Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for May 2017

History strikes again

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bike path 30s

After the Greater London Council was abolished (1985), I managed to secure new employment with the Department of Transport. I went through a competitive recruitment process and was appointed an Economic Adviser (Grade 7) and my first assignment was to the Traffic Policy Branch. I think a lot of that was due to the fact that in the run up to abolition there had been a hard hitting campaign which was pointing out some of the lacunae in the government’s assessment of the task in front of it. For instance the GLC had one man who wrote all the traffic orders for the metropolitan area. After abolition, it looked like there would have to be 32 – one in each borough. Not exactly the great boost to efficiency that was predicted. I also happen to think that someone had a sense of humour since the Under Secretary I reported to at Traffic Policy was called Neville Rees.

Most of my time as the economist of the unit was to try and make some sense out the mess that had become of parking in the capital. The politicians, of course, insisted that it was simply a matter of the market producing the optimum solution. There was no market where the hidden hand could work its magic. There had to be policy and there had to be regulation, but mostly there had to effective enforcement – that had collapsed under the weight of indifference to traffic policing at Scotland Yard.

This is a good story but it will have to wait, because now we turn to what was going on in a quiet corner of the office. There were two engineers who were trying to improve the dreadful numbers of collisions involving cyclists. The cycling lobby was pushing hard for the government to promote cycling. The policy at the time was to resist any promotion at all, since the more people who cycled, the worse the casualty statistics. The engineers were coming up with real, hard engineering solutions. Finding safe routes, better separation and better sight lines at intersections. Their mantra was to make cycling safer – and every time they did more people started to use their bikes. And just to make this perfectly clear, their remit was national, not just London. Two engineers, tiny budget for a small number of carefully selected projects. No actual program to promote anything.

My father had been an avid cyclist. Back in the 1930’s car ownership was low, public transport was plentiful and cheap, but young people used cycles – especially for recreation, sport and commuting. When my Dad was evacuated out to Egham with the Public Control Department of the LCC (1939) , he rode his cycle back to Manor Park every weekend. He could do that because when the great network of road improvements was built – mainly as a way to relieve unemployment during the Great Depression – cycle paths were always added to these new roads. For instance the Great West Road, Eastern Avenue and the East Ham ByPass all come to mind.

When the cycling engineers and I talked about what they were trying to do, I mentioned this history to them. They were pretty dismissive. So imagine my surprise when I came across this article in the Atlas Obscura.  I knew these roads and had tried to use some of them in my own youth. By the late 1960s much of them were being used by residents along these roads to park their cars.

In the years that followed the construction of the cycleways, though, cars became the predominant form of transportation, and the bike lanes fell out of use. Even the Ministry of Transport forgot that it had built them. “Within 40 years, it had been lost in their own department that they were doing this,” says Reid. He read the ministry’s minutes going through the 1960s and found records of ministers saying that they’d never built anything like a bike highway before.

So once again, just like bringing back the trams, or re-opening the railway lines closed by Dr Beeching, Britain is now rediscovering what it lost in the rush to motordom. They could have done it thirty years earlier.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 14, 2017 at 11:00 pm

“Smaller, lighter, greener: are micro EVs the future of city transport?”

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“Imagine a city street filled with two-seater electric vehicles (EVs) zipping around. A Swedish startup claims these smaller, lighter EVs could help cut congestion and toxic levels of air pollution.”siemens micro ev

The picture and the somewhat breathless quote comes from a recent Guardian article. Yes a small light EV will take up less road space and produce less air pollution than a hulking great SUV. But it is unlikely to do much if anything to cure traffic congestion – even if it is widely adopted (which seems unlikely) – any more than self driving cars will, or even shared cars. The problem is that they are all cars. The challenges we face are that we need to move more people – not more vehicles. And with the decline of conventional retailing we also need more and better delivery systems – but I will leave that for another occasion.

