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Archive for June 2009

Whatever happened to environmental assessment?

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I am sorry to be banging on once again about what I used to do once. But there was a time, not long after I arrived in Canada, when I first got involved  in environmental assessment. It was a departure for me, since up until that time I had done economic appraisals of projects using social cost benefit analysis. These did not, as some assert, ignore externalities but attempted to evaluate them using a similar metric to other variables. In the same way that we converted time to money – and put a value on life and noise – we attempted to produce as fair an appraisal of projects as we could – and it was much broader than the simple cash flow spread sheets used by P3 projects today. In Ontario in the early 1990s new legislation required an EA of every new major project to be funded by government. Cynics in the press called this the Consultants Relief Act – since it seemed that much more was spent on project appraisal than actually building things. In some respects this was no bad outcome. For instance, I helped the Township of Clarington fight a gargbage dump. I thought it was about the impact of trucks on neighborhoods – but I was given a very fast lesson in the effectiveness of  citizen involvement – and the effects of leachate on water quality  (neither something they taught me at LSE).

Ontario used to have a very thorough EA process – I managed a study of the a proposed  extension of the TTC subway yards, and in order to get an approval all our site criteria changed so that we could avoid the need for massive impact studies. We simply did not have the budget to do them. I was also around when BC adopted an EA process and was on the steering committee of one of the first projects that fell to it – the proposed new town at Bamberton.

In BC our EA process was gutted by Kevin Falcon, as part of his short reign as Minister of Deregulation. The political direction was simple – anything that gets in the way of the private sector making money must go. And that is pretty much what happened. While major projects are still subject to an EA process, the outcome is never in doubt. It will happen – and the only thing that gets discussed at all is how “mitigation” is going to get the project through. Even if the sites offered in mitigation are already in use as mitigation for other projects (which was the case on Highway #1) or are completely inadequate (SFPR). Incredibly the SFPR evaluation also recorded the impacts on human health from diesel exhaust as an economic benefit because it would create more jobs for health care workers!

I did not know until today that Ontario’s EA process has been similarly undermined. I was sent a link to Railroaded by Metrolinx by its author. I read with increasing dismay how the EA process has been distorted there – and for similar reasons. The outcome of the assessment is predetermined by government. In this case an expansion to Toronto’s commuter rail system – which will be by continuing to use diesel trains. It would appear that the option of electrification was not given serious thought. The author is clear about her point of view – she is one of the people called NIMBYs who is personally going to be impacted. But she is right in thinking that politicians who want to seen to be effective quickly forget that they are supposed to have a broader view of their responsibilities than having a ribbon to cut.

It reminded me forcefully of how the Canada Line suddenly appeared to be Translink’s greatest priority. Prior to that Translink staff (not me actually) had been looking at the Evergreen Line – and had actually completed an objective assessment of its routing and technology choice. That was pushed aside by one man. Ken Dobell, former City Manager for Vancouver and subsequently Deputy Minister to the Premier, wanted a subway under Cambie to the airport. And that was decided before any studies were done – and all studies subsequently were designed to support that conclusion – even if the data had to be bent to fit. For example it was stated that the slope up Cambie past City Hall was “too steep” for light rail – even though some simple use of the City’s own GIS maps showed the average grade was within spec (less than 6%) and I had pictures of ancient Lisbon trams climbing 10% grades. And of course the Arbutus Corridor was rejected out of hand – not enough “attractions” on it – as though Queen Elizabeth Park and Langara Golf Course would bring in lots of commuters.

Distance changes the view, of course, and from the perspective of Toronto our electric train to the airport looks a lot better than their diesel trains. Which, of course, is the whole point about the assessment process. Almost any study can be predetermined if you chose the terms of reference carefully enough. So, for example, with P3 power projects, no one is allowed to question need – or to ask if conservation might provide a lot more usable power more cheaply. With the Port Mann Bridge there was no option other than the project examined at all. Only a “do nothing” scenario – and later some “paper tiger” transit options designed to fail. When I started using CBA, in Britain, we used it to compare a whole long list of projects – and then only the top few actually got funded and built. It was a way of prioritizing within a programme. Even then I got a lot of stick from my engineer colleagues when I started doing comparisons of traffic management schemes to road building: traffic management rates of return on capital employed were always far ahead of road building.

What is happening now, nearly everywhere, is that all sorts of projects are being rushed to become “shovel ready” so they can get stimulus funds. As usual crisis management is a handy excuse to push through all sorts of half baked pet projects. Economists are in most places now pariahs, due to their complicity in the financial chaos – though that may be unfair on many in the profession. There is not much time or consideration given to analysis when “something must be done”.

