Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for July 2010

Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives

Just announced by SFU City Program – a new lecture on August 12,at 7pm

Venue: SFU Harbour Centre, 515 West Hastings Street, Vancouver

Admission is free; reservations are required.

Reserve at www.sfu.ca/reserve

In their new book, Carjacked, authors Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez present their unprecedented, controversial yet hopeful look at car culture, while discussing the complex impact of the automobile and how to develop cheaper and greener relationships with cars.  Supported by anthropological findings and research, the authors argue we are at a tipping point in car culture and transportation economics, where the future of active transportation and transit use will be strong, particularly if cultural ideas and actual experience with the car are made more visible.   More details can be found here:

http://www.sfu.ca/city/fpl10popup.htm

The book will be sold at the event for a discounted price, and the authors will be available for book signing and a question and answer session.

Catherine Lutz is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Anne Lutz Fernandez is a former corporate executive who specialized in management and marketing of consumer brands, and is now a writer and teacher of English

Written by Stephen Rees

July 27, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Posted in Transportation

Surrey housing complex becomes model for energy efficiency

with 16 comments

Vancouver Sun

The province took over some townhouses from the feds (CHMC) which had been gravely neglected.

The foundations were leaking, basements were flooding, windows and walls were drafty, heating systems were aging, roofs needed replacing and the building envelopes needed to be sealed.

Instead of pulling it down and selling the site for private development, as they did with Little Mountain, they decided to renovate. At the same time they upgraded the buildings’ energy efficiency with heat pumps and solar panels.

Of course the first question ought to be what on earth is wrong with CHMC that they let the property get into this state in the first place? How long had it been like that and what impact did that have on the tenants?

features include better perimeter drainage, insulation and building envelope upgrades, as well as solar electricity panels on the roofs of 11 of 28 townhouse blocks.

The solar panels have a rated electricity generating capacity 139 kilowatt hours — and are expected to provide enough power to replace 10 per cent of what the complex would otherwise pull off the BC Hydro grid.

Why less than half the buidlings and why only 10%? At a guess I would say its probably something to do with the orientation of the roofs. But that does seem to me to be a remarkably modest target. There is also absolutely no information about how much all this cost and what the pay back of the energy efficiency measures is supposed to be.

It is important that this sort of thing is done. In general, energy efficiency is usually more cost effective than adding new generating capacity. New solar panels are a bit of a side issue for us, for we do not need to get any power from carbon based fuels – we just choose to, so that the generators can make money selling peak power at high profit margins to California. Frankly, using existing hydro is about as zero emission as one can get. Making new solar panels not being carbon free.

But for many homes in this province, and especially in this region, since they are not in the public sector and thus do not have the government’s deep pockets to delve into, things like up front costs and payback are very significant figures. Many town homes are either condominiums (strata title) or co-ops. There are a lot that are of a similar age: built when hydro was a cheap source of heat, and insulation was minimal. Many still have single pane windows, with no thermal breaks in the frame. Lots of other condos, of course, have had – or still have – other issues which are being expensively dealt with at the owners’ cost with little or no government help.

Could you persuade a strata council to set up a new levy on all the residents to pay for a program of energy efficiency retrofits which would pay back through lower energy bills? Even with the new carbon tax, I would regard that as being a very difficult sell. But I also do not see this government actually doing very much. A “role model for the province’s Green Building Code” is not actually going to do very much at all to help existing home owners or tenants – much less reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Nice little summer story – gives the minister a bit of positive media that the BC Liberals desperately need, but not actually very useful at all.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Posted in energy, housing

Tagged with ,

Translink’s Smart Card Faregate

with 5 comments

Railway Track and Structures (bet that doesn’t feature on your regular reading list) reports on the progress towards selecting one of three qualified bidders.

What caught my eye was this bit

The province is providing C$40 million for the Smart Card and Faregate project, while the federal government is contributing C$30 million from the Build Canada Fund. TransLink is covering the remaining costs – approximately C$100 million of the estimated C$170 million capital project.

Now I may be wrong, and I have spent too long on the other post  I just put up to go look, but that does not seem to me to be the same figures I have seen quoted before. Can someone put me straight?

Otherwise just the same guff we have seen before

Written by Stephen Rees

July 13, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Posted in transit

Tagged with

Life in the bus lane

with 2 comments

CNN has a story today about Jaime Lerner – they called it “Transit guru: My life in the bus lane” which, as usual, sounds like a young sub-editor trying to get noticed, not an accurate summary of the story. I suggest you look at the accompanying video as well as reading the text, so that you can see why the Curitiba bus lanes are not like anything you will see here – or elsewhere in Canada, come to that.

