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

Archive for the ‘fuel consumption’ Category

Translink’s Fuel Tax problem – Part 2

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In yesterday’s post I referred to a discussion that I had hoped to have with a member of Translink’s staff on the impact of lower than expected fuel tax revenues. I am pleased to say that this morning I spoke to Sarah Ross, the Senior Manager, Strategy and Plan Development. Rather than add to an already rather long blog post, I decided to make this a separate post. Comments are already published there, though not much that has been raised is affected by what we spoke about.

The materials in the presentation have not yet been to the Board, but was for a senior staff level discussion. The major concern is that the program presented in the Moving Forward Plan cannot now be implemented.

That had assumed that in addition to the 2c increase in gas tax, there would be additional funds from an increase in property taxes pending agreement of a new revenue source. Subsequently the Mayor’s Council withdrew the increase in property tax due to lack of commitment for the new revenue source from the province. At the same time the Translink Commissioner denied some of the proposed fare increase. It was not anticipated then that volumes of fuel sales would fall

 “Motor Fuel Tax Revenues

“Under the 2012 Supplemental Plan, there will be an increase of $0.02 per litre in motor fuel taxes in Metro Vancouver beginning in April 2012. The 2012 part-year impact is $33 million, and the annual impact is $45 million by 2014. Total fuel tax is projected to grow to $417 million by 2021.” (Moving Forward p47)

While the fuel tax increase took place, revenues are not meeting target due in part to the fall in sales volume, but also because of the actions of the Mayors and the Commissioner.

What that means is that while the Evergreen Line capital plan can proceed, a number of other improvements are not going to happen. The most obvious one being the lack of funds for the promised rapid bus service over the new Port Mann Bridge when it opens later this year (and let us be clear, that promise was made by the Minister of Transport).

One of the things that has to be understood is that while we have lots of data on fuel sales  (and fare revenue, ridership and property tax) this is not the complete picture that we need. As discussed yesterday, there are a number of possible explanations for the drop in fuel sales, but the one that is really needed is how much of that is due to people driving less. It is expected that this is probably more important than cross border shopping for gas, but we cannot tell that now. The good news on that front is the Trip Diary Survey undertaken in the fall of 2011 will start producing data next month. Add to that the screenline survey that takes place at the same (automated vehicle counts across the region) and we will begin to get a picture of the longer term trends in travel. There are more people in the region but vehicle ownership is falling in some parts of it (vehicle registration data). The composition of the fleet changes slowly (around a 16 year turn over) but overall fuel efficiency is improving.

Falling gas sales have also been noticed by US transit agencies – earlier than here – and they are even more reliant on gas tax than we are. The economy there took a bigger hit in 2008 and is slower to recover. Unemployment there is stubbornly high (and underreported). It is also important to stress that fuel prices have significantly changed – far more than gas taxes. For a long time economists thought that gas sales were inelastic, as so many people had little choice in the short term to change their behaviour in the face of rising prices. We are now seeing that behaviour is changing – for example households with more than one vehicle will chose to use the more efficient one for more trips.

The trend in behaviour change is clearer here than in the rest of province. “People in Prince George cannot cross border shop, and have fewer alternatives to driving” noted Sarah. Last year transit ridership increased by 7% – much more than in previous years, and this in a year when service was not increased, merely reallocated. There is no newer information on transit share of the overall market (“mode split” in the jargon) but is probably greater than the 12.6% seen in 2008. The 6% drop in fuel sales that occurred last year was not expected: the Base Plan has assumed an increase of 3%. Next month consultations will start on how much of the Moving Forward Plan can be delivered. My forecast of that is “not much”.

