Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for September 2010

Streetcars: The Missing Link?

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MOST RECENT UPDATE November 17, 2010 ~10am

Yesterday I went to a conference called Streetcars: The Missing Link. They did not have power outlets near where I sat and they had not paid the extortionate fee the Renaissance Hotel wants from users of its wi-fi. My battery went dead after a couple of hours, so I now have a lot of hand written scrawl to transcribe, but I did manage to make electronic notes of the first two presentations. The conference was recorded and will be available as audio for the whole thing and video for the presentations (not the “town hall” at the end) in due course. I would hope that, since they put everyone’s powerpoint slides on one laptop, that these could be uploaded to a website – which might be a lot quicker and easier to get out the main information points.

[email received from the organizers  2010.11.17

Thank you for your attendance at September's Streetcars: The Missing Link? symposium.

Links to speaker presentations and audio from the town hall meeting forum are now available for viewing and downloading here:

http://www.act-trans.ubc.ca/events.htm

Audio recordings of the speaker presentations will be made available shortly.]

I am not going to try to cover the everything straight away. It is far too nice outside right now and that is not going to last. I have posted summaries after this post.  In this one I just wanted to give a flavour of the day. It started with a review of the Toronto system – which is going to replace its streetcars – and then expand its transit system mainly by using LRT. This got the day revolving around what distinguishes streetcars from LRT. Basically its about speed and distance. “Streetcar” is the term used for the usually quite slow, frequent stop local service within a central place: “downtown circulator” was a term often used. LRT was for faster, longer distance “line haul” or suburb to centre services – larger, longer more powerful trains that do not stop so often and usually have quite a lot of exclusive rights of way.

Encouragingly, much of the discussion was about what sort of land use gets shaped and served by streetcars. Many cities are using streetcar as a way to revitalize old industrial/commercial areas in inner areas by linking them to downtowns and line haul transit services. Streetcars are also seen as a way of attracting investments for redevelopment. This tends to produce a midrise density pattern in “corridors” – the three to four block walk from the streetcar line – rather than the highrise tower clusters to be seen around some rapid transit stations. Much discussion centered around this distinction and the desirability of the different development patterns.

I have to say that I though the day was heavily focussed on the City of Vancouver. I think another conference needs to be held in Surrey to discuss how transit investments may help offset the sprawl creation that is going to follow freeway expansion. There is no doubt that “motordom” got all it wanted from the Gateway program. Some think that this means there is now a window of opportunity for more transit spending (much hope seems to be pinned on the recent MoU). Others, more cynical think motordom can never be satisfied.

There was also a lot about the Olympic Line. I will get to that in due course, but I do want to make a couple of observations. While the line was operated by modern trams from Brussels (where they work in “streetcar” mode, mostly)  the right of way was an old railway. It is now – at least from Granville to Cambie – a modern, heavy duty, single track railway line with a passing loop and overhead power and two stations. It is not a “streetcar line” and there is no intention that it will be used to shape development along its current route. It is hoped that one day it may become part of a downtown streetcar, but it needs to noticed that most of downtown is now “built out”. The development happened without streetcars – although the downtown (and especially the West End) is still recognizable as a “streetcar village”. There are lots of stores and services that have no parking – a pattern that to-day is impermissible. And it seems to work quite nicely with trolleybuses. I also note that while the Olympic Line was an undoubted success, the Downtown Historic Railway has not operated at all since.

There was a lot about how we need to have the complete set of transit services. There is a widespread belief that we have spent too much on regional rapid transit – and that the development pattern that has produced is distinctly different to the old streetcar villages. If more people are to be absorbed on the Burrard Peninsula – and especially in the City of Vancouver – then a low rise set of corridors along arterials would be an easier sell to those who will resist development for whom “high rise” is a red flag ( see for instance the reaction to development proposals adjacent to the Marine Drive Canada line station). If, on the other hand, the political power of those who are in the highest price areas already is preserved – as it seems to be – let alone strengthened – then absorbing more people may well be left to the suburbs, which are already growing faster than Vancouver and with very little transit of any kind.  The next million to arrive will mostly be absorbed south of the Fraser – and if nothing is done that will be in low density suburban sprawl with everyone having to drive everywhere. And we know that does not work. Not for human health and not for a society that intends to ensure its long term survival.

poster

Keynote: Jack Collins Vice President, Project Implementation, Metrolinx

Metrolinx is embarking on a transit expansion program called The Big Move . The authority is similar to Translink and covers the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas: GO Transit (the regional commuter rail and bus operator) is a Metrolinx subsidiary. In 2008 a common supported vision was approved that has a list of 54 projects that will cost $50bn in the next 25 years. Up until now the TTC has been “just keeping up”: there was not much investment in recent years, and the cost of congestion has been steadily increasing.

Currently there are four  LRT lines being built and one busway. It is also desired to expand GO services but Union Station is now a major bottleneck and is being rehabilitated. The Province of Ontario is spending $9.5bn on the “big 5″ projects with a  $330m federal contribution.

They have recently placed an order for 182 LRVs with Bombardier, the first 35 of which are for the Sheppard line in 2014. This will be in the  middle of the street on a raised median with signal priority at intersections. [This line was originally intended to be subway from Yonge Street to Scarborough: the tunnel stopped short at Don Mills].

On Eglinton Avenue a cross town service will be established 11km of which will be in tunnel: “it is impossible to build on the road”.  Four Tunnel Boring Machines have recently be acquired at bargain prices. The former Eglinton subway which was filled in will be reopened.

The York VIVA BRT runs on Highway 7 on exclusive bus lanes and the former Pearson link – which was to have been a P3 has now been taken over by Metrolinx. It runs on existing railway lines but requires a 2km length of new build track – as well as the station at the airport. Metrolinx is also in the early stages of replacing the roof of Union station to improve the passenger experience.

TTC 4127 on 501 Queen St at Yonge 2006_0111

The TTC has operated its current streetcars since 1978 when the CLRV was introduced. It is a high floor single ended car  15.4m long that can carry 130 passengers.

TTC 4215 on 501 Queen St at Yonge 2006_0111

In 1987 the articulated CLRV was introduced. It is a high floor, 23m car that can carry 205 passengers at crush load. While many LRT systems have minimum radius curves of  around ~80m, 0n several routes in Toronto there are tight curves of 11m radius. Since the cars are single ended they require turning loops at each end of the line. There is also a requirement to climb  8% grades [most modern systems try to stay under 6%].

Bombardier Flexity car for the TTC

This is an impression of what the new Flexity cars will look like. They will be introduced into service between 2012 – 2018 at a cost of $4.5m each. The first three prototypes are due in 2011. The car is similar to that used on the Olympic Line “but it won’t have leather seats!” It will be able to carry 250 passengers (crush load) and is 30.2m long with 4 doors: it is also single ended. One innovation designed by the TTC is super resilient wheels to reduce ground borne vibration using a “hockey puck” design.

There has recently been a resurgence of interest in streetcars in the US.

