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

Archive for the ‘fuel consumption’ Category

“No Impact Man”

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I went this evening to one of the community showings of this new DVD, at St James Hall on Vancouver’s West Side. The hall was indeed crowded, and mostly a young crowd at that, and they were all very receptive to the message. No Impact Man was first a blog, now a movie and a book. The bog covered the year in which Colin Beavan tried to have no net impact on the planet, which of course was also covered by the film crew and a surprising amount of main stream media coverage including an appearance on the Colbert Report and regular updates on Good Morning America. As well as all sorts of press, radio and other media. Indeed the extent of the coverage was such that there was an immediate backlash from other bloggers, casting aspersions on his motivation. After all he had already two published books and the project was designed to provide the material for the third. Beavon himself is unabashed and deals with all of this in the movie, admitting it all would help sales of the book but that he would have been using his talents in this way anyway on some other project but at least this one would be doing some good.

The entire family is in the film, with Beavon’s wife acting as a neat foil to much of his unrealistic idealism, but she is, of course won over in the end. The small girl child steals every scene she is in – naturally. Only the dog has a small walk on part. And Beavon is clear that not everything worked, that he had to make all kinds of exceptions – and some things just don’t get mentioned, like the carbon footprint of the film crew who follow him everywhere. He even tries to exist for six months without electricity except for one small solar panel, which he is lent, that allows him to run his computer to keep up his blog. It is not clear how he recharges his cell phone, but that also plays a significant role. Everybody is calling him. He gets all kinds of speaking dates.

While the media seem to have been obsessed with the fact that he managed to exist without toilet paper, he himself made it clear that for the family the real successes were in the fact that Beavon lost twenty pounds without once visiting a gym, his wife’s health greatly improved due to her new found vegetarianism and the kid had a ball. The laundry scene (leave to soak in tub with borax for three hours in cold water then all jump in and stomp it) alone is worth the price of admission.

The idea of course is not that we all try to emulate him but that this will raise the possibilities for everyone to consider what they themselves might do. Interestingly he says that if there is only one thing you are prepared to do that should be joining a community project to improve your local environment. He points out that we have lost a very important thing we once had when we embrace consumerism and that was the ability to act together. And that there have been and are many groups all over the place all working hard to make small but significant improvements and where one more pair of hands will make a big difference.

It is for this reason that he has chosen community showings of the film rather than the usual commercial release. It has already attracted attention at film festivals. It is indeed an entertaining and thought provoking film. And it is not just about the environment but relationships – and has a genuine drama at its core, which is touching and relevant to how we are all going to have to change and what that means for all of us. I recommend it.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 7, 2009 at 11:06 pm

The Transition Initiative

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I really do not have much to say about this. It came over one of the list serves – without any comment – and I read it with a growing sense of recognition. It is the first time I have heard of it – it is apparently British in origin but apparently has spread to Canada.

The article appeared in the July/August edition of Orion Magazine

I would be very interested to know if this has resonance with any of my readers – and it any knows of anything like this happening in  this part of the world

The core purpose of the Transition Initiative is to address, at the community level, the twin issues of climate change and peak oil …The initiative is set up to enable towns or neighborhoods to plan for, and move toward, a post-oil and low-carbon future: what Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Initiative, has termed “the great transition of our time, away from fossil fuels.”

The Transition Initiative describes itself as a catalyst, with no fixed answers, unlike traditional environmentalism, which is more prescriptive, advocating certain responses. Again unlike conventional environmentalism, it emphasizes the role of hope and proactiveness, rather than guilt and fear as motivators. Whether intentionally or not, environmentalism can seem exclusive, and the Transition Initiative is whole-heartedly inclusive.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 28, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Buses anyone?

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The comments section of this blog seems to be dominated by the almost theologically intense debate about trams v skytrain. So it comes as something of a relief to have another subject suggested. The Sightline Institute (formerly  North West EnviroWatch) has asked me to draw your attention to a post on their blog about buses.

The data is American, but favourably compares passenger miles per gallon between intercity bus, train and plane (in descending order of fuel efficiency). It would be nice if someone with time on their hands could dig out comparable Canadian data. Note that we are not talking about city buses – which spend such a lot of time starting and stopping that their fuel consumption is higher, and one reason why hybrids perform better in city traffic.

Intercity passenger trains do not do very well in a US comparison – since the type of service now provided is far inferior to most other advanced countries – and even some third world ones. There is little electrification or even decent speeds outside the North East corridor, and in most places trains use tracks designed for and dominated by freight trains. But of the choices now offered, a well filled bus is quite a good choice (apparently) if you want to reduce your carbon footprint.