What I want to emphasize is that the busways (or what the US calls “BRT” Bus Rapid Transit) are really only a small part of the story.

He and his young fellow architects conceived Curitiba’s Master Plan in the mid 1960s, which soon resulted in the bus system as well as pedestrian-only streets, more parks, and later, a unique trash-for-cash recycling program that encouraged people to turn in garbage and reusable materials in exchange for food and other goods.

Curitiba also boasts plentiful parks — there are 51 square meters of green space per person in the city — one of the highest per capita rates on the planet.

“Most of the programs that Jaime Lerner and his team started 30 years ago….have been left alone or neglected.”

The busways are exclusive transit rights of way that were taken away from general purpose traffic on existing wide boulevards. The traffic in the rest of the system has become very congested – so there is both a stick and a carrot to switch modes. We do not do this. When we put in rapid transit – or even HOV, we do the utmost to ensure that traffic capacity on the road system is unaffected. We do this by adding lanes, not converting them, and for our rail based systems, grade separation at huge expense. Lerner’s system was designed to be easy to install and cheap to build. Ottawa is probably the nearest comparable system of busways, but there again it was grade separated, hugely expensive and did not penetrate the core of the city. The buses are left to fight it out with the cars. On the other hand Ottawa also did not force transfers, by pretending that the busway was like a train system, so commuters get a one seat ride from their suburban origins to work in downtown. They have also decided that they need LRT now.

Lerner was trying to change a lot about his society – but when North Americans go to Curitiba they tend to focus on the buses. That’s a shame – and there is much to learn from the experience there about community involvement, empowerment of marginalized people and so on. Not that I claim to be expert in those areas, nor am I going to spend much time on them here. But I do think we need to see this in perspective and note that he is not the Mayor now.

The Provincial government now makes all sorts of promises – as does Translink – about BRT. They are going to be used in Surrey. We can also see that some things have changed here in recent years. For instance, under the present administration actual bus lanes are being built on Highway #99. That is to try and soften the blow of the forced interchange to the Canada Line for people from Delta and South Surrey. Of course, bus lanes had existed for years on this Highway on either side of the Deas Tunnel. They were steadily degraded until they got to 2+ HOV as a sop demanded by then Mayor of Delta Beth Johnson as a condition for signing on to the GVTA. There were no bus lanes on either side of the Oak Street Bridge, where they were sorely needed, and now are only being built on the south side to help buses get in and out of the Bridgeport Road interchange quicker. Not sure the southbound lanes now being completed will actually help much. To work as a queue jumper, there has to be a queue to jump, and south of Oak Street bridge in the afternoons traffic usually moves well until it approaches the ghastly Steveston Highway interchange which should have been rebuilt many years ago. Even the closure of the weigh station has done little to change the daily congestion here. So far as I know, there are no plans to make that any better, any time soon.

Highway #99 at Deas Tunnel

Traffic moving well July 14, 2010 - transit buses merge into #99's traffic here

Lerner’s system has novel bus stations to ensure prepayment of fares and speed loading. If you use low floor buses, elevated station buildings (he used simple plastic tubes) are not needed – and as Broadway Station demonstrates, you just need somewhere for waiting passengers to be marshalled. What is notable is the service frequency. A bus a minute! Now that is something that very few systems even try to emulate. On a rail based system, with signalling, 30 trains per hour (tph) is usually the accepted limit for service frequency, and that is dictated by the ability of people to get on and off the trains. London has shown that if you build platforms on both sides of the train and use one for unloading first then open the doors on the other side for loading, you can get more than 30tph – but they only do that now on the Docklands Light Railway which has other much more significant capacity constraints. For a deep level bored tube, I worked out that it was nearly always going to be a better rate of return on capital to build a new line and stations that try to retrofit existing stations with additional platforms for the same number of tracks.

In Vancouver, Translink tries to sell us the idea that a 15 minute service is “frequent”. Hah!

When bus lanes got discussed here with the City of Vancouver engineers, prior to the #98 B-Line, I got very little from them. Their view ten years ago was that if the bus could keep up with the traffic, that was enough. They were appalled by the idea that a bus might be made  more attractive by giving it an advantage. Now that attitude seems to have changed – at least as far as bikes are concerned. Bike lanes have been made by taking gp lanes on Burrard Bridge and Dunsmuir. Somehow buses hung on in Granville Mall too, and will return in September. But when you look at what other cities have been doing for many years in terms of bus priority - and not just for express buses on special routes – we have a long way to go. But do not expect much movement in that direction until Translink can deliver a lot more bus service. Right now they are too heavily indebted and hobbled by payments to P3 projects to contemplate any service expansion anywhere, and will be “re-allocating” bus service (i.e. cutting the service where it is currently least provided).