I know that I have seen another version of this graphic


which adds a couple more pictures – one of evs, one of self driving cars – which hammers home the point. It is one that needs to be repeated because a lot of people still do not seem to understand that the solutions lie in policy not technology. The changes in technology are already here – and the policy needs to adapt to that – but we still have politicians, in this city as elsewhere, who think that taking road space away from cars to make movement better for people – walking, riding bikes, in wheelchairs, pushing strollers or walkers, taking the bus – is some kind of heresy. George Affleck cannot stand the idea that people who are not in cars have any rights at all. Of course he is not about to actually say that so he turns it into a question of staff versus elected councillors. He opposes wider side walks, protected bike lanes on principle. The principle being that only the undeserving poor ride bikes or buses.

I am a bit reluctant to endorse what seems to be a neo-conservative paeon to pricing but the economics cited in this article are sound.  Self driving cars won’t cure congestion any more than micro EVs will.

In my version of the solution, we have allocated the space available based on people carrying capacity – when looking at roads. But when we look at streets, and places,  we are not trying to build a sewer to flush the waste through as fast as possible. We want people to linger. Loitering should not be an offence – it should be positively encouraged. People who spend time in one place add life, interest (people watching is everyone’s favourite pastime) and (God help me) profit. If you drive through my neighbourhood, you add danger. If you stop, and look around, you might even buy something – or maybe take a picture and post it on social media. You cease to be a traveller and become a visitor – and we need visitors. We welcome visitors, we want them to stay and come back, and tell their friends.

Actually we would rather you don’t bring your own car – it adds cost (demands a ridiculous amount of space for one person, and security).

Actually the comments under the Guardian article are more intelligent: they enthuse about the electric bike and what that is going to achieve. I will have more to say on that in a short while. Once my new powered front wheel arrives.

But city transport isn’t the issue we need to focus on. If it were, the answer is simple. Build more transit. Provide more transit options. Make transit the best way to get around. Physically protect cyclists and pedestrians from car traffic. Nothing to do with how to provide a single occupant vehicle with motive power.

The best transport plan is a land use plan. Make a better place and people won’t want to get through it as fast as possible. Get away from it as quickly as they can. Ignore it as it flashes by their window. If the only way they can get to work, or to get the goods and services they need, or to meet other people is to drive a car you, as a city planner, have failed dismally. But only as dismally as most suburban planners have failed in the last half century. By thinking that the critical feature – the one thing we must not get wrong – is the turning circle of the fire truck.


In case you think I am being unfair to George Affleck, he’s at it again in the Sun today (May 15)

Even the smallest changes can damage business interests and greatly impact motorists trying to get to and from work. Indeed these days many motorists, undertaking necessary commutes, feel their needs are being forsaken in the interests of those who pedal to their destinations. And business owners are rightly riled when disruptions stemming from road improvements disrupt the running of their businesses.

Never mind that even Charles Gauthier now acknowledges that protected bike lanes have actually increased business in Downtown. And of course no motorist has ever taken an unnecessary trip, have they.

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 5.58.48 PM

Written by Stephen Rees

May 13, 2017 at 7:41 pm

Posted in Transportation

We have been changing

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This graph appeared on my flickr stream today. I was surprised, both by the relative position of Metro Vancouver compared to the other Canadian metro areas, and the steepness of the decline. I do not usually get into the land use, density, urban design stuff but what I see from other blogs and discussions had given me the sense that somehow we were losing the battle against sprawl. I know that people are quite rightly concerned about large houses in the ALR – that people in Richmond now refer to as AirBnB hotels – and that so much recent development seems to have followed the freeway expansions into areas which were not identified as of the Growth Concentration Area identified in the LRSP. But what this graph shows is that the conventional single family home on its own lot – or one that shares a lot – is no longer the dominant form of the region. And that we are outperforming both Montreal and Toronto in delivering other types of residence.

This is indeed good news, and a strong indication of why we not only need more and better transit, but that it will be successful because we have the density to support it. This also seem to be the subtext of a lot of commentary I have been seeing about why the BC Liberals did so poorly in this region. That includes, of course Peter Fasbender (former Minister for Translink) losing his seat (Surrey-Fleetwood).

