Stephen Rees's blog

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

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

Kirk LaPointe and the Pie Crust Promise

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A “pie crust promise” is one that’s easily made and easily broken. Politicians seem especially prone to this failing. They make a promise then realize afterwards that what they have promised is not that easy to deliver – and even if they do will have far reaching consequences that they had not considered. Kirk LaPointe is an inexperienced politician: he has lots of experience of course, just not of working in the public sector as an elected official. The following exchange on Twitter yesterday seems to reflect this reality.

 

Screen Shot 2014-09-06 at 12.08.48 PM

He tweeted a commitment that the “NPA will bring free WiFi city-wide”. Let us take him at his word and assume away some of the practical difficulties. What would free WiFi everywhere, all the time mean? For a start everyone who has a modem and a contract with a telco will cancel it. If I have free WiFi from the city why would I pay for it? I am not at all sure that Shaw and Telus would be pleased by this development. Providing free wifi would also mean that a lot of services that can now be accessed over the internet would be preferred to other delivery methods. If I have free wifi do I need a home telephone? Skype or a VOIP service would probably do. There were, once upon a time, shops that would rent out DVDs. Very few remain as delivery methods  of video content have changed. City-wide WiFi would have a similar impact, I think.

There are already extensive telecommunication networks across the city – and most of their customers are unhappy. Canadians are convinced that they pay far too much for cable tv and cell phone services – especially if they use a lot of data. Considerable amounts of capital have been invested in cell phone towers and cables of all kinds. Much of the fibre optic cable that was installed in the gadarene rush a few years back remains dark. The original companies went bust, and their networks were scooped up at bargain prices. Which is one reason why we no longer complain about long distance charges. It has always been the last link in the network – from trunk line to individual customer that has been the weakest link. Very few of us enjoy fibre optic into our homes or businesses. But free city wide wifi should sort out that problem – but probably not to the satisfaction of the current carriers.

Just as Mayors who try to tell railway companies what to do find themselves in unexpected difficulties, so, I think, will Mayors who decide to upset the apple cart for the telecommunications companies. Vancouver is a very important market for them and they have already shown companies like Mobilicity and Wind that they do not take kindly to those who try to take even a small share of their market.

I expressed skepticism of his proposal. I did not have the same number of characters at my disposal on Twitter as I do here so I used a pithy, North American expression. It became popular after a clever conman sold the Brooklyn Bridge. Not once, but twice! You have to admire that sort of chutzpah in a salesman. But we are now wary of such schemes, are we not? I think we should be equally wary of candidates for civic office prepared to make what my Mum used to term “a rash promise in a weak moment.”   Or maybe Mr Lapointe will now try to reel back some of his apparent commitment for the same reason that I must now explain I do not actually have a bridge to sell. Which I had assumed would be obvious.

Of course we have been sold bridges recently. Bridges that we did not actually need. Bridges that we now cannot afford. Not that that is stopping another politician from trying to sell us a third one. We have far too readily accepted nostrums from politicians that could not possibly deliver what they promised. Widening roads and building new ones has never solved traffic congestion, nor can they for more than a brief period. Just as cutting taxes for the wealthy did not make us all better off: wealth did not trickle down nor did the rising tide raise all boats. Yet we still elect these rascals.

I am not in the bridge selling business. I am in the skepticism business. I have no axe to grind other than a desire to sow seeds of doubt: for doubt has always served me better than faith. Free WiFi city wide? I doubt it. I really do.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 6, 2014 at 12:51 pm

Customer Complaint

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I have just submitted a complaint to Translink. This being a Sunday afternoon there is apparently no-one available to answer the phone so I used an online form.

The incident occurred at 2:21pm on Sunday August 17 at stop no 50101 westbound Cornwall farside Cypress 

The #22 was following a #2 which had stopped and was occupying the stop. The operator of the #22 chose to overtake the #2 and did not check to see if there were any passengers waiting at the stop for service beyond 16th Avenue. The operator of the #2 made no attempt to contact control to report the incident. Another off duty operator on that bus suggested we telephone Translink. There is, of course, no-one to answer the phone on Sundays. 

