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What if we took transit out of politics

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The article in the Globe and Mail (paywalled – sorry!) actually is entitled “What if we took transit out of the hands of politicians?” And looks at the sorry record of the Greater Toronto Area in the hands of Ontario politicians at both municipal and provincial level. It is hard to disagree that they have not covered themselves in glory and seem to be putting short term political advantage ahead of sensible planning. And actually the key event is not really “transit” as it is a proposal to build intercity high speed rail between Toronto and London, passing through Kitchener-Waterloo. Something already announced more than once.

I am not going to get into why this is indeed nonsense on stilts, but I am going to turn my attention to this bit down at the end of the article.

Public transit doesn’t have to be run by a private business. But it has to be run by an organization that operates like a business, responding to market demand – actual customers – not political demands.

And that is wrong on more than one ground too. It is only because the article is the usual right wing, business is best, mainstream media obsession that the quote starts as it does. Privatisation of public transport – urban transit and passenger bus and rail services – has been a dreadful failure in Britain. As has been pointed out here more than once, it actually now attracts much more subsidy than it did when publicly owned and operated. Complaints about service are legion, but the companies that run trains and buses for profits have generally made out like bandits. When those companies have failed, and the service taken back into public control, it has always improved

But in the case of urban transit in a rapidly growing region “responding to market demand” is also a recipe for certain failure. And that stems from the myopia that separates out building new transportation from planning urban growth. Land use and transportation are inextricably locked together – but Tony Keller doesn’t mention land use once. This lack of understanding is also why we should mistrust the federal Infrastructure Bank – if its ludicrously high interest rate costs were not enough reason already.

Transit expansion should not wait for market demand – it should lead it and shape it. Especially if the project requires large up front capital investments in buying new rights of way and building massive infrastructure. You have to build these things where people are thin on the ground, if you are to be allowed to start at all, because once they are opened you want to attract development. Building in already densely populated areas – like New York’s Second Avenue subway – is hideously expensive, and the cause of much complaint from the existing residents. The huge interstate freeway system was built between cities, on greenfields, first before tackling the much more contentious inner city areas. The result was, of course, urban sprawl and much disruption of established communities. Doing transit right in major cities requires expertise in “the art of insertion” as the Parisian tramway planners say.

If we had built the SkyTrain through the TriCities before they developed, the trains would have run empty for the first few years, but the style of  development would have been very different. Transit oriented development is actually not at all new and untried – it is what was built before car ownership was widespread. It is only because North American development defaults to the low density car-oriented urban pattern that transit struggles. Before Henry Ford, most streetcar and interurban service was privately owned – and its promoters were usually real estate developers.

Because everything about the suburbs depends on subsidies transit has to be subsidized, which is why some form of political control is essential. It also has to be recognised that most of the benefits of not being car oriented come from things that the private sector has a hard time monetising. Or the people suffer terribly when they succeed.  People who use transit, cycle or walk for most of their trips are both happier and healthier. People who feel forced to spend far too much of their day stuck in traffic in their cars are both unhealthier and frustrated. Drive until you qualify for a mortgage is actually a deal with the devil. The combined cost of living – travel plus accommodation – is actually higher for low density car oriented suburbs – but the lower house prices (and tax treatment of mortgages in places like the US and UK) seem to continue to attract buyers.

While we have done quite well in producing a greater variety of housing stock, we have not done nearly as well in providing the necessary mobility services. This is partly, once again, because we have relied on politicians. And sadly the supposedly “progressive” NDP wasn’t actually that much different to the evil BC Liberals. The Millennium Line for a long time wasn’t as useful as the whole T shaped arrangement we have now (due to the long overdue Evergreen extension)  but at least it was capable of expansion. Unlike the deliberately underbuilt Canada Line.

The next steps to be taken here – and in Greater Toronto – inevitably will involve politicians since huge amounts of money need to be spent. And they would be well advised to avoid the pitfalls of P3s and go with public sector investments, that are designed to support rather than confuse the necessary land use arrangements. In this region we once had such an integrated and use and transportation plan: it was deliberately scuttled by the BC Liberal Party as a way of paying off the people who provided them with the money to run successful elections. Obviously we need to get the big money out of provincial politics. Obviously we need a better way of electing politicians. We also need to have system of urban and regional planning that integrates development of land use and transportation systems. Their operation can indeed be left to the professionals BUT wherever public money is used there has to be accountability. That requires openness, honesty and a commitment to listening. Indirectly elected municipal politicians cannot be expected to do this well at a regional level.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 29, 2017 at 11:32 am

North Shore bridges at ‘tipping point’

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Second Narrows Bridges

Second Narrows Bridge

Fraser Voices picked up on a Vancouver Sun story today: their concern, of course, was the bridge replacement for the Massey Tunnel will have exactly the same effect

Traffic is bad all over Metro Vancouver, but the worst spot to emerge in the last several years is the bridgehead at the Second Narrows in North Vancouver.

Municipal leaders were told in 2015 that the North Shore’s woes coincided precisely with the expansion of the Port Mann Bridge to 10 lanes in 2012.

Well municipal leaders have been told, many times,  that the region was headed for worsening traffic and congestion problems for much longer than that. In fact I have the feeling that I have written this blog post many times now.

I was employed on the issue between 1997 and 2004. Back then, when we were sent across to the North Shore to listen to their complaints about transit – and ideas like a third crossing or a SkyTrain extension in a submerged tube to Lonsdale Quay and then up Lonsdale in tunnel – we said that the North Shore was not part of the Growth Concentration Area (GCA), and that since population was therefore not expected to grow there in large amounts, there were other areas where increasing transit supply was a higher priority. The GCA was part of the Livable Region Strategic Plan (LRSP) – and its transportation counterpart, Transport 2021. That said that we were going to build a compact urban region of complete communities that would protect the green zone and increase transportation choice.