Of course most people have other, more pressing concerns.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 31, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Emissions by individuals on the rise: StatsCan

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Vancouver Sun

This is another of those stories which demonstrate how we steer by staring at the wake.

The data being cited covers the period 1990 to 2004. And the reason household emissions rose in that period?

Motor fuel use increased by 29 per cent, from 55,800 kilotonnes to 71,900 kilotonnes during this 14-year period, while residential fuel usage showed no significant change, the study said.

There were two distinct trends which occurred in vehicle use in Canada at that time. Firstly, because of the way that motor vehicle manufacturers were avoiding Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards, many more trucks were sold as personal transport. And while engines were becoming more efficient – largely as a result of regulations meant to reduce emissions of common air contaminants – most of that efficiency was lost by the vehicles getting bigger and more powerful. Instead of getting fewer litres consumed per 100 kilometres travelled we got more power!

Secondly, both trip length and frequency of trips increased as suburbs sprawled. Most Canadians live in metropolitan areas that have spread out. These areas require car use for nearly every trip purpose. And most new service provision by both public and private sectors assumed that people would drive to get their services. This applies as much to schools and hospitals as it does to big box retailers, multiplexes and theme parks.

It is disingenuous to blame individuals and households for these decisions. It is deceptive to claim that all that was being provided was “what people want”. Because they actually had very little choice.  Provision of denser, walkable, mixed use neighbourhoods was the exception, and therefore newsworthy. Places with adequate transit were even rarer. Corporate and political decision making – and in our society that has increasingly been the same thing – was driven by accounting. This was the period when no-one seemed to look any further than the bottom line, even though it was becoming apparent that such a process was unsustainable.

In recent years, the automobile makers have suddenly found that people no longer want the products they have been making. And even though gas prices are now lower than they were last summer, that is not being translated into people buying gas guzzlers. The big three American automakers are being told that they have to change their ways if the US taxpayer is going to help them. The property market here has also, finally, tipped over. That means developers are stuck with condos they cannot sell.

What we need to be thinking about now is not what will happen if we can get back to business as usual, but what we can now do to make the best of the current opportunity. And the touchstone of that can be greenhouse gas emissions – which we know must be reduced to 350ppm if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Because that test also satisfies a whole range of other indicators that point to a healthier and more sustainable living arrangement.

Obviously, if we continue to widen freeways and encourage more low density sudivisions greenhouse gas emissions from the household sector will start to rise again.  And the really odd thing is that most people in positions of decision making responsibility are now recognising that things have to change. But somehow, here in Canada, the Prime Minister doesn’t get it. And in BC the Premier – who says he does – doesn’t get it either. And we have a chance to do something about both of them. Happy New Year indeed.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 9, 2008 at 9:25 am

Small steps

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Vancouver Sun

Did you know that some Canadian banks will reduce your interest rate on a mortgage by as much as one per cent if you invest in certified Energy Star appliances, windows, or heating and cooling equipment in your house? That can add up to $2,000 in your pocket. Meanwhile, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation gives qualified homeowners a 10-per-cent green refund on mortgage loan insurance premiums if you buy or build an energy-efficient home, or make energy-saving renovations to existing homes. For more information:

Which, as far as it goes, is a good idea. But it des not go nearly far enough. Why not “location efficient mortages”? Transportation is a very large chunk of most household budgets. If someone can find a home close to work for at least one household member, than the savings of not owning a car are considerable, leaving the occupants more disposable income – just like the energy savings in an energy efficient mortgage. In fact I would hazard a guess that most families spend more on transportation than they do on electricity and heating fuel.

There is also a major social benefit too. It is more likely that people who live close to work will be healthier – if they walk or cycle to work. And they make less demand on the transportation system as well.

LEMs have been around for years in the US, and most lenders will notice if you have less outgoings such as no car payments. What is missing is the CMHC who control such things as mortage ratios (housing loan to income). Since they regulate the amount that people can spend on housing, but not on transport, current policies actually promote urban sprawl. And CMHC has been well aware of this for years. It is very much like the situation with ICBC and distance based insurance. Both very good ideas, both well suited to promote TDM and reduce GHG emissions, but in both cases an unresponsive bureaucracy blocks progress and gives very unsatisfactory explanations for their inaction.

And while we are on this tack, we hear a lot about LEED buildings but not nearly enough about LEED ND. It is fine to build energy efficient homes and offices, but if their location requires long commutes any benefit is very quickly eliminated.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 25, 2008 at 8:52 am

Bike, transit use rising along with gas prices

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Vancouver Sun

This is a repeated national survey by Angus Reid. What I think is really interesting is the way that BC differs from the rest of the country.

