Stephen Rees's blog

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

“Greens support a referendum on how we fund transit”

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The title is a tweet by @Vangreens. I am a member of the Vancouver Green Party and I have supported their current campaign – although as I did not pay $100 or more, that does not show up in their public declaration. This blog post is my response to the tweet, simply because there isn’t a way to say this diplomatically in 140 characters.

I do NOT support a referendum for transit. On the whole the move towards more direct democracy has been used by right wing ideologues who think that voters hate paying taxes and will vote them down. Seattle, of course, is now being cited as a success. Indeed of the transit questions on the US ballots in the most recent midterm elections, voters said Yes on 65% of them. That’s not bad, but I do not take a lot of comfort from it.

As many people have pointed out, there was no suggestion of a referendum for the widening of Highway#1, Port Mann Bridge, SFPR package. Nor will there be one for the replacement of the Massey Tunnel. There wasn’t going to be a referendum on BC Ferries either, but I was very impressed indeed with the speed with which Todd Stone moved to quash the idea that the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo might be cancelled. And that after the BC Liberals had tried to pretend that making the organisation a company rather than a crown corporation would reduce political interference. Which, of course, is still rampant at BC Hydro and ICBC which have both been used as (regressive) revenue sources to replace fairer taxes.

It seems to have been generally accepted in the mainstream media than “money is tight”. For instance, CBC tv news a few nights ago was looking at why school playgrounds must be paid for through PAC fundraising and not taxes. Money is not tight at all. We are so flush with it that we are paying over the odds for money borrowed for infrastructure projects. BC bonds would pay 4%: going through the P3 process means we now pay 7%. The Auditor General is not impressed.

The terms of the “transit” referendum have not yet been announced, although the Mayors have set out in detail what the funds would be spent on. We also know that the Province has been busy making sure the question will conform to their policy straight jacket. So the carbon tax is out. The province continues to push for more property tax as well.

If the use of referenda were more widespread and the questions more open, I might be more inclined to support them. But I do not think that it is a good way to increase participation in politics. The questions have to reduced to sound bites, and populism is more likely to win than policy analysis. Not that in our system politicians pay much attention to that, even when they have set up the system themselves (see BC Ferris above).

The need for this region is much more transit. The referendum will be about much more than that. Translink is a transportation agency, which means the province was able to lumber it with a number of problem structures – Patullo, Knight Street and Canoe Pass bridges – all of which were in need of expensive upgrades. The Major Road Network was devised as a way to get support for the new agency from suburban Mayors who were going to get provincial highways downloaded onto them anyway. Some of the questions that got turned down in the US had significant road measures tacked onto the transit elements in an attempt to make them more acceptable to the sort of people who vote. I am afraid that what we have seen so far is that inevitably the referendum will be a way to pass judgement on Translink. Just as the midterms were used to pass judgement on POTUS even though his name was not on any ballot.

I think that in BC we need to see a fairer tax system which extracts more from large corporations and the exceedingly wealthy individuals who have done so well from the tax cuts of recent years. I would like to a general roll back of flat fees and charges for public services, to be replaced by a truly progressive income tax system. Those who can afford to pay should pay more than those who have little. It is time to reset the balance. Inequality has become extreme nearly everywhere. The few countries that have resisted the pressure of the Chicago school have done better economically as a result.

I do not accept that there is no money for transit in Greater Vancouver. I do understand that it is unpopular in a political system where constituencies outside the Lower Mainland have far more electoral power than we do. I also understand that politicians who repeat the mantras of the right will get better treatment in the mainstream media and thus from voters. It does not make them right. There ought NOT to be a referendum and I oppose it. But since there is going to be one anyway, we Greens had better make sure that we get over the pass mark. Note too that there was a referendum, not so long ago, on a better voting system. That followed a remarkable public consultation process, and was supported by more people than opposed it. Just not quite enough to get the supermajority required by those who benefitted most from ignoring both sense and popularity.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 6, 2014 at 11:24 am

The Cost of Energy

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The recent IPCC report has been very clear about the need to get out of fossil fuels. They are also realistic in predicting that it is going to take a while to turn things around. What surprises me is the continued reluctance of the elite to absorb the message – but maybe there is an easier way to get across to them.