And the source for this graph (Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto) was new to me too.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 13, 2017 at 5:10 pm

Weekly Photo Challenge: Reflecting

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When I first saw the photo challenge this week, I thought that I had already done it. That’s because the first time I responded was using a photo of a reflection in a puddle for the challenge “shine”. And the picture I used then looks  a lot like the one the challenger used this week. So when I went looking in my archive, instead of working from most recent backwards, I started at the oldest of the images that happen to reside in Apple photos. This one dates back to April 2009, when I was working on the swing bridge at Annacis Island, and it was unusually still.

Boat reflections

Or perhaps not that unusual since there are 104 pictures of mine in a flickr group called “Favorite Water Reflections“. I just happen to like the look of this one. And the fact that it allows me to take the idea of reflections just a bit further.

I do not regret retiring. But I do often reflect on my experiences when I was working – and indeed you can see the result of that often in this blog. The job of a bridge tender is not exactly demanding most of the time. You have to be there to listen to the radio and be ready to open the bridge if a boat calls. The rest of the time you fill as best you can. Taking pictures – or trawling through the interwebs. Which, of course, is pretty much how I spend a lot of my time now. I am just not at anyone’s beck and call, and can make up my own mind about what to do, and when to do nothing at all. The very small pay cheque I got as a bridge tender is not nearly enough to make me want to go back to that. And recently we were talking about the sort of jobs you can get in retirement – like working on the census or as an election official. I have done both in my time, so it is not an experience I feel much need to repeat. And since there are plenty of people who do need both the experience and the pay cheque more than I do, I do not feel any need to apply for such positions, and wish them all the best. Indeed I do think that more people of my generation (the baby boomers) need to get out of the way of those who really need jobs – or a promotion in their present career.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 10, 2017 at 12:15 pm

The unbearable experience of flight

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Air Transat A330 at YVR

This post has been inspired by Stephen Dowle, one of my contacts on flickr, in response to something he wrote under one of his pictures recently. The Pleasures of Travel seem to be a thing of the past:

Has there ever been a more horrible means of getting from one place to another than air travel? I am resolved in future to avoid it whenever possible.

I have been avoiding travel to the United States since inauguration of the present President. The people who work in airport security, and those employed by Customs and Border Patrol, have often seemed to me needlessly officious and unpleasant. The arrival of Trump on the scene seems to have encouraged them to ever greater incursions into personal liberties. I am not willing to allow CPB – or indeed Canada’s equivalent – access to my passwords and information on my cell phone, tablet or laptop. Nor am I willing to travel without them to avoid an unwarranted search. I am also tired of being picked “at random” for pat-downs at airports every time I fly.

Airline travel has also become far worse, as a result of the pressures on airlines to cut costs, to make fares seem cheaper, but provide far less in the way of service. I have not at first hand experienced the sort of indignities offered to passengers in recently highly publicised incidents, but I have to say I am not surprised by any of them.

Our most recent trip seemed to parallel Mr Dowle’s. The flight from Vancouver to Cuba was scheduled to leave at 6am Air Transat TS188 to Varadero calling at Santa Clara. We were expected to be at the airport three hours in advance as is common for international flights. This is actually one of the first departures – and there is not very much activity in security, so the necessity for all this prematurity is not readily apparent

We did not take the precaution of prebooking our seats or a meal. There is not much open in YVR between 3am and 5am. In any event, I do not want to eat when I ought to be sleeping. But I did get quite decent coffee.

By the time the food cart on the plane got to row 41 there were no breakfast sandwiches left – which I would think must happen on this flight every week. It is about two thirds of the way down the cabin. So every time this happens the cabin service crew must be aware of it but have not managed to get anything done to change it. That tells you a lot about how seriously Air Transat treats customer service.  All I got to eat all day was one muffin, which was not good for my blood sugar levels. The fact that it was my birthday is entirely irrelevant.