  • St Louis MO Loop Trolley – urban circulator
  • Charlotte NC – urban circulator
  • Cincinnati OH – connects CBD to two districts being redeveloped
  • Fort Worth TX – connect commuter rail and transit centre
  • Portland OR – pioneer of streetcars

The theme common to these systems is to tie in to a line haul system . He then discussed what distinguishes light rail from a streetcar (see above) and noted that places like  Phoenix, Seattle, Houston, Edmonton and Calgary all connect their downtown to the suburbs using light rail. This also will be built in the Toronto/Hamilton region.  There has been a heated streetcar debate  but the key for LRT is to “never share lanes” with other traffic.  Sometimes the tracks will be physically segregated. Modern low floor LRT cars with multiple doors allow for faster boarding, with train lengths of  up to 90m with a three car consist can carry over 600 people. These cars will be bi-directional (to eliminate the need for loops at termini) with longer stop spacing – at least 1km apart.

On the St Clair streetcar an average speed of 13km/hr is accomplished. On the new Sheppard line this will be raised to 22 km/hr, Eglinton will manage 30 overall with the subway sections at 32.  “The streetcar is slow and unreliable” because it has to run in mixed traffic. Transit line capacity is a function of train capacity and service frequency. Metrolinx is designing its LRT  for 9 to 12,000 persons per hour per direction (pphpd) compared to the 3,000 pphpd for streetcar. They have the “green light” foe the extension of LRT 57-58 per km on surface, 214 in tunnel.

Costs for LRT vary widely. The Scarborough LRT cost $158/km [same technology as SkyTrain] the VTA in San Jose cost $56m/km with some exclusive row mostly at grade. Streetcars, on the other hand tend to come in the $25m/km range in US systems:  “streetcar is about half the cost of LRT”

He concluded that at these prices it is important to get it right [mode choice] for future generations.

Q & A

In answer to the first question he said that the streetcars run on 600v, will have a trolley pole and will use the existing Toronto (broad) gauge. The LRT cars will run on 750v, have pantographs and run on standard gauge track. The new lines will be owned and operated by the provincial agency but contracted to the TTC for operations and maintenance. This has been a hot button issue.

Asked about “blending” the use of streetcars and light rail he said that due to the different specifications in TO that is not possible.

The conversion of the Scarborough ALRT will allow the operation of 3 car LRT trains: demand currently is over 9,000 pphpd at peak periods which exceeds the capacity of of the mark I “SkyTrain” [note that term is not used in TTC parlance]. The system will be shut down for three years and will be rebuilt, with a review of the structure to ensure that it can cope with lager trains. The Mark I cars are no longer made and it is hard to get parts. The TTC chose not go with a Mark II car.

He was then asked about the consultation of the public and businesses during the building of the Sheppard line.They are only starting construction now but have been actively engaging the business community. Traffic is congested in Don Mills but the City owns a wide right of way, and the LRT will be built in the median. He said that they will not repeat the mistakes made in the construction of the St Clair streetcar right of way.

Asked about Bus Rapid Transit he said that they were building the infrastructure in the expectation of a 20 year life. It could potentially morph into  a guideway for LRT at a later date but that is not presently contemplated.

The next three presentations looked at the Vancouver’s historical development around streetcars and future growth implications.

I am going to limit myself to Gordon Price’s talk – as that one has electronic notes.  The rest was added in the Part 2 post.

In 1887 -the CPR arrived in Vancouver on May 23. In that same year in Richmond, Virginia the trolley was invented. Actually a version was produced in 1882 but that did not get to commercial development. The electric trolley was one of the most rapidly accepted innovations. Quickly the standard flat fare fare dropped to a nickel – and stuck there (which lead to financial problems for the streetcar owners and a lack of cash for renewals and improvements). The streetcar was “the Internet of the 19th century” and there was a cycle of boom and bust speculation. Many North American cities were built around the streetcar: the wilderness was converted to real estate. Walt Disney has turned this into his illusion “Main Street USA”, the idyll of the ideal American place.

In 1890 the BCER opened its new station at Hastings and Carrall (the building is till there) and there is a movie on youtube of a Vancouver streetcar ride in 1907.

The streetcar meant that Vancouver had no inner city tenements for working people who needed to walk to work. The streetcar was a sprawl machine. Transport is about land use: the rapid development of the streetcar drove the price of land down as land subdivision exceeded the pace of development. We went  straight to suburbs and never had the compact urban development seen in older cities. There was no crowded, dangerous polluted city centre. In 1900 Main and Broadway in Mount Pleasant was where the streetcar lines cross – and became a new suburban centre. The streetcar strips deteriorated over time as development took a while but by 1929, 14 out of 15 residents within 400m of the streetcar tracks. There was no zoning back then, so when people got off the streetcar, you could sell them something. So stores sprang up in the front gardens of the houses along the streetcar route. These streetcar villages with everyone walking to the services they needed are still intact today. You can see along Commercial Drive the “DNA of development”. There has been some  evolution – the streetcars have been replaced by trolleybuses. They may not be fast but they’re frequent – you don’t need a schedule.

The shops on Denman Street have no parking that would be illegal now! In the west end 40,000 people now live in a 19th century grid

Kerrisdale (originally Kerry’s Dale) at the intersection of the interurban and the 41st Avenue streetcar, there is still the collection of retail activities arranged to meet the needs of the people getting off the cars and then walking home.

In this city we walk in the centre – elsewhere we put trillions into the car. The real success is the streetcar/trolley city and that will be the model for the post motordom city.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 30, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Posted in land use, transit, Transportation

Tagged with

Translink funding

with 35 comments

It is with some reluctance that I blog on this issue – because it has been covered here already extensively. And though there is a lot in the local media this morning in reaction to yesterday’s meetings between the Mayors, the Premier and the Minister of Transport – and the MoU – really nothing much has changed. And most of the reaction you can read is simply driven by which side of the political spectrum the speaker is on. Many Mayors are closely allied to the right wing – or the elite or whatever else you may call them. They may not be very keen on Gordon Campbell any more, and they know they have to be seen to be defending their turf and the people who pay property taxes, but they all stress the party line about working together and “only one tax payer”. The event was carefully stage managed. As was the decision to announce public consultation as the next step. A bit of hubris over the HST  – not the tax itself, of course, just the way it was done. As though public consultation is going to make the revived vehicle levy any more popular this time than it was last time.  A few Mayors – and the NDP transport critic – simply rubbish the whole thing: of course.

Nothing much has actually changed. Everything is now on the table – except the carbon tax. Or the idea that the province should cancel its massive road building program – that was not even mentioned. The main thrust is still that people who live in Metro Vancouver have got to pay more taxes – some way or another – if they want more transit. The idea that the province should pick up more is not on the table either. The MoU is very specific about what the municipalities must do – much vaguer on what the province is committed to. Translink has access under the legislation to a few sources – property tax, parking taxes, a vehicle levy – and gets a share of the locally collected gas tax that the province collects. Anything else would require legislation – so the province gets to decide if that gets time in the house and a whipped vote – and even a vehicle levy needs more regulations, which is how Ujjal killed it last time.