Passengers complain all the time about pass-ups due to full buses. Both buses in this case were lightly loaded. From casual observation it is not at all unusual for a #2 and #22 to proceed in convoy. The #2 is simply a short working of the #22 – a long route from the Dunbar loop on the west side to the Knight Street bridge on the east side. The #2 simply covers the section between Burrard Station and 16th Avenue.

Bus operators are supposed to provide a service to the public. In this case the operator was simply concerned to get to the end of the line as fast as possible. Operators of buses have many complaints about passengers too of course. And they take the brunt of the anger directed at Translink for matters well beyond their control. They take verbal and physical abuse. But they also follow their own code which has much more to do with making their job easier than the convenience of the travelling public. Bunching outside of peak periods, overtaking and deciding to pass up passengers should not occur but are, I suspect, not infrequent occurrences.

I have absolutely no expectation at all that any attempt will be made to either identify the operator or even record the incident. CMBC are now investigating but warn me that I am not allowed to share whatever they find out. Well, I know what happened – and so do the people who were there. And now so do you. You just cannot know if anything is done about it. 

Experiences like this one are one of the many reasons why “choice” passengers – those who have an alternative – avoid transit when they can.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 17, 2014 at 3:41 pm

The Fight for the Arbutus Corridor

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This post started out as a brief “in other news item” under the last post. It seems to me, as this story develops, that it needs its own space and promotion. More will be added, no doubt

Looking for pictures to illustrate this post – there is a good summary and illustrations on the CBC BC news site and also a useful summary of the background from The Province

CP has started ripping out community gardens in Marpole along the Arbutus corridor.

Fairchild TV crew

I helped Fairchild TV make a documentary about this episode this afternoon.

Quite why CP thinks the City of Vancouver is more likely hand over even more taxpayers’ money to them by holding hostages I am not certain. Kirk LaPointe of course would not be happy no matter no matter what decision the Mayor makes. He was on the CBC TV evening news blaming the Mayor for making a ridiculously low offer, forcing CP’s response. No doubt had the Mayor made a much bigger offer that would have been derided as overly generous. The sad truth of the situation is that the incumbent cannot please the opposition. Maybe voters in general will appreciate a Mayor who stands his ground against a bully even if gardens are destroyed. 

CP could easily store trains or train its crews without going to all this trouble: there is plenty of track in better condition but just as unused elsewhere in the City.  If I was a CP shareholder, I think I would criticize management for wasting money on track of little use. Maybe reverting a pleasant greenway to a workable railway with no customers actually lowers its value. And here is a quote from one of the comments (“Naturalmystic”) under that Straight story linked to above which raises a possibility I had not considered

CP has the hammer and they don’t have to run a single train to get their price for the land. To run trains they need to upgrade the tracks. They need to upgrade the level crossings. Imagine you are trying to drive down Broadway and Arbutus at 8:30 am and the traffic is gridlocked. The cause? CP is doing work at the crossing. That entails working in the signals, the track…The city can’t do a damn thing. CP has the right to maintain their tracks, equipment, level crossings at any time without restraint. CP has the right to run their trains 24/7. CP has the upper hand.

You can also read Mayor Robertson’s response at the foot of which is the statement from CP which appears to confirm Maturalmystic’s prediction

“We are testing crossing signals, and assessing pedestrian and vehicle crossings to understand where, if any, maintenance is required.”

And then there is this I have lifted from the CP web site

At CP we know that a railroad may serve as the arteries of a nation, but at its heart is community. That’s why through CP Has Heart, we’re committed to improving the heart health of men, women and children across North America. And along the way, we’re showing heart whenever we can. Find out more@CPhasHeart

Working in a garden and eating fresh fruit and vegetables are a very good ways to improve your heart health. Try to do that, whenever possible, well away from the miasma of diesel exhaust.