Translink has been aggressively  pursuing efficiencies. The 2011 Service Optimization saw buses taken from low ridership routes and transferred to routes with “latent demand” (what the rest of us know as pass ups).  Originally conceived as a one off exercise, it now will become a regular program, and its reach will extend from simply moving service around within a service area (for instance, moving bus service around within Langley) to movement from the lower service level parts of the region to those where demand for transit is already high. This can be expected to be politically much more difficult, as there is already the perception that some municipalities are paying for services delivered elsewhere. I think that most of the “low hanging fruit” in productivity gains has already been plucked. While Sarah said that the aim is to minimize customer impact, next year is going to see both a fare increase and service reductions at the same time. Those service reductions will hit hardest in places were service is already at lower levels than the denser parts of the region. The January fare increase is going to effect cash fares, which have not changed since 2008, which are used most by the poor (who cannot afford passes) and casual riders – those with the greatest choice of alternatives.

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Motor Fuel Tax

Motor fuel taxes achieve multiple benefits, as they raise revenues for transportation and also encourage future shifts to more sustainable modes of travel. This is a relatively stable revenue source in the near term; however, its effectiveness at reducing auto travel results in declining revenues over the long-term. As such, motor fuel taxes are less reliable as a long-term funding source. In 2011, motor fuel taxes make up approximately 27 per cent of TransLink’s overall revenue.

Moving Forward page 13

Recent increases in motor fuel prices have been greater than the increase in fuel tax in this region. The “relatively stable revenue source” has proved to be much less reliable than thought. Unfortunately this has also happened at the same time as arguments over other revenue sources have become more heated and less productive. While the City of Vancouver has been able to boast how driving is falling – especially in the downtown core – in other parts of the region there has always been less choice. Those are also the places closest to the border. Improved fuel efficiency, better trip management, working from home, more use of the internet for commerce all play some role, though without data it is simply speculative to assess their importance. What we do know is that sooner than anticipated  the new Port Mann Bridge is going to open and without tolls initially – and with lower tolls until all lanes can be opened. The widening of Highway #1 is the bigger part of that plan (“The Gateway”) as is the South Fraser Perimeter Road – also now under construction. Billions of dollars poured into automobility in the most car dependant part of the region, where transit service is more likely to be cut than improved.

This is not just contrary to the regional growth strategy, it defies common sense. Use of the internal combustion engine for personal transportation is not just one the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, it also the largest cause of premature death – not just from vehicle collisions (bad enough) but from the sedentary lifestyle that produces the deadly combination of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The impact of those two factors alone accounts for much of the expected increase in health care costs of our aging population – increasing the percentage of adults who cannot (or should not) drive. In the part of the region where transportation choices are worst, choice will continue to decline. And this is a result of provincial government policies, and is supported by federal policy.

The consequences of very short term political thinking in BC and Metro Vancouver are producing less sustainable outcomes at greater cost. The shift from income taxes to sales taxes (such as gas tax) is profoundly regressive. People find themselves with declining disposable incomes as the range and amounts of fees and charges for essential public services increases (EI, CPP, MSP, bridge tolls, transit fares, school fees). It is not surprising that they take action where they can to reduce or mitigate the impact of those fees. Cross border shopping is not new in Canada. It is an entirely predictable outcome of a rising dollar, more concessions on what can be brought back duty free and the increasing difference in prices of all things – not just fuel. It does not help that the simple data that would enable more informed decisions to be made is often not collected, or is out of date by the time it is available – usually in the name of cutting public expenditures.

Next month sees a new round of consultations about transit – and how to pay for it. But the broader context which I have outlined above will not be addressed in that process. Once again we will see the unproductive collision of irresistible forces with immovable objects.  And until we start to elect governments at all levels that are committed to change rather than business as usual, that will continue to be the pattern.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 24, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Translink’s Fuel Tax Problem

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I was going to put EXCLUSIVE in large capitals in the title – but I have no reason to want to claim this information as my own. It is, after all, public domain or ought to be.

