Monday, February 27, 2012

Pattullo On-Ramp Consultation

I attended one of TransLink's open houses on the Pattullo bridge replacement last Tuesday night, at the Centennial Community Center.

Translink had seriously underestimated the turnout and had booked too small a room. There was standing room only and the room was so full that "consultation" was difficult as the noise levels were very high. At my table, one of the older gentlemen was unable to participate because of it. I really hope this is addressed at further open houses.

The session was quite disappointing; there was far too little time for questions and we were immediately herded to "breakout" tables to view "options". It turned out, however, that the options presented had basically nothing to do with the bridge. It was a consultation session about on-ramps!

There was absolutely no discussion regarding the bridge itself; it was in fact conspicuously absent from any of the aerial view maps we looked at. The on-ramps fed directly into the Fraser! You can have a look at some of the options on the TransLink website. Some are truly fanciful, with multi-level stacks of ramps turning the lower half of McBride into an 8-lane road. The most modest ones strongly resemble what is there now, with changes to one single ramp that will blow away the homes on Dufferin and Coburg streets. One important point to note is that the bridge will have no direct connections to Columbia or Front streets. Traffic will be funneled to Royal, McBride, and East Columbia.

The question on most folks' minds is of course, tolling: will this bridge be tolled, or not? Unfortunately, this was not answered; the question was put aside with the statement that "funding will be discussed at a later time". It is clear, however, that there is no funding for the bridge available right now; it appears that Translink wants to work out a design that everyone's happy with first, and then worry about the money. The bridge is estimated to cost about $1B.

However, the question of tolling is an important one. Tolling is not just fund-raising. It is an important way of choking traffic, which, in turn, will drive the design of the bridge. This is a decision which must be made up-front, in order to predict traffic levels! In fact, when questioned in private afterwards, Mr. Zein (the Director of Roads for TransLink) admitted that the traffic projections presented were all done under the premise of tolling.

It appears, then, Translink is planning for a tolled Pattullo. This will, of course, be unpopular in Surrey.

Another big question that everyone really wanted an answer to, was the number of lanes on the new bridge, and what the justification was for this number. TransLink appears to have settled on a 6-lane structure, but this was not clearly stated during the presentation (likely because this notion is not popular in New Westminster). After some digging on their website, it appears that the main reason for discounting a four-lane bridge is that the connectivity on the Surrey side, to the new SFPR, would not work as well, and would not accommodate the increased volume of trucks (here, see page 70). I note that the "congestion" remarks in this report are focused on the Surrey end; there is no discussion of how congestion in New West is to be "improved" by a 6-lane bridge.

In fact, I find it hard to see how a 6-lane bridge would be an improvement for New Westminster. New Westminster roads cannot be widened to accommodate the traffic increase (in stark contrast to the Surrey end). A 6-lane bridge, with a projected 50% more cars and 100% more trucks, will lead directly onto the existing roads: Royal and McBride; which will become even busier than they are already (if that is possible!). Lovely smooth flowing ramps will not help speed up traffic. Is this really the best way to spend our tax dollars?

My biggest concern with this bridge is that it is being designed for a future that will not arrive. I honestly do not believe that in 40 years from now, our economy will be dependent on vehicle traffic the way it is today. Oil is getting more expensive and the supply is not increasing. This will have a huge impact on traffic within the next few decades. The Port and the trucking industry are, unfortunately, not looking this far out...they are demanding infrastructure for a 10-year horizon, at best. We need to start investing in a low-oil future, one with much more public transit, an active river transport system, and more rail. If we are not careful, we will have wasted a billion dollars on a bridge that will not serve our needs in the future. It would be better to build small and to spend the rest of the money on transit, thereby forcing the Port and the trucking industry to adapt to alternative means of moving goods around.

More open-houses are planned with Translink and I you should attend to make your feelings known - and not about whether the bridge should be up- or down-stream of the current one! New Westminster City will also be providing chances for public input, as the Master Transportation Plan will need to include ways of dealing with traffic from the new Pattullo.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Car-free cities

Car Trouble: And How to Fix It from J.H. Crawford on Vimeo.

Nice video, care of Stephen Rees' blog.

I actually own the book that is advertised in the final frames; it's full of nice pictures, but I find it thin on really practical ideas about how to deal with the "non-believers", or what to do if your city is actually part of the drive to work. Like New West is.

The book gives some idea of "ideal sizes" and "ideal layouts", but mostly it reads like a lecture on how ugly we've made our cities. It dwells heavily on rapid transit and a bit on freight transportation, but I find it hard to envision real-life solutions after reading his stuff. There is plenty of material for designing a new city from the ground up, but it is hard to translate into practical suggestions for improvement of already built-out cities like New West...maybe his second book in the "car-free series" is more practical.