There has already been a significant change in energy markets, not just because the price of renewables (solar, wind and so on) has been dropping rapidly. The rush into fracking for oil and gas in North America has depressed oil prices.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 8.10.26 AMNow it may be argued that this is merely short term volatility and that OPEC could cut back its output to prop up prices. But equally, OPEC may be getting concerned about losing market share and needing to protect its revenue stream. Sales at lower prices being better than no sales at all.

I have already been arguing in other fora – such as twitter and facebook – that the dropping oil price ought to be a much bigger consideration for opponents of increasing fossil fuel dependence. The current crop of LNG projects in BC seem to me to be the most obvious candidates. British Gas has already pulled out of Prince Rupert: can Squamish be far behind? The provincial government has already dropped its revenue estimates, even though it was already willing to pretty much give away the resources through low royalties, it has recently cut the tax regime too. I do not understand why they continue to pursue projects which offer very little in terms of employment (relative to other energy opportunities) and now little revenue, especially in the near term. “British Columbia’s auditor general says doing business with the oil-and-gas industry has cost the province’s coffers about $1.25 billion in royalties even before most of the product has been pulled from the ground.” Vancouver Sun

But the pipeline projects that are essential to expanding the tar sands and getting diluted bitumen to oil refineries also  seem to be not only deservedly unpopular, but increasingly unnecessary. The tar sands are already heavily subsidized, but even so “ninety percent of future oil sands projects at risk from eroding oil price” according to a new report from Carbon Tracker.

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I have long argued that the only thing to do with difficult to extract fossil fuels is to leave them in the ground. For one thing it is now clear that we have more than enough geothermal energy resources available to meet all our needs. While not strictly speaking “renewable” it is not likely that the earth’s core is going to cool down rapidly if we exploit these resources anymore than putting up solar panels to capture sunlight risks dimming the sun. The good thing about geothermal is its constant availability which makes it really useful to provide power when sunlight and winds are not available.

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The problematic thing is that transportation, especially in North America, is still heavily dependant on energy dense liquid fuel. Even though batteries are getting better, and energy efficiency improvements such as hybrids are helping reduce demand for gasoline, much more attention is being directed – quite properly – to the fall in car use. I think that is much more to do with the falling buying power of consumers than secular change in transport demand. The grab of the 1% has gone much too far, and the economic impacts of the impoverishment of the rest of the population are now becoming more apparent. So far the knock on effects into social unrest have been relatively weak, but that cannot continue indefinitely, absent a change in policy direction from most national governments. Obviously austerity is not working and cannot work. The changes in mode to walking and cycling can be achieved in some urban areas, but in most suburbs significant shifts in land use are needed to put origins and destinations in better proximity.  That is going to take some time to achieve.

Politicians Discussing Global Warming

Written by Stephen Rees

November 4, 2014 at 9:24 am

More Delays for Compass

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Compass reader

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

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

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

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

Written by Stephen Rees

October 29, 2014 at 7:28 pm

Uber seeks to return to Vancouver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POSTSCRIPTS

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

The issue of taxi licensing in Greater Vancouver and a possible solution is presented by Ben Proctor in his recent (April 2104) Masters of Public Policy Thesis at SFU. I am indebted to Neil Salmond for this link. The research confirms what I have been saying on this topic. His proposed solution is practical but still requires a politician with considerable courage and willingness to take on a powerful and deeply entrenched private interest group. Both John Horgan of the NDP and Todd Stone in their recent comments regarding Uber show that neither has any intention of changing the present arrangements.

The real issue is that taxis are expensive and not as readily available as needed. Licence owners make a lot of money. Taxi drivers very little – but carry all the risk. Uber ought to be a better system but isn’t. Once again the drivers take all the risk, the company all the profit. Lots of seats in cars are empty: average occupancy of the cars on the road is around 1.4. Most cars are only in use for an hour or so each day. Much of the fleet sits idle most of the time. There are clearly opportunities to make better use of the resources tied up in private cars. The PTB and Uber are both significant blockages on the path to progress towards better, more efficient personal mobility.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 29, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Point Grey Road: The Last Word

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

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

Written by Stephen Rees

September 26, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Climate Heroes

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

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

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

Written by Stephen Rees

September 26, 2014 at 9:42 am

Conservatives vote against helping Canadians save on home energy costs

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Stephen Rees

September 25, 2014 at 11:29 am

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