Archive for December 2009
The Globe and Mail is publishing a series called “Things that Work”: this is the 7th in the series “on a better BC”.
As you would expect from such an introduction, there is very little other than praise in this piece. Certainly no critical appreciation – except for this snide paragraph
Critics focus on the fact that the Canada Line came before the much-needed Evergreen Line to the northeast, the devastating impact of street-gouging construction on businesses in the Cambie Village area of central Vancouver, and that some bus routes were trimmed or eliminated as a result of its opening.
Actually critics have quite a large number of issues – but I am glad they mentioned the bus routes. Because while the piece concentrates on the ridership, nowhere does it mention that many of the “100,000 riders per day” were already transit users. Given the amount spent on this line, surely the one thing that is really important – how many new transit users did it attract – should have been given some mention?
My main concern now is capacity. (It is too late to talk about how a much more cost effective surface alignment could have been used to the same effect – or possibly better if land use in Vancouver really is going to densify.) Because the line specification was sharply trimmed to stay within the bid price, the rapidly rising ridership which is now so wonderful will soon be a problem. Firstly because the number of trains was reduced. They are going to need more sooner than they thought. Secondly because there is only scope for a 50% increase in train capacity before station capacity is reached. One car can be inserted into each train – with selective door opening at some stations. If more capacity is then needed, stations must be rebuilt to accommodate longer trains. Alternatively, the line at each outer end needs to be rebuilt to two tracks with a scissors crossing at each terminal. This would allow train frequency to be increased – and will also not be cheap.
There is also the on going secrecy which shrouds the project – the Canada Line is one of the agencies using the courts to try and fend off a decison by the office of the information commissioner. We have to pay for this line for years to come: they want public money but they do not want public scrutiny.
Of course this blog has also noted other deficiencies – like station designs that increase the number of pedestrians crossing major roads – and doubts that any of the possible “future stations” will ever be built – following the example of the SkyTrain. But then I have never pretended to be a cheer leader for “the best place on earth” and it annoys me that the Globe and Mail should become one. That, it seems to me, is not a suitable function for a quality newspaper.
I think most people in the environmental movement expected a lot from Copenhagen. The outcome certainly disappointed nearly every commentator. But what is baffling this morning is the blame game being played out in the pages of the Guardian. On the one hand George Monbiot squarely placed the blame on Barack Obama, the US Senate and the vested interests who pay for senators – and the rest of us who did not protest enough. On the other hand Mark Lynas gives a blow by blow account from inside the room, and points the finger at the Chinese.
In the Monbiot analysis,
Obama went behind the backs of the UN and most of its member states and assembled a coalition of the willing to strike a deal that outraged the rest of the world. This was then presented to poorer nations without negotiation: either they signed it or they lost the adaptation funds required to help them survive the first few decades of climate breakdown.
The British and US governments have blamed the Chinese governmentfor the failure of the talks. It’s true that the Chinese worked hard to mess them up, but Obama also put Beijing in an impossible position.
Lynas bases his report on what he saw in the room and some very specific details such as
The Chinese premier, Wen Jinbao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country’s foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself. The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal, as was the practical implication: several times during the session, the world’s most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his “superiors”.
But, if Monbiot is right and there was a back room deal that was untenable for the Chinese, that response seems understandable. Lynas also seems to pin a lot on the Chinese “lack of civil society” which meant they faced less criticism of their actions at home. Equally plausible, however is that the Chinese in general are less concerned about the planet than they are about their own economic well being. After all, that applies equally to many Canadians – at least those who can be bothered to vote.
Interestingly the Chinese also see economic opportunity – and are rapidly expanding both in solar and wind powered generation.
And then there was the bizarre sight of Gordon Campbell being given an award in Copenhagen by Tzeporah Berman – which I doubt anyone outside of BC noticed or cared about.
It does seem that for all of us, the buck has definitely been passed. We can no longer rely on the politicians – any politicians – to do anything effective. So it is now up to the rest of us to start making changes – in our own lives first, and then in the communities around us. If we want to see change, we have to be the change. They might have built superhighways, but that doesn’t mean we have to drive on them all day and everyday. We can indeed influence markets by our choices, and one of the most effective ways is to simply reduce our consumption. We can close our bank accounts and move our funds to local credit unions – where we can also influence policy discussions, if we are so minded. If we are fortunate enough to have savings we can invest in ethical ventures that support sustainable living rather than just buying a mutual fund that could be invested in anything – but will inevitably include companies like Shell or the big banks unless we make more effort at finding better choices. Getting out of debt will be a very good place to be for nearly everyone, and should be an objective rather than striving for the unattainable, illusory consumer heaven we are proffered every day. But above all we need to look around us at the positive things that are happening all around, that we can join in and support. “Civil society” may have to acknowledge that our efforts to influence public policy are going to be ignored unless we can mount a much more effective mobilisation. There have been small victories – the power plant in the park being the one that comes to mind – so I am not suggesting giving up. But I do think we need some positive reinforcement, as the only satisfaction to be gained from banging one’s head against a brisk wall is that it is so nice when it stops.