We didn’t stick to that plan. The province of BC did sign on to it, but then steadily undermined it. And the LRSP eventually gave way to the present Regional Growth Strategy. The other neighbouring regional plans, designed to prevent them becoming exurbs of Greater Vancouver, were also largely ignored. The freeway widenings and new bridges were the recipients of huge sums from the province, and were never subject to a referendum. Bridge tolls were unpopular – and explain why the Port Mann line in this chart goes down while the Alex Fraser goes up.


Given the investments made in widening Highway #1, “improving” the Sea to Sky, building the South Fraser Perimeter Road and the Golden Ears and Port Mann bridges, it is hardly surprising that most development in the impacted areas has been car oriented. Transit developments have been concentrated in the part of the region that already had pretty good transit service. Transit Oriented Development – like that in Port Moody – either didn’t happen or was ineffective due to the lack of workable transit choices. The West Coast Express, being limited to weekday only peak hour direction only, just benefitted a those commuting to downtown Vancouver – the one area where employment growth had been sacrificed to condo development.

In fact the Vancouver Sun article doesn’t talk about transit at all, except for one mention about bus routes needing to catch up. But there always were options that could have been chosen, if the LRSP was to work as intended. The Millennium Line need not have been quite so useless: it could have been the full T line anticipated in Transport 2021 – UBC to Coquitlam with a branch to New Westminster. It would have had to be surface LRT, as originally intended to be built for the same price. SkyTrain could have been extended in Surrey. Passenger rail service could have been retained (and enhanced) to Squamish, Whistler and beyond and some better use made of the former BCER right of way to Chilliwack. LRT was entirely possible on routes like the Arbutus Corridor, with connections to the airport, and along the Riverside development area where CP has a somewhat redundant freight line along Kent Avenue all the way out to New Westminster and the TriCities. Sharing tracks between freight and LRT is entirely feasible as demonstrated by the Ottawa O train.

Otrain approaching Bayview 2006_0608

Translink might well have introduced its now highly successful #555 from Braid to Langley much sooner by the simple device (used for Delta and South Surrey express buses on Highway 99) of converting the hard shoulders of Highway 1 to exclusive bus lanes. There was no need for all those lanes on the Port Mann bridge – which is now carrying less traffic – as the congestion was only on the approaches. A bus across the bridge connecting the city centres of Surrey and Coquitlam would still provide much more convenient and direct service than SkyTrain does now.

The present BC Liberal administration has shown that it does not support increasing transportation choice. It shows that it is stuck in the 1950s mindset of continually increasing highway capacity, which never ever satisfies demand for very long, and always provides more opportunities for more expansion plans. And that suits the corporations and the property developers who keep on doing what they have always done – which includes large donations to the political party that made it so profitable. Not livable. Not affordable. Not sustainable.

Traffic congestion cannot be solved by increasing road capacity. Mobility and accessibility can be increased by providing more and better options as well as better land use planning. The two are inextricable. More single family homes on large lots with multiple car garages remote from everything, except a local school and park, is a recipe for continuing worsening of our environment. We have known this for a very long time indeed. What is very odd indeed is that people come here to look at downtown Vancouver and think we have achieved something remarkable when in fact the rest of the region is as bad or worse than most North American suburbs.  As Karen Quin Fung remarked on Twitter “We’re far from securing quality of life enjoyed now in CoV, for rest of Metro Van”

And building another massive bridge between Richmond and Delta will not change that.

The problems on the North Shore won’t be solved by upgrading interchanges either. And a Third Crossing doesn’t seem any more likely than in the last thirty years. Maybe the Mayor’s Plan to expand transit will help, but, as the North Shore Mayors recently acknowledged, there is not a lot in there for their area.

Screen Shot 2016-12-16 at 5.52.58 PM.png

Looks like they are going to need a lot more transit!

Update: January 27, 2017
“Plans to alleviate traffic on the Cut and Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing got a big boost Friday with the announcement of two new two-lane bridges over Lynn Creek shouldering the existing orange Highway 1 bridge.”

North Shore News

Written by Stephen Rees

December 16, 2016 at 5:55 pm

Southwest Area Transport Plan

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Translink bus in Steveston

Translink bus in Steveston

I had a call today from Graeme Wood who writes for the Richmond News. He wanted to talk about Translink’s Southwest Area Transport Plan. He wanted me to predict what sort of changes people in Richmond might want to see in the transport system in the future. I’m afraid I wasn’t very helpful as it does not seem to me to be very important. First of all because the way to plan for a future system is to do some really good data collection on how they travel right now, and why, and then come up with some realistic proposals on how that could change based on what we know about things like population growth, land use plans and technology changes. Just asking people what they might like is a bit pointless. Secondly holding open houses and inviting people to fill in a web based survey form means you only get the opinions of a self selected (i.e. unrepresentative) group.

But it’s worse than that here now – and here is where I went off on a rant which I somehow doubt will appear in his newspaper, but you never know. They might be desperate to fill the space.

Here’s what the Translink web page has to say

In June 2014 the Mayors’ Council developed the Transportation and Transit Plan which identified investment priorities across the Metro Vancouver region. These priorities identified the need for types of services, but not the specific routes or specific areas that would benefit. An Area Transport Plan will establish a blueprint for the unique transit and transportation needs of the Southwest sub-region. Once funding is available, we will have a solid foundation for implementing the priorities that meet the needs of the community now and in the future.

