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Archive for the ‘ride sharing’ Category

This isn’t Pixie Dust

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That’s the trouble with talk radio. In between the adverts for cars and the best deal on tires, someone accuses you of saying something you didn’t say. It is not “either/or” (roads or transit) – at least becuase the road expansion is well under way and in the case of Port Mann/Highway #1 nearing completion. And I really do not expect a magic bullet or a tooth fairy to fund it – both things that got discussed before we got to the callers. In fact I think the callers got lined up before I started speaking. They evidently weren’t listening.

But just supposing someone was listening to CKNW this morning and got intrigued this is what I am prescribing.

Funding transit

We spent $3bn on a bridge and have to pay that loan down, so users are stuck with tolls for the bridge until it’s paid off. Meanwhile we have to find a way to fund transit expansion. It is not enough to come up with a formula that enables Translink to carry on as now – or allow some modest increase. We need a way to to ensure that transit can grow its market share. The current plan for 2040 is way too modest in my view. We need much more and quicker than that.

I am also disenchanted with dedicated funding sources. The problem is that if you tie your funding source to something that is also going to change behaviour – and you are successful – then you are stymied. To some extent that has happened with the gas tax – and also happens with the carbon tax. I also dislike user fees – for the same reason. Pricing something is a good way to reduce consumption. It is also unfair to those who have little income – and therefore very little discretion on how to spend it. Of course those who are comfortable are quite happy to state that since they can afford the fee, everyone else should be willing to shoulder the same burden. Except, of course, they do not share the same ability to do so.

The right wing has seized the agenda on taxes and made us convinced that income and corporate taxes have to be reduced in order to make us  more competitive. That has simply got us engaged in a race to the bottom. We now work longer – households need multiple sources of income – in order to just stay where we were. Real incomes have declined. We may have the lowest income tax but that is only because we now pay through a variety of fees and charges for the same services – or rather in many cases, a reduced set of services. Plus a greater reliance on sales taxes.

We continue to subsidize fossil fuels – both nationally and provincially. The latest expansions of natural gas exploitation are being achieved with a concession of NO payment of royalties to the province. The expansion of the oil sands in Alberta is only possible because of an extraordinarily favourable tax treatment. In both cases we would be much better off leaving it in the ground. For one thing the planet cannot tolerate the current rate of increase in carbon emissions. Since the IPCC’s warnings on climate change, CO2 output has not only increased, the rate of change has also increased. Fossil fuels left in the ground would also become much more valuable in future – because there are so many other things you can do with them other than simply burning them, all of which have much great value added and many of which are going to be very difficult to do in future.

So I am advocating a two pronged approach.

1. Stop funding silly things (subsidies to oil and gas, F35 jets, mega-prisons ….)

2. Increase income tax for the rich and corporations – as well as a switch of enforcement away from chasing small amounts from the poor to the huge sums squirrelled away illegally in tax havens.

You will note that these funds then have to come from the federal government as well as the provincial government. This is intentional. Canada is the only advanced western economy that does not have a national transit program.

Senior Government support has to extend to operating funds as well as capital funds. We also should stop collecting tax from transit agencies – it is ludicrous that we levy a tax to pay for transit on fuel burned in transit buses.

I am not going to suggest that we abandon private sector partnerships altogether. But if we are going to do them, we have to transfer the risk to the private sector. Translink revenues are being dragged down by the deal on the Golden Ears. It is unconscionable that money raised to pay for transit is being paid to a private company who built a road bridge we don’t need – and which cannot be paid for from tolls – which is what they promised initially.  We also have to look long and hard at why Macquarie Bank is still getting paid long after the P3 for the Port Mann fell apart, and the project proceeded with public funding.

Expanding transit

There are two aspects to this – what we build and where we build it.

Currently the priorities appear to be first the Evergreen Line and then – probably – a subway to UBC (though that is not set in stone, yet). Like the Port Mann, let us assume that the Evergeen Line is a done deal. It may not be the best one, but it is too late to change.