If, when we do see BRT here, and there is a reduction in car capacity at the same time, as well as a lot of improvement in feeder services to the BRT (which other cities seem to understand too) then we might see a shift in mode. After all, Surrey at 4% transit mode share has a long way to go, so it shouldn’t be hard.  But one reason that I doubt it will happen that way is that there is no thought here that we need to change our way of life very much at all. At least not at any government level – and I include the City of Vancouver in that judgement. They may talk a good line and do more than most, but that does not have to be a lot to be seen as different around here! No politician that I know of is actually willing to get up and say we have to reduce car capacity on out road network. And no one is seriously suggesting that we could increase transit service service to levels that would make that a workable solution – even though that was what happened during the Olympics. If it did happen that would be a legacy I could celebrate: and it is not going to happen.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 13, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Posted in transit

Tagged with ,

Petition Pushes ‘Fairer Form of Auto Insurance’

with 2 comments

The Tyee continues the campaign for Pay As You Drive car insurance, which this blog also has done for some years (as you can see from those links). As has the Tyee: in fact that was where Cliff Cipriani read about it. And he has now launched an online petition and this video

There is some choice in car insurance in BC. ICBC however is compulsory for “third party risk” – in other words the costs that might be incurred by someone else – also known as “legal minimum”. To cover your own risk – “optional insurance” – can be taken out with ICBC or private insurers. When ICBC was set up, as a way of keeping local insurance brokers on side, the new corporation was required to only sell through a brokerage. It is not allowed to sell insurance directly. Of course, as with many other things, you can do lots of things for yourself on line these days. that’s the way a lot of people buy air tickets now – so much so that travel agents now cannot get commission from the airlines but have to charge a feee to their customers. You can buy optional car insurance on line – and over the phone – too, and I would recommend  that if you live in BC, you check out the costs compared to ICBC. I know I save money and get better coverage by buying mine on line. YMMV.

What is mistaken is the assumption that ICBC is “supposed to pursue the public interest”. If that were the case, there would have been PAYD years ago. After all, ICBC commissioned the report from Todd Littman – and then sat on it. And their spokesperson is willfully misleading when he talks about Norwich Union. They wound up their PAYD pilot due to other market pressures – nothing to do with “lack of interest” – and actually some longer time ago than “last year”.

The risk of collision is directly proportional to distance driven. So in terms of the risk assessment, charging people who drive much further than average is very bad insurance practice. In general, I support the idea of public insurance. The evidence is quite clear that we get a better deal from ICBC overall than similar places that rely solely on the private  sector – even if it is regulated. I also think that ICBC does a very good job at promoting safer roads – for example by their encouragement of the use of roundabouts. Private sector insurers don’t do that. But the mulish resistance to PAYD from North Vancouver has to stop. Please sign the petition.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 12, 2010 at 4:12 pm

“Private-public partnerships back on track in B.C.”

with 2 comments

Globe and Mail

Frances Bula writes on the Province’s Request for Qualifications for bidders on the Evergreen Line.

The provincial government is confident that it’s going to be able to work out an amicable deal with TransLink on how to find its one-third of the money for the $1.3-billion line.

Its confidence appears to be tied to the attitude of the current Mayors’ Council head Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender. But despite them having “quieter conversations” than previous mayors, there is no indication that either the province is likely to come up with a new revenue source for the Translink $400m share of this project or that the other Mayors will allow this to be met from property tax which has always been the Province’s preferred source.

And, apparently, P3s are back on again because they are cutting out the middle men – the (foreign) banks – and going straight to the institutional investors

pension funds and insurance companies, are looking at lending on government projects because they are seen as stable investments that provide long-term returns.

That is to say, the taxpayers are backstopping the deal – so despite the spin that risk is being transferred to the private sector in a P3 that isn’t happening at all.  In fact these same institutions have always bought long term government bonds (known as “gilts” on the London market) because they are at very low risk of default. Unless there is a revolution, of course. Imperial government bonds from Russia and China had a market at one time as wallpaper.

So why is the government convinced it can now get a deal? I suspect because it has the power to force one if it has to, through legislation. And there is still time in its present mandate to do that. Fassbender better have something much better up his sleeve. I cannot imagine what that might look like.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 9, 2010 at 10:48 am

Unplanning

with 6 comments

When I pick a topic to write about, I try not to simply replicate what can be found elsewhere. At the very least, I will have a developed opinion to offer and, hopefully, something to say about how it might apply to this region.

