Stephen Rees's blog

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

Road closure our chance to try public transit

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It’s a major headache, this closure of Highway 97 between Peachland and Summerland.

But I also find the government’s response to this situation interesting. This whole thing is the result of something going wrong with a project to widen the highway and make the flow of cars and trucks easier.

And as a result, we’re getting a small experiment in public transit.

Starting this weekend people wanting to get between Kelowna and Penticton can get on a bus in one city and take a water taxi around the closure before completing the journey on another bus.

And best of all, the service is free of charge, though ultimately of course, we all pay through our taxes.

The irony here is that when the highway is operational, there is no public transportation option to get between these two Okanagan hubs. You can only go by car, truck, motorcycle or Greyhound.

The Ministry of Transportation has been forced to do the right thing, and by its own actions. If there had been a transit service along Highway 97, then the “need” to widen it would have been eliminated. I don’t know why in BC the words “water taxi” are used, since a taxi is not a vehicle that you can normally share with other fare paying passengers. It is a water bus. And of course, before there were roads or railways, lake steamers provided much of the transportation in that part of BC.

It was an earthquake that brought down an elevated freeway that persuaded San Francisco that they could be better off without it. And of course, now they are – much better off. And of course San Francisco has all sorts of transit options – buses, trolleybuses, cable cars, light rail, BART, CalTrans as well as many ferries.

Road widening is a pointless activity since it induces more trips and thus quickly fills up the available space again. Yet it has been this government’s knee jerk response to almost every challenge. The Olympics are coming – widen the roads. There are lots of container trucks at peak travel times – widen the roads. The economy is going into recession – widen the roads.

The current world wide financial crisis is not just a problem – it is also an opportunity. It it requires us to do some lateral thinking. And to take a longer view of what our response could be. It is not just that the last eight years in the United States have been misdirected – much of the world has been going for growth in the last sixty years in ways that are clearly unsustainable. We need two planets right now, just to provide enough resources for current consumption and if China and India “catch up” to North American standards, will will need three. And we haven’t got them. Not only that the planet is adjusting itself to our activities in ways which we did not predict very well, and in any event most have been ignoring the predictions. The decline in demand has brought down the price we have to pay for petroleum recently so the ability to keep on trucking and blithely ignoring the consequences is, sadly, improved. Short term opportunism does not usually produce happy long term results.

It is clear that a combination of better fuel efficiency and some alternative fuels are not going to be enough. We now need to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions. At the time of writing there is no carbon capture technology ready for massive installation. Fortunately solar and wind energy have been shown to be workable and their prices are falling. We also know that even if by some magic we had all zero emission cars for Monday morning’s commute it would be just as bad as Fridays. And we cannot build our way out of that.

Of course, we have also known what a pre-automobile society looked like. We can easily determine what land use patterns we need for transit oriented development by just looking at what was built before 1929. And it does not mean we have to give up cars completely. Any more than I would suggest we try to reduce out standard of living. Though we could learn a lot from the snow geese – who are currently demonstrating over my head the value of co-operating and working together to save energy in movement.

In this region we need now to do two things. First, stop the Gateway. Second, start a program of investment in transit – all kinds of transit and shared ride services. Treat it as an emergency – because that is what it is. We know that the impact of climate change has already caused disasters – and we know that they are happenning here too. The decline of the orcas and the salmon, the survival over winters of the mountain pine beetle, the shrinking of the glaciers. The evidence is before our eyes. Just as we have known but done little about the devastation of our health and our society caused by our car dependence and cheap oil. On our own we cannot affect climate change – it is a world wide problem – but the tragedy of the commons need not be repeated. We understand that we must all do our part – even if some others refuse to do theirs.

We can also look hard at some of our wasteful ways. We need a new method of accounting since we can see all around us what happens when we treat impacts on the environment as “externalities” and simply pretend to mitigate them. We need a way of assessing projects not just in terms of the immediate dollar impacts – which results in governments paying for silly projects like digging holes and filling them up again just to provide “employment”. Fortunately we have had available to us numerous evaluative techniques – I know because I used them around the world many years ago – we have just chosen to ignore them. Indeed, we prefer to work backwards in BC. ‘Here is the favoured outcome,’ analysts are told, ‘go cook up some figures to support that.’ It is time to blow the whistle on such methodologies. We need to relinquish some old familar beliefs – such as traffic flows like water and must always be accomodated.

Humans are marvellously adaptable. We have shown that many times. We have also shown that when our societies are in the thrall of misguided leaders, even the greatest civilisations collapse. In the Americas the evidence of just such collapses are now tourist attractions. We have the ability to learn – and the good thing is that we have huge amounts of information and a method of transmitting that, which is not only incredibly fast but wide reaching. Something that we did not have before. It also allows two way communication, and is hard to control by demagogues, unlike earlier mass communciations.

But this is also our last chance. We have passed a lot of tipping points already, and reversing the current climate trend is not going to be easy. But our survival as a species depends on it. It is not just about “how do I get to Kelowna with the road out”

Written by Stephen Rees

November 2, 2008 at 10:41 am

Posted in Transportation

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