Afterthought: thanks to Celia Brauer, there is a much better account of why the conference went wrong on the BBC which looks at a whole range of issues. While it is easy for a columnist to point fingers at a person or country, reality is, as always, much more complex.
And finally: Naomi Klein blames it on Obama for whom no opportunity is too big to blow
Translink has just put out a news release touting the next phase of its combined Smartcard and Faregate program. Jeff Nagel called me about it – wanting a comment – and while I am waiting for him to call me back for a comment, I decided to put my thoughts on it in writing. It will be interesting to se how much of what i say makes it to the paper.
First off, Smart cards that passengers can preload are a very good idea. I used the Oyster card when I was in London last year, and was impressed with its ease of use. Though I did not appreciate having to wait in a very long line up at Victoria Station to buy one from the ticket office. I would have thought that this was the sort of transaction that could easily be done by a machine. I wanted two cards each loaded with enough value for three days unlimited travel in zone one only. The only real glitch – since recently fixed by a new agreement with the privatised national railway operators – was that it could not be used to take the most direct route back from Greenwich to Waterloo (we had gone out by river bus, and also used the card on that, but it just got us a discount not a ride).
Translink say that they are going to leave the present three zone (Monday to Friday until 1800) system in place. But also note that “new technology will have the flexibility to allow for new fare options and a greater variety of price incentives to reward customer loyalty and attract new people to transit”. Well you could do that now with the present system. You would just have to use the present cards’ mag stripe and have more people swipe than the present reliance on cards that are flashed at an operator – who usually pays no attention. Actually fare incentives simply get transit users to make more rides – and do very little to get people out of their cars. People who drive really are unconcerned about fares. So if spending this amount of money is thought to improve mode share – and those words never appear in Translink press releases – think again. But of course mode share increase should be the aim.
The claim is made that the cards will provide data – but the current system does that already. The data is largely ignored, simply because no-one has worked out a model to convert the swipes into rides. This is not too hard to develop if you have a good trip diary survey. Sadly Translink has never invested enough in asking basic questions about trip making: the sample we have at 0.4% is an order of magnitude less than that used by Toronto, for example. Besides it has always been the practice at Translink to make up the ridership stats: much more fun and less work.
The real sticking point for me is the claim that gates make riders feel safer. They may do that, but riders will in fact be less safe. That is becuase once the gates go in there will much less need to have police patrolling the system and asking to look at tickets. This currently does not find many fare cheats but is valuable because it finds people with outstanding warrants and other offences. That won’t happen once the gates are there. (This issue is covered in earlier posts to this blog that you can find easily).
The appalling performance in Copenhagen is worse than an embarrassment. I am breaking my own self imposed limitation and copying an email below from Avaaz. I have just signed this petition and rather than send it out by email I thought I would try to reach the larger audience who read this blog. I do not believe that the current policies of the Canadian government with respect to climate change reflect the views of most Canadians. I think they need to hear from us.
Enough is enough. As the world mounts a desperate effort to stop catastrophic global warming in Copenhagen, Canada should be leading the way. Instead, we’re receiving global “fossil awards” for wrecking this crucial summit! And new leaked documents show that while the entire world is increasing cuts to carbon emissions, the government is secretly planning roll back ours.
At the Bali climate summit in 07, a massive national outcry forced Harper to stop blocking the talks. But the oil companies that PM Harper works for know that Copenhagen is the make or break moment for climate. It will not be easy to win this time, but to save the planet and our country we have to.
Let’s mount a tidal wave of pressure on Harper with the largest petition in Canadian history – click below to sign, and forward this email to everyone:
The petition will be delivered directly to the Canadian delegation in Copenhagen as Harper arrives this week, and names of the signers will actually be read out in the summit hall. While the Canadian delegation is the object of international disbelief and ridicule in Copenhagen, we can show the world that the Canadian people still hold our values of being good neighbours and global citizens.