If we commit to building a subway to UBC it will be because the current B-Line “cannot be expanded” and is overloaded, and the idea of light rail down Broadway, or more elevated concrete structure for SkyTrain, is intolerable on the West Side of Vancouver (but not anywhere else in the Lower Mainland, apparently). It will also mean that the part of the region that currently enjoys the best transit service will get more and, absent a new funding arrangement for transit, that means less everywhere else.

The callers to CKNW this morning were appalled by the idea that they could be expected to use a bus. I cannot say I blame them, given what they know of bus service here. But if we are going to persuade people to get out of their cars and use transit, it is going to have to meet at least some of their needs some of the time. We also need to make the newer, better services widely available. Our current approach seems to – and does – favour some parts of the region over others. In part that is because the operator, being cash strapped, has to concentrate resources in areas where they get the most return. So if there is a ridership, there will be service – not the other way round. That is why things never change. Because we keep doing what we have always done.

So in future we will have to see some innovation. And in some cases that means taking a risk with a new kind of service, in a place that doesn’t see it now. When the railways first got into the commuter business, at the end of the nineteenth century, there were no suburbs. They built out into green fields, and hoped that those would become new subdivisions. A bit like the way the transcontinental railway was built – in the expectation that they would encourage settlement in what were then seen as “empty” areas. Indeed, that was also the way that the interstate highways got taken over by people driving to and from work. Because subdivisions popped up like mushrooms after rain, right next to the off ramps.

So if we have the ability to build rapid transit, it can only go to places that will see rapid and sustained increases in population. When the Expo Line was built through the East Side of Vancouver the residents of the areas around the stations were mostly successful in resisting an increase in density. We cannot afford that again. This seems to me to be a linkage that would allow for investment – and is a model in use in Hong Kong. There, the Mass Transit agency is a property developer. If that makes you queasy, turn it on its head, and come up with an experienced developer who knows how to do high density, mixed use development and create some kind of vehicle that ties the risks and rewards into producing transit and transit oriented development together. Stop thinking about transit – and transportation – as an end in itself. It never has been. It has always been inextricably linked with land use. Instead of building a new transit line and handing much of the increase in land value to a few lucky land owners and developers, indulge in some “joined up thinking” and get a better built environment and less car dependance on the same dime.

But rapid transit is hideously expensive – almost as much as building massive highways and bridges – and relatively limited in its reach. And we need solutions for a very wide area, where mostly people drive themselves around in single occupant vehicles. So we start by tackling the paradigms of ownership and use – since most cars sit idle most of the time, and only one or two of their seats are ever occupied. That means breaking down the barriers we have erected – mostly to protect transit. The rules we now use came into being once car ownership began to spread after World War one, and “jitneys” threatened the viability of the (private companies’) transit systems.  We are already seeing the impact of widespread, mobile information systems on car sharing. It would be even more rapid if it were not for these obsolete rules. Indeed, even those lucky enough to have operating licences apparently cannot make money because of the way the rules are applied.

I do not advocate a free for all deregulation – but I do think that there is obvious potential when entrepreneurs keep popping up with ideas that seem to work but get slapped down – mainly to protect vested interests. It is also the case that even where transit service is good, people can come up with other services that appear to meet local needs better. So obviously there needs to be some kind of oversight, but the rules need to be drawn up to protect the broader public interest, and not just the narrow “economic interest” of the industry, as our current regulator has it. In some respects, with the creation of a new smartcard payment system, giving multimodal regionwide access, Translink actually will have a useful tool to ensure cooperation. So the same card that you swipe to ride the bus or SkyTrain could also get you a shared taxi, or a even an exclusive ride in a shared car, like car2go. It is instructive that modo – the car coop – expands in areas that are well served by transit. It is complementary – not competitive – to the transit system. You cannot expand the reach of transit deep onto low density single family home areas with a 40 foot diesel bus. And there are limits to what can be done with shared rides and demand responsive systems. The DART in HandyDART once meant “Dial a Ride” – but you now have to book days in advance and be qualified. The service that results satisfies no-one, but contains the germ of an idea that ought to be allowed to flourish, and benefit from the extra-ordinary explosion of information abilities of smart phones.

