Stephen Rees's blog

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

Divestment

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The Guardian is currently running a campaign to try to get the Bill Gates and Wellcome Foundations to divest from fossil fuels. This is running concurrently with other campaigns to try to get institutions to divest including Harvard University. Yesterday the Guardian’s campaign included a tweetstorm, and I got an email from Alan Rusbridger suggesting I write to one of the directors of the Wellcome Trust to explain why I thought divestment is a Good Idea. In fact this idea came from the people who had signed up to the Guardian’s petition who thought that individual letters might be more persuasive than just signatures.

The Guardian is, of course, owned by a Trust, which is why it can be independent. And they have already divested. As have I. Here is some of what I wrote to the Chair of the Wellcome Trust.

As a former non-executive member of the board of BP, I sure you recall when that organisation called itself “Beyond Petroleum”. I wonder if you share the great disappointment many of us felt when that approach was abandoned. In retirement, I have an investment portfolio, managed by professional brokers and owned by one of the big Canadian banks. I have been talking to them about the importance of divestment from fossil fuels. I was particularly concerned that my fund manager seemed completely unaware of the investment opportunities in renewable technologies such as wind and solar power generation. I have also been very much aware that many of the companies my funds were invested in were supporting climate change denial and through the activities of people like the Koch brothers, who are heavily invested in the Alberta tar sands, actively working to frustrate changes to cleaner technologies. I have divested my funds from pipelines and fossil fuel power generation  companies and instructed my brokers to buy stock in cleaner energy companies. I think that this has had the useful effect of changing my broker’s range of reading materials, and not focussing so closely on short term market fluctuations.

In Vancouver we are currently fighting against expansions of port facilities to allow for more export of diluted bitumen. Our provincial government is encouraging the expansion of LNG exports by reducing taxes and royalties in an attempt to make financially dubious investments look more attractive. A recent fuel oil spill in the harbour here has concentrated attention on how ill equipped we would be to deal with a dilbit spill on our coast, especially in view on ongoing cut backs by the Canadian government in our Coast Guard. I am sure your experience of the impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster must make you concerned too about the threat that increased oil exploration and exploitation poses to all life on earth. 

I am sure by now you will have read the following paragraph many times. Please take the time to read it again. 

“Your organisations have made a huge contribution to human progress and equality by supporting scientific research and development projects. Yet your investments in fossil fuels are putting this progress at great risk, by undermining your long term ambitions. Climate change poses a real threat to all of us, and it is morally and financially misguided to invest in companies dedicated to finding and burning more oil, gas and coal. Many philanthropic organisations are divesting their endowments from fossil fuels. We ask you to do the same: to commit now to divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years and to immediately freeze any new investments in those companies.”

Thank you for reading my note. I hope the Wellcome Trust will divest from fossil fuels, as so many other academic organisations are doing.

I do not expect that he will change his mind just because he reads my letter. In fact I already have had a response which you can read here. I think it probably reflects the fact that this is an organisation based in the UK, where there is not quite the same direct influence of corporate funding of politics as there is now in the United States thanks to Citizens United. I also do not believe that Shell, BP and Koch Industries (and so on) are run by “fair minded people”. Quite the contrary. I think that they are using the funds invested in their companies to defeat any serious efforts to change the current trajectory of increasing fossil fuel consumption. The possibility of there being some significant shift at the upcoming Paris conference must be alarming them as they hold huge amounts of what will become stranded assets – essentially valueless – if there is a determined move to limit fossil fuel extraction.