Harper is undermining our deepest values and proudest traditions. But this is about more than our reputation. Studies show that climate change is already taking up to 300,000 human lives a year through turning millions of farms to dust and flooding vast areas. We can no longer allow Harper to make us responsible for these deaths, or put Canada’s economic future in jeopardy by sacrificing our green competitiveness for a brown economy based on the dirtiest (tar sands) oil in the world.
Copenhagen is seeking the biggest mandate in history to stop the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. History will be made in the next few days, and our country is the problem, not the solution. How will our children remember this moment? Let’s tell them we did all we could.
Ricken, Laryn, Anne-Marie, Iain and the Avaaz Canada team
More information at these sites:
Mail and Guardian — “Canada’s climate shame”
Toronto Star — “Who are the Yes Men and why did they punk Canada at Copenhagen”
Macleans — “Suddenly the world hates Canada”
Fossil of the Day Awards
Now there’s a headline to send your pulses racing. Yes, I know all sorts of exciting things are going on in the world, but somebody has to pay attention to these things. And I did volunteer for the Livable Region Coalition that I would lead the charge – though I was very pleased to see LRC founder Gordon Price at the meeting. It took up most of the morning at the Metrotown Hilton, and it is taking me some time to get my notes on line as I found that both the batteries for my notebook PC were dead. So I am working from scribbled notes.
Johnny Carline opened the proceedings with a summary of the process to date. They are now on the second draft of the strategy having been through extensive consultations with the public, municipalities and “stakeholders” (more about that later). The Regional Growth Strategy is only one of twelve parts of the Sustainable Region Initiative.
The RGS has changed the Livable Region Strategy objectives by introducing the idea of “a sustainable economy” but Carline admitted that what is there now is not sustainable but is more to do with “economic viability”. There is also a new commitment to deal with climate change. Metro has worked hard with Translink on transportation choices but not with senior governments whose policies he said were “pulling us apart”.
In addition to the public meetings they held two focus groups of randomly chosen residents and interestingly their views were not very different to those “self selected” people who attended the meetings. Overall there is around 90% support for the new strategy, though 40% think there should be a higher level of regional agreement, which is directly contrary to the views of municipal officials (elected and professional) who think they should have more autonomy. The implementation of the strategy is the municipalities’ greatest concern, as well as the role of Translink. Perhaps the greatest area of concern now is employment dispersal – an area where the LRSP notably failed to get implemented – and the need to protect industrial land.
The RGS maintains the LRSP list of multiple centres with different scales and roles (as Central Place Theory states – range, hinterland, hierarchy) but adds two new municipal town centres, one on the North Shore and the other in Langley Township. Pubic pressure has resulted in neighbourhood centres being added to the map even though they have no regional significance.
Frequent Transit Corridors
As result of municipal pressure these have been taken off the map but the idea remains key, that high density development needs to be located along the routes used to link centres, but these corridors will not be allowed to undermine the centres. Translink will work with the municipalities to define these corridors, which will need commitments from both sides and will not go forward without that.
(I think that this is a significant policy issue and shows, once again the great local resistance to the need for increased densities in established areas.)
There has been a “big push back from the municipalities” on how these are defined: they want autonomy, but the region feels there is a need to be able to accommodate the repatriation of manufacturing as well as “the need to support port activities” as well as meeting the need for truck “storage”.
49% of office employment in the last 15 years has gone to developments outside of the town centres, often on industrial land. These areas are not transit friendly which has significant mode split and ghg implications. The new road systems now being built are “expensive and counter productive” and the increased dispersal of employment undermines regional objectives. However the region does not have the necessary powers to control this growth. We must all understand that we cannot say we support the objectives of the RGS and continue as we have been doing. The result has been a compromise called a “mixed employment” designation which will act as an “escape valve” – since both the development industry continues to want to develop these and municipalities cannot afford to forgo the additional tax revenue. The region will “not be happy” if that designation extends the problem. Carline remarked that this was the “juiciest policy debate” in the process.
These small areas have been added: they are not an urban reserve or “development in waiting” but rather lands outside the ALR and the Green Zone where low density development has occurred. The density guidelines have been removed, but sewers will not be extended into these areas to support development, though they may still be needed for health or environmental reasons.
Conservation and Recreation Areas
Linkages have now been added between these areas as part of the region’s Greenway Network
Everyone wants a stronger policy but there is a limited amount that municipalities can do absent federal support.
