Stephen Rees's blog

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

How to fix Translink’s broken governance

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The need for this article, right now, is almost purely academic. The ruling BC Liberals seem immune to widespread obloquy over not one but a series of scandals any one of which might have brought other kinds of government down. Yes Translink is a problem for those of us living in the region  – and that is, numerically at least, the majority of the BC population. But that is not the way politics works here, and Christy Clark seems able to serve out the rest of her term. And anyway there are plenty of other issues where she is at odds with most of the people who live here, but can survive at least until the next election.

The reason I decided to start writing was a piece in BC Business entitled  “How TransLink might fix its broken business model” which is nearly a month old now but its author, Frances Bula chose to tweet it again to-day, which caught my  attention. Basically the article looks at the turn around in Atlanta, and speculates about a similar approach here.

My comment is under the article, and this post is designed to enlarge upon it. Quoting myself

The problem in Vancouver is not management. It is governance. The present model is unaccountable and unrepresentative. It was imposed by a provincial government that has clearly demonstrated that it has absolutely no interest in seeing it work.

The province has always had a policy that transit is different to other types of public service, and needs a unique approach. It interferes continually but, at the same time, refuses to fund transit properly while spending far too much on road expansion. A referendum is required for any new funding mechanism, but is never required for any highway project – or indeed any other type of provincial spending/funding decisions.

And Jordan Bateman will always be only too happy to torpedo any proposals that might actually work to improve the situation as that would rob this one trick pony of his audience.

A new CEO is not going to be able to change the governance. Only the province has the ability to do that. This government never admits to any of its mistakes. Only a change in Victoria as complete as the one just seen in Ottawa is going to make any difference.

So one day there will be a different provincial government that decides that it is time to reform Translink. Here is what they will need to think about:

The current arrangement has been cobbled together to suit the BC Liberals of the day. It makes no sense now to continue with it, and the easiest point to start might be to unpick what they did by simply repealing their legislation, and go back to the former GVTA. Except that was not exactly popular either, and for very good reason. In its first iteration it was a new body run by some but, not all, of the Mayors with some acknowledgement of the varying sizes of the municipalities. This method of indirect representation is similar to that of Metro Vancouver, responsible for waste disposal and water delivery, regional parks and planning, but there all the Mayors get a seat at the table but with weighted votes.

Translink was supposed to have been a transportation agency – with responsibility for some bridges and the Major Road Network (MRN), but this was really only provincial downloading of responsibilities that would have happened anyway. One of the worst decisions, in terms of its financial impact on Translink, was to replace the Albion Ferry with the tolled Golden Ears Bridge, which has created a huge drain on the agency’s revenues as traffic has never come up to expectations, and revenue risk was not transferred to the P3 – which pretty much vitiates the reason for using that method of funding. Apart from that the MRN seems to have worked well except for one long running argument over a bridge between New Westminster and Coquitlam. On the other hand the ill conceived North Fraser Perimeter Road was soundly defeated and has yet to re-emerge. Though it almost certainly will if the Ministry engineers get their way – as they usually do in the Long Run.

I have long argued that indirect elections are a recipe for discontent. Mayors are not elected on regional issues, and tend to adopt a stance that is defensive of their turf before any regional consideration. But no matter how much you might dislike what your Mayor says over regional issues, they are not the deciding factor come election day. We need representative and responsible government and you do not get that by holding infrequent, contentious non binding plebiscites.

The governing body has to be an advocate of better transit, because this region has historically been underserved for most of its existence, and is the only feasible way for a region of this size to function effectively. Transit is not only vital to the economy, it is also essential to tackle our most pressing environmental and social issues – and those include affordable housing. Where you chose to live determines how much you travel and the concept of affordability has to include costs of housing AND transportation if it is to be meaningful.

And while the province will never make any concessions over the needs of longer distance travel and transport, nor will the federal government in terms of ports and airports. Both levels of government have effectively abandoned their responsibilities with respect to housing but that is not sustainable and will inevitably have to change. And while technological changes may well have some dramatic impacts on how we use the transportation system they are unlikely to reduce demand for movement of people and goods overall.

It is also obvious that you should not plan just for transport as though it was not intimately enmeshed with land use. Sadly, we continue to behave as though the two subjects were unrelated – even if we give the idea of integration at least lip service if not substantive commitment. By and large, when new transit lines are planned it would be much better to get them up and running before the people arrive, if you do not want them to get used to driving everywhere first, which is what has been happening.