I have added the emphasis: if you think funding is going to be available, and you live in Delta or Richmond, then you might like to wander along to one of their open houses or fill in the survey. Don’t let me stop you, or the thought that it is very unlikely indeed that much is going to change any time soon. Unless the stupid bridge actually gets built, in which case, forget it and buy a car. And if that is not a practical choice for you then you might have to take Jean Chretien’s advice and consider moving.

There is no funding for more and better transit or very much for walking and cycling – which anyway gets decided by the municipality not Translink. And, given the present ineptitude of our provincial government, that is not going to change any time soon. I think the two immediate, pressing needs for transit would be to restore the annual pass for people with disabilities and – having taken handyDART back in house – make a considerable investment in making door to door trips for people who cannot drive or use conventional transit a daily possibility rather than a very rare treat. The way that a society treats its most vulnerable citizens tells you a lot about what sort of society we are and want to be. The way this segment of our population has been treated in this province is a disgrace. And that has been true for at least the last twenty years to my certain knowledge and actually much longer than that. I think that if there are to be more funds available that ought to be the first priority simply as a matter of social justice. Even Hillary Clinton has recognized that transportation is a civil rights issue.

Whatever detail Translink puts on top of its 2014 Plan matters naught, if it cannot get any more funds to match the needs for an increase in its operations and maintenance budget – let alone the very desirable and lengthy list of transit improvements listed in that plan. The Mayors identified very real problems in the present funding model, not the least of which is the decline in revenues from the gas tax and the pressures of population growth. Of course we are in a stare down over the potential for increases in property tax: don’t expect that to end either.

Already Kirk LaPointe has decided that the Broadway Subway is not going to happen.

Our viability and livability depend on better public transit – not in a decade, but today, because we have waited a decade. Trouble is, the line has taken only one teensy step forward and some significant steps back since it was identified as one of several core projects in the Mayors’ Council report on transportation in 2014.

Yup, he got that right. Oddly he also seems to think that streetcars might be the solution as though they could be implemented faster than the subway. Actually any transit solution is going to be very expensive, very unpopular with at least one loud and influential segment of the population  and will take far too long to implement to satisfy the existing users of the 99 B Line. It is about as likely as the Massey Bridge – or the Port Mann – will see LRT running across it in my lifetime: or along the Arbutus Corridor come to that. While the province always likes to say that their new bridges could carry more transit in the future, that is simply the old “jam tomorrow, never jam today” promise.  There has never been a real intention to implement those plans.

People in Richmond or Delta who go to these open houses and outline the sorts of improvements they would like to see in the bus routes of their area are simply demonstrating the triumph of hope over experience. Good luck with that, folks. Let me know how that works out for you.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 13, 2016 at 4:06 pm

How to fix Translink’s broken governance

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The need for this article, right now, is almost purely academic. The ruling BC Liberals seem immune to widespread obloquy over not one but a series of scandals any one of which might have brought other kinds of government down. Yes Translink is a problem for those of us living in the region  – and that is, numerically at least, the majority of the BC population. But that is not the way politics works here, and Christy Clark seems able to serve out the rest of her term. And anyway there are plenty of other issues where she is at odds with most of the people who live here, but can survive at least until the next election.

The reason I decided to start writing was a piece in BC Business entitled  “How TransLink might fix its broken business model” which is nearly a month old now but its author, Frances Bula chose to tweet it again to-day, which caught my  attention. Basically the article looks at the turn around in Atlanta, and speculates about a similar approach here.

My comment is under the article, and this post is designed to enlarge upon it. Quoting myself

The problem in Vancouver is not management. It is governance. The present model is unaccountable and unrepresentative. It was imposed by a provincial government that has clearly demonstrated that it has absolutely no interest in seeing it work.

The province has always had a policy that transit is different to other types of public service, and needs a unique approach. It interferes continually but, at the same time, refuses to fund transit properly while spending far too much on road expansion. A referendum is required for any new funding mechanism, but is never required for any highway project – or indeed any other type of provincial spending/funding decisions.

And Jordan Bateman will always be only too happy to torpedo any proposals that might actually work to improve the situation as that would rob this one trick pony of his audience.

A new CEO is not going to be able to change the governance. Only the province has the ability to do that. This government never admits to any of its mistakes. Only a change in Victoria as complete as the one just seen in Ottawa is going to make any difference.

So one day there will be a different provincial government that decides that it is time to reform Translink. Here is what they will need to think about:

The current arrangement has been cobbled together to suit the BC Liberals of the day. It makes no sense now to continue with it, and the easiest point to start might be to unpick what they did by simply repealing their legislation, and go back to the former GVTA. Except that was not exactly popular either, and for very good reason. In its first iteration it was a new body run by some but, not all, of the Mayors with some acknowledgement of the varying sizes of the municipalities. This method of indirect representation is similar to that of Metro Vancouver, responsible for waste disposal and water delivery, regional parks and planning, but there all the Mayors get a seat at the table but with weighted votes.

Translink was supposed to have been a transportation agency – with responsibility for some bridges and the Major Road Network (MRN), but this was really only provincial downloading of responsibilities that would have happened anyway. One of the worst decisions, in terms of its financial impact on Translink, was to replace the Albion Ferry with the tolled Golden Ears Bridge, which has created a huge drain on the agency’s revenues as traffic has never come up to expectations, and revenue risk was not transferred to the P3 – which pretty much vitiates the reason for using that method of funding. Apart from that the MRN seems to have worked well except for one long running argument over a bridge between New Westminster and Coquitlam. On the other hand the ill conceived North Fraser Perimeter Road was soundly defeated and has yet to re-emerge. Though it almost certainly will if the Ministry engineers get their way – as they usually do in the Long Run.

