Stephen Rees's blog

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

More Delays for Compass

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Compass reader

I got a call today from a producer at CBC TV news who wanted my opinions on the latest delay to the roll out of the Compass card. It seems that the Union has been drawing attention to the poor performance of the card reader on the buses, especially for those who remember to tap out when they leave the bus. This has been getting quite a bit of media attention today. The CBC coverage has been developing – as they say – and I said I was reluctant to appear, given earlier experiences when I gave a thorough analysis of a problem and all that was broadcast was a ten second sound bite. I was told that their methodology had changed. So I went to the studio and was interviewed by Miyoung Lee – and most of what I said made it to the 5 o’clock segment as the second item. Here is a link to video which is also underneath the story cited below.

Then at 6 o’clock the same story was handled by Eric Rankin, and quite a different picture emerged. This time there was extensive commentary by Todd Stone. He remarked that in the private sector delays and inadequate performance would result in “heads rolling”. No one seemed to remind him that it is the private sector company Cubic that has been missing its targets. Later in the segment, Rankin stated that Cubic had warned Translink that the reader on the buses might not work as required for the tap out system to be sufficiently reliable. That was certainly news to me. Cubic seems to have been reticent to put in any appearance in any of the local mainstream media coverage I have seen up to now.

The other surprize for me was the suggestion – raised by TransLink vice president Colleen Brennan  – that the three zone system might have to be replaced by a single zone system if the tap out on the bus issue cannot be resolved. If that had been raised in my interview, I would have had quite a lot to say about that. My Florence bus ticket validator story did not make it to air either – and their system was not supplied by Cubic.

I was relieved that although a CBC trailer had Jordan Bateman spouting about “boondoggles” he did not get quoted in this context, but something completely different. I did my best to avoid Translink bashing by pointing to the “fit for purpose” test that has to be applied to any contract. I think Cubic needs to be held accountable, unless it can be shown that Translink was told that fare by distance would not be feasible on buses before they signed the contract but went ahead anyway.  This is not the sort of story that needs to be leading the 6 o’clock news at this stage of the referendum process. Translink is already in deep trouble for the ongoing series of failures on SkyTrain – another one of those yesterday.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 29, 2014 at 7:28 pm

Uber seeks to return to Vancouver

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I’m sorry that this story comes from a paywalled site. The Globe and Mail reports that Uber has had a meeting with Councillor Geoff Meggs who “said there will be a motion to council this week to freeze the status quo for six months while staff study the issues – past the election in November.” He also acknowledged that this will have to be treated as a regional issue even though “each municipality in the Lower Mainland has its own rules on taxis.”

Mohan Khang of the BC Taxi Association knows he can rely on the Passenger Transportation Board. They turned Uber down two years ago and are highly unlikely to do any different next time. Why? The PTB actually controls who can have a taxi license, even though they are issued by municipalities.

Section 28(1) of the Passenger Transportation Act states that the Board may approve an application if the Board considers that

  • (a)    there is a public need for the service the applicant proposes to provide under any special authorization,

  • (b)    the applicant is a fit and proper person to provide that service and is capable of providing that service, and

  • (c)    the application, if granted, would promote sound economic conditions in the passenger transportation business in British Columbia.

So it actually does not matter what any one city decides to do. The provision to “promote sound economic conditions in the passenger transportation business in British Columbia” means that the established taxi operators’ interest overrule any and all other considerations. Uber could indeed try to satisfy the requirements that there is a need – simply on the grounds that there are fewer taxis here per thousand population than anywhere else in Canada. They could also show that they are working in Halifax, Montreal and Toronto. All the BCTA has to do is point to the impact services like Uber and Lyft have had in cities in San Francisco – where taxi use was more than halved – and the PTB will be obliged to reach the same decision as it did last time.

It has become something of a truism that regulators become the client of the industry they are set up to regulate. That is demonstrably the case with the National Energy Board and the oil industry. While other places have sought to deregulate taxis or to operate on the basis that the public interest in plentiful, affordable and convenient access to mobility services is more important than the survival of existing providers, that has not happened yet in BC. It is not likely to change any time soon.