Last week, when I attended the SFU evening lecture (“Kiwi Urbanism”) I talked to Bob Paddon who is now Executive Vice President, Strategic Planning & Public Affairs at Translink. He was there to do a brief introduction, as Translink had made the contribution that made the evening possible. I started making notes as he spoke to me before the proceedings started. The discussion was prompted by me asking if the Evergreen Line funding was indeed “locked in” as the province has been saying. He assured me that it was, but then he went on to say that Translink is noticing an increasing gap in its revenue expectations. There has been quite a lot of information recently about how people are driving less in general. Much of the supporting information that I have seen has come from US sources – where the economy is taking much longer to recover from the recession and unemployment remains stubbornly high. While Canada has been somewhat better off, people are getting increasingly anxious as their disposable income has been static or declining. Gas prices in Vancouver have been a very high levels – although much of the local impact was attributed to a fire at the Cherry Point refinery and that capacity has since been restored. Not only are people driving less, but they have been getting more fuel efficient vehicles. To some extent, the reduction in driving can also be attributed to the opening of the Canada Line. I would like to be able to point to other major transit service improvements: apparently ridership is at least holding up under the present circumstances.

Bob later sent me a presentation, that examines the data on fuel sales that Translink has been looking at. He said that he would also provide me with a contact in the planning department with whom I could discuss this document, but so far I have not been able to have that discussion. Since a week has passed since I heard about this issue, I have decided to publish anyway, and stick to my own interpretation of what is a somewhat complex issue.

First, some context. In very rough order of magnitude Translink gets about half its revenue from taxes – and about half of that has been coming from fuel tax. The last Annual Report put it this way

Fifteen cents per litre fuel tax is applied to gasoline and diesel fuel sales in the transportation service region, with gasoline sales being 83 per cent of total revenue. Revenues are $12.5 million (3.9 per cent) unfavourable to budget. Total sales volumes in TransLink’s region have declined from the previous year by 5.3 per cent.

Over the last year the monthly revenue received from the Province has shown significant volatility. As a result of the carbon tax legislation changes made in 2009, the taxation process for fuel tax revenue has changed, which makes it difficult to forecast and compare trends. Another significant challenge of the revised process is the timing and magnitude of credits/refunds, which could go back four years. Discussions are underway with Consumer Taxation to examine the revenue capture and reporting systems. Further analysis will continue in 2012.

TransLink region experienced a decrease of 5.9 percent in 2011 fuel sales volume. High prices of fuel and a strong Canadian dollar would have contributed to the decline in fuel sales volume, which likely migrated to Fraser Valley Regional District and Whatcom County.

You can easily check yourself what gas prices are like by going to Gasbuddy.com. That is where I got the following information – and of course the volatility of gas prices means that the actual amounts will be changing continually, but this morning while gas prices in Vancouver were around $1.27 per litre, in Abbotsford they were $1.25. Since gasoline there does not carry the 15c/l that it does in Vancouver, you can see that some retailers are doing very well. Just over the border the average price (converted to litres, and assuming the dollar is at par) is $1.05. Bellingham is slightly lower at $1.0435 and Point Roberts (just one report and a bit out of date) was at $1.1492.

There have been reports recently of increased border crossings due to new higher duty free allowances – but that of course applies to overnight and longer trips. A savings of 20c per litre is obviously attractive, and people with high consumption vehicles are finding it worthwhile to buy large gerry cans to fill up at the same time as they fill their tanks. (The story about someone filling up garbage bags with gasoline turns out to have been a misunderstanding).

The following graph is one I concocted from the 2011 Translink Annual Report

This is perhaps not very beautiful as a graphic, but then it is the first time I have had to do anything like this for a number of years. It does show that Translink did get additional revenue as a result of the increase in gas tax, but as a share of the total, gas tax has been declining. From around 30% in 2007 to 26% last year.

The information in presentation that Bob sent me attempts to understand this and project its impact forwards. You can download the whole thing (TL Fuel Research – Rev Mgmt Comm – July 31) if you wish. I am just cutting and pasting  the graphics

This shows that while there has always been volatility in reported sales volumes this became much more pronounced when reporting requirements changed due to the introduction of the carbon tax.