This morning I got an email from its editor alerting me to the latest edition of Car Free Times. This is a free publication produced by one person, J.H. Crawford – who is connected to the World Carfree Network – and whose efforts I have promoted here and at my flickr group Places Without Cars. In the latest edition, there is a link to a free book called Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices by Charles Siegel. That link takes you to the html version – which is easier to read on line than the pdf - but you could use that if you want to print your own hard copy. Or, of course, you could buy it as a paperback for US$12.95.

The last paragraph of the book is an excellent summary of Siegel’s position:

The calls for more planning assume that centralized organizations staffed by experts should provide us with goods and services, and ordinary people are nothing more than consumers. This view made some sense one hundred years ago, when scarcity was the key economic problem, but it makes no sense now that over-consumption is the key economic problem in the United States and the other developed nations. Today, we need to invert this technocratic view, so we can change from clients who expect the planners to solve our problems into citizens who deal with these problems ourselves by putting direct political limits on destructive technologies and on growth.

I admit I cut and pasted that too.

I was trained as a regional planner in the early 1970s when I worked for the Greater London Council. That organisation had been forced by popular opinion to abandon its plan for a system of “motorway boxes” that were said to be needed to solve London’s traffic problems. They also gave up on road widening schemes like that on Charing Cross Road that the engineers had been contemplating for years – requiring developers to provide setbacks to new buildings that could later be taken for wider roads.  My interest, up until then, had been on transportation – and indeed I had wanted to go to Imperial College to do my Masters in transportation planning. Since the GLC paid my salary and my tuition fees, it was not too hard to change my mind. So it was that I learned about all the planing theories that this little book so neatly summarizes.

I also recall now that one of the things the other students had a hard time with was the extent to which these theorists had influenced practice. They tended to have come straight from their undergraduate schools, whereas I had been at work for five years. So one of the things I found myself doing – somewhat to my own surprise – was explaining what it was like to work in planning – both in the seminars and the pub afterwards.

As a transport enthusiast, one of the books I read – I think when still at school – explained how London’s suburbs had been developed, mostly by the railway companies in the second half of the nineteenth century. All of a sudden, one of the questions that had bothered me as unanswerable was explained. A french exchange student asked me (in 1964) why all the houses in our part of the East End all looked the same. I didn’t know – and simply rejected the assertion by pointing out the – to me – significant detail differences. But it turned out that the need for more traffic on the radial railway lines from London (in our case, the Great Eastern and London, Tilbury and Southend) coincided with the Public Health Act of 1880 – which tackled London’s slum problem by specifying minimum  standards for things like daylight within rooms, sanitation and so on.

You can date London suburbs a bit like rings on a tree – distance from the central area being key. But also by two other parameters. Towns that developed around railway stations built by speculative small developers, and “estates” that were built by municipal governments and often based on their tramway systems. Especially those built by the GLC’s forbear the old London County Council. East Ham was quite different to Becontree, for instance.

I recommend that you read “Unplanning” – it won’t take long. It is, of course, mostly written from a US perspective. The Garden City movement and Le Corbusier are acknowledged but mostly the analysis is why the United States ended up in car dependent sprawl, and what has been happening there recently. I might be wrong, but I think I detect a whif on anti-government libertarianism here. That seems to infect a lot of political thought there, because of the affection that Americans feel for their founding fathers, and the way that the US constitution has been fought over since by various vested interests. The whole gun thing, for instance, can only be understood if you read the debates about what the 2nd amendment was supposed to have achieved – other than the highest murder rate in the world.

Having been a planner and a civil servant for most of my life, and seen what that achieved – or rather more often – failed to achieve, I have some sympathy for the view that greater citizen input is needed. Certainly I accept that faith in technocracy was misplaced. In the British civil service the maxim was always that experts should be “on tap not on top”. But that was not used to favour people power, so much as the grip of broad generalist mandarins,  who read “greats” (classics) or “modern greats” (politics, philosophy and economics) at Oxford or Cambridge, on the senior positions at the head of ministries. There has always been a distrust of “the mob” – and, with the advent of democracy, the ability of demagogues and “hidden persuaders” to control how people will vote. In the US, the separation of powers is intended to provide the necessary “checks and balances”. Sir Humphrey, of course, knew better.