Transportation – the thorny issue
Translink gets to “accept” the regional stratgey but Metro can only comment on theirs. “At the staff level we all get it”. The role of providing service to meet existing demand is core to Translink. Investing to shape growth is an important policy direction and is the Metro interest. For transit there are three concepts
- established markets
- major emerging transit markets
- locally emerging markets
As Martin Crilly pointed out, Translink cannot get too far ahead of current demand. But Metro has identified the areas where future transit investment should go
- The Evergreen Line
- Surrey Town centre to other centres in Surrey
- Surrey Town Centre to Langley and other adjacent regional centres
Everyone wants clarity. But the plan cannot be rigid so Metro has identified two amendment processes. 1) The municipal Regional Context Statements are a major instrument that allows for variations from the plan without amendment, except that the agricultural designation and the urban containment boundary cannot be changes by this process. 2) Special Study Areas which will only require 50% +1 vote at the GVRD Board for approval (not the higher levels of agreement required for other amendments)
The intention is to get the plan “put to bed before the summer break”. More public consultation meetings will be held across the region from January 12 to 26.
After the small group discussion three stakeholders got to speak from the lectern.
Jeff Fowler of UDI
We support wise and efficient use of a scarce resource: density must be tied to transit. The development industry buys into the vision but the municipalities seem to find it easier to identify where development will not go than where it will. The industry understands the need for development at transit stations and for infill. We have a limited land base so it is crucial to identify places where development will be permitted.
Government still restricts land uses, there are limits on what can be done on industrial land which limits the possibilities for municipalities to adapt to economic change. Some industrial areas are near transit stations and would be good places to put new development. Restrictions on land use do not compel density to go into the right places. The industry has to confront NIMBYism, high development cost charges and demands for additional community facilities. 23 local governments all beholden to local pressures makes increasing density difficult. We need to leverage the investment that has been made in [rapid] transit. As one Orgeon official has pointed out “we do not like sprawl but we don’t like density either!”
In Toronto’s centre building costs are around $40-50 psf: in Vancouver its $150 psf. The average house price in Toronto is $560,000, in Vancouver $900,000.
We must be wary of restrictions on land use and need to be bold and creative to achieve greater density
Port of Vancouver
(I am sorry but I did not catch the name of the speaker). We are much interested in growth and development, especially as it effects the Pacific Gateway. We welcome the collaborative approach to the regional goods strategy and the reinforcement of the major transit corridors. He also noted the linkages to industrial areas. They oppose mixed employment areas as they see them eroding the industrial land base and are often not well served by transit. He also spoke about “Fair Tax Equity” (which is a bit rich coming from a wealthy agency that has been refusing to pay property tax in Richmond).
Greg Yeomans of Translink
The two agencies are trying to establish the same thing and the two plans should be regarded as “two chapters from the same book”. Translink supports the goals, the retention of the transportation component and the strongly defined urban growth boundary. The Frequent Transit Corridors are also supported and shoud align with Translink’s Frequent Transit Network.
More work and refinement is needed on jurisdictional issues, the transit markets concept and priorities as well as implementation and amendments.
Gordon Price posed a question in the form of a long statement which essentially stressed the impact of the huge investments now being made in roads and bridges. Essentially the region’s growth strategy has largely worked – up until now.
Johnny Carline responded that the dispersal of employment was what had prompted the road building program as a response to an intolerable level of congestion. “If you stop dispersal of employment you will end the demand for roads”. We are call for better management of the road system to give priority to trucks. The land use plan limits sprawl. A firm urban containment boundary limits amount of land left for greenfield development. Focussing development, and the lac of alternatives, works in our favour. What is worrisome is that highway expansion will also spawn development outside the region. Metro Vancouver should be expanded to Hope.
In answer to another question he also remarked that because travel has been cheap and easy, longer distance commuting has been an attractive option. This applies to transit as much as car use. But also the region has offered “freedom to travel” which is highly prized. “Perhaps the best trip is no trip at all”.
The discussion around each table was recorded on large post it notes and stuck to the wall. They will be transcribed and, I suppose, recorded by Metro.
Deb Jack of Surrey Environmental Partners made a couple of very good points: the conservation areas are not nearly big enough. Simply protecting what we have is not good enough. Secondly while turning attention to climate change is good, the RGS ignores the much bigger issue of the need to promote biodiversity. Even of we manage to control ghg, this will be a much greater threat to our survival as a species.