It is significant, I think that the companies that need to hire bright young minds now provide bus service to get their employees to the workplace. The buses they use look nothing like a transit bus – they have wifi on board for a start – and do not pick up at bus stop signs. But a new app allows them to be mapped. I am willing to bet that the man who upbraided me this morning for expecting him to use something as slow and cumbersome as our current transit service would be quite happy to get on board one of these. The IT aspect means that all our current practices of mapping and scheduling can be discarded. The routes can be adapted on the fly, in real time, to meet changing need. The rigidity of regulation means that Greyhound can’t adapt service levels to changing needs the way Bolt Bus (its subsidiary) can. The same paradigm starts to make suburban shared ride services look feasible even of they don’t look a lot like transit does now – and maybe that is a good thing in and of itself.

One of the reasons young people do not want a car – or a mortgage – is because we have loaded them down with student debt. Until they pay that off, a car loan or a 25 year mortgage is neither practical or appealing. Moreover, they no longer use the same systems we did to get in touch with each other. They have texts, twitter and Facebook. Almost anything can be set up on the fly – just ask the Occupy movement.

I really doubt that it is possible to win over everyone to using transit and I am not even willing to try. There will always be some people driving everywhere all the time – just steadily less of them as a percentage of the total. After all, we could not cope with a sudden influx to transit – as the UPass so convincingly demonstrated.  The way we built the Canada Line showed we had not really thought through what “change modal split” actually meant. There already enough people who want to use transit – and who want to use it more often – but are frustrated, to provide a significant increment in transit use. The increase in service just to meet those desires would also bring in more riders, as service frequencies and reach would make those services more attractive. This is the benevolent cycle of growth that has been seen in so many other cities  that have stuck consistently to expanding transit. We, on the other hand, seem so besotted with short term point scoring that we are going to enter the other spiral – where cost cutting reduces service, and thus ridership and thus to further cuts.  I am convinced that these systems will always respond to these dynamics. There is no steady state. It is either growth or decline.

So the strategy I am suggesting is for conventional transit to incrementally add to its service – which means, right now, more buses. And more exclusive bus lanes – by taking road space away from single occupant vehicles. As demand grows, more limited stop and express routes – creating a hub and spoke system based on town centres, supported by an intricate and much more varied web of feeder services. That means space at the hubs has to be provided for bike storage, or shared bikes, as well as park and ride, kiss and ride, shared cars and station cars and shuttle buses. Rapid transit stations are, of course, hubs – as well as centres of mixed use, denser development – because they are within walking distance of so many services and facilities. I doubt that there will be many new rail based services added for a while – but obviously if there is an underused rail corridor available it must be pressed into use. Freight gets to use the lines when people are sleeping. Where there are highways, there will be rapid bus services – with priority where needed. At the very least so that those who insist on driving can have the educational experience of seeing the bus swish past them while they are stuck in traffic. Elsewhere it will have to be more and better buses – and the whole panoply of related “Better than the bus, cheaper than your own car” services.

Since we have hobbled public enterprises, and are convinced of their ineffectiveness, the expansion has to incorporate private enterprise. But we should look long and hard at what we are doing before we do it. Compare and contrast BC Hydro before and after IPPs, for instance. Learn from the experience of Britain with its railway privatization – or the Underground in London – and benefit from their experience.

There is no one simple solution – because although the problem looks straightforward (how to pay for transit) it is in reality complex and difficult because of all the connections. Politicians like big capital projects because they get to cut a ribbon. But what is needed is a whole range of small, incremental changes, and a shift in mind set. Mostly it needs a change in the way that government behaves.