You can check out Mr. Crawford's website, which has a number of pages of pictures of beautiful old cities and their urban design. It's instructive to look at them; you have to learn how to see what makes these cities attractive. This isn't easy, it takes practise. Is it the fact that the streets are narrow? That they're cobblestone? That there are planters everywhere? Cafes? Neon signs? Arcades? Fountains? That there are no cars? I must say it helps to have travelled, and to have seen different "city designs", both good (downtown Portland, Whistler village, downtown Nelson, downtown Ladysmith) and bad (Duncan, North Nanaimo, Coquitlam). After staring at the pictures for a while, take a walk down Columbia St in New Westminster, and ask yourself what you might be able to do to make the place look and feel better. What would draw more people to the street, to hang out, shop and eat there? Would more parking help? Or wider sidewalks?
Anyways, having lived in Europe for a number of years after graduation (our first son was born there), I can attest to the fact that old cities with car-free centers are wonderful. We lived for 4 years in the old part of a small Swiss city (Neuchatel)- here (our aparment was on the 3rd floor, just around the corner) - where residents park in a central (underground) lot - spots are rented out at a pretty steep cost! - and freight deliveries to the shops are done by small electric vehicles in the early hours of the morning only. The central town is vibrant, with lots of restaurants, outdoor cafes (that serve beer and wine), and shops. There are 2 big grocery stores - both part of national chains - downtown, neither of which are accessible by car. Citizens walk or bike to the shop and carry their goods home. They shop several times a week. Refrigerators are much smaller than we are accustomed to here!

I don't see any reason why we can't create something similar here. Most of New West, after all, dates from the era before the automobile was king. The streets here are narrower than in, say, Burnaby; the lots smaller and the city more walkable as a result. We have 5 - count 'em, five - SkyTrain stations, a river with industrial access, a railway. We should be able to get by with fewer cars and trucks!

It is my personal dream that New West have at least one car-free street, and preferably more. Candidates: 6th St between 6th and 8th avenue (outside the Library); Columbia St downtown; E. Columbia in Sapperton. What do you say?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Economic Growth 'R' Us

Economic growth is the paradigm that runs our society. We take it as a given that economic growth must happen; there is a clear relationship between growth in GDP and employment rates. Economists and policy makers try hard to squeeze as much growth as possible out of the system to ensure full employment; this is what is taught at universities. On the other hand, there is no curriculum on "steady-state" economics, a model which is definitely NOT mainstream and about which the majority of governements and policy makers know nothing. Our growth-based model has historical roots in the industrial revolution, and is clearly based on the premise of limitless resource inputs.

Because our economy is set up for growth, when it stalls, unemployment creeps up, and it becomes hard to pay back loans. So, you get defaults, and banks become less eager to loan. It becomes harder for businesses to borrow money for large capital projects. If growth stalls for a prolonged period, the economy starts to unwind: massive defaults, large-scale unemployment, financial crisis. And, of course, popular unrest (does this sound familiar?). Our only "living" examples of no-or-low-growth societies are poor (Africa), or have essentially no rule of law (Iraq, Afghanistan), or are state-controlled (Cuba). Not very positive examples. In other words, collectively, we have no idea how to deal with a situation where the economy is not growing.

Now, economic growth requires growth in energy consumption. There is no evidence that decoupling growth from energy consumption is possible. One might imagine more of a "service" economy and less of a "resource" economy, but you cannot (even theoretically) completely decouple growth from consumption of physical resources like water, air, food, and - the key - fuel, or energy. In our society, in fact, a lot of energy is required even to supply water and food. Certainly, our economy here in Canada is based heavily on resource extraction, which is fuel-intensive.

From a purely "physics" perspective, exponential growth in energy use is by its very definition unsustainable. Run the numbers, even at a "modest" growth of 3%, and you'll quickly (within a century or two) hit ridiculous, galaxy-sized, requirements on energy. This is basic math, folks.

So at some point, we must hit an energy supply limit. When this happens, growth will stall, because cheap energy is what is driving economic growth. What happens to an economy when it hits such limits? Evidence from the past would indicate that it collapses, unless it's able to change its ways and adapt

Are we at this point yet?

There is quite a bit of evidence that we, as a society, are hitting some physical limits. The most urgent one is, in fact, energy: cheap oil. Since 2005, there has been no increase in the amount of oil the world produces; we appear to be plateauing at about 90Mbpd ("million barrels per day"). No matter what the price! This is a checkable fact, and governments are aware of this.