One of the reasons people make bad decisions – or rather make decisions which turn out to have unforeseen consequences – is that reason often has very little to do with the process. This is as true of major government and business choices as it is about household choices about major purchases. Emotion always plays a much bigger part than people are willing to acknowledge  – but is the reason why there is such a huge growth in the persuasion industry. And the same skill set is used by marketers, advertisers, communications specialists and lobbyists. None of them deal objectively with facts and figures – it is all spin and sound bites, determined by polls and focus groups. No one in the establishment wants to see this change. They think they can control the process – and on the evidence of the last BC election they seem to be winning. But that is going to be short term, hollow victory – and we will all be paying the cost, as our planet rapidly becomes uninhabitable. Simply because we did not care enough to do the job of evaluating our options properly.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 30, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Environment

Tagged with

Dumb news story of the day

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It is on cbc.ca and it is headed “Vancouver parking rates not so bad: survey“. It is in the same league as those surveys that compare cities around the world and then say Vancouver is the most livable. It may or may not be true – I am not at all sure it matters – but the effect it has is to create a sense of complacency and a ready excuse to not do anything.

Once upon a time I was required by my then employer to get my head around the notion of a market for parking. The political dogma of my masters at that time was that the market was the key to everything. All policy was to deregulate and decontrol so that market forces would create the best of all possible worlds. That process was already under way with public transport and would now be applied to parking too. I was held to be argumentative – if not uncooperative – if I pointed out that many of the regulations we had were created by earlier generations to deal with obvious market failures, such as operating buses in an unsafe manner. In the case of parking, if not for regulation, there would be no market at all, as people would then just leave their cars where they damn well pleased (i.e. on the street) and the result would be chaos.

The City of Vancouver has recently decided there is probably too much parking provision, and new construction will in future be required to provide less of it. And of course, the gear heads promptly got all bent out of shape saying how hard that would make things for everybody: no one it seems wondered if maybe the market would step in and start providing more parking – for a price.

The market for parking in Vancouver is not like that of Central London or Hong Kong – so the fact that it is priced differently should come as no surprise. But what really irritated me was that the rates they looked at meant they completely missed the point. They compared monthly parking rates. In other words, what commuters pay – or more often what the commuters’ employers or companies pay. Because that is the first lesson I had to get across to the politicians. The people who drive into Central London and park do not pay for the space out of their own pockets. Somebody else does – and often its the taxpayer. Senior civil servants, in those days, parked for free on Horse Guards’ Parade. Indeed that privilege marked them out from the ordinary hoi-polloi.  The office parking space is a status symbol. Except for some Japanese companies who say the best spaces should go to those who arrive first in the morning: its a sort of self determined employee of the month thing. Companies of all sizes simply offset the cost of providing parking as a cost of doing business: in other words, it is tax deductible. I even had the temerity to suggest that perhaps we should recover the imputed benefit of the parking privilege as a personal taxable benefit. My boss (who drove his VW camper to work every day) was not at all impressed.

The low cost of commuter parking is not a good news story at all.  It demonstrates that we have not used one of the most powerful levers in the traffic engineer’s toolbox to deal with traffic congestion. Moreover, the market in Vancouver is back asswards. The lots get filled with commuters – who get cheap rates – and then there is not enough space for the hourly parkers, who get dinged. If people like the DVBIA had their heads on straight, they would have realised that it is the hourly parkers that businesses need. These are the people who are not going to get the “early bird specials” or the monthly discounts – because they come into town to do business – attend a meeting, do some shopping, go to a concert or whatever. In other words we are currently deterring the very people the DVBIA says it wants to encourage. The best spots in any Vancouver garage are marked “reserved 24 hours”and are often empty during the evenings and weekends. Goodness only knows which business school the creator of this system went to. Parking inventory is time sensitive – just like aeroplane seats and sushi. Keeping your inventory off the market at the times of highest demand (the words “event parking” should strike terror in anyone’s heart) is economic suicide.  Possibly the worst offender would be the Government of Canada – but they are not alone – who permanently barricade off swathes of parking spaces for their employees in public lots like the Vancouver public library. They say, I am sure, that this is necessary in the name of security.   Well that was the same as the Horse Guards Parade argument and it did not hold true there either (though now no-one is allowed to park there at any time).