So the next bit is Translink coming to ask us – once again – “how would you like to pay for that?” Predictably, the loudest voices will be the anti-tax brigade who believe that we are already taxed out – we cannot afford any more tax for anything. They also believe that government wastes money – and that there is a small fortune to be had by cutting expenditures. You can already see these themes in the comments sections of those sites that allow them.  You will also hear from those who do not, they say, “benefit from transit” that they should not have to pay for it. There’s a special local variation of this – “they get more transit than we do, so they should pay more for it”.

Fortunately, Translink can now say, quite credibly, that they have done a good job at cost cutting. Of course, not nearly enough to satisfy those who will say “you shouldn’t have …” and then point to various investments that they don’t like: but then they cannot be satisfied  in any event. They will also now be able to say that some form of vehicle levy now looks better than property taxes – which are still going to be the province’s fall back if no new source is identified.

Many better options are going to be rejected as impractical – or at least infeasible to implement in time to pay for the Evergreen Line, but “we will look at them for the long term”. So expect whatever is chosen to be hedged about with “pro-tem” undertakings. Which the populace will rightly be skeptical about. The province will not, I predict, shift from its opposition to tolls on existing infrastructure – and Translink is going to have a tough enough time getting tolls on the replacement for the Patullo Bridge. Congestion charges will also be rejected – mainly because our geography and land use distribution does not allow for the simple cordon pricing used elsewhere. We do not, any longer, all go to downtown Vancouver to work in the morning. Anything other than a simple cordon will get put off because of the time needed for its implementation.  A simple sticker on a license plate will still have to get through the agency procedures used by ICBC – and the take they will want will increase dramatically if it is anything other than flat rate. And you can bet there will be stories about people registering their vehicles outside the region to avoid paying.

The idea that there should be some capture of the private sector’s gain from transit investment will also fail. Because the private sector can always say – just as they did when Toronto proposed this to pay for transit expansion there – “we will develop elsewhere. If it costs us more to do TOD then we won’t: we will keep on doing what we like – highway oriented development: and you have already committed plenty in highway expansions to give us more than enough scope there, thank you very much.” That may be one reason why Translink has been given the power to do TOD on its own – using the Hong Kong model. Not that we have seen much of that yet. There is still no development on some of Translink’s best located sites – like the Oakridge transit centre: there a combination of operational necessities and local opposition has been enough to keep it going as a garage.

I also expect to see a lot of noise from the people who think of roads as “investments” but transit as “wasteful subsidy”. The recitation of the old saws about only 10% of the people use the bus – we “need” more spent on the 90% who don’t. About the lack of choice. About ‘social engineering’ – as though the history of post war North America was not example enough of the social engineering that produced suburban sprawl and all its related ills. Roads, freeways and low density housing were all planned – they did not simply spring up at the will of the market place. They had to be forced on to people – and those people had to be co-opted into acceptance at great expense and effort.

I would like to think, as I once did, that sweet reason and the good example of the other places that made better choices than we did will be enough to win  a reasonable solution. I am afraid that I have become cynical. Maybe it’s reading books like “Merchants of Doubt” that have done that.  Perhaps the elite have bought in to the idea that some transit might not be a bad idea after all – and there will be some positive stuff seen in the main stream media to cajole along the reluctant. Perhaps enough people liked the Canada Line and the Olympic Line to move the needle of the opinion meters a bit. Maybe the awareness of issues like the impact of carbon on the atmosphere and our lungs has increased in recent years. Maybe we have got better at selling unpopular notions, like the need to pay for transit from tax revenue rather than fares. Actually, I bet that whatever tax increase there is, there will also be fare increases too.

But right now, my gut instincts tell me that the Evergreen Line will not be built. That the feds will yank their funding. They don’t like any form of public transport (see their Amtrak decision, for instance) and they have committed too much elsewhere to military spending. That keeping the Russians away from the next oil and gas bonanza in the Arctic counts for much more than reducing car dependency in the suburbs of Vancouver. That no-one now would trust Gordon Campbell to keep his word on anything – let alone a vaguely worded MoU that commits him to nothing. That there will be a tax revolt – the head of steam raised to fight the HST in this region being diverted at Translink since that decision will come before the referendum.

I hope I am wrong.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 24, 2010 at 11:53 am

Posted in transit

AVOIDING OBSOLESCENCE By Andres Duany

with 2 comments

I am going to break a convention that I have adopted on this blog, which is to not pay too much attention to the (increasing) volume of puff pieces I get from PR companies. In this case I think it is justified based on what the man himself has to say. Ten years ago he, together withLizz Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck published a book called “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream”. Today a tenth anniversary edition appears – and below I am reproducing in full Duany’s preface to the new edition.

I am currently greatly concerned about the way this region is going. Well, I have been concerned about that for at least the last 15 years, but for much of that time I thought that direction might change. But now that the freeway construction is well under way, and the real estate market seems to be shaking off the impact of events in 2008, I have the strong feeling it is getting to be too late. Yes people produce reports – and tv shows – that suggest rail for the valley might be a solution to some of our problems. But that would be too little, too late even if it was done, which seems improbable. Because we are still stuck with the suburban mind set. Its not just the transport infrastructure – its the way we think. And it is not just this region that is doomed – it is the entire planet: or rather, our continued occupation of the same. And it is this quote which convinced me that I should allow Duany some space here.

We can now state in no uncertain terms that blame for the planet’s environmental problems lies with the lifestyle of the American middle class: the way we live large and occupy land, the way we must drive to accomplish so many perfectly ordinary tasks, the way we grow our food, and the way a car-dependent social isolation leads us to compensate with an astonishing level of unnecessary consumption. In other words, the root cause of the fearsome crisis is this amiable suburban life of ours, and we have to do something about it RIGHT NOW.

The widening of the freeway, the building of the SFPR and a new Port Mann bridge – and the lack of commitment to do anything significant to make other ways of getting around the region possible – are all part of the plan to continue with “business as usual”. It does not matter what anyone says – including whatever text is finally produced for the new regional strategy. We are not going to be sustainable, because that would mean we would have to change our ways. And, on the whole, we do not want to.

It is not enough to argue about what kind of transit might be nice, or how encourage more people to ride bikes. If the way we occupy and use land does not change, none of that matters. Getting from 11% transit mode share to 17% was hard enough – and we have hardly started on that. But that was because we never really dealt with any of the issues effectively, and we kept being rolled over by spin doctors and communications experts hired by the corporations to convince us that we needed to allow them to pursue their own profitability regardless of what that was doing to ourselves and the place where we live. If there is no clean air, clean water or nutritious food (odd that I have to use that construction – but much of what is sold as food is in fact very bad for us) then we have no life. The economy is a subsidiary enterprise to the environment – not the other way round. Economic growth cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet and we already grossly exceed its carrying capacity. We must change – and we must change now, and dramatically. And that has to start with each one of us, and with the place where we live. What we can do is limited – but could be much more, once the need for change is accepted. And part of that has to be retrofitting the suburbs to make car dependancy a thing of the past. Yes, there may still be some cars – and many might be electric, or run on compressed air. That is unimportant. What is important is to change the way the rules are written to allow for more choices – and better choices than we have now.

