Stephen Rees's blog

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

Victoria firm develops renewable fuel

with one comment

The Times Colonist has a story about alt fuels this morning – their headline adds ” with fraction of the emissions from gasoline”. Apparently it comes from renewable sources – but what exactly is not specified – and can be mixed with regular fuel and used in current engines without modification. So since they mention renewables that presumably means less net greenhouse gas emissions than a fossil fuel, which a Good Thing. And the route they have chosen to go avoids the major pitfalls of most alt fuels which require either modified engines or different fuel dispensing systems – and, frequently, both.

Much will depend on price of course – and the, so far, mysterious source. There are many other toiling in this field  – algae being popular and a better choice than grains otherwise used as food. Fortunately gasoline is going to continue to get more expensive – as the market is betting that way now too even though there are no actual shortages at present. So that means that even the big oil companies are starting to look around for ways to make what they have go further and last longer.

But – yes there is always a but – the problem of the car is not just what you put in its tank. Indeed, I begin to think that is the least of our immediate concerns, since car dependency has brought so much misery in its wake. We were persuaded to drive everywhere and told this was the ultimate freedom only to find we had lost most of the other choices in the process, and become sick, lost many to collisions and seen the places where we live transformed into parking lots. The real choice now is we either ween ourselves off the automobile by creating walkable places – or we continue to pursue the impossible dream that we have never realized in the last sixty or more years.

Alt fuels like this one may not actually help very much – because they allow us to continue with the illusion that auto mobility can be made sustainable. Yet it is clear that in places that have tried to make it possible to drive everywhere end up choking themselves on traffic.

We know that when people have a choice, they will begin to turn away from cars and auto oriented places. Indeed some say that is already observable with the success of downtown Vancouver. The new urbanists are showing that there can be a wider variety of placemaking – it does not have to be high rises around subway stations. Though we always knew that worked because every major world city already had that  – though many took a while before they realized that mixed land use in their central places was a Really Good Idea too. The cities that had the sense to hold to streetcars – or to put them back – found success too. As did the places that developed bike lanes and concentrated on pedestrian safety and places to people watch. Not exactly a complicated paradigm to get ahold of – but one which entrenched commercial interests are still doing their best to resist.

Suburbs are a challenge – but were commonplace long before widespread car ownership. Retrofits now underway across the US are starting to show  what can work commercially as well as offer hope for a more sustainable future.

For the record I want to re-iterate that while I know that we need to develop transit – and actually I think the more types of transit (local shuttles, bus, rapid bus, lrt, metro, commuter rail) the better – there will still be cars. New models of operation like car sharing and car pooling are developing – and there have been a few false starts. The velib/bixi model works with bikes – if someone picks up the tab for our bad behaviour – and will probably work better with car share schemes – I look forward to learning more about that next week. We already know that people who belong to car coops use transit and ride bikes more than those who own vehicles. That may say more about the demographic and location of early adopters. Car sharing is not yet main stream – and seems to be stuck in the city centres where there are plenty of other options already and any car use should be curtailed, if we are to avoid living in a place that works like Granville Island. It has train tracks but no trains. And the nearest transit service is nowhere near where people want to be.

Granville Island

switch

At the very least, the suburban American malls (like Bellingham) that put the bus stop at the building entrance – and not way out beyond the limits of the parking lot  – show they know what has to be done.

WTA 844 Bellingham WA 2008_1003

Vancouver, New Westminster, the City of North Vancouver  seem to be determined to say “no more” to the car – they simply do not have the space. Surrey obviously wants to do something different now to what is has been doing and poor old Coquitlam and Port Moody have been desperate to get on the bandwagon but are stuck waiting for SkyTrain. Meanwhile highway #1 is being widened and the SFPR is taking over the bog and the farmland – protest today. I doubt the elite will even notice. Everywhere else is car oriented now and has little hope of anything more than marginal change when radical action is needed.

We do not live in a society that embraces planning. We like to think that somehow the market sorts out optimum solutions. Nonsense of course, but one which still seems to attract the voters. We have been social engineering for years – and mostly for the benefit of a few large corporations, who did their best to persuade us that this was also good for us – even though it was always manifest that it was anything but. And I do not expect any of our governments to get any better at picking winners – or even make much effort when there is so much else to distract us. The present fleet of cars will be around for at least another twenty years – and the current short terms supply problems from Japan will doubtless be sorted out and provide a short window of opportunity for other, less skilled auto makers and sellers. The turnover rate for our built environment is even slower. I know it seems to be rapid but that is an illusion. We just tend to notice the new bits more.

So two cheers for Novaera. And hope that a few more pols will notice how many people are looking for REAL change – and have not been voting very much recently.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 23, 2011 at 12:35 pm

One Response

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  1. Wish I could share your optimism Mr. Rees…
    I am always shocked, when reading the newspaper from Bordeaux, that younger people that grew up with the major downtown shopping streets and squares being for pedestrians only since 1976..35 years already) are annoyed by both them and the 3 LRT downtown lines (that reduce drastically the number of car lanes in all the streets it uses).
    For these people the car must have priority over everything else..

    Red frog

    April 24, 2011 at 9:47 pm


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