But the real kicker in this story is at the end

“By the 2010 Games, public transit will have improved tremendously in order to accommodate this increased ridership that they’re going to be seeing,” Rogowski said.

“Once the Olympics are done and people see how easy it is to take these new transportation initiatives that are being introduced, I think more people will be using public transportation as opposed to paying these expensive parking costs.”

Huh? Did I miss something? As far as  know the only change we can expect to see by 2010 is that the Canada Line will have opened and some buses will therefore have been freed up for service elsewhere. Translink is still cash strapped and will be cutting service if it cannot get the provincial government to change its current policies, which prevent the regional agency from raising enough revenue to keep operating and also expand service. That is what the current “be part of the plan” process is all about. This is not a region that is going to see “tremendous improvement” in transit service if the Kevin Falcon legacy holds – and could well see quite the opposite.

The reason that the survey says there is “less demand” for commuter parking in downtown Vancouver than other major Canadian cities is that they have done better at holding on to major office employment. Most of the those shiny towers in our downtown are residential  – something which is less pronounced in other cities. Indeed it is one of the reasons we think we have cracked the livability problem because some people can live and work within walking distance. We tend to ignore the rather larger number who drive out of downtown to suburban office parks (where the parking is “free”). And Translink does not try to run buses for such people – although that was the first thing Microsoft did when it moved into Richmond.

————–

Footnote

In this piece I mentioned “my boss” but did not name him. But it occurred to me that I had not heard much about him lately so i looked him upon Google and found this

“Neville Rees was also a mould-breaker; in his case changing the way in which Government analysed and then addressed problems of traffic management, traveller information, dynamic navigation and the links between traffic and spatial planning.”

(source : ITS UK)

That’s a reference to Traffic Master “Neville Rees, a senior civil servant, who eased the way for a pilot scheme to cover the M25 and other motorways within 100 miles of London.”

Neville (no relation) was the Under Secretary for Traffic Policy during my time with the UK Department of Transport. I was saddened to learn of his death but since an award is now named after him, I am glad he is remembered. He was one of the better bosses I have had to work for.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 29, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Posted in parking

Why Richard Florida’s honeymoon is over

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A rather catty little piece from the Toronto Star (Florida of course writes for the competition).

Honeymoons, typically, are short. For Florida, who arrived in Toronto just over two years ago to head the Martin Prosperity Institute, a University of Toronto think-tank created just for him, it’s officially over.

Shakir, a community advocate, was speaking at a public forum organized recently by the art magazine Fuse, and the group, Creative Class Struggle. Its website leaves little to the imagination: “We are a Toronto-based collective who are organizing a campaign challenging the presence of Richard Florida and the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, as well as the wider policies and practices they represent.”

Well actually there is a serious debate here between the social justice types and the economic development fans. I was just going to update my report on his visit here – but mindful that not everyone spends much time digging in my back lot, perhaps I should draw attention to the Toronto debate.

I really do hope that it is about issues and not personalities. Though a a quick glance at the comments under the Star piece is a bit depressing.  I also think that we need to be careful about what is descriptive – and much of Florida’s work (or rather that of his students) is in this category – and what is prescriptive. Yes cities that have had the creative class move to them have done well, on the whole, but that was in a different era. It may have even been a sensible strategy to adopt before the world changed. But America’s economy is now very different and some of us think it is not going to go back to what it once was. And we may very well have to get good at making things again – real metal bashing, log sawing kinds of industry – and not just the froth and frills of financial services and public relations.

As I said at the time, I do not think I would have gone to his talk if I had not won a ticket in a draw. And after I bought his book and read it, I wished that I had held on to my credit card a bit tighter. I suppose the market for an autographed copy may well not be now what it once was.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 28, 2009 at 7:50 pm

The Transition Initiative

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I really do not have much to say about this. It came over one of the list serves – without any comment – and I read it with a growing sense of recognition. It is the first time I have heard of it – it is apparently British in origin but apparently has spread to Canada.

The article appeared in the July/August edition of Orion Magazine

I would be very interested to know if this has resonance with any of my readers – and it any knows of anything like this happening in  this part of the world

The core purpose of the Transition Initiative is to address, at the community level, the twin issues of climate change and peak oil …The initiative is set up to enable towns or neighborhoods to plan for, and move toward, a post-oil and low-carbon future: what Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Initiative, has termed “the great transition of our time, away from fossil fuels.”