I have long argued that indirect elections are a recipe for discontent. Mayors are not elected on regional issues, and tend to adopt a stance that is defensive of their turf before any regional consideration. But no matter how much you might dislike what your Mayor says over regional issues, they are not the deciding factor come election day. We need representative and responsible government and you do not get that by holding infrequent, contentious non binding plebiscites.

The governing body has to be an advocate of better transit, because this region has historically been underserved for most of its existence, and is the only feasible way for a region of this size to function effectively. Transit is not only vital to the economy, it is also essential to tackle our most pressing environmental and social issues – and those include affordable housing. Where you chose to live determines how much you travel and the concept of affordability has to include costs of housing AND transportation if it is to be meaningful.

And while the province will never make any concessions over the needs of longer distance travel and transport, nor will the federal government in terms of ports and airports. Both levels of government have effectively abandoned their responsibilities with respect to housing but that is not sustainable and will inevitably have to change. And while technological changes may well have some dramatic impacts on how we use the transportation system they are unlikely to reduce demand for movement of people and goods overall.

It is also obvious that you should not plan just for transport as though it was not intimately enmeshed with land use. Sadly, we continue to behave as though the two subjects were unrelated – even if we give the idea of integration at least lip service if not substantive commitment. By and large, when new transit lines are planned it would be much better to get them up and running before the people arrive, if you do not want them to get used to driving everywhere first, which is what has been happening.

So, given that Metro Vancouver seems to work acceptably, why would you not just put Translink under its command? I think that is a temptingly straightforward solution but not one that satisfies the need to improve accountability. Much better I think to reform both at the same time and hold direct elections for regional government – with a Mayor for Metro. This is the solution that was adopted in London. Mrs Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council, but then balked at privatising and deregulating London Transport. It was the proverbial dog’s breakfast and did not last for long after she was deposed. The Greater London Authority and its directly elected Mayor now runs Transport for London – and some related issues that have been downloaded including taxis (which used to be run by the Home Office). Much of the transit service is contracted out, but there is a single integrated fare system, and some of the local train services have been transferred from the national rail system to the Overground.

The huge issue that I have not so far dealt with is the need for much more investment in transit as well as increasing need for revenue support – if only because the use of gas tax revenues has been a victim of the system’s very success at getting people out of their cars. Property tax is not going to be accepted, and the province needs to become much more responsive to the needs of people to get around without a car. This applies as much outside Vancouver as within it. It is absolutely baffling why the province refuses to set up a transit service along Highway 16 (“The Highway of Tears“) between Prince George, Terrace and Prince Rupert. That has to be part of the solution to terrible loss of life due to aboriginal women being forced to hitchhike as the only way to get to essential services. Victoria’s need for rail based transit could not be more obvious, nor so long obviously ignored. Restoring trains on the E&N is only a start.

So yes there is going to have to be more provincial money for transit, and the roads budget is the place to start. We simply cannot afford more freeways and gigantic bridges. We also need to raise money fairly and equitably. Income tax and corporation tax are the obvious places to start, and the odious fees and charges levied without reference to ability to pay have to be abolished. So much less reliance on BC Hydro, ICBC as revenue sources, no more MSP and a thoroughgoing reform of BC Ferries to make it once again a public service and not a pretend corporation. The wealthy can readily afford to pay more tax. There has to be an end to all the corporate welfare, especially subsidies and outright give-aways of natural resources. There will still need to be fossil fuels, but levying reasonable royalties (cf Norway) has to be central to public finance. Carbon tax has worked, to some extent, but the “revenue neutral” mantra has to be abandoned.  We have to switch away to renewable energy sources at a much faster rate, and a lot of carbon is going to have to stay in the ground. At the same time, we have to recognize that far too many people are currently living a hand to mouth existence, and cannot absorb more levies fees and tax increases. We have to be more socially responsible, but this also will often mean better ways of doing things. It is cheaper to house people than it is to cope with the costs of homelessness. The war on drugs is unwinnable, but recreational substance use can be a useful source of revenue – and self medication.

The idea that we can reform Translink by tinkering with its PR and “business model” (whatever that means) is delusional. And like any interdependent ecosystem, we cannot just pull on one or two strings and expect the web to stay intact.  But we can also readily identify where the current policies have not worked and cannot be made to work better just by getting tougher. Most of the knee jerk right wing responses are ill informed and unsupported by any credible data. Better policies are in place elsewhere and we can find better examples than the one we have been so blindly following. And none of this is a stand alone issue. It is long past time for some joined up thinking.


From the Globe and Mail Friday November 20

One change Mr. Fassbender said he’s not going to consider at all is another reorganization of how TransLink is governed. When the agency was first created, 12 mayors sat on a board that directed TransLink. The province changed that in 2007 to have the board composed of non-political appointees.

Mr. Fassbender emphasized that everyone needs to stay focused on what’s really important, not squabbles over how much TransLink’s CEO is paid or what the governance of TransLink looks like. “It’s important that we keep our eye on the goal – an integrated, working transportation system.”


Written by Stephen Rees

November 18, 2015 at 5:37 pm

“NIMBYs in the twenty-first century”

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The title comes from an article in The Economist (paywalled) which discusses the work of a graduate student who has challenged the very successful book by Thomas Piketty “Capital in the 21st Century”.