=======================================================================

AVOIDING OBSOLESCENCE
By Andres Duany

When Suburban Nation was being written a dozen years ago, each of the authors fell into a role. Jeff was the purveyor of the light touch. His easygoing tone has contributed as much as anything to the book’s appeal. It is probably responsible for the number of people who have told me that, to their own surprise, they read it to the end. Lizz, for her part, was the guardian of clarity. She has no patience for obscurantism in language or message. The simple and straightforward writing is an extension of her educational philosophy at the University of Miami, where what should be taught is “plain old good architecture.” Her success is evidenced by the book’s unexpected assignment as student reading—even in high school.

My own contribution to the editing process was a result of simple time management. With new towns to design that could outlast the centuries, why spend an inordinate number of hours on a text that might have a shelf life of only a few years? I was aware of the tension between a book focused on a present problem and one of lasting relevance, and I pressed strongly for the latter. In this regard, Jane Jacobs’ forty-year-old Death and Life of Great American Cities was my model. A difficult one to live up to, granted, but the pursuit of unattainable ideals is stimulating. And so I undertook the editing with an eye to issues that were of the more transcendental sort. In this, the magisterial subject of urbanism certainly provided a good start. The fashionable was eradicated under my pen—and so I bear any blame that the book is not nearly as hip as the younger Jeff would have had it.

Then, shortly after it was published, I realized that, while I had checked the book for technical obsolescence, I had not done so for political survivability. More out of curiosity than anything, I asked for assessments from two friends attuned to right-wing and left-wing bias. Both marked-up copies returned with a similar number of disputed passages, and I remember being surprised at how avoidable they were. Although we could have smoothed the feathers for this second edition, the original text remains intact, as it has done no great harm. It seems that, for different reasons, Suburban Nation is read by radical protectors of the environment no less than by conservatives concerned with the restoration of the human community. Perhaps this is because it avoids ideology altogether and puts theory last—simply proposing an alternative habitat for the American middle class, which deserves much better than it is getting. Most Americans are self-interested and pragmatic enough to realize that New Urbanist communities make more sense than the sprawl model, and that they suffer very few downsides. Only extreme libertarians, who so relentlessly espouse choice, fail to understand that such communities are not allowed under the current planning regime, and that the book is actually proposing that they should be included among the available options.

But politics deliver only temporary buffetings, while obsolescence is terminal. There are important questions that should be asked now about the book, such as what has proven to be wrong, and what was left out? Although I am fairly certain that I will not be able to repeat this claim in a 20th anniversary edition, so far nothing much has been contradicted or become irrelevant. In fact, the book seems today less urgent only because its message has permeated the public discourse. It has been absorbed in initiatives of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the U.S. Green Building Council, and others, as Lizz relates. In fact, many of the book’s prescriptions have by now been institutionalized as regulations. I confess that for me this is not always gratifying, as I find revolution more interesting than administration.

Regarding what was left out of the book ten years ago: several issues that were then on the sidelines have grown in importance to become protagonists today. Chief among them is local food production, now evolving into Agricultural Urbanism (“Ag is the new golf!”). Then there is the awful health performance of the suburban lifestyle, which would warrant an entire chapter now that the research is available. And there was insufficient emphasis on the problems of water quality, although dedicating too many pages to any issue that is not experienced universally would not have been in the spirit of the book.

Perhaps what most dates Suburban Nation regards the problem we marginally addressed as atmospheric pollution, now understood to be the catastrophe of Climate Change. A better understanding of this issue would have warranted a greater urgency to our call for the reform of suburban sprawl, and positioned the book closer to the center of the current debate. We can now state in no uncertain terms that blame for the planet’s environmental problems lies with the lifestyle of the American middle class: the way we live large and occupy land, the way we must drive to accomplish so many perfectly ordinary tasks, the way we grow our food, and the way a car-dependent social isolation leads us to compensate with an astonishing level of unnecessary consumption. In other words, the root cause of the fearsome crisis is this amiable suburban life of ours, and we have to do something about it RIGHT NOW.
And today, as clueless design consultants foist sprawl on Europe, Arabia, Latin America and Asia, this book becomes even more essential. There is apparently a Chinese edition of Suburban Nation. We should wish it many printings.

Miami, Florida

Written by Stephen Rees

September 22, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Posted in Transportation

2nd daily Amtrak train to B.C. about to be canceled

with 6 comments

Seattle Times

The Washington State Department of Transportation announced Monday that it and members of Congress will be holding discussions with British Columbia officials after Canada decided last week to impose border fees that would force the cancellation of the second daily Amtrak Cascades train to Vancouver, B.C.

The Canadian federal government said late last week it would require the state’s transportation department to pay nearly $550,000 a year for border-clearance services, according to a WSDOT news release. The money would cover additional staffing for the Canada Border Services Agency.

“British Columbia and Washington are so disappointed by this news,” said Paula Hammond, Washington transportation secretary, in the news release. “The economic benefits for Vancouver and Washington are clear as travelers shop, eat and stay in local hotels. The second train has brought an estimated $11.8 million in economic benefits to British Columbia during the year it has been allowed to operate.”

This should not be hapenning. But then we are talking about a Conservative government. The one that wants to scrap the long gun registry that its own police force tells it is saving lives. The one that wants to spend more money on prisons when crime has been in steady decline. The one that wants to buy stealth bombers even though it says we “cannot afford” all kinds of other services that Canadians actually value. The one that claims to be about free trade and economic growth, but cannot understand the simple math that says for $0.55m you get an extra $11.8m.

Other places order these things better. Across Europe, where they actually understand the concept of a open trade across borders, most land boundaries between countries are inspection free. You can just drive across – or ride through on a train. No-one comes down the corridors now demanding your papers. We could, you might have thought, accept that people who are in the US probably do not pose much of a threat – and anyway since we are supposed to be part of the same North American Free Trade area we would not be trying to levy taxes and duties on goods brought in from there. But we do of course. And we need to keep up our border security mostly because our common causes – like the War on Drugs – have been egregious failures.  We send lots of pot south, they send us guns and hard drugs in return.  The US, of course, also thinks it needs to protect itself from us and our propensity for bringing Washington apples with us to munch on the journey – but it does not charge us for the privilege of being harrassed and inspected.

It is being suggested that we might like to write to the PM. pm@pm.gc.ca will get an email to his office. I think they count them, even if they don’t actually read them. It can’t hurt. It probably won’t change their minds either because they are clearly not open to rational arguments. Most of the people who want to get into Vancouver late in the evening are probably Canadians – but that is not based on any objective data – just my own observation that when I go to the US I leave here in the morning and get back in the evening –  no matter how long my trip. Your mileage may vary.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 21, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Posted in Railway

Tagged with ,

Rail for the Valley – new report

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Rail for the Valley released yesterday a report that looks at the possibilities for the Chilliwack to Surrey interurban line. This is the route that was once used by BCER to link up what were then small farming communities to New Westminster and Vancouver. The line was closed to passenger service in the early 1950s when, as in most of North America, high quality, fast electric public transit was being abandoned in favour of near universal car ownership. Since then, many people have seen that this was a very poor bit of planning, and that since the line still exists and is in public ownership, reinstatement of some type of rail based transit might be a good idea.

