Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘suburban sprawl

Avoiding urban sprawl could reduce pollution, boost economy

with 3 comments

How do stories like this get noticed? After all, they are not actually saying anything new. In this case I heard about it from a daily alert put out by the Sightline Institute to a story in the Vancouver Sun. From another outfit called “Postmedia News” who essentially copied out a press release from Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow (QUEST). The sub editor at the Sun of course had to distance his organisation from the report’s conclusion by the simple device of using a colon and the word report at the end of the headline.   Note too the careful use of “could” not “will”. Should that not realistically read “even more sprawl”? And, being old media, they do not provide links like I have in this paragraph so you can go read the report and find out more about the organisation in their own words.

To make it news they have Mike Harcourt to quote. And they make the point early on that they are “a coalition of industry and government stakeholders” – not some bunch of environmentalists.

The study demonstrates that it is possible to save money, create jobs, grow the economy and reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions simultaneously through integrated community energy solutions.

Note that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the last benefit to be mentioned – saving money and creating jobs are both more important than survival. The elite are having a hard time coping with the reality that “business as usual” really is to blame for climate change – which is now very obviously having really serious deleterious effects. For a long while they have tried to convey the idea that human beings may or may not have been responsible for the increase of GHG in our atmosphere – and that there was probably not very much we could do about it. Or, if there was, it would somehow require everyone to see a reduction in their standard of living. Which is not really what they care about so much as a possible decline in the profitability of corporate enterprises.

Marc Jaccard, of course, has long been associated with the school of thought that said there is more to be gained by engaging business than confronting them. The classic problem for the green movement has always been how far do we go to affect change? The battle between the realists and the fundamentalists. Indeed Quest does include environmentalists

As a network of citizens from the energy industry, environmental groups, governments, academia and consulting communities, we believe an integrated, community-based approach is the best way to address energy end-use and reduce green house gas emissions.

Or, in other words, these are not the people who are chaining themselves to coal fired power stations. Which, as even Al Gore recognized, is a justifiable and understandable response to a problem that industry on the whole would rather we ignore.

many of these policies and actions can be enacted effectively and independently by local (municipal) governments, provided that they are empowered to do so.  This allows our communities to make a substantial contribution to GHG emission and energy use reductions, even in the absence of significant federal action.”

Which is a message that has been around for a while. That was what I was telling municipalities across BC as Chair of what was then called the BC Energy Aware Committee but is now the Community Energy Association – another coalition of the energy industry, the BC government and UBCM. Not that we did not then do good work – nor that that CEA does not do useful things now. And I will be teaching the same stuff to Sustainable Building Advisers this month.

My point is that while Jaccard’s study shows that if Toronto, Winnipeg, Dawson Creek and Fort McMurray would reduce greenhouse gas emissions if they followed his advice, does that actually make enough difference? In this region, the Premier of BC has decided that even though he claims to be a proponent of the need to reduce ghg emissions – and introduced a carbon tax to show leadership in that field – he has done nothing to examine what the impacts of the current freeway expansion will do to land use. He and his minions say that growth here will happen anyway – as though transportation infrastructure provision does not shape growth. Which they also promote when it suits them – for example when talking about the need for more transit  – as Campbell was last week at UBCM.

Campbell is not unpopular because he is widening Highway 1, building a new wider Port Mann Bridge and a new South Fraser Perimeter Road (that sounds so much better than “freeway” don’t you think?). He is not even unpopular because of the carbon tax. He is unpopular because of the HST – or rather, in his view, the way it was introduced. And it is only his unpopularity that concerns him.

He knew when he introduced the HST that he was taking a risk. He simply got his risk assessment wrong. That is pretty much the same metric he used on his transport policy. He knew was taking a risk but that there were economic and political paybacks from his choice. His friends and allies would benefit personally, and his party would too.

I am not arguing about anything in Jaccard’s report. The man knows whereof he speaks – and energy was always worth saving if you used the right evaluation techniques. I just don’t think that the people who make decisions about land use – developers, business in general and the local politicians they effectively control – are ready to abandon “business as usual”. And the politicians at all levels who aid and abet them have plenty of experience and political savvy – and seem to be able to persuade enough of the voters when that is needed, that they are a “safe pair of hands”.