I have had to return the copy that I was reading to the library: the wait list is long and the number of copies limited. If you want a good summary then Cory Doctorow has done a very good job of that.

Matthew Rognlie

On March 20th Matthew Rognlie (pictured), a 26-year-old graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented a new paper at the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. Although the paper began its life as a 459-word online blog post comment, several reputable economists regard it as the most serious and substantive critique that Mr Piketty’s work has yet faced.

Without actually quoting the whole of the article, the point I want to tackle is this. “housing wealth is the biggest source of rising wealth”

Economist graph

“Policy-makers should deal with the planning regulations and NIMBYism that inhibit housebuilding and which allow homeowners to capture super-normal returns on their investments.”

Now this seems to me to be a very familiar assertion that I have read from the same gang of dealers in secondhand ideas who like to attack government spending on transit. They have asserted more than once that the ALR is responsible for unaffordable housing in Vancouver. For instance here’s the Fraser Institute – citing Wendell Cox (pdf)

The land scarcity created by the ALR has rendered Vancouver housing the most “severely unaffordable” of any major city in the 265 metropolitan markets across Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, as analyzed by Wendell Cox and Hugh Pavletich (2009) in their fifth annual International Housing Affordability Survey

And the same thing in almost any city that imposes an urban growth boundary to limit sprawl.

Dr. Shlomo Ange of the Stern School of Business (NYU) Urban Expansion Project puts the issue simply in his introduction:where expansion is effectively contained by draconian laws, it typically results in land supply bottlenecks that render housing unaffordable to the great majority of residents.

The Economist of course does not have to reference these reports since, as we learned recently, the marketplace of ideas has adopted this notion unquestioningly. Or has it?

The argument stems from the idea that markets are better at determining everything than policy makers. Except that markets can only determine the level of use of those things that are priced. And most of the things that are of real value – breathable air and clean water for instance – are not priced. Land capable of producing food is priced far below what it would be as land designated as suitable for development. Smart Growth seeks to protect this land from development by ensuring that land within the growth boundary is better utilized.

Smart growth planning allows us to create new housing choices that are more affordable. We need to:

  • make better use of existing land and buildings (for example, by filling in vacant lots and allowing homes to be built over stores)

  • allow a mix of home types in every neighbourhood, like secondary suites, granny flats, and single- and multi-family dwellings

  • provide a mix of homes with commercial in the same neighbourhood

  • carefully add new homes in existing neighbourhoods, such as units in the basement or above the garage (to increase rental supply and provide extra income to help with the mortgage)

  • provide easy access to jobs and transportation choices, so households can save on transportation costs

In fact the very idea of “affordable housing” might be misleading because it fails to encompass travel costs. Indeed the old saw about buying a house was “drive until you qualify”. The amount you can borrow to buy a house is controlled (in our case by the rules of CHMC) but no-one controls the amount of time and money you spend commuting. This idea is encapsulated neatly in the last of those bullet points. It is also the case, of course, that in markets like Vancouver, many people cannot afford to buy and renting is increasing in popularity even if the supply of rental housing may not be responding as we might like.

It also ignores all the evidence that the conventional model is unsustainable. All the infrastructure that is needed to support sprawl makes it financially unaffordable – as Charles Marohn admirably demonstrates at Strong Towns. The US congress has been arguing for years how to patch up the crumbling interstate system, given their refusal to even contemplate raising the gas tax which funded its construction but not its maintenance. And the bits which are usable fill with traffic congestion which building more roads has never relieved. This makes for very unhappy commutes (see Charles Montgomery “The Happy City”) but again human happiness is another one of those externalities which markets ignore. Prices were supposed to be based on “utility” but every study shows that simply piling up more cash fails to make anyone happy.

Indeed the greatest failing is that the inequality puts more resources in the hands of those who pay politicians to adopt policies that are disastrous to human existence but are good for their short term profit.

What bothers me about the Economist piece  is the nonchalance which goes along with omniscience. It goes without qualification what policy makers must do. Because all we are talking about is inequality and where wealth comes from. So none of those dull externalities need get considered at all.

And all of this it seems to me has been covered by others more able and capable than I, but that work does not seem to get cited when I go looking for it. I am actually not too dissatisfied by this piece, but at one stage I was seriously considering crowdsourcing it. I am sure that my regular crew of commentators will be piling in but if you know of other articles which deal with this particular debate (“the impact of growth control on housing affordability” gets 54,700 hits) in particular with reference to either this region or the Pacific North West, by all means let me know.


Just how unaffordable is Metro Vancouver – and how will that change? VanCity has this forecast

Of course, there is a policy that could deal effectively with affordability, just as there is a policy that would end Homelessness. It simply requires the provision of subsidised housing. Of course those who oppose taxes on the wealthy will howl with rage. But all that we have to do to free up some resources is stop subsidizing fossil fuels – and rethink our agricultural subsidies too, while we are at it. It is ridiculous that corn and sugar production is subsidized when we are dying from diabetes, obesity and heart disease. All of which are also strongly associated with sprawl. Utah – hardly a radical liberal sort of state – eliminated homelessness by simply housing the homeless, which turned out to be cheaper than making them stay on the streets.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 25, 2015 at 4:08 pm

What Works, What Doesn’t

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Jeffrey Tumlin

San Francisco transportation planner Jeffrey Tumlin talked last night at SFU mostly about the experience of transit funding referenda in California. The presentation is available on video.  Tumlin’s book “Sustainable Transportation Planning: Tools for Creating Healthy, Vibrant and Resilient Communities” is used as part of the Next Generation Transportation course.