But, possibly because of the rain, fewer of us in B.C. are willing to park the car and walk more.

This seems to me to be supposition on the part of Gordon Hamilton. There are a number of more plausible explanations but it seems that either Angus Reid did not probe further, or the Sun could not be bothered to publish more information.

Where we live determines how we get about. Downtown Vancouver is not like the rest of the City let alone the rest of the region or the province. That means most people live in places where walking is not encouraged. There are no direct walks and no destinations within easy reach. There are no sidewalks in most suburbs. Bike facilities are often sparse and poorly designed . And transit sucks. Sure ridership has increased, but mode share hasn’t. Most people still do not see transit as a viable alternative.

But the survey also reveals that British Columbians are more likely to do nothing about the bigger bite gas is taking out of their income than most Canadians, an interesting twist to the results that [Angus Reid director of global studies Mario]  Canseco said reflects our obsession with personal choices.

“That was surprising — more than a third of B.C. residents don’t want to do anything or don’t feel that they should,” he said.

Now since he is talking about his poll, I suppose that reflects the way the question was asked. But in the suburbs of Vancouver and out in the Valley, the transit mode share drops off like a stone, mainly due to the paucity of service. And the complete absence of service between suburbs – and most trips these days are suburb to suburb. Which is a market that the transit system ignored for a long time and is only now getting to grips with.

I would like to see the same survey conducted in the main conurbations – Montreal, Toronto and here. And more pointed questions asked about perceptions of the options available. I have a sneaking suspicion that we are not keeping up. I have never been to Price George so I have no idea what they feel about their transit system. But I bet the market share there is pretty low.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 28, 2008 at 9:41 am

New fuel rules face roadblocks

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Toronto Star

Ottawa proposal to phase in tougher rules by 2020 called timid by activists, unrealistic by automakers

Which means they have probably got it about right. As Mark Jaccard noted, if GM had spent its money on research and development instead of law suits when California introduced its fuel efficiency standards, it might still be No 1 – instead of being pushed aside by Toyota, which has been concentrating on building better vehicles ever since it got into the business.

But then Canada may also find that GM has not learned its lesson and will once again resort to a law suit, following the precedent set by the Ethyl Corporation. They are the friendly folk who used to make a lead additive for gasoline that poisoned a couple of generations and reduced their intelligence – which explains a lot, come to think of it. Once the US got the lead out, they turned to other additives including MMT, a neurotoxin banned in the US but allowed in Canada. When BC attempted to get it taken out of our gas, Ethyl responded with a suit based on the Free Trade Act. Tom Gunton (then Deputy Minister at MoE) and Moe Sihota folded – fast. Ethyl, they said, may be lousy chemists but they sure can afford good lawyers. (Incidentally the motor manufacturers also wanted MMT banned as it damaged their catalytic converters and thus increased emissions of common air contaminants.)

If Canada tries tougher standards than the US I expect another Free Trade Act challenge from the US manufacturers. The importers, of course,will already have far more fuel efficient cars than new standards demand ready ahead of time.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 18, 2008 at 3:07 pm

Posted in fuel consumption

Government unveils plans to slash emissions

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B.C. climate action secretariat head Graham Whitmarsh, in his first public appearance since being appointed last May, told a Vancouver audience that legislation to slash emissions 33 per cent by 2020 will be introduced this fall, and will be in force within a year.Over the longer term, Whitmarsh said, B.C.’s efforts will mean less consumption of fossil fuels and more fuel-efficient vehicles, more public transit, more compact urban growth, and less onerous commutes between work and home.

“To me, it seems like common sense that we should burn even our fossil fuels at a slower rate and have more efficient cars, that we should live in community again instead of diverse, sprawling communities that some of us are forced to live in today.

“I don’t think it is necessarily a bad place we end up in. In fact, I could argue it’s actually a positive place,” he said.

I have quoted more extensively than usual because it is important. This is what the Government is saying about Climate Change. Graham Whitmarsh is not some political hack talking off the cuff at some fund raiser. This is a statement of intention from the head of a new agency – not about the target already announced, but how it is going to be achieved. Allow me to repeat

more public transit, more compact urban growth, and less onerous commutes between work and home.

That is a strategy which I whole heartedly endorse. Now, can you please explain how widening Highway 1 from Vancouver to Langley is going to help achieve any of those aims? And please do not respond that the EA submission shows how the project will positively help the environment, because we have read it carefully and it is clear that is a shoddy, poorly argued and unsupported claim. The Gateway program is utterly contrary to the policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It will not achieve any of its stated objectives and will be hugely expensive – much more expensive than the government is currently admitting. The same sums spent on utilizing existing infrastructure, through more SkyTrains to Surrey and rapid buses across the Port Mann now (not in six years time) , as well as more passenger services on existing railway lines, will all help achieve the objectives and the “positive place” Mr Whitmarsh refers to.