Of course they are not. We know that. We have seen how business behaves when it is not regulated effectively – is behaving in many energy and related fields now. We know they are highly influential – GM fought off energy efficiency for many years. And when that strategy proved disastrous in the market place, government did not even let them go bust. The market – if it were working as the invisible hand – would have delivered salutary judgement. Of course, as a limited liability company, individuals at the corporate senior levels would not have suffered very much. Shareholders who know what they are doing have diversified portfolios to absorb such risks. The people who would have paid are those who always pay: the workers who would lose their jobs and pensions, the customers stuck with worthless warranties, the communities left to pick up the pieces – as they are now already in places like Detroit. The vultures would descend on the carcase – and would leave behind the mess. And to some extent we would have been a bit better off. The widespread failures of the companies that installed far too much fibre optic cable being the reason we now have such cheap long distance telephone calls.

Actually, there is really a “hidden hand” – and it is not the market, or collective wisdom of any kind. It is physics. The world will actually survive. We won’t. If we keep on going the way we are, our civilization will collapse just as surely as so many others have done. The process will be painful for us, but quite a short term phenomenon in geological terms. Life on the planet will adjust too. A lot of other species won’t make it – but then they aren’t now. We are doing a pretty good job of that already – have been for years. We have not changed our policies though. Or our minds about the primacy of the economy and the need to get re-elected.

That is what the buzz word “sustainability” really means. Survival of our species with not too much collateral damage.

There are those who doubt that the amount of change that is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a point where there is not run away global warming can be accomplished now in time to avert catastrophe. They argue we have to come up with better ways of coping with the impacts which are now inevitable and, in the meantime, do something really drastic to cut consumption of fossil fuels. They point out that simply changing technologies uses resources too – and it is not just fossil fuel that is going to suffer from supply shortages. There are plenty of other natural resources we are exploiting and wasting – and many other consequences becoming apparent of our rather casual attitudes to waste disposal. This is the other shoe – as though the ones that have dropped up to now weren’t loud enough. Economic growth cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet.

The Green Party of BC – who I ran for at the last election and of whom I am still the land use and transportation spokesperson – has espoused stability rather than growth as its objective. There is a conference in town this week on that very subject. I ought, I suppose, to be going. I know they wanted me to. But my own personal conviction is that we in North America do have to cut our consumption. Two years of recession has done wonders for reducing energy use in the US.

I do not think we can persuade the Indians or the Chinese to abandon their chosen paths of economic growth – and they simply point to the huge disparity of our consumptions of resources per capita to support our lifestyle as good enough reason for them to press on. Actually, they are both aware of our mistakes – and their own – but at least they seem to be doing something. Like the Chinese effort to build transit in their cities and high speed rail between them. The Green Party in BC (and in Canada for that matter) has a tough time, thanks to our electoral system – which the people of BC have decided will not change.  But we still shy away from saying things that would make us unelectable. Since you cannot do anything from the sidelines except hope that the people who do get elected will steal your policies. I cannot see any other party wanting to steal “no growth” let alone economic contraction.

I happen to think that we could have a very much better outcome than no growth. But it simply does not get measured in GDP: so yes, the things we pay for in cash would decline but then there are so many other things that we need and don’t get which don’t cost money.  We spend so much time now rushing around trying to get enough money to support an unsustainable lifestyle it is making us sick – and yes, shortens our lives. We have lost the very things that we ought to be valuing that have no price.

Canada in general, and this bit of it in particular, also has to cope with inevitable increases in our population.   More people will want to come here – not least because of the impacts of the climate change that we cannot now stop. The effects we are seeing now are not due to our fossil fuel burning today but of two centuries of steadily increasing emissions. We have passed quite a few tipping points, and the way things look Canada is going to have to absorb a lot of climate refugees. A lot of people are going to see Winnipeg as a much nicer place than where they live now – indeed, many already do. And Vancouver even more so. As long as we get on with raising the dykes, maybe Richmond as well. We need to take that sort of growth very seriously indeed. It is not just a philosophical or diplomatic problem. They are coming. Where will they go and how will they live?

Right now, thanks to the things we are currently building, and the decisions already made, they will go to the places where they can be absorbed. There will also be quite a bit of shifting around within the region too. Especially of the people who dislike the impacts of more people and who see their efforts to preserve their local area as it is now fail. As has been said many times here, population growth is going to happen: the question is how do we accommodate that.The Gateway Program pretended to be about transport but it is not. It is about land use. The hope was always that land that was then relatively cheap would rise dramatically in price as its accessibility was increased. Governments chose to ignore that this was actually illusory when done by “business as usual”. Since congestion due to induced traffic is inevitable as long as there is no effective control over road use.

