Stephen Rees's blog

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

Kirk LaPointe and the Pie Crust Promise

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Stephen Rees

September 6, 2014 at 12:51 pm

Customer Complaint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Stephen Rees

August 17, 2014 at 3:41 pm

The Fight for the Arbutus Corridor

with 5 comments

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

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

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

Fairchild TV crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE

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

Written by Stephen Rees

August 15, 2014 at 12:59 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translink 2135 on wb 9 Broadway Vancouver BC 2007_0108

 

In other news

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

Written by Stephen Rees

August 15, 2014 at 9:42 am

How could they get it so wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there is this

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

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

 

 

 

Written by Stephen Rees

August 6, 2014 at 9:39 am

Arbutus Corridor

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Did you know that the Mayor of Vancouver has a blog? The latest entry is about the ongoing tussle with the Canadian Pacific Railway over the future of the Arbutus Corridor.

Residents along Vancouver’s Arbutus Corridor are receiving letters from Mayor Gregor Robertson this week regarding CPR’s stated intention to reactivate cargo trains through their neighbourhoods. The Mayor re-states his firm opposition to cargo trains on the route,

Well this post is simply to set the record straight. CPR are not about to run trains – freight or passenger – down the Arbutus Line. Freight trains have not run since service to the Molson brewery ended. In the intervening years the track has not been maintained, although CP have had to maintain the crossings, as they have not legally abandoned the line. So the track in its current state could not safely support any rail traffic. It is often difficult to actually see the tracks, so overgrown with brambles and bush have they become. In sections where the track is visible, one can see missing and rotten ties, missing spikes and spike plates and also places where the supporting ballast has washed away.

These pictures were taken today between King Edward and Broadway. I have many others taken over the years on other sections. No-one is going to run a freight train along here any time soon. The cost would be astronomical and there are no customers.

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CP are simply sabre rattling in an ongoing real estate negotiation with the City. The revelations are that the City has made an offer of “fair market value” based on an independent assessment – and that CP has not responded. CP had hoped to make a financial killing by selling the land for development. The City won a case that went to the Supreme Court that they have the right to determine that the line remain a transportation corridor. Obviously the value as a route for a bike/pedestrian route – and potential LRT line – is lot lower than the price it might achieve if there were to be little houses where the track rots now. But since the City has determined that is not going to happen, the CP letters going to people along the route about removing their gardens are simply a bargaining tactic – and not a very smart one. CP’s Public Relations people have to be grinding their teeth.

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“will be removed as warranted by our track maintenance work”

I am looking forward to seeing what track maintenance work is warranted by a freight railway with no customers

 

Presumably CP have already done deals with organisations like DND who use the right of way to park road vehicles

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UPDATES

1.  See an exchange of letters between David Eby and a CP staffer  from the Courier blog.

2. CP say that they can use the track for training crews and storing freight cars

 

Written by Stephen Rees

July 20, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Making the wrong choices

with 11 comments

“No matter what they say, no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country.”

Stephen Harper (source: CBC)

This post is inspired by an email from David Suzuki “Here’s to a radical Canada Day!”

Stephen Harper’s statement is willfully misleading.

Many countries are taking actions to tackle climate change. The record to date is that they are performing better in terms of jobs and growth than the very few (like Canada and Australia) who have decided to destroy the environment on which all life depends. Countries like Germany, that have far less sunshine than we do but make half of their electricity from it now. Solar power is now cheaper than electricity made from fossil fuels.

The tar sands have long presented a possible source of energy, but for a very long time they remained untapped simply because there were so many other sources which were easier to extract. Usable fuel from tar sands was simply too expensive to make. What changed that was the willingness of the Canadian government to pour billions of tax dollars into its extraction and processing. The subsidies to the fossil fuel industries are unconscionable. If these were cut – in the same way that so many other public expenditures that Canadians actually need and care about have been cut – then other sources would have been much more competitive much sooner. We have been burning money mining a nonrenewable resource that is causing widespread carnage in terms of its impact on local water and air quality as well the long term effect of increasing carbon and methane emissions at a time when all sorts of tipping points in climate change were passing. The only reaction to the melting of the polar ice cap seems to be a willingness to immediately seize this as an opportunity to open up yet more oil and gas exploration.

Canada has huge untapped reserves of energy – sunlight, wind, waves, tides, geothermal – which are not going to be utilized in time to save life as we know it, because our governments are obsessed with oil and gas. Yet we get very little from oil and gas in terms of jobs, or revenues or even economic activity. Unless you are the sort of economist who seriously advances the notion that cleaning up oil spills is good for economic growth.