I was sent an early copy – and I must say that it failed to excite me. Rail for Valley think that it will help their cause, so I have provided a link to their blog where you can read their case and find a copy for yourself. What I had to point out to them was what is missing. It does cover – in great detail and at a high level of credibility – what the capital cost of reinstating service might be. That is based on widespread experience of utilizing existing railway rights of way for light rail passenger services.

But while there is a great deal of information about capital cost there is nothing at all about revenue – or indeed operating costs. I looked for, and could not find, any attempt to assess what the potential ridership might be, or what the revenue stream would need to look like. It would appear to me that the absence of any demand forecast leaves the biggest question open – how are we going to pay for this? This has to be the first question to be asked. The assertion that light rail has a record of attracting users out of cars is not nearly enough to convince a skeptical public that this idea is economically feasible. What kind of revenue can be expected from fares and how much support is to be required from the various levels of government?

The problem I see is that this report concentrates on what the project might cost – and even goes into detail on service levels. But there is no assessment at all of where people want to go and how much of that can be met by travel on this line – or indeed if it can provide the right combination of fares + time (generalised cost) to be attractive.

We spent a lot of time at that Abbotsford Committee looking at the way the line through that city is aligned north south when the dominant movement pattern is east west. And eventually concluded that a new tram line was needed, with a bus lane being the intermediate step along the way. And that was without any demand modelling!

In Greater Vancouver transit expansion is stalled. Translink can no more consider this proposal than it can anything else since it has no money for any expansion. So this report ought to have concentrated on what could happen outside the Metro area. There is no regional transportation agency in the valley – nor is there any way to collect much to support the (woefully inadequate) transit that is there now. So a report that used reviving part of the interurban at low cost within the imagination ability of local politicians might have a chance. Presenting a mega project with no hope of financing is not realistic and is far too easily dismissed.

The real problem for the valley is the Port Mann Bridge is being replaced by a much wider structure and the freeway is being widened as far as the Metro boundary. Piecemeal widening is occurring further east as well. The reason for that is that the BC Liberals and their friends like to think that the regional strategy has “failed” – and  that there are huge opportunities for lots of money to be made by continuing to develop  farm land at low densities. This pattern suits developers, car salesmen and indeed business interests in general. It is what they know how to do, since they have been doing this for the last fifty years and more. And they are convinced that despite the end of cheap energy they can continue as before. The impact of burning fossil fuels is something they think can be safely ignored, or will be mitigated by technologies and government subsidies, and that they can keep doing that with impunity indefinitely. They recognize no limits to growth.  Indeed their entire premise is that economic growth is essential, that people want to believe that their personal disposable  incomes will increase (even though in real terms is has been static for most households) and will continue to vote for this pattern. Indeed as they just have done in the Delta by-election.

We would have got much better value for money if the Port Mann/Highway #1 project had been replaced by transit expansion. Indeed, Premier Campbell liked to boast that the Canada Line provides the capacity of ten lanes of freeway in the space taken by two. So one might have expected that he would have considered that, if he actually was concerned – as he so often professes – about climate change. But, of course, his track record is to say one thing and do the opposite. Which is now getting him in trouble with his core constituency. There is of course a great deal of anger. Here it has been captured by Van der Zalm and his antiHST campaign. I see some similarities with the Tea Party movement. It is about taxes. It is about the fact that people feel stretched financially and are worried about the future – and that the elites do not seem to be listening to the voters. That spin and rhetoric is used on them – and that their experience does not match what they are being told. I suspect that the anger will intensify as the new highway and bridge fills up with traffic, the tolls are raised and the commute times increase – but by then it will be too late.

The way to pay for Rail for the Valley was not to waste it on freeways. The way to save the valley from sprawl was to strengthen the ALR, not weaken it, and build transit oriented development (TOD). But TOD does not work is there is no transit.

RfV say they are not in a position to produce a demand forecast – and that is true too. Anyway, the way we do modelling here you can put in any land use pattern you like – just as the province did for its freeway forecast. They used the same future land use pattern for both “with” and “without” scenarios. The model has no feedback loop between network and land use. It ignores induced travel. It says that trip making is simply a function of population size and distribution. So it is not exactly realistic – but it would still show that if the freeway had not been built and the people still came in their millions then a new railway line would have carried them. And some spread sheets would also demonstrate that would have been financially supportable – given some way to link travel choices to social costs. Not unreasonable assumptions – unlike the wildly unreasonable assumptions that are made by the Gateway program and the “business as usual” crowd in general.

Quite what the model would forecast if you now put in the widened freeway and its greatly dispersed population pattern that reflects real decisions as opposed to wishful thinking  I can only imagine. The case for the use of the existing right of way might still be shown to be more viable than a new one. The costs of acquiring land for transportation being one of the largest single elements – and a quick glance around the place where that by election occurred will now show exactly how much land the SFPR is taking over. It is not a small project.  But in current decision making timelines, any demand forecast for the valley has to assume the current projects are completed and up and running before the trains (or trams) arrive.

At the same time as this report emerged, so did the discussion about how to pay for more transit in Metro Vancouver get restarted. There is to be a meeting this week between the Mayors, the Premier and his Minister of  Transport. Some kind of deal will – it is hoped – emerge that will allow Translink to expand beyond its present services, and for the Evergreen Line to the North East Sector to be built at long last. I doubt, somehow, that the interurban will take up much of their time. Though places like Surrey and Langley have made it clear that they will not tolerate any new funding mechanism that just pays for one line that does not serve them. More buses – and bus lanes – seem the easiest way to meet that demand even if that will not exactly satisfy them. But that is the nature of compromise – a solution that leaves all parties equally dissatisfied. The Fraser Valley, of course, is not part of that process.

UPDATE There was a short report on the local CBC News

Written by Stephen Rees

September 21, 2010 at 11:04 am

“Mayors consider raising taxes to pay for TransLink”

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The Vancouver Sun headline is deliberately misleading to attract attention. One Mayor – Peter Fassbender – is anticipating what might happen at a meeting next week. Nothing in the story is news, and nothing in the story suggests that any other Mayor has supported this idea publicly. The provincial government has made it very clear that it wants property taxes to rise to pay for the Evergreen Line. They have been very clear about that. Fassbender has been talking up the role of the Mayor’s Council – but basically the province is not at all interested in making the Mayor’s lives any easier.

Martin Crilly puts out a report - which is fine – talks about road pricing. But that isn’t going to happen – and couldn’t happen fast enough anyway to dig Translink out of its present hole.   No-one needs to listen to the Transit Commissioner: he is irrelevant.

The gap between the gas tax inside the Metro boundary and just outside it is already large – and is a gift to gas station operators on the outer edge, since they can appear to sell cheaper gas. But the difference between a gas station in Aldergrove and one in Abbotsford is much less than the tax difference in the two jurisdictions. The government is so unpopular now that it could almost do anything it likes without making matters worse – but since Gordo got back from his holidays, the mood has changed. He obviously wants to get his own ratings up – and, bafflingly, he seems to be succeeding. No-one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the public. Of course the spin would be to blame the tax increase on Translink – but not nearly enough people would believe that – would they?