In my view, the choice of “stakeholders” to be given the platform emphasizes what has been wrong with this process throughout. Far too much attention is being paid to what other agencies and corporate interests want, and far too little has been done to include communities and other interest groups. Why do none of the NGOs, foe example, get to comment from the lectern? If Gordon Price had not shown up, would the question he raised even have been considered?
But there is also far too much complacency in Carline’s reply. No urban region has ever cured congestion by building roads. Congestion is – as everywhere – just about tolerable. If that were not the case, people would change their travel behaviour and relocate. What every urban system sees is the level of congestion that the local populace thinks, collectively, is what they can put up with. The only way to reduce traffic congestion is to make better use of the space devoted to moving (and parking) vehicles – essentially reducing the role of the single occupant car (the greatest waste of resources known to man) and buidling better transit systems.
Deb Jack, again, made the point that the choice of transit technology is always made by the province, not Translink. What the region needs now South of the Fraser more than anywhere, is Light Rail, not Skytrain. And, I added, not freeway expansion.
The idea that the RGS can somehow stop the incesant demands of the road building lobby is bizarre. Of course the Port supports it – it has won every round. The Gateway Council gets “most favoured” treatment and every other interest group – of whatever kind – is largely ignored. What the Port claims is never challenged. There is no need for port expansion. Given what we now know about peak oil and climate change there will likely never be enough demand to justify these new facilities. Anyway they will all be underwater in a few years time. Parking spaces for trucks is not the greatest issue this region faces and there is absolutely no need for truck priority. All they need to do is change their scheduling procedures so that trucks dropping off a container can collect one at the same time – and also expand the port’s working hours to encourage trips into the off peak periods. Pretending that you need a new freeway so that truckers can work 8 to 4 Monday to Friday is a ridiculous priority.
And while I have nothing against Greg Yeomans personally, his contribution was otiose. He did the job his organization needed done, but given what Carline had already said, it did not need saying again. Yet many voices in the region seem not be heard. There is never any time for the concerns of the people – or the environment – to be heard at these gatherings. Only corporate PR and spin.
I went this evening to one of the community showings of this new DVD, at St James Hall on Vancouver’s West Side. The hall was indeed crowded, and mostly a young crowd at that, and they were all very receptive to the message. No Impact Man was first a blog, now a movie and a book. The bog covered the year in which Colin Beavan tried to have no net impact on the planet, which of course was also covered by the film crew and a surprising amount of main stream media coverage including an appearance on the Colbert Report and regular updates on Good Morning America. As well as all sorts of press, radio and other media. Indeed the extent of the coverage was such that there was an immediate backlash from other bloggers, casting aspersions on his motivation. After all he had already two published books and the project was designed to provide the material for the third. Beavon himself is unabashed and deals with all of this in the movie, admitting it all would help sales of the book but that he would have been using his talents in this way anyway on some other project but at least this one would be doing some good.
The entire family is in the film, with Beavon’s wife acting as a neat foil to much of his unrealistic idealism, but she is, of course won over in the end. The small girl child steals every scene she is in – naturally. Only the dog has a small walk on part. And Beavon is clear that not everything worked, that he had to make all kinds of exceptions – and some things just don’t get mentioned, like the carbon footprint of the film crew who follow him everywhere. He even tries to exist for six months without electricity except for one small solar panel, which he is lent, that allows him to run his computer to keep up his blog. It is not clear how he recharges his cell phone, but that also plays a significant role. Everybody is calling him. He gets all kinds of speaking dates.
While the media seem to have been obsessed with the fact that he managed to exist without toilet paper, he himself made it clear that for the family the real successes were in the fact that Beavon lost twenty pounds without once visiting a gym, his wife’s health greatly improved due to her new found vegetarianism and the kid had a ball. The laundry scene (leave to soak in tub with borax for three hours in cold water then all jump in and stomp it) alone is worth the price of admission.
The idea of course is not that we all try to emulate him but that this will raise the possibilities for everyone to consider what they themselves might do. Interestingly he says that if there is only one thing you are prepared to do that should be joining a community project to improve your local environment. He points out that we have lost a very important thing we once had when we embrace consumerism and that was the ability to act together. And that there have been and are many groups all over the place all working hard to make small but significant improvements and where one more pair of hands will make a big difference.
It is for this reason that he has chosen community showings of the film rather than the usual commercial release. It has already attracted attention at film festivals. It is indeed an entertaining and thought provoking film. And it is not just about the environment but relationships – and has a genuine drama at its core, which is touching and relevant to how we are all going to have to change and what that means for all of us. I recommend it.