UPDATE

There is an article on VanCityBuzz on the lack of ability to expand the Canada Line which mentions a possible Arbutus Line at the very end. When I read it, much of the subject matter and approach seemed very familiar. I am not sure if that is reassuring or not.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 15, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Batteries included: Network Rail begins on-track trials of prototype battery-powered train

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6_class 379_train_stock_image

Network Rail picture of a train on the type that has been modified

‘What’s this got to do with transit in Metro Vancouver?’ you might be asking. Well, it’s a trial of a new technology that does actually have potential impact here.

Network Rail and its partners believe battery-powered trains could be used to bridge gaps in otherwise electrified parts of the network or be used on branch lines where it would not be cost effective to install overhead electrification equipment,

You can read the entire press release, if you are interested. A couple of important bits of information are missing: the weight of batteries and what they do to the power consumption of the train when it is running under the wires. The second bit there is probably one of the key determinants of whether this project goes on to production. There are many prototype tests: many of them have short lives or look very different by the time they get into production.

The technology is the interesting bit, because it does not necessarily need to be confined to trains. Vancouver has an extensive network of electric trolleybuses, but the wires do not always extend to useful destinations. It is very expensive to construct the overhead (back in 2004 I used to use the figure of $1m per kilometre for plain track – more for “special works” like switches and diamonds). So to add enough wire to get trolleybuses from say 41st at Crown to UBC is cost prohibitive.

The “new” trolleybuses – actually entering service at the end of 2006 – have much better batteries than the previous generation, but even so can only run at low speed and limited distances. And someone has to be stationed at each end of the gap to do the pole pulling. So battery power is for short distances and for temporary disruptions. Routes like the #7 Dunbar – Nanaimo have been running diesel buses under wires most of the way for at least a year by my observation. This new technology could see faster, longer operation on battery power for longer distances. This would both reduce the use of diesel – a worthy aim in itself – and cut costs. As long as someone comes up with a automated pole puller. Routes like the #9 could actually terminate somewhere useful, like Brentwood Mall, instead of the traditional loop at the city boundary. The #41 could run out to UBC electrically and use the wires for most of the route.

This is probably more likely than seeing CMBC put poles on hybrid buses to achieve the same objectives.

Translink 2135 on wb 9 Broadway Vancouver BC 2007_0108

 

In other news

The draconian changes in drive driving rules in BC have worked to reduce collisions and casualties. No mention is made of why this change in legislation was controversial in this UBC study, so it does not come across as an evenhanded or even objective assessment of the policy change. Were the fears of the restaurant/pub operators justified? Are there any civil liberties concerns about the presumption of innocence lost at the “sobriety checkpoint” or the absence of due process when the police impose penalties without judicial oversight? Or is the unspoken rule any life saved is worth any cost?

Written by Stephen Rees

August 15, 2014 at 9:42 am

How could they get it so wrong?

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There’s a very entertaining piece on the Port Mann Bridge by Neil Salmond on Strong Towns. It is all about what people do when faced with a choice between a fast, tolled route and a slower, untolled route. Or rather, what they say they will do. Apparently in Ohio drivers said they would drive out of their way to avoid a toll. Which, of course, is exactly what they are doing here: driving over the Patullo instead of the Port Mann. Even though the extra cost in gas alone is often going to be about the same as the toll, as demonstrated by a neat little gizmo put together by Todd Littman and the Sun. There’s also the fact that traffic forecasts in general seem to have made a fundamental error by simply extrapolating from the past. Just like steering a ship by staring at the wake, this method has some fairly obvious shortcomings. When circumstances change, so should expectations.

This blog has often berated transportation models – and modellers – for the shortcomings of the standard models. This particular issue is one that is often key to making decisions about choices for the future. How do you assess the willingness of people to choose a new route or mode which is currently not available?  Two methods are in use: Revealed Preference (RP) and Stated Preference (SP).