Port Mann Tolls

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The mainstream media is full of the reduction in tolls announced by the Minister of Transport yesterday. Laila Yuile, on Huffington Post, sees it as bait and switch – a blatant and possibly fruitless attempt to get back lost BC Liberal votes. But her opening paragraph really gave me pause

The Port Mann Bridge project has been steeped in controversy from its humble beginnings as an economically prudent plan to twin the existing bridge at a cost of $1.5 billion to what we’ve ended up with today: a completely new bridge and highway project totaling $3.3 billion financed through tolls.

First it was never, ever “economically prudent”. It was based on misdirection – that somehow the traffic jam of cars every day was threatening the competitiveness of the Port of Vancouver. The truckers were always front and centre of this argument. This fiction was fairly easy to dismiss. Most of the tonnage moving through the port is bulk commodities that come in by rail – and pipeline (of course but lets not get distracted). The container imports also move by rail – except for those destined for distribution facilities which tend to be located on cheap land at some distance from the port terminals.

What the intention was – always – was to widen the freeway from the Vancouver boundary to the Abbotsford boundary. The Port Mann bridge was never a standalone project. It might have been defensible if it had simply been a removal of a bottleneck to free up short distance movements between Surrey and Coquitlam (which is what most of the traffic over the bridge does in reality). But all that is planned is to replace a small bottleneck with a bigger bottle. The number of lanes on the bridge was always less than those leading on to it – and that will still be the case afterwards. There will just be more of both.

The Gateway made the idea of freeway expansion palatable because it was wrapped up in rhetoric about economic growth and increased competitiveness. The reality was different.

Kevin Falcon on the widest bridge in the world

Kevin Falcon was a developer before he became a politician. There has always been a strong lobby against the regional plan which was seen as restricting what developers could do south of the Fraser. In fact, it made very little difference, as Doug McCallum ably demonstrated when Mayor of Surrey – and Chair of Translink. He easily duplicated the spread of big box retail along Highway 99 to replicate what was already in place in Whatcom County along I5. Junction “improvements” on both Highways 1 and 99 were funded  by deals with developers on what had been land reserved for highway expansion adjacent to the intersections. And the sprawl of supposedly “affordable” housing (“drive till you qualify”) continued unabated. Kevin ran for election using funds raised at breakfasts attended by the real estate community who he encouraged to “get on board”. The highway expansion would enable them to build more of what they has always built and they knew they could sell. What made them really nervous was talk of transit and transit oriented development – for they were unfamiliar with both. Rail for the Valley was pretty much a hopeless case. Not that it could not have been done physically or financially – just that it was a hard sell to the money men. The people who fund the BC Liberals and pick their preferred candidates.

Laila again

To those of us who travel the bridge, it had been clear for years something needed to be done to address the gridlock on both ends. Public transportation south of the Fraser is horrific during the week and nearly non-existent in some areas on the weekend, making vehicles mandatory for most.

At least she declares her interest. We know that the only effective way to address “gridlock” is to reduce peak demand for single occupant vehicle travel. In the short term the only way to do that is to price car use, and increase transit supply. In the longer term, denser and more mixed land use – served by walkable and bikeable routes – is the way to break the linkage between growth and sprawl. Again, really attractive transit has to be part of the mix. The provision of billions of dollars of provincial funding for highway expansion – and the new bridge – is one of the reasons why there is a crisis in funding for transit. It does look like there will be a rapid bus service of some sort when the new Port Mann opens but the only way that can be funded is by cutting service elsewhere.

There are options – there always are – always were. Just most of them get rejected. The BC Liberals kept dancing around insisting that there had to be more local funding – mostly because they always wanted to tap into property tax some more. And the insistence on looking for more efficiencies was always a good distraction. As was fare evasion: actually only 4% of riders have no ticket and the revenue loss is less than that. But somehow much money and attention can be thrown at that “problem” – but nothing to deal with overcrowding other than diversion of existing resources. And the idea of increasing transit service were it is currently inadequate or non-existent  just does not get onto the radar because the places that already have good transit want more.