Have you ever been to Phibbs Exchange? It is probably as bad as they get – a dreary, isolated and unpleasant place to wait for a bus, (and one I often use in my own discussions about what is wrong with transit here). Translink has a lot of room for improvement but “it’s also the best that I have worked for.” We invented transportation tax measure referendums in California, and if you think the current experience here is bad, understand that it is so much worse everywhere else. You are right to demand perfection, but don’t let the best get in the way of the good.


Alameda County in California has 1.6m residents in 14 municipalities and 6 unincorporated areas. The original transcontinental railway did not reach San Francisco – it reached Oakland where passengers transferred to ferries. Up until 1994 it relied on a gas tax to pay for transit but as “funding dried up” in 1986 they introduced a county sales tax, which was risky given that at that time other neighbouring counties didn’t. In a referendum in 2000 a tax increase was approved by 82% of the vote. In California any general purpose tax increase must be approved by at least two thirds of the votes. That means for a vote to succeed there must be no organised opposition since at least one third of the voters are ideologically opposed to any tax increase. There is no federal or state support for transit operations or maintenance.  In 2012 Measure B1 a half cent sales tax increase failed at 66.53%. Measure  BB in 2014 passed at 71%. That was because by that time there was a coalition “with everyone on it” which adopted a strategy of focussing on “investments that matter to real people”. Communications stressed improvements in safety, efficiency, local streets and maintenance. Some projects were identified but not fully funded. Many projects were tied to housing development and many stressed bikes and pedestrians. The county is half suburban, with over a 70% car mode split. Car drivers voted yes because they understood that if other people switched modes there would be more room on the existing roads for those who continued to drive. Doing nothing would make matters worse.

Transit demand is increasing faster than population growth. This is due to demographics. As the baby boomers age and retire, they drive less and the millennials have much less interest in car ownership. Housing prices are actually worse than Vancouver. For many people in a low wage service economy driving is too expensive when housing costs have to be met first. Much of the success of the coalition was from the understanding of the combined affordability of transportation and housing. Every county in California has a similar story. Los Angeles knows that for its economy to succeed they cannot continue to bulldoze neighbourhoods to build freeways through them.

Messages that work

  1. Stress people, not mobility NOT focussing on congestion relief. For instance, tell the story of the single working mother who has the challenge of getting her children to and from daycare/school and herself to work – and how expensive that gets if she has to drive.
  2. Use pictures of people, including seniors and people with disabilities and reflect the diversity of the population. Be culturally sensitive to those communities and produce written materials in their languages
  3. Stress the need for employers to attract and retain young talent – people who don’t want to drive everywhere
  4. Improve public health – reducing the obesity epidemic means walking has to be built in to daily lives
  5. Improve economic efficiency – the space needed to move an automobile is ten times more than any other mode. There is much more people moving capacity if they are not all in cars – for the same space.
  6. Accomodate aging adults – see “Best Cities for Successful Aging” – that means walkability and more transit
  7. Everyone should have the opportunity to succeed – which is where the housing and transportation affordability index comes in. “San Francisco is more affordable than Little Rock, Arkansas” simply because it has homes and jobs within easy commute distance and good transit. It is not just affordable housing – its the combination with affordable transportation options. In Little Rock houses are cheap but they are distant from jobs and the only way to cover that is by driving. You do not improve the competitiveness of your region in the global economy by forcing poorer people to live in remote suburbs where they have to drive.


Much has been made by the No side of the delays in introducing this smart card fare payment system. The Bay Area has been trying to get such a system established since 1993. It was originally called Translink. It was launched in 1993 and abandoned in 1995. Twenty of the larger transit agencies agreed to relaunch the idea in 2010 .


By 2015 only 15 of the 20 agencies have actually implemented the card. Now rebranded as “Clipper” it is hated by all. The problems are many and various. For instance in San Francisco alone there are six transit operators each with their own fare system and no coordination between any of them.

In fact there is no better transit system in North America than TransLink. Look for example at Boston, which is currently trying to de-ice 120 year old rail switches. Or Chicago where ancient wooden platforms on the El are disintegrating, dropping debris on the streets below and leaving foot wide gaps. Or BART which has had a disastrous 18 months. “You set the gold standard”  for integrating land use, transportation, environment and social equity. In terms of cost effectiveness Vancouver ranks alongside much larger systems like London or New York. If you want to see disfunction look at New Jersey.

The one thing where Translink has fallen behind is communications. To some extent this can be attributed to Canadian culture and your dislike of “boasting”. But also Translink needs to get better at listening. Public officials need to be in the limelight all the time. There needs to be a greater focus [in the Yes campaign] on telling stories not wonkishness. In California the campaigns for funding measures last two to five years. Plan B must be to win next time. The new campaign starts as soon as this one is over and will be a lot of work. It has to identify outcome based performance indicators, not just dollars per ride. How you meet economic, environmental and social targets to show tax dollars are well spent. Every $1 spent on transit produces $5 of benefits.

Q & A

1  “I want better transit but I see the defects of Translink.” The BC Government is the problem. They give tax breaks to the corporate sector and do not step up to the plate to pay for needed infrastructure. We do not have a fair tax system.

We have many people who share your values. Sales tax is the worst form of taxation. It is regressive. The poor pay the most and the rich are the least impacted. But we have to live in the real world. The right solution is not necessarily the most workable one. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and the alternative is worse. Pressing for perfection is a recipe for not getting anything at all.

2 “Can we pull it off? In a month?”