This blog has covered – thanks in part to the public lectures at SFU – the New Urbanists, as well as some other modern innovators in both transportation and land use planning. And I would like too to mention once again my instinctive response to reading – and rereading – the works of Jane Jacobs. For me the most depressing thing about relying on citizens is their lack of willingness to get involved. It bothers me much more when people do not vote, than when they vote out of misguided belief in failed political theories. But when we are faced with huge projects of a uniquely bad decision making process – Highway #1 expansion, or the loss of Burns Bog – or even small scale but willfully selfish and stupid decisions like the destruction of public housing at Little Mountain – and most people simply shrug and get on with their lives – I have a real problem putting my faith in “citizens who deal with these problems ourselves”.  I do not accept that “we stick with the old technocratic idea that it is up to the planners to deploy the technology”: most people can see through the fog of spin and bafflegab. They just do not think that anyone is going to listen to them. Moreover, they are rightly suspicious of the motives of activists. And not a few of them (activists and the public alike) are both badly informed and in the grip of odd delusions. For instance, that it is necessary to be “tough on crime”, or that all taxes are just a cash grab, or that public spending is wasteful. Or that climate change is scam.

How do we convince people that they do have power? And, if they do actually chose to use that power, how do we protect ourselves from populists? I think the emergence of the movement against the HST is a really good example of how people can be mobilized: but what worries me most about this event is the way it has been built around Van der Zalm – who I trust no further than I could throw him.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 8, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Bicycle Diary – post 2

with 4 comments

If you missed it, here’s the first entry

The dykes around Richmond form a very popular, mostly car free, route for walks and bike rides. The north dyke is one of the least used. It is still a largely industrial area – although that is now changing. Most attention for recreational use of the path is devoted to other sections, and the western end of the dyke is in dire need of investment. The opening of the Canada Line bridge, with its additional walk and bike path would, you might have thought, been a good opportunity, but both Vancouver and Richmond have muffed the opportunity.
Canada Line Bridge over the Richmond dyke
On the Richmond side the bridge is high over the dyke and the the bike/walk path lands at River Road. The dyke trail simply dead ends at a wharf – with no hope of connection to anything at present. There is not even a sign to indicate that users need to use No 4 Road to continue towards the rest of the bike route “network” – which itself is only signposted from the west.
End of the ride
This two metre sheer drop is what prevents dyke users from trespassing on the wharf property.

End of the dyke path

From here I just backtracked and then followed the signs – after the bridge end – to YVR, which took me over the Middle Arm bridge. It is never clear to me if I am supposed to be in the narrow curb lane (or is that a hard shoulder?) or on what might be the sidewalk. On the Middle Arm Bridge I would strongly suggest it is intended to be the sidewalk, but I could be wrong. If I recall correctly, it is the airport that is responsible for this bridge and its connecting ramps. The signage is spotty at best and definitely missing from the eastern end of the bridge. From the western end on Sea Island, cyclists are clearly expected to be on the hard shoulder. Signs direct cyclists to Richmond to double back under the bridge and the swing bridge (the 2m headroom seems barely adequate) where there is a choice to No 3 Road (on the swing bridge) or to No 2 Road – a purpose built two way path towards the Airport Station.

Despite the almost complete withdrawal of bus service on Sea island after the Canada Line opened there are still two community shuttle routes and a night bus – so two stops at the bus loop remain in service. For most of the time of course it remains deserted and is now much too large for its limited function. I wonder how long it will remain like this before it is redeveloped.

The bike route to the Number 2 Road bridge is now along Cessna Drive – the service road for the hotel and BCIT. Cyclists rejoin No 2 Road at the traffic lights where there is a pedestrian signal oddly remote from its crossing. Two long right turn lanes cross over the marked bike lane to provide access to the flight path park and Inglis Drive and then you get to pick again – sidewalk or the bridge’s marked bike lane. If you intend to get down to the dyke on the other side, use the sidewalk. The zig zag ramp to the dyke is not connected to the bridge’s bike lane.

The other thing that really struck me today is the loose, dry, dusty gravel used to surface the dyke trials is unpleasant to both cycle on – or walk on for that matter. Richmond buys Zambonis to ensure skaters have a nice smooth surface at the rinks, but does not think that smoothness is important for cycling. A machine not unlike a Zamboni could have been used to coat the gravel with bitumen and roll it flat. But then there is no municipal revenue stream from cyclists per se – only their property taxes.

On the sections where a tarmac road surface is present, progress is noticeably easier. It might actually be faster but always this surface is installed at points where cyclists need to slow down and watch out for unpredictable wandering pedestrians. People out for a walk never look behind them, tend to walk in groups often three or four abreast, and will frequently stop or change direction. Many will be on cell phones – and blue tooth earpieces, or listening to iPods on earphones. Do not expect anyone to react to a bell except badly. Dogs – on and off leash – will also do their best to hinder progress. At least there were no roller bladers out today. They like bike lanes on roads – as do runners and power walkers – for the lack of driveway crossovers. But bladers do not move in a straight line, but more like a sailing vessel tacking against the wind – moving rhythmically from side to side.