So, given that Metro Vancouver seems to work acceptably, why would you not just put Translink under its command? I think that is a temptingly straightforward solution but not one that satisfies the need to improve accountability. Much better I think to reform both at the same time and hold direct elections for regional government – with a Mayor for Metro. This is the solution that was adopted in London. Mrs Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council, but then balked at privatising and deregulating London Transport. It was the proverbial dog’s breakfast and did not last for long after she was deposed. The Greater London Authority and its directly elected Mayor now runs Transport for London – and some related issues that have been downloaded including taxis (which used to be run by the Home Office). Much of the transit service is contracted out, but there is a single integrated fare system, and some of the local train services have been transferred from the national rail system to the Overground.

The huge issue that I have not so far dealt with is the need for much more investment in transit as well as increasing need for revenue support – if only because the use of gas tax revenues has been a victim of the system’s very success at getting people out of their cars. Property tax is not going to be accepted, and the province needs to become much more responsive to the needs of people to get around without a car. This applies as much outside Vancouver as within it. It is absolutely baffling why the province refuses to set up a transit service along Highway 16 (“The Highway of Tears”) between Prince George, Terrace and Prince Rupert. That has to be part of the solution to terrible loss of life due to aboriginal women being forced to hitchhike as the only way to get to essential services. Victoria’s need for rail based transit could not be more obvious, nor so long obviously ignored. Restoring trains on the E&N is only a start.

So yes there is going to have to be more provincial money for transit, and the roads budget is the place to start. We simply cannot afford more freeways and gigantic bridges. We also need to raise money fairly and equitably. Income tax and corporation tax are the obvious places to start, and the odious fees and charges levied without reference to ability to pay have to be abolished. So much less reliance on BC Hydro, ICBC as revenue sources, no more MSP and a thoroughgoing reform of BC Ferries to make it once again a public service and not a pretend corporation. The wealthy can readily afford to pay more tax. There has to be an end to all the corporate welfare, especially subsidies and outright give-aways of natural resources. There will still need to be fossil fuels, but levying reasonable royalties (cf Norway) has to be central to public finance. Carbon tax has worked, to some extent, but the “revenue neutral” mantra has to be abandoned.  We have to switch away to renewable energy sources at a much faster rate, and a lot of carbon is going to have to stay in the ground. At the same time, we have to recognize that far too many people are currently living a hand to mouth existence, and cannot absorb more levies fees and tax increases. We have to be more socially responsible, but this also will often mean better ways of doing things. It is cheaper to house people than it is to cope with the costs of homelessness. The war on drugs is unwinnable, but recreational substance use can be a useful source of revenue – and self medication.

The idea that we can reform Translink by tinkering with its PR and “business model” (whatever that means) is delusional. And like any interdependent ecosystem, we cannot just pull on one or two strings and expect the web to stay intact.  But we can also readily identify where the current policies have not worked and cannot be made to work better just by getting tougher. Most of the knee jerk right wing responses are ill informed and unsupported by any credible data. Better policies are in place elsewhere and we can find better examples than the one we have been so blindly following. And none of this is a stand alone issue. It is long past time for some joined up thinking.


From the Globe and Mail Friday November 20

One change Mr. Fassbender said he’s not going to consider at all is another reorganization of how TransLink is governed. When the agency was first created, 12 mayors sat on a board that directed TransLink. The province changed that in 2007 to have the board composed of non-political appointees.

Mr. Fassbender emphasized that everyone needs to stay focused on what’s really important, not squabbles over how much TransLink’s CEO is paid or what the governance of TransLink looks like. “It’s important that we keep our eye on the goal – an integrated, working transportation system.”


Written by Stephen Rees

November 18, 2015 at 5:37 pm

World Bank: “the number of traffic-related deaths could surpass those from HIV-AIDS by 2020.”

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It is not often that I post these days. And is even less often that I simply cut and paste a press release. But while their headline wasn’t a grabber, that extract I used as the title struck me.

And, of course, for far too many people the whole idea of “road safety” is a bit of a yawn. They tend to be the sort of people who still talk about “accidents”. No doubt one of them was driving the car that overtook us on the wrong side on 49th Avenue at Granville on Monday night around 6pm. Because my partner was not driving at the posted speed but at one suited to the conditions – dark and raining heavily.

Road Safety: More Funding, Coordination Needed for the Poorest Countries

BRASILIA, Brazil, November 17, 2015 – Developing countries can make big gains in improving road safety with more funding and coordination to scale up interventions that deliver proven results, World Bank officials said ahead of a global conference.