I hope that as a reader of this blog you too will consider what you can do to help towards reducing the use of fossil fuels – transit expansion and better land use being two of the most effective. If you are an alumnus, and you get the steady stream of begging emails that I do from your alma mata, perhaps you too can add your voice, or sign up to the Guardian’s campaign. Individually we probably will have an infinitesimal impact: but collectively it will be a mighty roar, that will be hard to ignore. I hope so, for all our sakes.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 17, 2015 at 2:21 pm

12 Great Ideas from Michael Geller

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This talk was given on April 1st. I think it is a great credit to SFU that they have managed to get it onto their youtube channel so quickly. I cannot now recall why I did not attend this talk in person. Perhaps it was because Michael (I may call him, Michael, mayn’t I?) has his own blog and I should not steal his content. I do remember twitting him prior to the talk to make sure that he covered transportation in this talk. He said that he might include something on walking. Well of course a great deal of it is about transportation. We share the same enthusiasms – for pedestrian streets for instance. I started the flickr group Places Without Cars in 2008. And trams.

I warn you in advance that he talks for over an hour and the video does not include any of the discussion which I am sure must have followed. But it is indeed well worth your time.

By the way, Translink did look at increasing the number of ferries across the inlet. Unfortunately the outcome was that few of the possible routes tested offered any time savings – which, of course, is entirely predictable. The reason we don’t have scramble crossings here any more, he said, was that they slow the cars down. Which, of course, is precisely the point. And of course there is a scramble crossing in Steveston. No zebras here

What we do not seem to understand is the reason we think other places work better when we visit them is that as tourists we actually want to slow down and enjoy the place. Unfortunately that is not comprehended by the people who plan our transportation systems who are still hung up on speed as the decisive factor.

There are indeed decorated utility boxes all over Vancouver. I was sure I had pictures of some of them. Maybe I will find them later and add them.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 17, 2015 at 12:04 pm

Posted in Transportation

The Economist chips in

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Our strange way of finding out if we really should be collecting more tax to pay for transit expansion reaches the hallowed pages of the Economist . I would post a link but it points to a paywalled article which quotes Todd Litman. He, of course, makes his research freely available on his web site.”Twelve Reasons to Support Vancouver’s Transportation Tax” was published on 28 March 2015 and is a thorough piece of work, all properly referenced of course. You can download the entire fourteen page document as a pdf.

Key findings

Vancouver households spend less on transport than any major Canadian city except Montreal and Winnipeg, and the smallest portion of all cities. Vancouver households save about $800 annually compared with the national average.

Vancouver households spend a smaller portion of their budget on transport than in any other major Canadian city

The Vancouver region has 3.9 traffic deaths per 100,000 residents, one of the lowest among North American cities.

As Heeney and Yan (2015) explain, “One in five, or 20% of all Metro Vancouver workers take public transit to work, well above the Canadian average of 13%. This is light years ahead of every metropolitan region on the Pacific Coast from Seattle (8%) to Portland (7%) to San Francisco (15%) to Los Angeles (6%) to San Diego (3%). Calgary, by the way, is 16%. If we were to slip to Calgary levels, Metro Vancouver would need to accommodate another 117,000 drivers on the road – imagine the new roads and bridges we would need for that!”

Greater Vancouver has about average costs per passenger kilometers for Canadian cities, and much lower costs than peer cities in other countries

The Vancouver region’s subsidy per transit passenger kilometer is about average for Canadian cities and much lower than peer cities in other countries.

The Vancouver region’s farebox recovery rate is about average for Canadian cities, and much better than peer U.S. cities.

Greater Vancouver has relatively high per capita transit ridership compared with peer cities.

Between 1985 and 2011, walking, cycling and public transit mode share increased by 42% [in Metro Vancouver] , indicating growing demand for these modes – residents increasingly want to use these modes but can only do so if they are convenient, comfortable and affordable.

The TransLink Efficiency Review [which so many of the NO side “experts” like to quote] compared TransLink with transit agencies with much smaller and more compact service areas, which made it look inefficient.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 2, 2015 at 7:47 am

Posted in Transportation

“No means yes to regional transportation improvement limbo”

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I have insomnia. I have had it for a long while. Recently the only way I have managed to get to sleep is to imagine a world where we have won the plebiscite, and the parties that failed to secure individual majorities have successfully combined into a coalition that prevents Stephen Harper from continuing his disastrous reign. My partner tells me I am dreaming in technicolour.