But even so, I made what seemed at the time reasonable progress – at least when not battling the stiff on shore breeze. I made a roughly box like route around the western end of Lulu Island – with the short detour across to Sea Island to try and avoid the discontinuity in the bike route around Cambie and Bridgeport. So I had a head wind when travelling north, south and west, but a good assisting tail wind east bound. Distance in all 34.6kms at an average speed of 15km/hr. My knees hurt now. I also have sunburned elbows.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 6, 2010 at 10:49 pm

Posted in bicycles, cycling

2010 Games transportation measures: Passing phase or here to stay?

I am posting the following at the request of Jan Pezarro. I wasn’t here, so I cannot reply but I hope those that were here will respond.

During the 2010 Winter Games Metro Vancouver participated in a social experiment on an unprecedented scale. For 17 days hundreds of thousands of local residents and businesses changed their travel behaviour with the objective of reducing traffic congestion. The result was visibly noticeable. What can we learn from the experience?

Researchers from the IBM Institute for Business Value worked in collaboration with the Vancouver Board of Trade Regional Transportation Taskforce to develop a survey to explore the reactions to, and impact of, the full range of transportation measures implemented during the 17-day 2010 Winter Games period.

Members of the public and regional businesses are invited to complete the short questionnaire available on-line at www.boardoftrade.com before July 31, 2010.

Topics covered in the survey include reactions to and use of pedestrian-only roads, Olympic lanes, travel-time restrictions, changed access to roads for trucks, road closures, removal of street parking, relaxation of by-laws [i.e. noise], expanded transit services, additional park & ride facilities, increased quality and availability of information about choices and traffic, staggered office hours, telecommuting, expanded cycling facilities and expanded delivery hours for commercial goods.

Please go to www.boardoftrade.com and complete the survey today. Takes about 6 – 8 minutes to complete.

Thanks!

PS – please forward this to other people in your network. We hope to hear from as wide a range of local residents and businesses as possible.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 6, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Olympics

What will fare by distance mean?

with 30 comments

This is a post that I have considering for a while. It is not tied to any specific event – or even release of information – because on this topic there’s not a great deal. Translink is going to install faregates – because the previous Minister of Transportation instructed them to, and the current one is providing some funding towards that. I have discussed this here many times.   You can also read Translink’s justifications – both of those date back to 2009 (not that it appears on either page, you have to look in the address bar of your browser).

To summarize, gates are coming and then smart cards are coming later – which will allow a review of the current three zone system in use now Monday to Friday before 1830. That review is expected to allow for fare by distance – and the smart card will allow for “value loading” so that instead of you buying system access for a specified period of time – 90 minutes for cash or pre-purchased tickets, 1 day or 1 calendar month for passes – the system will deduct the cost of each trip as you make it. Many systems around the world have such stored value cards and I have used them in London, New York and Paris. In London I paid the equivalent of three one day passes in 2009, and found that after five days in London – and a return visit a year later – I still had enough value on the card to use the Underground for the trips I needed to make. The London Oyster card works out the lowest price for the trips you make on it. New York’s Metrocard (also produced by Cubic the current suppliers to Translink) was less flexible but almost as convenient. Translink has yet to chose a supplier for the new faregates, but it is probable they will also supply the cards as most systems are proprietary.

The exact terms of the new system are, of course, yet to be determined. But we can assess easily some of the impacts users will see. Firstly, for fare by distance to work the card has to interact with a reader as you enter and leave the system. Currently, fares are only checked on the way in – and on transfer. Even then, to speed things up, most frequent users have cards that are not read electronically, since the “dip” reader used takes far too long.  It is likely that Translink will chose a proximity reader – which means cards get read if you are close enough, without any need to swipe, touch or dip a card.  That will allow for a system that keeps delays to a minimum which is a significant benefit of arrangements such as all door boarding on B-lines. Similarly, gates should be open by default, and only close if there is no valid media present when someone passes through. This is a safety feature that allows for rapid evacuations – but those can also be achieved at supervised gates if there is an override control. Obviously, if passengers can open gates “in emergency” they will under other circumstances. This already an issue in New York where exit gates are frequently opened by people not holding keys legitimately, or using override controls designed for those with a special needs. The system there has seen drastic reductions in staffing, but many subway stations have multiple unmanned entrances/exits. If you cannot manage the turnstile or gate the system enables another door to be opened – but with an alarm. And that alarm is mostly ignored. In London, the stations are manned and the system is designed with a barrier line between the platforms and the street. If the gate rejects your media for whatever reason, you have to go to a specially provided window at the ticket office. Paris does not have that system – even at stations like Charles de Gaulle airport – which means passengers have to be quite creative (and physically fit) to get through with their luggage.