Led by Managing Director Bertrand Badré and Senior Director Pierre Guislain, a World Bank delegation will participate in the 2nd Global High Level Conference on Road Safety on November 18-19 in Brasilia. They will discuss with clients, partners, and potential donors how best to scale up action, funding, and overall impact so that the poorest countries can see more progress.

The latest Global Status Report on Road Safety estimates that road deaths have leveled off since 2007. But they remain unacceptably high, at 1.25 million deaths and 50 million injuries a year. This is more deaths than from malaria or tuberculosis; and if trends continue, the number of traffic-related deaths could surpass those from HIV-AIDS by 2020.

Road injuries are the leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 29. Deaths and injuries in low- and middle-income countries are estimated to reduce GDP by 3 to 5%, often affecting the poorest. Since 2010, low-income countries have had higher average road deaths than middle-income countries.  Africa remains the region with the highest death rates as of 2013, at 52% above the global average. All other regions reported a lower rate in 2013, the last year for which data is available.

“Both the public and private sectors need to step up efforts to meet the Global Goals’ ambitious target for 2020: reducing by half the number of road-related deaths” said World Bank’s Managing Director Bertrand Badré. “We must shift from stabilizing to dramatically reducing road deaths. This will require more commitment, scaled-up action, and dedicated funding.”

Over the past 10 years, the World Bank’s Global Road Safety Facility (GRSF) has promoted global knowledge sharing and multi-sectoral interventions with support from the UK, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the FIA Foundation. All World Bank road projects today include a safety component, and its lending targeted at road safety has increased more than 300%, from $56 million in FY 2006 to $239 million in FY 2015.

The GRSF seeks to expand its donor base to increase its global impact.  It currently supports 44 projects in 26 countries. The focus includes road safety design and infrastructure, institutional capacity, legislation, policing and enforcement, behavior change by motorists and pedestrians, as well as safer cars and effective post-crash response.

GRSF funding and technical assistance is helping countries achieve significant results, including:

·         Assessment of some 40,000 kilometers of high-risk roads in 13 countries, with potential to save 280,000 lives and reduce serious injuries over a 20-year period.

·         A 35% drop in traffic-deaths on project roads in Argentina since 2011, and an 11% reduction in deaths along project corridors in Nigeria.

·         Better institutional capacity for road safety management in many countries, including Brazil, China, India, Malawi, Mexico, Morocco, Russia, and Tanzania.

·         Regional impact across Latin America through the Ibero-American Road Safety Observatory.

The results show that more hands-on partnership with committed governments, the private sector, and other partners can accelerate change and save precious lives.

We are committed to helping countries halve the number of road fatalities and injuries, and we look forward to new partners who can join us in the Global Road Safety Facility,” said Pierre Guislain, Senior Director for the World Bank’s Transport & ICT Global Practice. “The international community needs to focus on the plight of low-income countries, which have just 1% of cars and 12% of the global population but suffer 16% of total deaths from road crashes.”

Written by Stephen Rees

November 18, 2015 at 11:54 am

Posted in Road safety, Transportation

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What this place is going to look like

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I have been seeing links to this report in various places. But not, so far anyway, this

So just to let you know, I got the information about this map from Next City. And after I got a download of the screenshot above this communication from came by email

If you have received this email, you recently downloaded a map image from Surging Seas: Mapping Choices. You have our permission to use this image as you wish, provided that you cite Climate Central, provide a link to if the image is used online, and adhere to our terms of use.

In addition, we encourage journalists and stakeholders to view, download, embed, broadcast or otherwise use these additional materials created by Climate Central, according to our same terms of use:

  • photo-realistic sea level images that you can easily embed on your site, or broadcast, with attribution. Or download the same hi-res images via this page
  • Google Earth ‘3D fly-over’ video tours showing effects of sea level rise on global cities under contrasting warming scenarios
  • our global report with statistics for cities around the world, including analysis of population on implicated land
  • interview clips with lead scientist Dr. Benjamin Strauss

If you do so, we simply ask that you provide a credit to Climate Central, and include a link to us ( when posting online.

So, having done that I think I have fulfilled any obligation I incurred. I am a bit surprised, and disappointed, that there does not seem to have been much take up of this information by the mainstream media. And that some of the links I have followed that seemed to address the report did show just how so much of Metro Vancouver is going to be under water. So I hope that this posting will inspire some better efforts by the people who read this blog.