Yutong airport bus

This service ran one hour early due to favourable winds – and thus when it got to Santa Clara there was no gate ready. After the passengers who were going to resorts locally disembarked, the rest of us were told to get off too, so that the plane could be cleaned. We were also told that anything left on board would be regarded as fair game by the cleaners and taken as being abandoned.

We were obliged to stand on the apron as there was nowhere else where we could be accommodated.  The few people at the front of the line were apparently treated to the usual search and interrogation procedures for arriving passengers, even though they were going on to Varadero, and were not going to be allowed beyond the airport terminal “quarantine” zone. One small benefit from standing on the apron, wearing clothing suitable for a Canadian winter, in 31º C is a nice clear shot of this bus.  There must have been a shortage of security staff since most of us were simply reloaded onto the bus and taken back to our plane.

When we got to Varadero, there was also an arrival of another service from Germany. There were three carousels for the baggage – and no indication of which one was allocated to which flight. So there was an almost comical shuttling backwards and forwards of people searching for their bags as batches of them randomly arrived on one of the three belts. The only people who actually knew where to get their bags from were the German flight crew – who obviously go through this palaver every time they land there.

I did manage to buy a can of cold beer once we got out of the terminal. The vendor was clearly used to taking foreign currency from people who had had no opportunity to get Cuban convertible pesos. In fact on the return trip through the same airport we were asked multiple times by all sorts of people if we would change their Canadian dollars into pesos we would no longer be needing. The terminal itself being “free” of currency controls: they will take anything including your Cuban currency of you still have any. I even got change in Canadian coins!

The bus from Varadero to Havana made drop offs at all the resorts and hotels on the way, and we were among the last to get delivered. Our 5 star hotel did have many restaurants, bars and a café.  Most food service was closed at 10 pm – shortly after we got there.

I think if you are going to take flight TS188 you ought to bring your own breakfast and lunch. Unless you are willing to pay extra for those nicer seats at the front of the plane. Which of course is the whole point. Airlines make travelling in the cheap seats as nasty as possible, so that you will consider paying a lot more next time.


On May 16 the Canadian government announced that (at long last) it was going to introduce legislation to give Canadians the consumer protections airline passengers have had in the U.S. since 2002 and in Europe since 2005. Though I think the legislation is necessary, it will not be enough: there needs to be a change in corporate culture in Air Canada (and other airlines) to change how airlines treat passengers in cases like this one. Gabor Lukacs says the Bill is just smoke and mirrors – what is needed is enforcement of existing rules – the CTA is another captive regulator. (Taken from the 4pm CBC TV News Vancouver. At time of writing that is not available but Global is )



Written by Stephen Rees

May 6, 2017 at 4:50 pm

Posted in Transportation

That $3bn Bridge will be $12bn

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The following is the text of an NDP Press Release dated May 5

Documents show Clark’s Massey Bridge boondoggle will cost $12 billion

Construction costs for Christy Clark’s Massey toll bridge are mounting. After first claiming the bridge would cost $3 billion to build, estimates have already risen to $3.5 billion. And with reports that they are having difficulty finding bedrock, these costs are expected to climb further.

Because Christy Clark is pushing the bridge with no financial support from the federal or municipal governments, BC taxpayers will be left footing the whole bill.

Several months ago, the BC NDP filed a freedom of information request to find out the full cost of the project, including financing. The request came back with all financial details blanked out. (FOI documents).

But leaked internal documents (available here) reveal that financing costs for the bridge will add another $8 billion in costs that British Columbians will be paying for the next 50 years – bringing the total bill to nearly $12 billion.

We’ve already seen the frustration and traffic chaos caused by tolling the Port Mann Bridge. Christy Clark’s Massey scheme would cause similar problems on the Oak Street Bridge and area roads.

Why are the BC Liberals asking British Columbians to pay nearly $12 billion for a new toll bridge scheme that nobody wants?

Written by Stephen Rees

May 5, 2017 at 2:50 pm

Posted in Transportation

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Is MicroTransit the answer?