I think Fassbender is trying to soften people up for the increase in property tax which is about the only option left open – other than saying no to a new transit line once again. Last time the Mayors did that they lost control of regional transit. Not many Mayors outside of the north east sector are willing to see their voters’ taxes increased to pay for the Evergreen Line – and certainly none south of the Fraser where transit remains undersupplied after ten years of regional “direction”.

“We have a window of time to either come up with our commitment or the government will have to do something else,” Fassbender said. “[A financial supplement] is the only way we can come up with our share. What it looks like I don’t know yet because it hasn’t been developed.”

That sounds a lot like capitulation to me

UPDATE

It is worth taking a look at Frances Bula’s blog – she seems to be talking to the Mayors, although only Corrigan (of course) was willing to go ont he record. The real difference is to what is above is their perception that new sources of revenue (something the province was NOT willing to discuss before) are now “on the table”.

“I don’t think we’re caving to anything,” said Langley mayor Peter Fassbender, the chairman of TransLink’s Mayors’ Council. “If the province was saying, ‘We’re not willing to talk about other options,’ this would be a no-go. But I see a willingness on their part to say, ‘Let’s put everything on the table.’”

I tend to agree with Corrigan

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan believes that regional mayors are about to get taken for another ride by the province, one where they’ll be left paying all the bills again.

“When will they learn? They keep buying into these promises and then they get taken to the cleaners.”

Interesting to note too that the people who read this blog care a lot about their cell phones, and tramcars of course, but have much less to say about taxes.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 16, 2010 at 9:50 am

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Bicycle Diaries: Episode Four

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I was going to use the title “Who is Arthur Laing, and why does he hate cyclists so much?” but that would not be fair.

I was out yesterday trying out my newly modified bike. I went over the Canada Line bridge because that gave me an incline to try. The ramp is quite steep and the granny gears ought to have been useful. Well they might have been if the shifter had been set up properly: the bike is back in the shop this morning. The new front suspension is also amazingly noisy.

As reported before, the north end of the new bike bridge is not well connected to the network. In fact, on the bike route map all three bridge heads have that red circle denoting “zone of caution” (see below). Heather is the on street bike route but Kent is also marked as “neighbourhood street”. Either way you eventually have to deal with South West Marine Drive a “major street with shared lane” to come back over the Arthur Laing bridge. That was much less scary than I thought it would be – the grade is gentler than the bike bridge!

On Marine Drive a truck tried to wipe me against the side of a parked truck – I know he saw me since I saw his face in his mirror – and I will not forget that expression. He had plenty of room to move left but decided to move right. I was able to stop in time. By curious coincidence the Guardian this morning has a piece entitled “What’s the best way to keep cyclists safe from the monsters of the road“?

The message needs repeating as often as possible, but there must be a better way to avert the danger posed by lorries

Actually my problem was not with me riding on the inside of an eighteen-wheeler, but being overtaken by a four-wheeler –  a full-sized truck not a panel van.

Unlike the “look out for each other” campaign (top), this ad has nothing to tell the men in the cabs.

But the mindset that says bikes should not be on the road – even roads which are wide and have marked “shared lanes” (even if the lane is blocked by a parked truck) – is what I see all the time as the problem. Many drivers move over to get cyclists space: indeed that is about all the marked (unprotected) bike lane is supposed to do. And as we have seen the City of Vancouver recognizes more protection is needed  in order to encourage more cycling, when the simple presence of a “critical mass” raises motorist awareness of cyclists, even if it cannot do very much to get through the attitude that cyclists “need to be given a scare”.

Women on bikes in cities are in the vanguard of improving transportation, and arguably the whole urban environment, just by being there.

And that thought is also seen today in the Daily Beast – that more women are cycling

Cyclistas on the Arthur Laing

The traffic is keeping well to the left – but there happens not to be a truck is sight. The tricky bit is using the ramp up from the east side of the bridge (as well as getting to the ramp from the curb lane of Marine Drive): there is a “gore” with a curb you can put your foot on while you wait for a gap in the flow. But gaps are few are far between since the last traffic light is way back at Granville and traffic has been merging in from the industrial area on the north bank of the Fraser (Milton Street) and from UBC on SW Marine. The grade over the bridge is notably gentler than that used for the ramps on each side of the Canada Line Bridge. But there is still a switchback.

On Sea Island there are off street paved paths but a considerable duplication of distance – and a further loop back under the new Canada Line Middle Arm bridge – then a bit of street which seems to have no other purpose which dead ends in a “banjo” with a little gap through the barrier for the path which comes out near the Delta Hotel  under the swing bridge. This all seems to fall under the authority of YVR, and probably satisfies the recreational cyclists who like to get to Iona Beach and the long flat stretches of Grauer and Ferguson roads. But is seems to me that it doesn’t really look like commuters – for instance the people who work at YVR or go to school at the new BCIT campus – or work in the offices along Cessna drive were really considered.

Cycle routes near the bridges

The purple line on the map seems to suggest that you might be able to somehow get underneath the offramp from the bridge and ride “wrong way” on the Middle Arm bridge ramp but that is not the case so far as I could see. Some of those black bridge markings seem to have been omitted from the map – for example look at those crossings of the Canada line. The map  is available as a pdf from Translink. And, so far as I can see there is still no off street paved route eastbound connecting Great Canadian Way to the “Canada Line SkyBridge”.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 15, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Regulatory Capture

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I went out to UBC to-day to hear Andrew Nikiforuk. His lecture at the School of Journalism was sponsored by and advertised in The Tyee (he is now their writer in residence) as ‘Who Regulates Canada’s Oil Patch, and for Whom?’

I am afraid I was a few minutes late and missed the start of his talk. This was because my research before I left home showed there is a pub opposite the Sing Tao building, where I could get lunch first. That was true but UBC does not follow any of the conventions of other places and the pub is neatly hidden. There were signs – which ultimately were truthful, if not exactly helpful, in gaining access. Someone needs to explain the principles of “street presence” to UBC planners.

In fact he did not just speak about the Canada’s Oil Patch: he spoke about the role of regulators in the US gulf, the BC Peace River and the Alberta tar sands. The theory of regulatory capture is associated with Nobel laureate economist George Stigler, one of its main developers. (wiki) Nikiforuk said that what happens in reality is corruption “an abuse of entrusted power for private benefit” – and in the three areas he spoke of it is clear that is exactly what has happened.

In the Gulf of Mexico, where the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Minerals Management Service, which had regulatory responsibility for offshore oil drilling, has been widely cited as an example of regulatory capture.[8][9][10] (also from the same wiki page as cited above)

In fact the Minerals Management Service was cited three times by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG – there are actually many of these but his citation of Earl Devaney meant I could track it to the Department of the Interior). MMS was supposed to be concerned about safety but also the collection of royalties – and was funded 50% by direct levies on the industry. DOIOIG found in 1990 that the industry had offered MMS staff drugs, sex and gifts. In 2008 he noted that there was a “culture of substance abuse – and an unstructured system for dealing with royalties”

“The reports portray a dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behavior and a free-for-all atmosphere for much of the Bush administration’s watch.”[8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17] (again lifted from wiki)

The drilling rig in question had been exempted from an environmental review immediately before the explosion. There were in fact only 60 inspectors trying to cover 4,000 rigs. In 2010 the OIG noted the ease of movement of personnel between the industry and government – what Nikiforuk referred to as the “revolving door” – and an atmosphere where it was “permissible to fraternize and provide gifts”. Evidence of “capture” meant the MMS was replaced by three separate organizations with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Enforcement taking over the regulatory aspects of drilling. It took a crisis to reform a regulatory body which had been taken over by the industry.