The people who drive taxis are not the people who drive the industry or the PTB. The people who make significant amounts of money from taxis are those who own licenses. Although these are issued by government they can be traded on the market, and thus, due to their scarcity, acquire significant value. The man (and it is usually a man) driving the cab has to rent the license from its owner. He also has to rent the cab and pay for its fuel, maintenance and access to the dispatch system. A cab driver does not start to earn any money until he is at least halfway into his shift and even then will be very fortunate to clear more than minimum wage. He will do better if his cab also has the even rarer YVR permit – which also means the taxi has to be licensed in Richmond as well of the municipality where it is based.

So for Uber – or anyone else – the task is to get the legislation changed. And while there might well be many people who would like to see that, the people who control the industry also have considerable political weight, not just because they are contributors to party funds but also because they claim that they can deliver votes from the people and communities that rely on employment in the industry. So far as I am aware, no politician in BC has ever tried to test the validity of that claim.

The virtues – or otherwise – of Uber do not matter. The public need for greater access to demand responsive transportation does not matter. Political power is what matters. Geoff Meggs can have as many meetings and as much research as he cares to commission. It will not make any difference to the outcome.

POSTSCRIPT

I have now seen another post on the same issue from The Georgia Straight – which, of course, isn’t paywalled

Written by Stephen Rees

September 29, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Point Grey Road: The Last Word

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As far as I am concerned there is no more to be said about the new bike route from the Burrard Bridge to Jericho Beach.

This video is stunning. And you have to bear in mind while watching it that this project is the one that Councillor George Affleck has committed to tearing up if the NPA is put back into power at City Hall at the upcoming election.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 26, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Climate Heroes

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The intention of this post is to offset some of the gloom created by yesterday’s offering. Canada is not a good example to the rest of the world in tackling climate change, but that should not deter us from seeing what we could do, if we want to see change. And usually this blog bangs on about policy – because that is the field that I used to work in. So this is a departure, for this blog.

It also is due to the emergence in recent days of an alternative to facebook, which seems to have been sucking up a lot of my online time. I am not very happy about that, but the content that I find on facebook is what matters, more than the medium itself. If there can emerge another social medium that does not share some of Facebook’s characteristics, that would be a very good thing. I do not know if Ello will do that, but I hope so. This trailer for a new documentary was posted to Ello by Darren Barefoot – someone I met way back when I started blogging and went to Northern Voice to learn how to do that. He was involved in producing the trailer, and promoted it on Ello.

I did actually watch the whole thing and if you do nothing else I urge you to check out the making of bamboo bikes. The role of the Chinese government in the final segment also provides an interesting contrast to the way we do things here.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 26, 2014 at 9:42 am

Conservatives vote against helping Canadians save on home energy costs

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This is actually a Green Party of Canada Press Release. My expectation is that this topic is unlikely to get much coverage in the mainstream media.

I have to say as well that I did try to take advantage of the ecoEnergy Home Retrofit program, despite its somewhat cumbersome requirements. I did not get a penny from it. The simple reason being that while it was available it was almost impossible to get hold of tradespeople, who in any event at that time were also very much occupied on fitting out new build housing which was flooding the market. So when I bought an older townhouse in Richmond I got a new high efficiency gas furnace. I had to replace the hot water tank too and found there was no realistic alternative to like for like (tankless systems being only viable for larger households). I was then told by a City of Richmond gas inspector that if I installed a sealed system gas fire – to replace the negative efficiency open flame one – he would insist on the installation of a totally unnecessary air brick in an outside wall. This was because he did not understand the words  “coxial flue” and thought the new gas fire would need an additional supply of combustion air. At that point I gave up on a campaign with the strata council to speed up replacement of the windows and doors identified by the mandatory house inspection required by the ecoEnergy program which disqualified me from all rebates. And having replaced the extractor fans in both bathrooms I was not in a hurry to go back into the loft and add insulation up there.

Even so, and recognising that there is much more energy to be saved by cutting transportation emissions, I still think that retrofitting homes is a sensible thing to do, as the payback periods are shorten when energy costs rise. Of course the current glut of natural gas due to excessive fracking is not helping there either.


(Ottawa) September 25, 2014- In a House vote on September 24, 2014, Green Party Leader and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands Elizabeth May and Green Deputy Leader Bruce Hyer, MP for Thunder Bay-Superior North, voted in favour of a motion to have the government establish a program to support energy efficient home renovation.  