The Transition Initiative describes itself as a catalyst, with no fixed answers, unlike traditional environmentalism, which is more prescriptive, advocating certain responses. Again unlike conventional environmentalism, it emphasizes the role of hope and proactiveness, rather than guilt and fear as motivators. Whether intentionally or not, environmentalism can seem exclusive, and the Transition Initiative is whole-heartedly inclusive.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 28, 2009 at 3:53 pm

The Washington Subway Crash

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This week’s events in Washington were shocking – and are also very hard to understand.

To put the apalling death toll in the subway train crash into perspective here is the death rate by mode in the US, courtesy of Todd Littman

US Death Rate By Mode The Washington subway would be included as “heavy rail”

Washington has a computer controlled train control system – and it now appears that this failed.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed that train control systems failed during investigative tests being carried out to determine the cause of the Washington DC train crash on Monday that left nine dead.

Two Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) trains collided on an above ground section of the Red Line metro railway in Washington DC at around 5pm local time when a moving train crashed into the back of a stationary one.

THE NTSB investigators have conducted tests at the accident site with a similar train and found that when the train was stopped at the same location as the train which was crashed into, the train control system lost detection of the test train.

Now investigations have to continue to determine why it “lost detection” – but also it will be necessary to determine if that would have made a difference

The operator of the struck train said he had been driving the train in manual mode during his entire shift that afternoon. He said that he saw a train in front of him and stopped to wait for the train to clear.

So it would appear that trains were being driven on “line of sight” – not using the train control system. Since “the striking train did not have any onboard accident data recorders” and the driver of that train was killed, that may not be possible to establish with respect to the striking train conclusively.

+++++++++++++

UPDATE Sunday June 28

The Washington Post is now reporting that the striking train was under automatic control – and the driver used the emergency brake properly.

+++++++++++++

On systems like SkyTrain and the Canada Line, there are no line side signals since the train control system uses a “moving block” principle to keep a safe distance between trains. When that system is overridden – for example to keep train staff familiar with emergency procedures – the train speed is restricted to half normal speed while under manual control. The only collisions that have occurred on these systems have been when the trains were being driven manually.

DLR under driver controlNormally the DLR operates automatically under the Alcatel system. But for “train captain” training purposes, they are run under operator control at half speed and “line of sight” every so often

The Docklands Light Railway (above) uses the same type of Alcatel system that SkyTrain and the Canada Line use. (The Washington system was supplied by Alsthom but it is not clear to me from this document if it is similar to the Alcatel system.)

Whatever system is installed, it is only going to work if it is in use. And one of the weaknesses of the US transit funding system is that  money is provided by the federal government to build things, but not to keep them in a state of good repair. One of the common features of the myriad press reports on Google of this crash is that the Washington subway system as a whole needed upgrading. This was also the issue that was identified in a recent highway bridge collapse – it’s not just about transit. Already senators are calling for more money for system upgrades but the “systemic problem of the billions needed each year to keep them operating” is still not being addressed.

Anymore than it is here.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 26, 2009 at 11:08 am

Posted in transit

“Business community bashes Burrard Bridge bike lane trial”

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Vancouver Courier

Once again the headline writer misleads – probably intentionally. It is not the community that is “bashing” it is Charles Gauthier “executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement Association” who does not represent everyone downtown. For example, for far too long I had to spend time in meetings over the redesign of the Granville Mall. Gauthier led the “open it up to cars” brigade – but retailers on the mall itself – people like John Fluevog who runs the eponymous shoe shop – were dead set against more cars. So the DVBIA had to trot out people like Blaine Culling – who was expanding his entertainment businesses in the scruffy end down by the bridge which was always open to cars. Or the Pacific Centre folks who had sucked the trade off the street years before.

“You’re not going to get someone from Maple Ridge to bike to Vancouver to go to the opera,” Gauthier said.

True – but so what? On my last trip to the opera I did not do any shopping either!

All over the world, town centres that have reduced the impact of cars on people trying to get around and enjoy the place have found that business improves. Indeed, that is what the suburban shopping mall tries to create – a car free, safe environment in which people can wander around. Unfortunately, since there is never much else to do inside a Mall except shop, many developers have since turned away from the conventional mall and are now trying to recreate streets.  One of the earliest I have visited was imaginatively called “The Block” and is in Orange County, near Disneyland – which of course is also (within its gates) mainly pedestrian and public transport oriented.

Gauthier seems to be completely unaware – or chooses to ignore – most of the recent literature on planning and transportation in urban areas. I have never seen him at any of the City Programme lectures – or other events where these issues are discussed objectively. The DVBIA seems to be stuck in the past.