This graph shows gasoline sales only (not diesel) and also indicates an increasing divergence between Ministry data and that of the industry (Kent is a consulting company that collects fuel sales data).

This year fuel sales have been declining generally

The “leakage” trend is not as clear – but note that there is no data for the cross border shoppers

Declining demand may be more prevalent this year (note that the data now refers to absolute volumes, not percentages as above)

The really big change is the decline in diesel sales

The presentation can only speculate about why this might have occurred.

  • Reduction in trucking activity in Metro Vancouver?
  • Purchases in the Fraser Valley?
  • Fuel switch in heavy-duty vehicles?

For example, garbage trucks in Vancouver have recently been converted to use natural gas instead of diesel.

There will continue to be research into these trends. The last slide of the presentation shows the intended structure of the work

The problem, of course, is that extrapolating from previous trends is a bit like steering a ship by studying its wake.  There is nothing in the presentation about mode share – nor does that appear in the annual report. The broader transportation survey that might help address that issue only happens once every five years, and of course the census data on journey to work – which was one of the few very good indicators – is no longer collected with the scrapping of the long form.

There is something happening here. People are not driving as much – some of that is due to better trip chaining, switching to walking and cycling, use of new media (no one goes to the video store any more now that they can download movies, most banking is done on line too). One of the drivers is not just that gas prices climbed but the expectation is that they are not going to get any cheaper. Cutting spending at the pump is one of the few areas where individuals can actually influence the outcome of their own personal budgeting. The decline in gas sales has been going on for a long time, as the reduction in the number of gas stations makes apparent. The decision to implement tougher corporate average fuel economy standards for vehicles also means that recent technological improvements  have been directed more at fuel efficiency than performance.

There always has been some “leakage” across the border – and out into the valley. But the Gasbuddy information seems to support my own view that much of the difference between gas pricing on ether side of the Langley/Abbotsford line has been swallowed up by the gas companies. The decision to go to the US means that people are planning ahead to make a trip just to get gas and put up with sometimes long waits – and much engine idling. Clearly those who are going down are not just buying milk. I can clearly recall warnings that we used to issue when discussing the potential for greater gas revenue, that the wider the gap between gas prices in South Surrey and Blaine, the greater the revenue loss would be. Of course we had no real data then either – just lots of anecdotal “evidence”.

What Bob Paddon was saying to me last week was that this needs to be incorporated  in future assessments of Translink’s finances: they are currently off $30m a year in their fuel revenue expectations. Which in a $1.2bn budget is not a disaster, but obviously has to be replaced somehow. In general the organization has done all it can to find efficiencies – as demanded by the Province and the Transit Commissioner – but as this trend seems likely to continue, future cuts will have to come at the expense of service, as there are no longer the opportunities for savings that have already been achieved.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 23, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Vancouver Airport Fuel Delivery Project

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I went to an open house last night, run by the provincial Environmental Assessment Office. The project has been around for a while (the Green Party tried to get people to pay attention to it at the last election). The idea actually goes back  much further and has already been rejected by Richmond twice, according to Harold Steves. The proponents are the consortium of airlines who make up the Vancouver Airport Fuel Facilities Corporation who have set up a website to promote the idea. The boards around the conference room, and the slides used by the presenter at the meeting, go into more detail than the brochure provided at the meeting. Probably the most informative document is the Project Description. On page 14 it describes the screening of fourteen different options from which this proposal emerged.

I think it is fair to say that this gave rise to many of the concerns expressed at the meeting. Most people wanted to point out that there are better ways of protecting the environment than trying to clean it up after there has been an oil spill. The general preference I think is that we don’t put the sensitive habitats at risk needlessly. So the assumptions and methodology used to select this project from the other alternatives are critical. But that will not be the subject of this EA. Both provincial and federal representatives present spent the first 40 minutes of the meeting explaining how their EAs work. And then the proponent got to do his dog and pony show – with questions limited and restricted – and the only answer ever given was “put your concerns in writing and we will answer after the EA is finished”.