Poll results are often different to polling – going both ways. There have been lots of surprises and rapid turnarounds in sentiment. The important thing is the delivery of the message to voters – mainly through tv and radio. There has been rightful criticism and it warrants a full response. The problem is that it is very hard to do that in a seven second sound bite. The Alameda County campaign relied on images and factoids.

3 The current provincial government was elected by the majority. The coalition has a very wide range of organisations within it. The question is did anyone’s views change as a result of your campaign?

Tumlin then conducted a quick straw poll of those present. Many there said they were “conflicted” supporting transit spending but mistrustful of Translink or disliking the sales tax. A few who came undecided said they had been persuaded by the presentation.

4 The next questioner linked the distrust of Translink to the pay of its CEO as “grossly overspending”

Tumlin gently pointed out that Translink is comparable to other agencies and that the cost of living here is very high, which makes it hard to attract people if you offer lower pay. There are some systems that pay less due to “the optics” – but they do not necessarily get the best managers as a result. You are actually talking about less than 0.1% of the budget

5 Gordon Price asked if privatisation – perhaps of parts of the system – was a way to improve performance.

At that point my notes stop as I stood up and positioned myself to reply to that assertion. I think Tumlin must have dealt with it effectively, as I then talked extempore about the campaign – and how Tumlin’s interview with News1130 had been received by the facebook trolls. I did scribble “governance – none is perfect – Portland Metro” which he said was directly elected – and is certainly an approach I would favour.   Privatisation has been a disaster for public services everywhere: and worst bits of the Translink system are privatised – MVT runs HandyDART at much higher cost and lower service levels than the previous collection of mainly NGO and volunteer supported service providers. The Golden Ears Bridge and the Canada Line are P3 showcases of profit for the private sector at public cost.

6 How much do people save when they stop driving?

A media campaign is not an information campaign. The best facts are hard to explain. The cost of driving needs to include externalities, and needs to be expressed as an opportunity cost. That is a challenging message to deliver especially to the undecided. You need short messages  for swing voters, you don’t have half an hour. It also depends on who says what: it has to be seen to be real. Campaigns that work bring on key people. We found that affordable housing advocates were key – once they got the tptn+housing affordability index thing sorted they could relay that to their clients in meaningful ways.

7 The first speaker got another turn at the microphone. “It is not right or equitable that the corporate sector gets the benefit of de-congestion at the expense of the people. There has been a $13bn loss of revenue due to tax cuts for corporations and that is being filled by fees and charges on the poor. It is a beautiful plan but I don’t want to pay for it. There is no Bill of Rights for users.”

You present an intelligent reasoned argument, which is valid from a good governance and policy standpoint. But it is a solution for the next provincial election not this referendum. It is possible for voter initiatives to rescind taxes – and you can go back every year. (He was obviously talking about the California Proposition legislation at this point, not necessarily BC.)

8  We are tribal social primates. We have no sense of belonging (I think he meant to the region) which has lead to a loss of trust. How do we deal with tribalism?

Metro Vancouver is a coherent economic  unit and a very effective competitor in the global economy. It is more cohesive than many California metro areas. San Francisco is quite different to San Jose – but it is very difficult to put a simple line between them that  does not have boundary effects. In terms of economic productivity the boundaries here are clearer and well set. By tribalism I think you mean that we do not want to pay for other people’s projects. I think the way to deal with that is to engage young people as they are better networked than anybody else – but then you also have to get them to vote. I think you do have here a sense of commonwealth which is missing in the US. You have no idea how bad things can get. No-one can get everything they want. You have to develop a sense of compassion for people who are different to you. We are not in competition.  It is in my interest to help you become more productive. In crass politics give them what they need but not all that they want. It is an ugly process.

Hire a lot of young people and get them involved in the campaign. Get them to show up at the polls. The Alameda County  proposition was lost by 731 votes!

9  Erica Rathje reminded those present that the federal government subsidises the fossil fuel industry with billions of dollars. We will have the opportunity to deal with that in this year’s federal election.

Do not punish yourselves locally by denying additional funding that your transportation system desperately needs.

10  The Hong Kong model which produces great transit at no cost to the taxpayer.

I am very much in favour of Value Capture. We use a lot of it in San Francisco. Development of land freed up by the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway for instance. The TransBay Terminal is being funded in part by Tax Increment Financing. Impact Fees on residential developments pay for affordable housing.



The meeting was large and well attended. Discourse was generally polite – except for some heckling when the first speaker made a long statement which appeared not to include a question. He did get a better reception later, and many people admitted to “feeling conflicted”. I agree. I do to. I think we are being manipulated. We do not have the same antitax Proposition 13 mentality here – and it should not be foisted upon us. I think the speaker was right when he said that if this sales tax proposal is approved, the province can then withdraw from funding transit expansions and concentrate on its favourite road building projects. But I think he missed how much provincial politicians love to cut ribbons on SkyTrain extensions. It will be interesting to see, if Linda Hepner has to proceed with her Plan B, if the province co-operates. Though that risks creating the multi-agency mess that sank the TransLink card in the Bay Area and bedevils their Clipper.

My understanding is that the problems of the Bay area are more of Fares Integration and Service Coordination are at the heart of the Clipper problems rather than technology issues. When I came to Canada in 1988 it was to work on FISC between the TTC and GO Transit who had incompatible mag swipe and optical reader tickets respectively. But the problem was not one of technology – a clumsy “TwinCard” approach fixed that – but rather incompatible tariffs and service objectives. Much has changed in the Toronto region since but transit mode share regionwide has not advanced by very much. And the number of agencies has actually increased. The battles in the Bay Area are I think similar and are reflected in the number of agencies and their local loyalties. It would be very sad indeed if one of the outcomes of losing this plebiscite is  that Translink were broken up into municipal fiefdoms but that seems to be in the back of the West Vancouver Mayor’s mind.

