abundant and relatively benign in their impacts – than LNG. Far better to have built fast LRT and slow streetcars, with lots more regional rails than freeways. Not taking money from people as MSP contributions, higher ICBC premiums, BC Hydro bills and BC Ferry fares but increased income tax on the top brackets. Less emphasis on profitable high rise condo towers, much more for co-ops, housing societies, even outright public housing. Not developing the University Endowment Lands for private profit and occupation but for student accommodation. Not building the real boondoggles – the convention centre, BC Place, the casinos but putting that money to work where it is is actually needed for local welfare – which includes mobility for all, not just those who can afford a new car.

We do not live in such a country. Our province has long abandoned such approaches no matter what it claims. The best we can do is make the adjustments that we can. And a half a cent on the sales tax – provided other levels of government match the funds – is at least a step in the right direction. The people who oppose it have (so far) failed to come up with anything better.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 13, 2014 at 12:06 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Jefferson Huts' Blog and commented:
    If you have an opinion on the upcoming transit referendum in the Lower Mainland, read this.


    December 13, 2014 at 1:06 pm

  2. As for “heads rolling” because of the delay in implementing the Compass project — I don’t know whether that’s normal in private business when information technology projects run over budget or not. I do know that it IS normal for large and complex IT projects in private business to run considerably over budget, both in time and dollars.

    Paul Clapham

    December 13, 2014 at 2:55 pm

  3. ” Premier Christy Clark has shown zero leadership on this issue and treated it as an exercise in deflection. If you dislike the idea of this referendum, don’t blame the mayors. Blame Victoria.”

    Pete MacMartin, in the Vancouver Sun paywalled

    “David Leam, the group’s infrastructure director, says London First was born in 1992 when business was concerned about the city’s lack of long-term planning. It seized upon Crossrail, recognizing it was “clearly a good project, which would bring economic benefits.” Mr. Leam says that business realized that, if a private-sector contribution was necessary, “that was a price worth paying.”

    A 2-per-cent levy added to the tax rate on non-domestic London properties worth more than £55,000 is expected to raise £4.1-billion.”

    The also paywalled Globe and Mail on London’s Crossrail project

    Stephen Rees

    December 13, 2014 at 3:32 pm

  4. vancouver first yes! transit first! bicycling first! and most important healthy people first! it’s a travesty that after 10 years of bike share “yak shaving” we have no bicycle share yet we have car2go after less than 5 years of yak shaving! car2go is a travesty. not a fan! i’m a member because it’s a form of transit (and it should be non profit and electric! ) but what do i know 🙂 happy holidays stephen!


    December 13, 2014 at 4:32 pm

  5. and p.s. i love bob mackin but he’s wrong on this! he’s a much better journaist than a CEO of translink. cheers! …Rolan


    December 13, 2014 at 4:36 pm

  6. […] Stephen Rees – Outages, breakdowns, and responsibility […]

  7. Very well said, Stephen!!!


    December 15, 2014 at 1:34 pm

  8. The 134 run community shuttles on weekends. FWIW.


    December 24, 2014 at 12:55 am

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