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Regular readers of this blog will recognize a long running idea of mine, that we need something that is “better than a bus but cheaper than a taxi”. Now back when I was actually working in the industry we had not yet got the sort of systems that we have now that would make this sort of thing possible. But one thing has stuck with me, and that first entered my mind in 1988. I was new in town (Toronto) and writing a proposal for the TTC in response to an RfP on what they called WheelTrans.

TTC Wheel Trans Orion II off


They used these Orion II vans for the specialised dial a ride transit service (“paratransit”) offered by the TTC to those who need door to door transit. Of course, wheelchair users are a minority among those whose disabilities make conventional transit difficult or even impossible. But also the number of rides they could actually offer, and the ability to match routes of the vans to potential riders, was very limited. The company I worked for was at the leading edge of demand forecasting, so my proposal was that we would come up with better ride matching software. We did not get the job because the people reviewing the proposals simply did not understand what I was proposing. You have to bear in mind that in 1988 cell phones were a novelty and most people did not have a PC on their desk.

It seems that even though we now have much better hardware and software, there is still a big issue: transit needs subsidy. The recent closure of Bridj in Boston shows that.

Transit depends on subsidies, and if microtransit really is an answer to underused, oversized public buses traveling along 30-year-old routes, then at least some of its backing should come from taxpayers, without the expectation of turning profits.

In this region, the oversized buses have been taken away to run on the overcrowded routes. Some routes now run as Community Shuttles, which have somewhat lower costs (due to a different union agreement) but still run on fixed routes.

Community Shuttle S534

The HandyDART service has a different vehicle – the lift is at the back not on the side – and operates on routes which are based on prior bookings.

HandyDART T710 Tsawwassen BC 2009_0121

There have long been complaints that this service is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of those who cannot use conventional transit, and while some changes have been made, and Translink is looking at more, the cost per ride of this service is much greater than conventional transit – or even taxi services. One advocate even suggested at one time that taxis be used as the contractor for all these trips – but I think he was out of touch with both basic economics and the expectations of most HandyDART users.

DART by the way is the acronym for “dial a ride transit”. But you can’t just call for a ride like you do for a taxi. First you must be qualified, and second you must book in advance. And currently trip bookings are allocated by priority – work/school, medical, other. Unsurprisingly, given the demographics of users it is the second one which accounts for most of the trips. To allow for some spontaneous trip making, registered HandyDART users can buy taxisavers to make subsidized taxi trips.

It seems to me that microtransit has the potential to solve a number of issues.

Havana Bus

What Bridj offered was nothing new, really: services like jitneys and dollar vans act as informal, quasi-public shuttle transport all over the world, and plenty of agencies serve paratransit needs this way. What Bridj brought (and others bring) to the table is super-smart software that formulates routes and spits out pick-up spots in real time, based on demand, for any type of rider.

Pick up variation

The idea I had back in 1988 – and still think might work – is that we could use some super-smart software to provide better door to door transit for all. It should be accessible to everyone. And to make sure that people with disabilities get first dibs we come up with a booking system that works like the dedicated seating on conventional transit. People who can use conventional transit would have to give up their seat if someone who needs it more wants it. If the software is smart enough that can be done without bumping. This ought to make transit much more attractive – after all fixed routes take you from where you aren’t to where you don’t want to be. So if you are saving some walking you ought to be prepared to pay more for that  convenience: people who can’t walk, wouldn’t have to pay that premium.

Both need subsidy, but it ought to be less than the current dedicated system, and it will also be cheaper than running a big bus nearly empty. It will also remove whatever stigma is associated with a specialised service. As the US Supreme Court famously noted “separate isn’t equal” (Brown vs Board of Education).

Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 3.40.03 PM

Source: Translink Accountability Centre

A number of things need to happen to get this to work. Firstly, the current contracted out HandyDART has to be brought back in house. Secondly the legislation that governs ride sharing in BC needs to be revised. It also needs to recognize that it is quite legitimate for existing taxi operators to expect some protection from predators like Uber and Lyft. While they are currently aiming at getting a monopoly of taxi like services, it is clear that transit is also in their long term strategy. And some politicians of the “anti-subsidy except for my favourite corporations” parties want to facilitate that. So a public service obligation has to be baked in with provision of subsidies.

But most importantly, transit planning for the future has to be for everyone and not just for those who can run up and down stairs. Transportation planning also has to be for everyone and not just those who want to drive or ride in a single occupant vehicle.

UPDATE November 6 2017

Another microtransit company recently went bust – mostly because it could not meet even the most basic requirements of driver qualifications (holding the right kind of driver’s license) or insurance. This article in CityLab explains – and shows that the companies involved were not doing what I envisaged in the post above. They were simply poaching traffic from public transit on their most used routes. Not extending the reach of transit into low density areas ill served by fixed route transit, no matter what size the vehicle.

Incidentally the pattern shows remarkable parallels with what happened in Britain when buses were deregulated and privatised. The private companies are only interested in running profitable services, and local government was even prohibited from subsidising essential services. The result is widespread social isolation and reduced mobility of the workforce. Not one we should wish to emulate.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 3, 2017 at 3:29 pm


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Rattle Snake

This is a rattlesnake. “Look out! This week’s challenge is about the unexpected thrill of danger.” So yes the sight of this beautiful creature was indeed unexpected and did carry a thrill. But actually not dangerous really, as long as you don’t do something really stupid. Like pick up a short stick and poke it. Or stray off the path and walk in the long grass. Treading on a rattlesnake is not going to bring you anything but grief.

We did show the picture to a park ranger and she confirmed that this was a rattlesnake. The location was Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, and of course the park warns people about the dangers of the wildlife in the park.

Actually the humans are the real danger. So please indulge me a little and read some more. Because the following was neither unexpected nor a thrill. But no-one got hurt either.


This is a picture of some people enjoying the surf on the beach at Varadero, Cuba.

Playing in the breakers probably seemed like fun. What these people had not seen – or not understood – was this red flag.


Yes, well, that seems understandable. It is not a large flag, nor is it immediately obvious that it is meant to be a warning. And, yes there was a lifeguard.


He did blow his whistle and wave at them. But you will also note that when they looked back at the guy whistling at them he seemed to be wearing a plain white T shirt. He also did nothing more than that. When they did not respond to him, he simply went on his way.
I happened to be walking on the beach (fully dressed and shod) and I noticed all of this and decided to do something. I did not, of course, have a whistle, and I did not know if these people actually spoke English, so I tried yelling “Attention” (in a French accent) and making a clear arm length gesture beckoning them closer. I established that two of them did speak English and they did understand when I said “Come closer please, I need to tell you something.” (There were a lot of people from Quebec in our resort, but also lots of Europeans.)

When they got closer I asked them if they understood the term “undertow“.  They thought it meant “current”.

The beach has a steep slope. The strong winds, that had been blowing even stronger the previous night, were pushing water up this slope, but gravity was pulling an equal amount back – and that could only travel under the waves. Anyone losing their footing in the soft, waterlogged sand would find their foot, leg and then themselves, dragged by this flow, under the waves. They had not understood the little red flag – not even noticed it – or understood why the guy was whistling at them. The other couple they did not know, but they noticed me, and came in too. I went through the same routine.

There was no-one else paddling. I felt suddenly very tired. I told the second couple that if they had been knocked over by a wave I would not have gone in after them. I also told them about the search we had seen conducted a couple of days earlier on the same beach. Uniformed Coast Guards, a motor boat and guys in wet suits looking for someone. Not asylum seekers, as I had presumed at the time, but someone who had also ignored the red flag. I never heard if they recovered the body.

So the people in the second picture were in real danger, and blithely unaware of it.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 3, 2017 at 11:35 am

Posted in photography

Tagged with , , ,

Killing the Fraser

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Written by Stephen Rees

May 2, 2017 at 11:51 am