Once again, the Harper Conservatives put partisanships ahead of good policy and voted it down.
“Canada wastes more than half the energy we use,” said Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada and MP for Saanich–Gulf Islands. “Heating the outdoors in the winter and then cooling it in the summer just doesn’t make any sense. I am stunned that the ecoEnergy program was cancelled by the Conservatives in 2012, at a huge cost to homeowners.  This motion would have brought the program back – yet sadly, the Conservatives voted against saving Canadians thousands of dollars in energy costs.”

NDP MP François Choquette’s motion M-497 stated that an energy efficiency program would help to combat climate change while reducing Canadians’ energy bills and creating jobs.

“It was disappointing, if not unexpected, to watch almost every Conservative MP in the House stand against a proposal that could have restored the successful energy efficient home retrofit program,” Hyer said. “This motion was a no brainer. The Conservatives could have killed two birds with one stone – creating jobs while lowering carbon emissions. It’s beyond me why any government would oppose it.”

In 2012, the Conservatives cancelled their own ecoEnergy Home Retrofit program without warning. The ecoEnergy program gave out grants of up to $5,000 to homeowners to help pay for energy efficient upgrades like replacing furnaces, improving insulation and sealing windows and doors.

The program helped over 750,000 Canadians during its five years, saving users an average of 20% on their home energy bills every year, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and adding up to $4 billion to the Canadian economy. It increased government revenue and created thousands of jobs.

“EcoEnergy brought huge benefits to the environment, the economy and the average Canadian.  It was particularly significant in Northwestern Ontario, where the cost of home heating is rising rapidly,” concluded Hyer.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 25, 2014 at 11:29 am

People in Charge of Transit Systems Should Be Required to Ride Transit

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It sounds very basic and obvious: in most service businesses the executives are expected to directly experience what their customers experience. There is an article in Atlantic’s City Lab by Eric Jaffe on just this issue for transit.

I will as always remind readers that it is now ten years since I worked for Translink. It may be that since I left, things have changed. I hope so.

When I joined what was then BC Transit I was very pleased to be handed my free transit pass. I have been a transit user all my life. That of course is not at all unusual in Britain, for someone whose father was a teacher. I grew up using buses and trains for the majority of my travel needs. Once I started work I was more often than not a commuter and location decisions were often prompted by the quality of the available commute options. And that was not unusual in London. Most of my colleagues used public transport every day, and even many of the senior people did too. It was only the VIPs who got parking spaces allocated to them. That was the mark of their importance. The really top people got a driver and a car too.

When I came to Toronto in 1988 it was to work on transit issues as a consultant. My bosses at the consulting company were distinctly bemused to learn I was getting to work on the Sheppard Avenue bus. Later on I changed companies, and could ride GO Transit to their downtown office. The idea of driving to work there never occurred to me. Pretty much the same applied when I came to Victoria: provincial civil servants could get an annual transit pass paid for through salary deductions, and I discovered for the first time in my life that the people on the bus all talked to each other! We were bus buddies!

Vancouver was different.  I simply could not afford to live anywhere that had decent transit service. I ended up in Richmond on one of the most inconvenient commutes I had ever experienced, requiring at least two transfers no matter which route I used. Service was spotty at best. I found that people at work were of two kinds: those who had moved to be near a SkyTrain station, and those who drove – or car pooled. The few who commuted from Richmond to Gateway were regarded as transit enthusiasts and thus highly suspect.

I actually got into trouble when I went to meetings outside the office, as I used those trips as a way to discover more about the network. I was told that this was not a good use of my time and that I should use one of the pool cars provided. Especially if I was going out to any kind of municipal meeting.

Jordan Bateman of course has made a career about criticising Translink’s management pay and benefits. We do not hear as much these days about the use of cars. At one time Derek Corrigan’s Saab came in for a fair amount of stick. But my commute was transformed when I joined a carpool. There was much less expectation about flexibility of start and finish times. I was not going to get in early or stay late as I would miss my ride. And the in-car conversation proved invaluable for understanding interdepartmental politics. The carpool was a welcome change from the policy silo.

I was persuaded to add cycling as a commute mode, at least in good weather. The car pool car could accomodate my bike in the trunk one way, or there were increasing numbers of buses fitted with bike racks to overcome the uphill or cross river parts of the route.

When I did use transit, what I also discovered was that I was much better advised to keep my head down, and not get involved. I was “off duty” – but nevertheless could not fail to notice things. What I could not do, of course, was do anything to affect those things. The SkyTrain was automated. The bus system tightly controlled by the Union. And when we set up the new regional system we created operating companies to be separate from the central planning and administration office.