The first one, RP, makes some generalizations about trip behaviour as a combination of time and money known as “generalized cost”. Data is collected about trip making and this is examined in terms of the trips made and the way they get distributed between routes and modes. This gets quite sophisticated as we know that travel time is not valued by users the same way in different modes. People prefer to be moving rather than waiting, and prefer to be seated and  in vehicles under most sets of circumstances. So the values ascribed to time are different: people who are stuck in traffic or waiting for a bus are conscious of wasting time. People riding comfortably as passengers on public transport can use that time to do other things – read, use their cell phones and so on.  With enough data about trip making on different routes and modes, it is possible to extrapolate what the new route/mode will be worth to its users in terms of time savings or greater comfort and convenience. It’s not hard, for instance, to compare High Speed Trains to airlines for city pairs and come up with a general rule that shows the threshold at which one will be preferred over the other. RP is only reliable for as long as the values assigned to the parameters do not change between the time the data was collected and the new project opens.

SP uses consumer surveys to get people to consider alternatives and tell the surveyor which one they prefer. It is widely used for all kinds of decision making – the appeal of new products and services, or even political preferences. And again it can get quite sophisticated in getting people to make comparisons and choices which are largely conjectures based on synthetic alternatives. And has a varied track record in accuracy of forecasting what choices get made in the real situations.  In a region where there were no road tolls, it is quite surprising to me that the reported response to tolls for a bridge in Ohio were so negative. When people who used the free Albion Ferry were asked if they would be willing to pay a toll for a bridge, they said yes. And given the multiple sailing waits experienced at peak periods, the value they put on their time could also be measured in terms of the length of the trips they would otherwise have to make – crossing the old, congested Port Mann or the much more remote Mission Bridge. In any SP survey, people want to impress the surveyor with their rationality and decision making ability. In good ones, this well known issue is taken into account.

The traffic forecasts for the new Golden Ears Bridge were wildly optimistic. Traffic has so far failed to meet the expectations of the bridge builder/operator. A similar mistake was made with the Port Mann. And this being BC where we design P3 projects to shift money from the pockets of the public to private sector companies, we now pay through taxes for these errors. The bridge builder/operator faces no revenue risk.

In the case of the Port Mann there was already a good reason to doubt the traffic forecast. There was no bus service over the old bridge. It would have been easy to provide one, that would avoid the congestion of the bridge approaches by using bus lanes on the shoulders of the freeway. The 555 could have been running years ago – but that was avoided as it would have reduced the perceived “need” for freeway widening. And actually much potential new transit traffic could also have been won by running a direct bus between Surrey and Coquitlam instead of relying on an inconvenient, out of the way combination of existing SkyTrain and bus routes.

There has been a secular change in perceptions of the value of time and willingness to pay tolls that has not been taken into account by the forecasters. And that is that real personal incomes have been stagnant or declining for a long period of time. Moreover, the expectation that things will get better in the future – which seemed common for most of the post war period – has evaporated. Tax cuts have benefitted the wealthy disproportionately, since they have been replaced by all sorts of fees and charges which are levelled instead: they are applied with little or no consideration of ability to pay. The toll across the Port Mann Bridge is the same for the office cleaner and the CEO.

The other thing that has to be noted is the reliability of the data that is being collected. I have observed many times how this region collects far less travel data in terms of sample size than other cities: and this is orders of magnitude difference. But some of the most reliable data on trip making came from the census – at least for the journey to work mode choice over a very long time scale.

And then there is this

“The workplace has been overwhelmed by a mad, Kafkaesque infrastructure of assessments, monitoring, measuring, surveillance and audits, centrally directed and rigidly planned, whose purpose is to reward the winners and punish the losers. It destroys autonomy, enterprise, innovation and loyalty, and breeds frustration, envy and fear. Through a magnificent paradox, it has led to the revival of a grand old Soviet tradition known in Russian as tufta. It means falsification of statistics to meet the diktats of unaccountable power.”

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/05/neoliberalism-mental-health-rich-poverty-economy

 

 

 

Written by Stephen Rees

August 6, 2014 at 9:39 am

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