But I am less concerned here about the cards and gates than the loss of the three zone system during the day – one zone evenings and weekend we have now. The three zone system was designed when the majority of use was for commuting to downtown Vancouver. It is based on concentric rings around the City of Vancouver (plus UBC). That means City of Vancouver residents have a one zone trip for most purposes and many destinations and get dinged on the way to the airport, ferries and for trips to the ‘burbs. Everyone else gets a one zone trip for many domestic and leisure trips but may or may not have to pay more to commute.  The zone system was designed when the region was different – and transit subject to a larger degree of local political control. Since then, much employment has left the City of Vancouver for other places: much industrial and port land has been converted to other uses. While most municipalities have a variety of centres, very few have to the sort of centralized employment locations that transit can serve easily.  People like Kevin Falcon can even claim, with some justification, that the regional plan to concentrate economic activities in regional town centres has failed. Outside of Vancouver’s downtown most of the region has developed around the car and works like every other North American suburb. Jobs are now widely dispersed, and the Origin-Destination trip pattern is many to many, not many to few.

Two significant trends have emerged in recent years. The first stems from  policy decisions in further education: two universities built far away from everything else but with totally inadequate student accommodation.  The students get UPasses and overcrowded buses. And the universities are both developing residential land uses on their property as a way to replace public funding, not provide students places to live. The second reflects municipal decisions to try to attract non-residential development – since it provides a net tax gain – in competition with each other, and other cities. That means the developers build on green fields close to freeway interchanges (or equivalent). And that is as true in Burnaby as it is in Langley. So both post-secondary and employment commuting presents significant challenges to the transit system. But together are also the main source of ridership.

The concentric rings – and the radial pattern of rapid transit – did both help to optimize revenue collection, based on the old paper ticket/coin collection system. But anomalies are noticeable. A short trip across a zone boundary costs passengers a lot but very long trips possible through Zone 3 are cheap. Prior to electronic ticket machines, “long transfers” were one of the biggest sources of revenue loss. People expected to be able to complete a trip within the time allowed on a transfer (even though the tariff was no longer written that way) and operators usually obliged.

Oner of the appeals of the “fare by distance” system is that it will seem to better reflect the value users place on trips. Note that I am not talking about cost. The cost of carrying a passenger actually varies by a modest amount as distance increases. There is a large increment of cost – an “entry cost” if you like – with each passenger. But since people and equipment are employed in any event – and will travel the whole system most of the time – the fixed cost of system operations is a high proportion of total cost. That is why the first subways in North America, built by private enterprise, had a flat fare system. It kept fare collection costs low and gave longer distance passengers an incentive to use the system. Now that electronics are so cheap, and technology much more widely available, other systems look attractive. But it is also worth thinking abut how they impact users who have other alternatives available to them.  What deters people from using transit now is not the fare but the inconvenience and time to make a trip. For example, a two zone ride from Vancouver to Richmond now costs $3.75. If the origins and destinations are not in the centres near the Canada Line stations, there are two transfers. Journey time around an hour, but drive time 20 minutes or so depending on traffic. (A one zone trip from UBC to Boundary Road is actually longer but cheaper.) Some commenters here have questioned my personal mode choices, but the reality is that if time is an important concern, transit use when there is a car available and  parking is free is quixotic. Even when there is a parking charge, when the car carries more than one person, out of pocket expenses for a trip by car are usually lower than transit, even on weekends and in the evening. And of course car use is generally much more convenient: no waiting or transfers!

Many trips in this region do not have a rail option, and bus operations do cost more as people travel longer distances. But again, it is not system cost so much as passenger perceptions of value that matter when setting fare policy.  And those perceptions of value also have a component of memory in them: when you change any system there are winners and losers, and you need to be careful that you do not offend too many current riders. That is because it costs eight times as much to win a new passenger as retaining an existing one (or so the marketing gurus at Translink kept telling me).

If you now live in Zone 3 and make long trips within that zone, fare by distance is bad news. I suspect too that it could hit longer distance travellers within Zone 1 – especially those making the long trek out to UBC. Those who gain will be people who cross current fare boundaries on short trips. For instance, those who need to cross the Burrard Inlet but don’t go far on the other side. Expect much cheering from the North Shore. Trouble is, that is not a part of the region that is going to get many more people and therefore not much more transit either. Where transit is needed most – where it is currently carrying a very low share of the transportation market, and is very unattractive compared to driving – transit will undoubtedly cost even more to use. That is Langley and Surrey. And that is where the next million people to arrive in this region over the next twenty years will, by and large, be expected to live.  Those are also the people, by the way, who get hit hardest by tolled bridges  – Golden Ears now, Port Mann and Patullo at about the same time fare by distance hits.  So Translink is going to need to be insulated against political unpopularity even more than it is now.