The subject matter has, of course, been covered here in the past. And my frustration that, when I lived in Richmond, there seemed to be such a complacent attitude towards sea level rise.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 17, 2015 at 10:05 am

“so it’s a third of the cost for two-thirds of the benefit,”

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The title is a direct quote from Yves Desjardins-Siciliano who is the CEO of VIA Rail. The story comes from the Huffington Post citing the Financial Post and the Windsor Star. It sets out the case for a separate passenger only railway between Toronto and Montreal, which would significantly increase the speed and reliability of rail service but would not be as expensive a full blown High Speed Rail (HSR). Given the financial position of VIA, and the nature of the demand in the corridor, this proposal would be Good Enough. HSR is a good example of the best being the enemy of the good.  It has been studied extensively – I worked on one such study as a consultant back in the 1990’s – and so far nothing has been done in terms of improving VIA rail’s current service or winning people back to rail from short distance air or driving. It did surprise me, when I first came to Canada, that intercity buses were often faster than passenger trains.

It pains me a little that electrification is still seen as a dispensable option but actually I have to admit that a modern diesel electric locomotive  can be very energy efficient. I just happen to think that since Ontario has done such a good job of getting rid of its coal fired power stations, the greenhouse gas reduction argument should be given much more weight. There are also a couple of considerable advantages of an electric train. First, electric trains can climb much better than diesels: they don’t weigh nearly as much, as they don’t have to carry the generator or the fuel. So lines purpose built for modern electric trains can have steeper grades, and often that means they can be straighter, which also helps increase speeds. Secondly, the energy used in braking can be captured and returned to the power supply line for the the use of other trains. Regenerative braking captures a lot of the energy that is otherwise lost as heat. Electric trains can also decelerate and accelerate much better than diesels, so dealing with intermediate stops is not such an issue in overall travel time. I would hope that the design of intermediate stations would permit fast trains to pass stationary ones, so that even if it is not actual HSR, there could still be some non-stop service between the two major centres, to improve  competitiveness with air. However, given the way that the population is distributed across sprawling suburbs, centre to centre may not be the most important tool to attract traffic. Large Park and Ride lots, on the other hand, will be essential.

I have not seen any of the analysis that VIA has used to come up with the costs of its proposed separate line compared to a HSR, but there has to be a lot in common between the two. Land costs will be very similar, I think. It also seems sensible to eliminate level crossings – and to fence the entire line – just to increase safety.  You have to do that for HSR, but if those components were omitted for a conventional speed line that might explain some of the price difference.  While I am in favour of getting the costs down, this would seem to me to be very hard to defend when it comes to public consultation.



Written by Stephen Rees

November 5, 2015 at 8:20 am

Two tweets by Jeff Speck

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The constraints of the 140 character limit meant that this observation by Jeff Speck got spread over two tweets. But instead of retweeting I decided to make it a blog post.

“When we built our new house in Washington, we too did our best to clear the shelves of the sustainability store.

Yet, all of our green gadgets cumulatively contribute only a fraction of what we save by living in a walkable neighborhood.”

This is pretty much what was established by the BC Energy Aware Committee many years ago – and BC Ministry of Energy Mines and Petroleum Resources Energy Efficiency Branch even earlier. Yes, you can save energy by buying better windows, and putting more insulation in the roof. But simply giving up one of those cars and walking to more of your destinations will save far more. Our built environment is based on the idea of energy that is “too cheap to  meter” and that was a chimera. We are still stuck with that – not just as a desirable form but one that many of us will be forced to live in for a long time. And much of the battles that get fought over issues like transit funding or bike lanes stem from our attachment to the image of the place we thought that we had been promised.

And here are two more (November 4)

“Trading all your incandescent bulbs for energy-savers conserves as much carbon per year as living in a walkable neighborhood does per week.”

“The most green home (with Prius) in sprawl still spews more carbon than the least green home in a walkable neighborhood. (EPA)”

Written by Stephen Rees

November 3, 2015 at 7:14 pm

Posted in energy, Environment

We Can’t Get There From Here

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Much attention in the mainstream media this morning is being paid to Road Pricing (RP). That is because there is a new report out from Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission that recommends road pricing as the way to deal with traffic congestion. Reaction has, of course, been swift. The reactions have been predictable – that traffic congestion is actually an indicator of economic success, and also that this new Commission has to be suspect since it is financially supported by corporations like Suncor and TD. Actually, I think these both rather miss the point. By going to the Ecofiscal web site you can easily establish who is behind it. I think it is safe to accept that we are not dealing here with yet another tentacle of the right wing think tank monster. Secondly, the report is aimed squarely at a problem that is daily front of mind for much of the population, and one that has been resistant to most other policy prescriptions.