I was surprised that the officials even decided to go for a public meeting format. An open house is usually preferred since opponents do not get a microphone, and cannot this let everyone else know what they are talking about. The meeting ran over time. The tactic of the officials and proponent to be be as dull as possible and bore people did not work. Most people stayed to get their word in. The project manager for the project spoke in a soporific monotone and avoided talking about any specific figures that might get quoted back at him.  Yet is was the claims that are made to justify the project where he was weakest. For instance, it was repeatedly said – and is also in the project description – that the current system is “at capacity”. As a number of people pointed out that is not true: the pipeline pumps are only used intermittently, as there is not enough tank storage at the airport (it already being expanded). But any questions about the existing system were deflected by trotting out a lawyer who said that as the current system is owned by Trans Mountain and not VAFFC, they do not have to answer questions about it.

The other obvious option – the use of the existing rail facility at Cherry Point refinery to load trains that could get to the existing rail sidings along River Road where a transfer to a much shorter pipe connection would need to be built – was dismissed out of hand. It is not even specifically addressed among the 14 options (only rail from Alberta was considered) but the project manager asserted it would be “too expensive”. There are, of course, no specific cost figures for any of the options, and when pinned on that point he waffled saying that the final cost of the preferred option could not be determined until its exact configuration was finalized (i.e. the route of the pipe within Richmond). VAFFC have already bought the property on the South Arm in expectation of proceeding.

The other assumptions – about constant growth of traffic at YVR and improvements in aircraft fuel efficiency not being enough to reduce the need for the project – were also not defended. They just came from “other sources” (YVR and Transport Canada) and thus could not be questioned.

Much was made of the fact that the project is not big enough to trigger a provincial EA but the proponent volunteered for one due to local concerns. Well, while technically true, a federal EA is triggered by the proposals use of navigable waterways and federal land (owned by the Port) so one was inevitable, so they might as well go for a combined EA. Fortunately for them, they do not put themselves in much hazard by so doing, since (despite the claims made by provincial officials) BC’s EA process is largely toothless. Some projects just give up, but very few are ever denied a certificate. It’s all about mitigation. The great strength of the opponents is that if fuel delivery were done some other way, mitigation might be much less. The problem is that the EA process does not have to test this assertion. It’s this project or nothing. No other option gets looked at.

Map showing terminal and proposed alternate routes

VAFFC Proposal

For the proponents, their major concern is that they have the ability to go to as many suppliers as possible. They do not want to be in thrall to any one supplier – or delivery system. To some extent, since they are the only customer for the existing pipe, they are using the proposal to put leverage on their suppliers. That concern is actually missing from the matrix used to select the final option but clearly weighs heaviest with the airlines. And it far outweighs all the other concerns.

If we had a truly rigorous EA process each option would be evaluated properly – not just screened out by the proponent before the process actually starts. It is this use of a coarse, and unverifiable “sieve” that gives rise to most of the concerns. Involving the public late, and declining to go into details about how this project is justified, is simply inflammatory. Unfortunately for the proponent – who has been diligently working with governments and first nations – the public has to be consulted. And they can detect very easily when they are being fobbed off.

My prediction is that as more people realize what their homes are going to be exposed to – and memories of that pipeline rupture in Burnaby are fresh in their minds – opposition is bound to grow. As those people realize that the options are not open to discussion, they will get angrier. Richmond is quite clear in its opposition to the project. The EA process will probably certify it, but I doubt that it can mollify those who feel that their interests have been protected. And, of course, for those concerned with the ecology of the Fraser delta, they have been disregarded for so many projects for so long, I am surprised that they still come out to such meetings.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 15, 2010 at 8:11 am

“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