There is also the question of what happens to short trips on transit within one zone. Fare by distance might make those cheaper, but that only gets you more people who now walk or use bikes for those short trips. That really does not help anything. People who walk in cities are important, for all kinds of reasons, but the one that gets noticed is that they are more likely to spend money as they travel. (People who get in a car in the garage at home and drive into the basement garage of where they work are not likely to dip into their wallet during that trip.)  A transit ride is an interrupted walk. I have long opposed the idea of free transit in downtown Vancouver for just that reason, and I expect that if fare by distance gives a break on short trips within one zone then it will also be counter productive, at least in terms of livability.

For that is the real question that seems to get ignored. As we have moved steadily away from multiple objective policy evaluations to simple, private sector driven “bottom line” impact analysis, many of the broader objectives get lost. Since Translink is increasingly viewed as being analogous to the Airport or the Port authorities, so many of the worthy social and environmental objectives of transit provision  are getting lost. Fare by distance is unlikely to measured in terms of long term growth of market share – or effect on greenhouse gas emissions (which is nearly the same thing) as it is by the cash flow it can generate. Short term, people have a hard time adjusting some of their travel patterns. But as we have seen, travel patterns do change, and are sensitive to price – and more sensitive to price in the longer term. (The technical term for this is longer term price elasticity and the place to go for more about that – and indeed all transport economics is Todd Littman’s site.)

If we had “joined up thinking” – or what we once called integrated transportation and land use planning – then fare by distance actually makes a lot of sense, as it would encourage people to make shorter trips – and, combined with road user charges and carbon tax, fewer mechanized trips. But the one glaring loss we have suffered in recent years is that of public subsidy of housing. (The Tyee has a thought up a way of dealing that.) Oddly enough, last night I was reading a poster, put up by the City of Vancouver in 200o, on a utility pole on Main Street in Riley Park, that lauded the sense of community and making do on little engendered by the Little Mountain housing project – which of course was recently pulled down and will not get replaced until a private sector developer is sure of making a great deal of money. Housing is steadily becoming unaffordable for new entrants to the market – or those on who we depend for all of the provision of our services. Health, child and senior care being areas mostly clearly hit already – and going to get very much worse quickly, but all the others too. Resorting to secondary suites (many of them still illegal) being about the only response currently available. The one thing I heard most often when I was doing public consultations at Translink was that people felt forced to live far from where they work – or unable to afford to live close to places well served by transit. This is not a concern of governments at any level now. Affordable housing gets lip service but no action. Rental vacancy rates are too small to measure, and house price increases large and rapid.

Transit has, in popular imagination at least, become steadily more expensive as incomes have remained nominally static – or declined in purchasing power. You can play games with charts but basically, since cash fares have been increasing in 25c lumps at widely spaced intervals, transit users feel they got hammered every time. Is perception important? Try this quote from Tom Prendergast

“The public firmly believes that fare evasion on SkyTrain is higher than has been measured in past audits.  The belief that the system is losing revenue due to fare evasion is very often cited as a reason not to support additional revenue measures needed to sustain and expand the transportation system.”

So the gates (and by impication smart cards and fare by distance) are not being introduced because there is a lot of money being lost on fare evasion but because Translink wants less opposition to “additional revenue measures” i.e. tax increases. And, of course, fare by distance will be approved only if it gets a higher take from transit users than the current system: they are not doing it because they want to get more use – they can’t cope with that anyway. They want more revenue.

As for fare evasion, it won’t be eliminated by any of those systems. It will be different, that’s all. Ticketless travel is already low. What is harder to detect – with any system – is the extent to which the passenger is entitled to use the fare media in their possession. Some people get concessions and deals. But just as blue parking badges get passed around, so do concession tickets and all sorts of passes. Indeed, if you have a monthly pass for your commute you are now entitled to lend it to your family members for their use at evenings and weekends: take the kids with you for free off peak. That’s revenue loss too, but calculated into the system. Oyster cards have been hacked. Passengers did get hold of duplicate keys that got them free rides on the New York subway.

And fare evaders are people like you and me. The people who make you feel unsafe on transit may well have tickets – but still nurture crime in their hearts. There’s no way of telling. Paul Bernardo preyed on transit users in Scarborough for years, but looked clean cut and well dressed while he did it. You might feel safer if there is a gate and a barrier, but you won’t be. And, if you are frequent transit user, you will be poorer.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 5, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Fare evasion, transit

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