I can deal with the No campaign appealing to the anti tax, right wing crowd. I would expect no more. What has hurt are the numbers of people who say they are voting No on principles that we share, like equality. That they are voting No for all sorts of Good Reasons. They have not, they say, been swayed by the outright lies perpetrated by the CTF which only now are being authoritatively tackled by those traduced by them. Rather they object to the Really Important Issues. Like the impact of a regressive tax on poor people, or the thoroughly unsatisfactory governance of our transit system and its lack of accountability to the people of this region. That rejecting a sales tax is more important than getting more HandyDART service – as though that were – somehow – a bribe.

Peter Ladner in his BIV editorial hits the right note

The only one clear message all these heartfelt no votes can truly claim is: I cannot bring myself to support the only proposal on the table, backed by municipal, regional and provincial governments, endorsed by 130-plus organizations from all walks of life, that – in spite of its inevitable flaws – is guaranteed to strengthen the economy, spread costs evenly, clean up the air and save lives, reduce spending on costly automobile infrastructure and subsidies, improve social equity, reduce public health costs, give employers access to a wider range of employees, give tens of thousands of households a chance to save $10,000 a year in automobile expenses, speed up goods movement, and reduce congestion and commuting times.

But rather like last weekend’s Pete McMartin column just a little bit too late, I fear.

The time to submit your votes stretches out before us, but I have a worry that the convinced have already committed themselves – not that they were open to any suasion. They had already made up their minds, and cannot conceive of any circumstances that would persuade them otherwise. And the people who might be swayed don’t actually vote these days. Their ballot has probably been recycled, or simply lost. Or they never bothered to register and anyway they haven’t got a driver’s license.

So this is now the time for the Hail Mary pass. A ball tossed high in the air in the hopes that someone near the goal line might actually reach it in time. And we could still, maybe, squeak out a win. If you are reading this you are mostly likely someone who has already voted. So this is not addressed to you. This is aimed at those who care enough to register, who got their ballots only recently and have not yet made up their minds. Or who could still register, and vote, if only they can summon up the will to try and make a difference.

Because that is where we are. More of the same, only getting steadily worse as we try to find another way forward. or something better. Something we had a glimpse of in 2010, but which seems to have slipped our grasp. A place where owning a car and driving for everything, no matter what, does not define us. Where walking, cycling and taking transit are realistic options. Where society actually does exist. Where “me first” is not an acceptable justification for anything.

 

When originally published this article had no title. I have since inserted the title from the Business In Vancouver editorial by Peter Ladner that I quoted

Written by Stephen Rees

March 30, 2015 at 8:11 pm

Granville Bridge

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It’s huge. Eight lanes wide, it was the only bridge in the region which was never associated with congestion. Until the even wider Port Mann opened. There have recently been some proposals to dedicate the centre lanes of the bridge to a linear park.

These pictures are of course all from my flickr stream where they form an album or set. I have the feeling that people there no longer read the set description – if they ever did. So I make no apology for repeating that here. By the way the set is called “Vancouver’s High Line?”

There is much talk in urban circles of finding similar linear structures to the High Line capable of being converted into public space. In Vancouver, that has centered around the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts. Which in my view should simply be removed altogether to create a new development opportunity.

On the Granville Bridge people have been suggesting a new pedestrian area in the centre lanes. This seems to me to be even sillier than the viaduct idea. If I am going to walk over a bridge, I want to see what I am crossing over not three lanes of traffic on either side. And no doubt a pair of solid, unclimbable safety barriers too.

This set is of the views from the Fir Street off ramp, where there is a sidewalk on the west side, overlooking Kits and Granville Island. An elevator directly down to the Island would be good too.

Fir Street

In the foreground the CP railway (Arbutus Line) crossing and then the other Granville Bridge off ramp to 4th Ave. That’s West Van in the distance.