It is probably too much to expect that Kevin and Gordon will admit they were wrong, and make a big show of a policy shift, like they did on fare gates. But I don’t think we necessarily need that. Just get on with the queue jumpers and place some orders for more buses and SkyTrain cars – and begin a more extensive recruitment campaign. Not just for attendants and security at existing stations but actually achieve a bigger run out of buses onto the streets every peak period. And allow the plans for the new bridge and the extra lanes to go back into the drawers again. Together with all the other plans to build more highways. Because we will not be needing them. Or the hydrogen highway come to that. Let us just concentrate on doing what we know will work, using existing technologies that are cheaper and more effective.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 15, 2007 at 10:50 am


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George Monbiot in the Guardian continues his campaign against biofuels. They are an easy option for western governments, since they allow their voters to keep on driving but seem to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I say “seem to” since the calculations seem to ignore the math of full cycle cost and only look direct cost. So, for example, it would appear that although we know that the use of nitrogen fertilisers releases nitrous oxide – a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – this emissions are not included in the evealuation. Not only that but it turns out to be much harder to ensure that there are not knock on effects. We may not like palm oil for our biofuels, but that does not mean the oil we do take to make our diesel is not replaced by palm oil.

Anyway, he is a much better writer than I am so I hope you click the link and find out what he has to say.

But just to give this some Canadian content, the federal government has mandated 5% ethanol of all our gasoline. And that will almost certainly come mostly from corn, or possibly other food grains, since that technology is well known and understood. In theory you could make ethanol from other plant material – like woodwaste or wheat stalks – but so far that has not been proved commercial. And from what I understand it actually takes more energy to produce and distribute ethanol than you get out of it. And that is before you take the fertiliser into account.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 5, 2007 at 4:46 pm

High-density development can create ‘urban heat islands’

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Energy Bulletin Sept 11

“Heat Islands” may produce more energy consumption – or not. First of all, it depends on the ambient temperature, and how comfortable it is. Secondly how people behave.

I suspect there is a significant difference in Phoenix to downtown Toronto for example. But also some of these effects can be offset by techniques such as green roofs, better energy efficiency in the buildings (less heat loss) use of planting and landscaping and so on.

But mainly mixed land uses, so the people in the buildings do not feel quite so much need to drive everywhere.

Moreover “may add to global warming” also depends on the energy source and use. In a city like LA which gets a lot of its electricity to run HVAC systems from coal power, there could well be an increase in carbon emissions. But somewhere using existing hydro (like Vancouver) no increase in carbon emissions.

Many modern office buildings capture all their own “waste” heat – people generate a lot, and so do copiers and computers. If you have a dense urban core, mixed land use and a district energy system this heat can be used by other buildings in the vicinity, such as care facilities. North Vancouver has such a system in its new development at the south end of Lonsdale. Of course such places need careful urban planning.

So LA and Phoenix, with very low densities in general, poor transit systems, low energy efficiency buildings (a legacy of a long history of low energy prices) and the custom of not only having the a/c set to deep freeze but also sending the “waste” heat into the sky, probably do add to the problem. In a city like Toronto where there is significant need to heat many buildings in winter, but plenty of “waste heat” around which can be captured, plus a good transit system and much mixed land use near the core, the effect may not be so significant.

Of course, systems such as LEED are fairly recent innovations in North America, but rising energy costs mean that better buildings pay for themselves in lower operating costs. Lots of surface parking lots, paved with asphalt also create more urban heat effect than parks, planting and other urban amenities.

In Vancouver, our biggest issue in meeting the current challenge of reducing emissions is mainly going to be about transport. That is because we no longer have the large scale industrial users in the city. Indeed, BC has a much bigger challenge than say Alberta – which Vaughan Palmer pointed out yesterday. Our challenge is to reduce ghg emissions from driving ourselves around: some of that will come from better, smaller and more efficient cars and maybe better fuels. But much more can come from significant investments in transit – given that our transit system is over capacity and a lot more people want to use it than can. But mainly not building more freeways to encourage ever more low density sprawl up the valley and outside the Metro area and creating more motorised travel demand. “Build a compact urban region, with complete communities, protect the green zone and increase transportation choice.” (LRSP) That was a good formula before Gordon Campbell committed us to a 30% reduction in ghg – it is an even better one now!

Written by Stephen Rees

September 13, 2007 at 7:17 am