In Canada there is a similar case to be made against the National Energy Board and Enbridge – the promoters of a proposed new pipeline from the tar sands to Kitimat, BC. This will, if built, move 500,000 barrels of bitumen a day for export to China – [with condensate being imported in the opposite direction in a parallel pipe to be used to get the bitumen to flow]. This creates “extra-ordinary liabilities” – such as stream crossings – and Enbridge’s record of pipeline safety is cautionary. NEB is funded 90% by the companies it regulates $56m a year from 166 companies of which Enbridge is probably the largest contributor. There is a similar history of exchange of personnel between NEB and the companies it regulates. Moreover NEB does not say no to pipelines [any more than the BC Environmental Assessment process turns down projects].

The Canadian Association of Energy and Pipeline Landowner Associations (CAEPLA) is Canada’s “foremost and leading association of landowners who have a direct and ongoing interest in the way government and energy regulators define, and then influence, the relationships that exist between landowners and various aspects of the energy sector.” [Their web page has a link to regulatory capture at the NEB] CAEPLA made a Freedom of Information request to NEB – to which they responded with 300 blank pages. And nothing else. They note too that the NEB refers to the oil industry as “partners”.

The Oil and Gas Commission of BC is a similar case. This body is responsible for the regulation of shale gas in northern BC. It was established ten years ago by Brad McGuinness who had just left CAPP – an industry lobby group.  OGC is 100% funded by industry – $35m based on levies on production.  “How can the regulators work in the public interest if they are paid for by the oil companies?” The biggest contributor is EnCana who have 2m acres of land leased in BC. The Commission has a Board of just two people – the Deputy Minister MEMPR and someone from the oil and gas industry. “Ben Mitchell-Banks – who was then the commission’s compliance and enforcement director – was seconded to Encana on May 10, 2004.” (Public Eye on line) The Medical Health Officer of Northern Health recently reported that the rapid growth of gas drilling “has outpaced our understanding of the health impacts” of this activity. One farmer has been quoted as saying that th OGC “acts more like a facilitator than a regulator”.  He had slides from a presentation – which i have not yet been able to locate – which describes oil and gas as “great goose habitat” – in other words the oil and gas industry is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Royalties – at $2 to 3 billion a year – are now the number one revenue earner for BC.

He recommended the use of Pro Publica specifically for their investigation of gas drilling and its environmental impact in the US. (“ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.”) Getting gas out of dense shale requires huge amounts of water and a “secret sauce” of chemicals to fracture the risk to release the gas. There are now thousands of cases of contamination of drinking water due to migration of these chemicals. In Canada there has been a history of regulatory neglect of shale cracking. In 2002 the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment called for the creation of a baseline of hydrological data on aquifers in areas proposed for gas drilling, in order to be able to measure the subsequent impacts. This was, of course, ignored. 56% of the water usages in BC for gas drilling were found to be in noncompliance – although the regulator gave them all a passing grade as they cleaned up the problems once they were identified. This system whereby everybody passes and no-ne fails has been identified by the Auditor General of BC as a process that “needs improving”(2008 report on Oil and Gas Site Contamination Risks link is to a pdf of the report)

The Energy Resources Conservation Board of Alberta was the third case examined – and this is the one that looks at the tar sands extraction process directly. Once again, 63% of their funding comes from industry. One of the ten spin doctors employed by ERCB likens the source of funding as parallel to the way that citizens pay for the police through their taxes. However, this neglects to note that while everyone (millions of us) pays the taxes that pay police, only 100 companies produce 90% of Alberta’s oil and gas. Once again there is a revolving door for people to move between the ERCB and industry.

“Cupid’s arrow pierces energy regulator” was the headline of a story by Valerie Fortney in the Calgary Herald on February 21, 2009. Unfortunately the Herald’s own web page does not serve up this story but a blog does

…the provincial energy regulator’s announcement Thursday that it was suspending an ongoing and contentious energy application due to a “personal” relationship between a Petro-Canada employee and a board employee–the latter who made the bombshell admission 72 hours after Valentine’s Day.

The Energy Resources Conservation Board has been holding public hearings since Nov. 12 on Petro-Canada’s controversial proposal to drill 11 sour gas wells and build a pipeline in the Eastern Slopes west of Longview.

The regulator has approved a sour gas pipeline through a First Nations reserve, but on the condition that every house has a “safe room” where the residents can go in the event of a leak.

He spoke of the rapidity of the growth of the tar sands project, which has not been matched by a comparable growth in staff at ERCB on the ground at Fort McMurray. The size of the problems are enormous: for example there are now 170 sq kms of toxic waste in tailings ponds – where the water left over from oil extraction from the sands is left – originally in the hope that it would “settle out for further use” – a hope which is unfulfilled. These ponds now hold 6 billion barrels – an estimated $10 to $20 billion liability. They are held back from rivers by a system of dykes – for example along the bank of the Athabasca River – but as CEAA noted in 2009 – “there is no data on seepage” .  While these projects have been underway for twenty years it was not until 2008 that  ERCB produced performance standards for tailings and even then they gave exemptions to Syncrude.

One method used to separate oil from the sands is Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage.  One such project produced a catastrophic event on May 18 2006 – the report on which did not appear until four years later.

Nikiforuk did have some prescriptions for reform. He said that “we should start by doing what is necessary” – that is separating industry from the regulators and introducing transparency. one problem he acknowledged was that many journalists who had covered the oil patch are now employed as PR people by the industry. “People who know about the game are not talking about the game”. he suggested a series of anti-capture strategies including rotation of staff within offices, disqualification for employment within the regulator of people recently in the industry – and from the regulator to industry. He also thought that there should be formal whistle-blower protection to encourage information flow. It is clear, he said that the OGC is not working in the interests of the people of BC, and that the first thing to do is “take the money off the table”. Oil and gas royalties should not go into current expenditures (thus allowing for tax cuts or increased spending) but into an investment fund. There has to be a provincial strategy for investing resource wealth for the future. It was essential that we slow down the process of extraction and “behave like an owner not a tenant”. (Peter Lougheed)

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.
C. S. Lewis

“People do not want to be sold soap and wishful thinking. That is why they do not read newspapers any more.”

==============

The lecture was videoed – and I am told may even be available on YouTube shortly.

A couple of points from my own story. Firstly, I decides to cover this event because we rely so heavily on oil for transportation – and the movement of  Alberta crude through our province and our ports has to be of direct concern to us.

I worked for the Ministry of Energy Mines and Petroleum Resources in Victoria for two and a half years. The first course that I was sent on  by that ministry was run by CPPI. As indeed were all new entrants to that ministry at that time. Most of the information that we have about oil and gas comes from the industry itself.

I applied for a job at NEB after I left Translink. Indeed, it was only because I did not get that job that I was able to use the federal Privacy Act to determine that officials at Translink were breaking a formal agreement (negotiated by their re-employment consultant) by giving me a poor (indeed false) reference. It seems to me now that I dodged a bullet!