It is also the case, as I have written here many times, that the Burrard Bridge trial will not actually reduce vehicle capacity. Becuase that is not a function of the number of lanes on the bridge itself but of the signal settings at the intersections at each end. I do not understand why people like Gerry Dubrovny do not say that too. I was appalled by the editorializing that Gloria Mackarenko manged to insert into a recent CBC news report on the trial where she suggested that it would inevitably lead to worse traffic congestion – because that is (she said) what happened last time.

Cities are not about making it easy for cars to drive through. We have always known that – yet had to fight off the people who hate cities like Robert Moses, as well as those who seem incapable of understanding them, like Charles Gauthier. It is people movement that matters. And it is people who spend time (and money) within the city who contribute to its wealth and well being. And increasingly, Vancouver is seeing more people walking and cycling and fewer people in cars. Which is as it should be and will inevitably continue.

There are serious concerns for businesses impacted by construction – both on Granville and, up until recently, Cambie, and of course there needs to be a process by which such businesses get heard and helped. Other places do that a lot better than we do too. But just bleating about anything that might appear to reduce car carrying capacity  is no longer credible. Just because people reduce their car use does not mean they stop spending. And of course, downtown attractions need to be worthwhile and accessible. Concentrating a lot of drinking establishments in a few blocks of Granville was probably not the best urban strategy – though it no doubt suited Mr Culling’s pocket. (And it meant the street has now to be closed to cars at closing time too!) Concentrating on chain stores and upmarket retail on Robson looks like it neglected the new residents – something at long last now being addressed. Both these mistakes can be laid at Mr Gauthier’s door. he and his cohorts pressed for these changes – and we have had to pay for them.

The present one lane trial already concedes far too much to the car brigade. But it may well reduce the collision rate – so for that reason alone is worth supporting. It also seems likely that the present Mayor may actually let the trial run its course – which may mean that it stands a better chance of a fair assessment. But you can bet your boots that Gauthier and Co will be calling for its ending long before the trail is up and will declare it a failure no matter what the actual results are.

Burrard Bridge - Critical Mass June 26, 2009

Burrard Bridge - Critical Mass June 26, 2009

The photo above was taken by “Random Dude” on flickr and has a creative commons license

Written by Stephen Rees

June 26, 2009 at 10:08 am

Missing emails in BC Rail case

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BC Rail 4606 photo by Stephen Rees

BC Rail 4606 photo by Stephen Rees

The Globe and Mail is going to be my source for this news – but of course it is all over the media today. And so it should be.  The facts are that four years of B.C. cabinet e-mails were erased. The defense says that their clients were were acting on the orders of their superiors – and they maintain the e-mails could prove that. And the law in BC is that emails must be kept for seven years and even then “eliminated only with the consent of the legislature or attorney-general. There is no indication that consent was ever given.”

Supposedly there are protocols in place to ensure that information is retained – and only “transitory” emails can be deleted.

This could result in the whole case against Basi and Virk collapsing – which I suspect has been the government’s fond hope all along. Very little happens inside the present BC Liberal government that is not directly controlled by the premier’s office. Gordon Campbell has always been known as a control freak and a micro manager. And the way this case has been slowly peeling back the layers shows that the decision to sell off BC Rail – and the process by which that was conducted – was not something that could have been left in the hands of a couple of junior ministerial assistants.

Lawyers for Mr. Basi and Mr. Virk have asserted that, to the extent that their clients leaked confidential information, it was done with the knowledge, consent and direction of their political masters.

And on the face of that that is not something that is so surprising – nor at all unlikely. But short of self incrimination – and absent any hard evidence – is that ever going to be tested anywhere?

The BC Liberals have also been given a fairly gentle ride over this affair. It is nothing like the furore and fuss that surrounded the fast ferries or Glen Clark’s deck. Yet somehow the voters recently decided that Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals were a safer pair of hands for a province facing economic uncertainty. How on earth did the spin doctors manage to pull off such a coup? And why has the media – in general, with a few notable exceptions – generally got tired of this long running saga?

And if the evidence has been destroyed – and the court case ends inconclusively – what possible hope is there that there will be any other process to reveal what actually happened? And given that what has always been clear – Gordon Campbell said he would not privatise BC Rail before an election but then went ahead and did it anyway – and then won a subsequent election – is there really any hope that justice will ever be served? And will the scandal now becopme who destroyed the emails and on whose instructions – and not how come BC Rail ended up in the hands of CN?

Written by Stephen Rees

June 24, 2009 at 10:34 am

Posted in politics

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