7th Ave

The High Line in New York is actually midblock – it threads itself in between buildings, which used to be the factories and warehouses it serves. So neither this bridge nor the viaducts will work in quite the same way. But they do provide a view down the streets – sorry Avenues in our case – they cross. Much quieter than the streets of Lower Manhattan.

A view of distant snow capped mountains

Just as the High Line there are good views off to the distance. And I happen to think the Burrard Inlet is a lot more picturesque than the Hudson River, but your view may be different.

Playground

The playground is a very happy addition to this corner site.

6th Avenue West

The CP Arbutus tracks are off to the right, hidden by the trees

Six lanes on West 4th

Count them – six lanes – on West 4th Avenue. That makes it a stroad: a major arterial road and a shopping street. I would suggest that it is a candidate for traffic calming – or maybe bus lanes for the #4, #7, #44 and #84 – but of course that would set off the same outrage we had to weather from the Point Grey Road changes. Which of course have not actually lead to the decline of Western civilization as we know it.

Starbucks on 2nd

At one time the CP track along Lamey’s Mill Road went through here, crossed the road at an oblique angle and then swung right up towards Burrard. But then Starbucks was built which in some people’s mind ended the possibility of reopening the Arbutus Line for trams, which would connect with the now abandoned Olympic Line. But the old Sockeye Special did not come through here. That line crossed False Creek at an angle on a long gone trestle. Anyway there’s a better alternative: I will get to that in a bit.

Duranleau Street

The Fir Street ramp leaves the main bridge around here. Granville Island is immediately below. One of the features of Granville Island is the large amount of space devoted to car parking. On a sunny weekend, the line-up of cars trying to get on to the Island backs up to the 2nd Avenue intersection and sometimes beyond. Traffic on Granville Island of course moves very slowly because of all the pedestrians, the service vehicles and all those people either hunting for a parking space or trying to get in or out of one. I think a pair of elevators either side of Granville Bridge with their own bus stops would be ideal to improve transit accessibility. I am not a great fan of the #50.

6th Avenue West

This shot down the length of the railway track next to 6th Avenue West illustrates my other great idea. The Fir Street Ramp could be taken away from cars altogether and repurposed for light rail/tram/streetcar – chose your own favourite term. As you can see the trains/interurbans had to climb from here to get up to Arbutus. The alignment could be used for a level rail structure that would connect onto Granville Bridge. That also allows for grade separation of the crossing of Burrard Street. On Granville Bridge the line would use those two centre lanes with a straight shot off the Bridge to the Granville Mall (does anyone still call it that) for transfers to the Canada Line, Expo Line, SeaBus and West Coast Express. The old CP Arbutus right of way could be turned back into an interurban as a cheaper alternative than expanding the stations on the Canada Line. It could also connect to a future conversion of the little used CP tracks to New Westminster and Coquitlam, via Marine Drive Station and the new riverside developments.

new line

Written by Stephen Rees

March 27, 2015 at 2:59 pm

Why can’t we be like Zurich?

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I retweeted this video this morning and as I sat watching it, I kept thinking about that question. Or perhaps we just need to rephrase: when Vancouver grows up, it will be like Zurich.

The bit of history that I think is important that is not mentioned in this video is about the trams. It is part of a European awakening. Cities like Amsterdam seriously considered replacing their trams (streetcars) with a subways. Others used a technique they called “pre-metro” to put the trams underground in city centres. And of course what happened in every case was the traffic expanded to fill the space available. So they stopped doing that. Places like Strasbourg designed the trams to be a desirable part of the city, not just a regrettable necessity. There is a lot about public transport in North America that reminds me of other public conveniences.

The same thing also happened in Toronto. When the Yonge Street subway opened, traffic in the City Centre increased because there were no longer streetcars on Yonge getting in the way of the cars. It might be significant that Toronto still has streetcars. It is also very significant that while the planners (transportation, urban and regional) all now think in terms of surface LRT, Rob Ford wanted a subway.

Some people have even referred to the referendum as Vancouver’s Rob Ford moment. And even Daryl dela Cruz is convinced that the choice of LRT for Surrey is increasing the No vote there.