Norway continues to  extract oil from underneath the North Sea. This was also regarded as a very expensive, risky option at one time. Yet Norway did not respond with tax breaks and subsidies. On the contrary it has some of the highest royalty revenue stream per barrel of any oil economy. And the money did not go to income tax reductions for the rich but into a wealth building fund  that will continue to serve the best interests of Norwegians in general long after their oil reserves are exhausted. BC, of course, is currently pursuing a highly risky fracking and LNG export path based on reducing royalty payments that are already low.

The other day I was in Squamish. I once again heard that the name comes from the First Nations term for “place of the winds”. It is apparently a world class sailboarding destination due to the strength and reliability of the winds. I could just about hear what the guide was saying over the roar of the diesel generator. He was telling us about how the new Sea to Sky Gondola is taking care of the environment.

Of course, wind and solar are not “reliable” in the sense that power is not available all the time. But this energy storage problem is close to being resolved. There always has been the option of pumped hydraulic storage (used in North Wales to store otherwise useless electricity produced by a nuclear power station which cannot be shut off at times of low demand). Now there are promising new battery storage technologies like vanadium and sulphuric acid, readily scalable and with very long life, and ideal for solar and wind power storage.

We sit on huge reserves of geothermal energy – but the only use we make of them is for a few hot baths, here and there.

We could have already replaced thousands of gasoline powered passenger trips by existing electric transport technologies – trams, trolleybuses, trains – but we chose instead to invest in highways, despite evidence of declining car use! There are many more potential jobs operating public transport than there are in freeway maintenance!

When I first got into greenhouse gas action plans, I decided that we should not be concerned about climate change as a selling point. There was already a cognitive dissonance in the message: the planet is heating up, so you should check your tire pressures more often. We simply concentrated on the economic/financial message. Twenty years ago, when hydro was still cheap and even gas prices looked reasonable, basic energy efficiency measures were still attractive with two to three years payback on projects which had potentially much longer lives. I still adhere to the notion that it is utterly pointless to argue with climate change deniers. But even they cannot argue that something isn’t happening that is – increasing wildfires, floods, tornadoes – and that remediation and essential protection for the future is costing us a fortune. The basic cost benefit calculations can be assessed in real dollars – without getting into any arguments about the value of life or time. The economy and job effect of energy efficiency by itself is worth having. Switching to renewable energy is even better in terms of rate of return on capital employed.

The carbon tax is working. It would have worked even better if it had not been frittered away on being “revenue neutral” but invested in sensible activities like increasing transit supply where there is already excess demand. Better still if the amounts had continued to increase and not been foolishly frozen.

Canada’s Economic Action Plan, on the other hand, manifestly is NOT working. Throwing money at billionaires is a very silly idea indeed. It does not trickle down nor are they any more willing to pay low taxes than they were to pay high taxes. Employing people to chase fugitive income and capital gains is a lot more productive than attacking the poor for trivial sums.

The actions we need to take will not destroy jobs or growth. What they will do is heavily impact the fortunes of the fossil fuel companies and those who remain invested in them. Stephen Harper does not actually care very much about Canada, or Canadian values. He does care very much indeed about holding on to power. And to do that he needs a steady flow of cash from the oil companies. And he is very unlikely indeed to insist that they leave their reserves in the ground. But if we are to stay below the 2℃ target that is what has to happen. The costs of missing that target are horrendous, no matter how you count them.

Footnotes

In a comment below I am (quite properly) chided for the lack of data in this opinion piece. Here are some routes where those who are curious can follow up on my assertions

http://www.desmog.ca/2013/05/10/just-how-much-exactly-are-you-paying-subsidize-fossil-fuels – points to an IMF study

Tackling Climate Change while growing the economy http://www.oecd.org/environment/cc/44287948.pdf

http://www.europeanceo.com/business-and-management/2014/06/germany-breaks-solar-power-records/ – “Over 50 percent of the country’s energy was generated from photovoltaic panels” for a short period recently

But the there is also this: http://inhabitat.com/german-state-to-reach-100-renewable-power-this-year/

investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency would create more jobs than the same amount of investment in fossil fuels. source: http://bluegreencanada.ca/node/175

https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/petro-path-not-taken - compares Norway to Canada and Alberta

See also http://www.progressivepress.net/us-fiscal-debate-could-learn-from-norway/

http://nextbigfuture.com/2014/06/vanadium-redox-batteries-could-balance.html

http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2014/03/12/BCs-Carbon-Tax-Shift/

Written by Stephen Rees

June 27, 2014 at 10:04 am

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