The Gateway also means that greenhouse gas production will rise more than if we had built rapid transit and transit oriented development instead. Even the government’s own – stilted, conservative – predictions acknowledged that. The politicians of course continued to say that reducing congestion would reduce emissions when even their own data said something else.  So what can QUEST and Dr Jaccard achieve with this report? Not very much I suspect.   Toronto has at least committed to start catching up on transit provision. Though they still do not have a sustainable funding package for the TTC  to operate their bits of it. And there has already been plenty of sprawl in what is now rather awkwardly known as GTHA. Fort McMurray I think is past praying for. Until we get different governments in Edmonton and Ottawa.

Yes local governments here, like the City of Vancouver, must still try harder – and many are. But while our media shifts rightwards – and we still think that we need business like political leaders – it is going to being small amounts of mitigation that we will see, not prevention. Palliative care at best. Lets hope they make a better job of that than they have done with the threats that they actually acknowledge.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 5, 2010 at 11:52 am


with one comment

Jacqueline Thorpe, Financial Post

Published: Saturday, November 10, 2007

Jacqueline has drunk the cool aid. She drives the QEW and 401 and then writes about the need for more freeways.

I leave Jordan, Ont., for the 100-kilometre trip east to Toronto one recent morning at 7:30 a.m. I pass new subdivisions that ring the west side of Lake Ontario like a giant barnacle. Twenty-five minutes into my drive through the Golden Horseshoe, I run into traffic at Burlington. It never lets up. I slow down, speed up, get cut off, swear at the moron in front of me. I cruise talk radio and resist the urge to check my BlackBerry. My blood just begins to boil amid the sheer tedium and inefficiency of what is for hundreds of thousands of Canadians a typical everyday morning commute.

Two hours and 15 minutes later — at least twice as long as it should have taken me–I arrive at my office in north Toronto a frazzled mess.

A couple of questions occur to me. Why does she expect to be able to average 100kph? And why not park when you hit Burlington? The GO train service along the lakeshore is not only fast (compared to the freeway) it is also frequent and runs all day, not just peak hour peak direction. And why does she think that more freeway capacity will make any difference? Isn’t doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome the definition of madness?

These highways have been steadily widened over the years. The central section of the 401 is a multilane nightmare, and as she notes the privatised 407 really didn’t make things much better, despite its electronic tolls. The “giant barnacles” see to that. The developers would not have put up those subdivisions if it had not been for the freeways. And that land in Southern Ontario, especially the area around the Niagara escarpment was high value farm land. Some of it, like the unique ecosystem of the Oak Ridges Moraine (the watershed north of Toronto) was early identified as being too important to allow for development. But it is happening anyway. And since it doesn’t have access the York Region trunk sewer (which follows Yonge Street from Lake Ontario to Lake Scugog) most of it is on well water and tile field drainage, and thus low density.

This is the future that Kevin Falcon and Gordon Campbell want to bring to the Fraser Valley. This is what they think of when they talk about “sustainable development” – but without the GO trains. This is why we have to speak up – soon – at the process that currently is trying to ignore the environmental impact of the Gateway.

This being the FP, the article is all about how private sector partnerships and how the public sector can be “securitized”. She does mention that the 407 experience “traumatized” Ontario. She just assumes that the reader will either know enough about that or able to look it up. But the impression is that it was an exception, born out of inexperience. Actually, no, P3s have had very mixed results indeed. And “securitization” does not actually provide provide much security either. That was the process that meant banks in the United States could lend far too much money to people who could not afford huge mortgages – with the results we now see. There is a real prospect of a major recession south of the 49th.

And there is no mention of what other ways there might be to deal with the supposed “crisis” in our infrastructure. What other ways there might be to organise ourselves so that we do not need freeways and truck sewers. The word “sustainability” does not appear in this piece – or “peak oil”. Or the need to diversify our economy since it now looks like our biggest customer will not be able to afford the things we sell them. The assumption behind this article is that business as usual and its 100km commutes will continue and all we need is a bit more financial wizardry.

The article does not say why the private sector is better able to build and run projects than governments. On the whole, it seems to me that the imperative to maximize profit does not serve the public very well. The conduct of the war in Iraq is very good business for Halliburton: somehow it does not seem to benefit the people of Iraq or the US very much. The privatisation of British Railways now ensures that the formerly “intolerable” level of public subsidies is now three times higher than it was before it was sold off to the highest bidders (who mostly made out like bandits). The cost in terms just of the death toll of an unprecedented series of train crashes in Britain since privatization should be enough to make us think twice. The private sector consortium that took over the maintenance of part of the London Underground has gone bust, and is now owned by London’s equivalent of the GVRD. In BC, the sale of BC Rail meant that we lost all the fish in a river since CN felt that cutting cost was the only thing they had to be concerned about.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 10, 2007 at 11:07 am