In Zurich they did plan on a subway system. But the costs were astronomical. And they already had a tram network as well as really good railways, which provided both suburban and intercity services. The Swiss are very well off, of course, and Zurich is the centre of financial services. But they are also very keen on democracy and civic minded. An American in that video almost cannot believe that government can be genuinely concerned about people.

I have often thought that the reason we like SkyTrain so much here is that it keeps the transit out of the way of the cars. An elevated structure does provide a more attractive ride than a tunnel – and is considerably cheaper. But it also has an impact on area through which it runs. Not as horrible as the old elevated railways – which may have been taken down in Manhattan but are still the dominant mode of the New York subway in the other borros.

El Queens

I wonder if in some future Vancouver, having finally got up the courage to rip down the viaducts we will start planning to get rid of the SkyTrain structures. Or perhaps turning them into High Line style parks. SkyTrain of course has to grade separated because of the LIM rail.

The British method of light rail is to use old railway lines wherever possible, but on street running in town centres. In Paris even though there is a disused Petite Ceinture railway line parallel to its route  – grade separated at street crossings – the new T3 runs in the centre of the boulevard. The “art of insertion” is actually just removing space that is now taken by cars (moving and parked) and replacing it with people. Lots of people.

New tram station under construction

Here we seem to be much less concerned about people. The Cambie Street line had to be underground because the City had designated much of the route as The Heritage Boulevard. A broad strip of grass with some large trees. Not actually usable. No one plays on it, or sits watching the cars speed by. There are no couples strolling hand in hand on those lawns. Cutting down trees for a transit line – or widening the Stanley Park causeway – is a red flag. Oddly, not for wider sidewalks and bike lanes apparently.

The other thing I noticed about Zurich’s city centre was the absence of towers. This is also common in much of Europe. In cities like Rome or Florence the centro storico is four to six stories maximum. Unless it’s a cathedral or something. Paris does have towers – but only one at Montparnasse which is widely derided or clustered in La Defense (which is the location for shooting dystopian SF films).

You will also note that the film concentrates on the decisions to limit parking and the volume of traffic allowed into the centre.

One other thing that needs to be said too is that the Swiss are very particular about who they let in to live there. I haven’t looked but it seems to me highly unlikely that the Zurich region is planning on absorbing another million people in the next thirty to forty years.

Haven’t I written all this before?

Written by Stephen Rees

March 27, 2015 at 10:31 am

“NIMBYs in the twenty-first century”

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The title comes from an article in The Economist (paywalled) which discusses the work of a graduate student who has challenged the very successful book by Thomas Piketty “Capital in the 21st Century”.

I have had to return the copy that I was reading to the library: the wait list is long and the number of copies limited. If you want a good summary then Cory Doctorow has done a very good job of that.

Matthew Rognlie

On March 20th Matthew Rognlie (pictured), a 26-year-old graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented a new paper at the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. Although the paper began its life as a 459-word online blog post comment, several reputable economists regard it as the most serious and substantive critique that Mr Piketty’s work has yet faced.

Without actually quoting the whole of the article, the point I want to tackle is this. “housing wealth is the biggest source of rising wealth”

Economist graph

“Policy-makers should deal with the planning regulations and NIMBYism that inhibit housebuilding and which allow homeowners to capture super-normal returns on their investments.”

Now this seems to me to be a very familiar assertion that I have read from the same gang of dealers in secondhand ideas who like to attack government spending on transit. They have asserted more than once that the ALR is responsible for unaffordable housing in Vancouver. For instance here’s the Fraser Institute – citing Wendell Cox (pdf)

The land scarcity created by the ALR has rendered Vancouver housing the most “severely unaffordable” of any major city in the 265 metropolitan markets across Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, as analyzed by Wendell Cox and Hugh Pavletich (2009) in their fifth annual International Housing Affordability Survey

And the same thing in almost any city that imposes an urban growth boundary to limit sprawl.