I can understand Laila’s anger – and her choice of target. It is just all too short term. I do not expect the BC Liberals to win – as the latest polls confirm. The problem is that afterwards it is going to be very hard to reverse the land use changes already in train as a result of the decision to widen the freeway. The type of development we are seeing – and will see – is not going to be sustainable, transit oriented or readily convertible. Land uses in Coquitlam and Vancouver will change a bit once the Evergreen and the UBC lines open – but not by nearly enough to shift the region’s mode split by very much. South of the Fraser is car country now – and still will be – and all of the emphasis is going to have to be how to make those cars less of a problem. So expect a lot more attention on car sharing, alt fuels and electric vehicles – none of which individually has much impact and even collectively is little more than a band aid. The systemic problem of car dependance  will remain even if we can overcome some of our fondest held beliefs – like car ownership and not sharing rides (not getting into cars with strangers) and the need to limit access to the public transport market.

The tolls – which after a year will go back up to $3 a crossing – will have some impact on restraining demand for car trips between Surrey and Coquitlam. They might even get better at pricing strategies than they have so far on the Golden Ears, which has plenty of underused capacity at peak periods. But it will have no impact at all on car use on the rest of the Highway. There will be no toll for a trip between Vancouver and Burnaby, New Westmister or Coquitlam. No-one will pay a toll between Surrey and Langley. And there will be a lot of lane space that will quickly fill up – even if some people will be making longer (but perceived to be “faster”) trips to use that new space. Yes, car use in the region has declined a bit – but mostly in places where there is an alternative. Along Highway 1 – until it fills up again – car use will grow. And that means a lot more traffic on the local road network that feeds the freeway. And more pressure from neighbourhoods to spend money on frustrating the through traffic, rather than spending money on better alternatives for local trips.

Laila is, I think, right in that this obvious tactic will misfire. But that is not the real issue. How do we now persuade people that it is worth spending more money on a transit system that is so blatantly organized to favour part of the region at the expense of the rest?

Written by Stephen Rees

September 13, 2012 at 10:08 am

Pender drivers stop for hikers

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Car-stop program proves a huge success

Sandra McCulloch, Times Colonist

Published: Monday, May 25, 2009

It is an idea that is delightfully simple. Indeed I have heard proposals for such a system many times. There is a sign – like a bus stop – where people wait for a ride, but in a car, not a bus. Pender Island is too small for a bus service – and has a very limited range of destinations. So the probability of getting a match for a shared ride is pretty high.

Car sharing – on a pre-booked basis for commuters – has, of course been around for years. It has never been as popular here as in the Seattle area, and has not grown much in recent years. Other efforts to share rides – using the internet to connect willing drivers and people who want a ride – have fallen foul of regulations designed to protect licensed common carriers (buses and taxis). And of course those who make a living from this business are keen to intervene to stop voluntary “free” programs if they can. At the many freeway entrances there are signs stating that hitchhiking is illegal, though it still happens.

I would like to know more but so far have not found anything more than this story.  Did this program get some kind of official sanction or was the lack of official attention due simply to the absence of local vested interest? Does the sense of community on Pender help? In a place where everyone knows everybody else there is a great deal less worry about being picked up by a serial killer – or picking up a mugger or car jacker.

Most cars spend most of the time parked. The average occupancy of the cars that are moving is 1.3 per vehicle: that’s a lot of empty seats. Ideas that get better utilisation out of what we have (road space and vehicles) seem worthy of consideration. And at higher occupancies the energy demand of a shared car is comparable (volume of CO2 per passenger kilometre) to transit. 

Written by Stephen Rees

May 25, 2009 at 2:13 pm