Written by Stephen Rees

September 13, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Cell phones on transit

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This has been a peeve of mine for some time – and this post was inspired by this recent piece in the New York Times. Quiet cars are not new – they have been so designated on West Coast Express for some time – and in Britain some railway coaches are fitted with special glass so that cell phones cannot be used. But here, in Vancouver, the Canada Line was opened with a special “leaky cable” so that cell phone calls would continue once the train plunged below Cambie Street.

It is of course about civility – or rather, these days, its absence. People on cell phones seem to be unaware – or unconcerned  – that everyone else is eavesdropping, unwillingly, on half the conversation. Some young people also like to talk in exaggeratedly loud voices in the hopes of offending others in ear shot. Nothing new about that: in Paris in the late 19th century the decadents loved to “Épater la bourgeoisie”. But really I think it is mostly that modern sensibility is that the individual can do as they like – and need not concern themselves about the impact they have on others. Especially if that includes conspicuous consumption: there is a market advantage that corporations can profit from, and that is all that they can care about – that is established in civil law and seems to overrule all else.

I do not want to hear what you have to say to whoever it is you have to call. Or who calls you. It is mostly trivial – and could easily have waited. Every public event I attend is always preceded now with a public announcement to turn off pagers and cell phones – yet there are always a few who ignore that. They consider themselves far too important to be cut off for even a moment. They would never think that maybe a text – or a voice mail – might do just as well. That it does not have to be instantaneous. That there are some moments in life when interruption is not welcome. That the people who look over your shoulder at a party to see if someone more interesting has just arrived are simply being rude.

Why does our transit system encourage such boorishness? Probably because of some corporate deal making that fed a new source of revenue their way. We cannot be allowed to know that, of course. “Privacy” does mean the individual can be left in peace: it means that a corporation can conceal anything it likes in the name of commercial confidentiality. Because that matters. Individuals – or even society as whole – do not.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 8, 2010 at 8:22 pm

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The Bicycle Diaries: episode three

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I have recently returned from a week in San Francisco. I went for the streetcars really – but the highlight turned out to be a bike ride, over the Golden Gate bridge. This is now heavily promoted by a number of companies, is exceedingly well organized and very popular. I am not going to write about cycling in the city itself – though for a city with such fearsome hills, there is plenty of cycling going on. I just didn’t do that. My companion had not been on a bike in twenty years, yet also found the experience fun and easy.

The bikes are rented – at roughly comparable rates to those you find in Vancouver and Steveston. One word of warning though. I looked on the Tix web page (we were looking for cheap theatre as that had been such a good thing in New York) and “bike across the Golden Gate” was the first offer we saw on the “half price on line” page. Except a quick bit of googling and we found it wasn’t half price – it was the same ($36 per day) as walk up, and there was no need to book in advance. We had $5 off coupons from the many maps and brochures that tourists seem to collect easily, and we used those to buy the optional insurance. They do have a range of bikes and the one recommended – a hybrid with road tires, suspension front and rear as well as disc brakes – was very good. So good in fact that my own bike is now in the shop getting new front forks and a seat post – both with springs. And a new saddle. Something I should have thought about long ago: they are not that expensive, and make a significant difference.

The bikes come with a U Lock, and a small bag on the handlebars with detailed printed route information in a clear window  – and the key for the lock. (I decided that a cell phone with roaming that I had with me was enough and did not ask for a puncture repair kit.) The bikes had been well maintained but I did feel a little unsteady at the start. To get away from the mass start at the beginning of the day, we stopped for large cappuccinos at the community centre on the edge of the Presidio (Golden Gate Park is, confusingly, further south and not actually the one on the waterfront). There, while waiting to restart, I decided to look closer at the front forks and found that the lever arm on the axle had been left down – so the front wheel was actually free to drop off any time. That took all of one second to set right and after that my ride was much less exciting.

One thing I was pleased about was how this fat old man could ride more efficiently than many others. Inexperienced cyclists all seem very wary of using the gears, but if you are going to climb a hill, using the lower gears on a 24 speed machine makes life much easier. And I did not have to walk up any hills. There’s a short one around Fort Mason – and the stiffer climb up from Fort Point to the bridge itself. Lots of people seemed to be walking up both – quite unnecessarily, in my view. The path from Fisherman’s Wharf to Fort Point is flat, mostly at sea level and shared with pedestrians. If you ride the Richmond dykes or the seawall around Stanley Park you will find this easy by comparison. Similarly, on the bridge itself you use the narrow sidewalks: the west one was under repair at the time of our visit, so we had to deal with two way bike and pedestrian traffic. Even so, some individuals on lightweight road racers thought this a good place to try for speed! Nearly all of the people on foot or cycle were visitors with digital cameras – so no-one should expect to get across the bridge quickly.

There is a large car park at the north end with a good view of the bridge – where all the car and bus tourists unload. From there it is downhill all the way into Sausalito, on the two lane road. There is a speed limit of 45mph and I felt like I might have approached that. Certainly I was moving faster than any other time I have been on a bicycle. Maybe the disc brakes added to my confidence: I don’t think I will need those here, and I have held off upgrading to them for now.

Blue & Gold fleet: ferry "Bay Monarch"

The bike rental does not include a ferry ticket ($9), but you can save time in line ups by buying them when you get the bike. They are accepted on all three ferry companies vessels – and if you decided to bike back, or go for an outing somewhere else you would get a refund on unused tickets.

There is a huge bike park at the ferry dock – and quite a nice little town to explore, with the usual range of places for lunch. The cafe next to the dock is as good a place as any. We decided not to return immediately but extended our ride around the bay to Tiburon. You could also add a visit to the headlands or the redwoods if you felt like greater exertion and still make it easily in a day. The ride out of Sausalito is an old railway right of way – dead straight, dead flat, through the salt marsh. The centre of the path is paved for cycles, the shoulders left as gravel for drainage and pedestrians – as they should be. This segregation method seemed to work far better than either painted lines or stepped construction, and should certainly be adopted in Richmond on the dykes and the Shell Road trail. It would cut the cost of bike maintenance too, as the dust from the gravel is always an issue with open bike chains and gears. Maybe a rubber chain and a hub gear should be on my list – for the next bike I buy, not this one.

The route is well signed and includes “rest stops” – including the use of a high school – a very sensible inter-agency bit of co-operation. The  middle section of the trail unfortunately puts you back on the roads – through some generic freeway oriented suburbia. I found this bit tiresome, though enlivened by the chance to take pictures of a partly restored 1953 Plymouth and some brand new Italian male menopause treatments.

1953 PlymouthFerrariMaserati

The last bit into Tiburon is back to trail again – and once more is built and maintained to a very high standard and alongside parkland. I would tell you more about Tiburon, but while we were debating the relative merits of tea or ice cream, the ferry arrived.  So we joined the line up – and then added the bikes to the considerable pile in the main deck cabin. I cannot see Translink being happy to see SeaBus used this way, if someone here decided to market the ride across the Lion’s Gate in the same way.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 7, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Posted in bicycles, cycling

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