Dr. Shlomo Ange of the Stern School of Business (NYU) Urban Expansion Project puts the issue simply in his introduction:where expansion is effectively contained by draconian laws, it typically results in land supply bottlenecks that render housing unaffordable to the great majority of residents.

The Economist of course does not have to reference these reports since, as we learned recently, the marketplace of ideas has adopted this notion unquestioningly. Or has it?

The argument stems from the idea that markets are better at determining everything than policy makers. Except that markets can only determine the level of use of those things that are priced. And most of the things that are of real value – breathable air and clean water for instance – are not priced. Land capable of producing food is priced far below what it would be as land designated as suitable for development. Smart Growth seeks to protect this land from development by ensuring that land within the growth boundary is better utilized.

Smart growth planning allows us to create new housing choices that are more affordable. We need to:

  • make better use of existing land and buildings (for example, by filling in vacant lots and allowing homes to be built over stores)

  • allow a mix of home types in every neighbourhood, like secondary suites, granny flats, and single- and multi-family dwellings

  • provide a mix of homes with commercial in the same neighbourhood

  • carefully add new homes in existing neighbourhoods, such as units in the basement or above the garage (to increase rental supply and provide extra income to help with the mortgage)

  • provide easy access to jobs and transportation choices, so households can save on transportation costs

In fact the very idea of “affordable housing” might be misleading because it fails to encompass travel costs. Indeed the old saw about buying a house was “drive until you qualify”. The amount you can borrow to buy a house is controlled (in our case by the rules of CHMC) but no-one controls the amount of time and money you spend commuting. This idea is encapsulated neatly in the last of those bullet points. It is also the case, of course, that in markets like Vancouver, many people cannot afford to buy and renting is increasing in popularity even if the supply of rental housing may not be responding as we might like.

It also ignores all the evidence that the conventional model is unsustainable. All the infrastructure that is needed to support sprawl makes it financially unaffordable – as Charles Marohn admirably demonstrates at Strong Towns. The US congress has been arguing for years how to patch up the crumbling interstate system, given their refusal to even contemplate raising the gas tax which funded its construction but not its maintenance. And the bits which are usable fill with traffic congestion which building more roads has never relieved. This makes for very unhappy commutes (see Charles Montgomery “The Happy City”) but again human happiness is another one of those externalities which markets ignore. Prices were supposed to be based on “utility” but every study shows that simply piling up more cash fails to make anyone happy.

Indeed the greatest failing is that the inequality puts more resources in the hands of those who pay politicians to adopt policies that are disastrous to human existence but are good for their short term profit.

What bothers me about the Economist piece  is the nonchalance which goes along with omniscience. It goes without qualification what policy makers must do. Because all we are talking about is inequality and where wealth comes from. So none of those dull externalities need get considered at all.

And all of this it seems to me has been covered by others more able and capable than I, but that work does not seem to get cited when I go looking for it. I am actually not too dissatisfied by this piece, but at one stage I was seriously considering crowdsourcing it. I am sure that my regular crew of commentators will be piling in but if you know of other articles which deal with this particular debate (“the impact of growth control on housing affordability” gets 54,700 hits) in particular with reference to either this region or the Pacific North West, by all means let me know.

Afterword

Just how unaffordable is Metro Vancouver – and how will that change? VanCity has this forecast

Of course, there is a policy that could deal effectively with affordability, just as there is a policy that would end Homelessness. It simply requires the provision of subsidised housing. Of course those who oppose taxes on the wealthy will howl with rage. But all that we have to do to free up some resources is stop subsidizing fossil fuels – and rethink our agricultural subsidies too, while we are at it. It is ridiculous that corn and sugar production is subsidized when we are dying from diabetes, obesity and heart disease. All of which are also strongly associated with sprawl. Utah – hardly a radical liberal sort of state – eliminated homelessness by simply housing the homeless, which turned out to be cheaper than making them stay on the streets.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 25, 2015 at 4:08 pm

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