I have written about RP here quite a lot (75 items turn up in a search for road pricing), and as usual as soon as I start writing a blog post feel that I am repeating myself. I thought that RP was a Good Idea when I first read about it: “Paying for Roads” a Penguin Special by Gabriel Roth that cost five shillings when it was published in 1967. Back then much of the technology that now makes RP technically possible was far into the future. Though there was a brief experiment with license plate readers and a series of cordons in Hong Kong while it was still a British colony: it was one of the first acts of the short lived democratic, pre-Chinese takeover government to kill it.

One of the good things is that you can download both the Executive Summary and the full report for free and read it for yourself. I am going to highlight just a couple of shortcomings, but I am sure others will find more. First, in terms of case studies it seems to me that they have missed the biggest one: London. That is a pity since it misses the single most important lesson.

The report states “Congestion pricing is likely to have its greatest impact when accompanied by complementary non-pricing measures—for example, road and transit improvements that improve alternatives for drivers.”

True but not trenchant enough. RP will fail to get any support in a situation where people feel that they have no alternative. So any RP demonstration project here will fail, simply because the transit system is inadequate for many trips – and there is no ability to fund any significant improvement under the present funding model. In London, when the flat rate cordon around the Central Area was introduced, it was recognised that railway system was already at capacity at peak periods, and there was not going to be any ability to increase that capacity in the short term. On the other hand, it was possible to greatly increase the bus system capacity by introducing an extensive system of bus only lanes and other priority measures. And that this improvement had to be made before the cordon was activated. Yes, RP produces a revenue stream that can be used to support transit, but for the system to work that additional capacity has to be available on the first day the RP bites.

The Executive Summary has this to say about our region

Metro Vancouver has constrained geography bounded by mountains and ocean, polycentric travel patterns with multiple hubs of activity, and a complex governance structure with involvement from multiple municipalities and the provincial government. Applying variable pricing to each of the region’s bridges and tunnels that cross waterways would be one way to price access to key driving arteries to reduce regional congestion.

Again, true so far as it goes but also a recipe for disaster. Bridges and tunnels are an obvious choice, but also a mistake, because there are plenty of trips at peak periods that do not cross a bridge (or use the tunnel). As long as you are driving east-west, you can avoid crossing significant bodies of water.   Coquitlam to UBC for instance. Or Abbotsford to Delta.

RP can be much more sophisticated than a simple flat rate cordon toll system. Indeed, what Roth was proposing all those years ago was a system that was able to price correctly depending on time of day and traffic conditions. So not at all like the cordon charges imposed in London or Stockholm. Something of the sort that has been used successfully in the Minnesota HOT lanes, and in the San Francisco variable parking fee regime. But that means you have to have a system that is less concerned with optimising revenue take, and more to do with improving travel times. The great benefit of RP is that those who can afford the fees get a quicker drive. Which is one reason why it is perfectly reasonable to question why we are trying to tackle traffic congestion when there are so many other more pressing issues like climate change and income/wealth inequality that ought to be concerning us. The optimum is unlikely to be a simple piece of fiscal calculus, since we need to put into a model all those really awkward considerations that are controversial in terms of pricing. Since our income distribution has become so inequitable, price solutions are going to be very unfair indeed. And if we have failed to make adequate provisions for people who cannot drive, as well as those who find it hard to afford to drive, or who simply do not want to, then the whole thing is going to be wildly unpopular before it starts.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 2, 2015 at 11:01 am

Posted in congestion, road pricing

Tagged with ,

TransLink wanted your input

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IMG_1860 IMG_2074 Sydney L1 at Central StationI’m back. Actually got in Wednesday morning four hours before we left Sydney: the flight back crossed over the intersection of the equator and the international date line. Jet lag and the lingering colds we picked up at the end of the cruise have been combining to limit our activities but the laundry got done and I fixed the toilet and the sliding patio door that wouldn’t close properly. Pictures from the last four weeks are going up on flickr. More will be added steadily over the next few weeks.

I really liked Sydney: arriving in a new city the other side of the world without jetlag was a very pleasant experience. Great buses, nice new LRT but new downtown development is massive and seems to me to be very tightly squeezed in.

[The original post had a press release here about a Translink consultation process that has now closed.]

Written by Stephen Rees

October 23, 2015 at 4:56 pm

Posted in transit


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