As to Value Capture I must say that I am not all convinced that our developers will welcome the Hong Kong approach here. They have been infuriated by suggestions that Translink here get into the property development business. My experience with the first TTC Sheppard Subway proposal was that when developers heard that value capture of station developments would pay for the line construction, they would not give up so much of their profits and would be able to make more by simply taking their development proposals to adjacent municipalities outside the TTC service area. I have also heard here that many developers are becoming averse to the current Development Cost Contributions regime – which they see as capricious and open to abuse.  The municipalities meanwhile point out that DCCs pay for parks and schools, community centres and sidewalks, and other desirable amenities. They do not wish to relinquish this source of funding to the regional transit system which has more nebulous local benefits, in their view. Here is more about the use of value capture for rapid transit.

Oh and as for privatisation read this

Written by Stephen Rees

February 25, 2015 at 12:35 pm

Why are Roads different to Transit?

with 5 comments

One of the twitter responses I got to my last post

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Now I must admit that even when I was with Translink – many years ago now – I was not required to do much about the Major Road Network (MRN). It exists because the province was going to download some provincial highways and bridges to the municipalities  anyway. So if they all joined up into Translink they would have access to some of the new funding that was to come with the new authority. The only exception was the City of Vancouver which did not have any provincial highways within it to be downloaded. Fortunately one of the strongest proponents of the new authority was Councillor George Puil, and he came up with the formula that persuaded Vancouver that being part of the MRN would be a Good Idea. Some roads within Vancouver are now identified as part of the regional MRN.

You can refer to Translink’s web site for more information (and a map) which also includes the rather odd list of bridges, one they built themselves – partly paid for by tolls – to replace the free Albion Ferry, two important links that cross municipal boundaries and one bizarre little ancient wooden swing bridge wholly inside Delta. Oddly the Annacis Swing Bridge which connects Delta’s Annacis Island to New Westminster – and also carries the Southern Railway of BC – remains with the province even though the road it carries is not a provincial highway either. Basically the Knight St and Patullo Bridges were overdue for expensive upgrades so the province was eager to get rid of them.

Translink committed to spend $45m on the MRN this year – which out of a total spending of ~$1.4b is not a very large amount. Translink does not itself have any operational involvement – all of that spending is passed through the municipalities and nearly always on jointly funded projects. The MRN is actually run by a committee made up of the Chief Engineers of each of the municipalities, with Translink providing administrative support. Day to day management and operations remain with the municipalities. For cities like Vancouver and New Westminster there is no real interest, or opportunity, for major capacity expansions. The cities are built out and land acquisition costs are huge. And as Seattle is learning (and Boston learnt) tunnelling for additional freeway capacity is not only expensive but very risky. The only real stumbling block has been the lack of willingness to give up road space to more efficient modes. There are no busways here – and very few dedicated separate cycling facilities. No one has ever seriously considered here what the French call “the art of insertion” (link to presentation) to devote more of the space between building frontages of a street to wider sidewalks, tram tracks or dedicated exclusive bus lanes.

It must also be noticed that municipalities themselves do not spend very much on new road building. A lot of new roads get added to the network every year, and “improvements” are made to the existing roads, by developers – or by cities thanks to development cost charges. Many major developments are made conditional upon increases to local network capacity. No-one, so far as I am aware, ever does any examination of the combined network effects of these developments.

The big spender on roads in the region is the province. While other jurisdictions have cut back on road spending to free up funds for more efficient and environmentally friendly public transport, BC continues throw billions at freeways and other major highway expenditures. It has never suggested that any of these projects be subject to dedicated funding – or referenda of local populations. It is merely continuing with business as usual – blacktop politics has long dominated the BC agenda. In part this is due to the fact that BC only has one major urban metropolis. The Ministry of Transportation is in reality the Ministry of Highways since no other mode grabs the attention of the provincial politicians in quite the same way. BC Ferries, of course, being a whole ‘nother topic best left for another day.

The reasons the province gives for its obsession with road construction is always framed in the context of jobs and the economy. It is always referred to as an “investment” which sounds so much less profligate than “spending”. In urban areas like the Lower Mainland it has also been tied to the port – the “Gateway” – even though the vast majority of the import and export tonnage moved through the Port of Vancouver moves inland by railway – and probably increasingly by pipeline in the future.


INSERT The Port of Metro Vancouver has recently announced that it is changing the way it licences trucks that serve the Port. Apparently there are too many of them. Of course none of this was ever anticipated the Gateway proponents and their demands for a much wider Port Mann Bridge and the South Fraser Perimeter Road


In reality, the major growth in traffic on these new roads is single occupant cars and trucks used as cars. Traffic in urban areas expands and contracts to fill the space available – and this induced traffic is seen long before land use changes add their contribution to congestion. Which in any event is not an all day or everyday phenomenon. Most roads, much of the time, have spare capacity. Like the parking lots, they are overbuilt to meet the peak need and the rest of the time are underutilised. It was ever thus.

It is very significant I think that only two new major bridges have been funded by tolls in recent years – and in both cases revenues have been below forecast. Gordon Campbell early on decided to court popularity by cancelling the tolls on the Coquihalla Highway and no-one has ever seriously suggested tolling elsewhere, though a P3 on the Sea to Sky uses “shadow tolls” to calculate payments to the contractor.  User pay is a prerequisite for transit – and ferries. On highways and bridges, not so much.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 15, 2014 at 3:30 pm