“the whole thing was essentially designed by people who were used to seeing the world through the windshield of a car,”

I think that still must be true of most of the people who make decisions at the top. Do you see Ian Jarvis on the bus much? Or any of the members of the Translink Board? Not that they have any kind of public profile: I cannot name any of them without going and looking it up, let alone recognize them. And as anyone who has had any experience of using the reporting system on Translink’s web site will testify, there is not much response beyond PR fluff and excuses.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 11, 2014 at 11:39 am

Posted in Transportation

Federal NDP promises 15-year national transit strategy

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The Georgia Straight covers an NDP announcement today

Fin Donnelly, the MP for New Westminster-Coquitlam, told reporters that if New Democrats form the government after the 2015 federal election, they will bring in a national transit strategy…

“What we’re committing to is a 15-to-20-year window of predictable, accountable funding that municipalities, provinces, and First Nations can access, so that they can do the planning they need in their cities, in the provinces, in the territories to make the certainty of moving goods and people in their region,” Donnelly said today (September 8) during the news conference in Vancouver.

Which is certainly an improvement over the present arrangements. But it is not nearly enough.

First of all, what is needed is a permanent commitment. This is not a temporary problem that is going to be solved in a fifteen or twenty year time frame. Given the present imbalance between roads and transit, and the fact that federal funding has only been available for – usually major – capital investments (i.e ribbon cutting opportunities for politicians of the ruling party) a different approach needs to be established that provides certainty not just for now but into the future. And which has to support transit operations as well as expansion.

Secondly the assistance is to be tied to the gas tax, which is a dreadful policy. Predicated taxation ought to be anathema to elected officials. While it may buy political support from the right wing, which distrusts most government spending and wants to hog tie future government as much as possible, representative and responsible government must be able to look at all spending and revenue needs equally and make continual adjustments between them. A consolidated fund is the only way to do that, and is why budget debates and votes ought to be the centre of the democratic process. The federal Conservatives have, of course, been utterly and openly contemptuous of the parliamentary process with their sneaky omnibus bills.

The tax on cigarettes helps fund healthcare, but its revenues are not dedicated solely to the treatment of lung cancer or coronary artery disease. Nor should they be. The tax on alcohol is not regulated to being just enough to generate the revenue to treat alcoholism.

The gas tax is not a good and reliable source of revenue into the future.  As driving miles fell and engine efficiencies improved in recent years, so gas tax revenues fell at the same time as the need for transit spending increased.

Transit ought not to be regarded as a free standing object. It has to be considered as part of a wider strategy to deal with growing urbanism and its impact on the environment in general. It has to be part of making the places we live happier, healthier and more efficient. Reducing the need for vehicular movement has to be part of this process. There is no point at all in funding only those rapid transit projects that promote ever more urban sprawl, which was well under way long before the first automobiles appeared on the scene.

(Added as an afterword – Jeff Speck tweeted “Why good transit isn’t enough” citing Arlington VA, a suburb of Washington BC which has good transit but is a sad and soulless place. The author of that piece could be writing about much of the urbanized Lower Mainland outside of Vancouver. )  

It is not going to be just about “getting people out of their cars” either. If those cars are much better utilized, carry more people, require less parking space, produce much less or no pollution – all of which can be achieved by technologies now appearing in the marketplace – then we have to recognize that in suburban areas (which will continue to have their current form long into the future) where conventional transit has so much difficulty penetrating, cars are going to be part of the solution. They will probably be electric, self driving and shared. And they will be just as important as bike share programs and improved pedestrian accessibility and greater decentralisation of service provision of both public and private services. One way to reduce the need for HandyDART is to decentralise healthcare services. Some people will need door to door service, others will be happy with better services that they can reach by walking or cycling. Most will be even happier if there is a shorter journey involved. Location of workplaces and post secondary education both need to be revised significantly. If the university is not at the top of a mountain or the end of a peninsula – or includes affordable on campus student accommodation –  then much of the recent increase in transit demand stimulated by UPass would evaporate.

This a good announcement from the perspective of a party getting ready to fight a federal election next year. It is not nearly Good Enough as a formal policy statement tackling some of our most pressing problems and needs. But it is better than anything we are likely to hear from the Conservatives.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 8, 2014 at 1:05 pm

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