Here's a nice summary, from which I extract this quote:

"[...] concerned analysts usually point to two basic facts. First, each year, the world’s mature conventional fields produce about four million barrels a day less oil than the previous year, a gap that has to be filled just to keep global output constant. In only five years, that gap grows to 20 million barrels a day of production – equivalent to twice Saudi Arabia’s output, which is mammoth. Second, the world’s cheap and easy-to-get oil is disappearing fast. So, on average, each additional barrel requires more work, more complex technology, more environmental risk to get and refine than the last."

The Alberta Tar Sands, the horizontal drilling, those Brazilian deep-sea finds, don't even make a dent in the world's increasing demand. These finds are in the 2-5 Mbpd range - a mere 10-20% of what is required just to keep us with 0% growth, let alone allow the 3% economic growth Canada seems to require, or the 8% growth that China's expecting to maintain. These finds simply cushion the decline by replacing cheap oil with expensive stuff, and make the drop in supply more gradual...but a decline it is. And since we are replacing cheap oil with expensive stuff, the price of our major energy source will not come down. (well, it will once the high prices induce a major recession which kills the economy, thereby reducing oil demand, but killing the economy is what we're trying to prevent, right?)

And you know what? "Green energy" is not going to save our butts on this one. Biofuels, which are a plug 'n' play replacement for oil, unfortunately very clearly fall into the "cushion" category, with very low volumes and a high price.

In fact, most green energy is electricity, which can't run our daily commutes, our fleets of tractor-trailer trucks, our sawmills, our cement plants, our mining, tar sands, and natural gas extraction, or our manufacturing, today, and won't be able to tomorrow either, without massive retooling.

So...I must say I find this alarming. All the evidence points to the fact that cheap and easy oil is on the way out, which will have pretty direct - by this I mean fast - economic consequences - and we have no plan "B", no cheap source of fuel waiting in the wings ready to take over.

While we still have the money, we need to start preparing for a low-oil future.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Modo goes Paperless!

Car-sharing with Modo is now even more convienient!

No longer do you have to fill in any paperwork when returning the vehicle.

Car-sharing is now this simple:
1. search for vehicle nearest you using Modo's mobile app at Book the car using the same app.
2. let yourself into the car with your electronic fob, and
3. drive away! The ignition key is in the car. If you need gas, there's now a credit card (gas-only) in the car, so no cost to you.
4. return the car at the appointed time, and just fob out and leave!

Used to be, you'd have to note the odometer setting before and after your trip, and note the times as well, in the log book of each car. No longer!

Lost and found, car damage, etc. can be phoned into the office; there's usually a real person to talk to, until late!

I discovered this just yesterday, when using our nearest car (at Sapperton SkyTrain station) to do some grocery shopping for our upcoming ski trip to Manning Park. The logbook was gone, so I had to phone to confirm that the car had "gone paperless"...

Of course, we'll be using a Modo car (minivan this time!) to get ourselves and our equipment to Manning for a nice long weekend of low-key skiing. It is cheaper than renting (minivans go for $100/day from the average car-rental outfit) and now there's absolutely no paperwork involved at all!


Monday, February 13, 2012

Translink and Fare Gates

As you may know, Translink was ordered a few years ago (2007) to put in fare gates. Installation is now underway.

The order came from our then-Transportation-Minister Mr. Kevin "My Way - The Highway" Falcon, who claimed massive fare evasion, public safety, etc etc as major drivers for this "improvement".

No matter that every single study done by Translink up to that time indicated that fare gates would not pay for themselves; that in essence, fare evasion is not a problem on Skytrain.

Today's Buzzer blog illustrates this yet again. There is a large disconnect between the facts and what people perceive. Apparently, most people (even people who read the Buzzer, who mostly are transit die-hards) really do believe that fare evasion on SkyTrain is a big problem. But study after study shows it isn't - only about $7M per year is lost to this problem (about 5% of revenues, or about 5% of Skytrain users). And yes, this includes evasions such as riding past your time on the ticket, and not upgrading when required. These studies have been audited by bean-counters who specialize in this type of stuff, and even people who can't find any mistakes in these audits still do not believe them. They believe their own gut feelings instead and make major spending decisions based on that. Hm. Reminds me of the "growth in unreported crime" statement from the Conservative Gov't little while ago.

The fact is that these things will not pay for themselves. It will cost $175-$200M to install them. Which means that, at a rate of $7M per year, we'll break even in...what, 25 years? That is, if the gates themselves last that long (they won't), and assuming we're not hiring extra attendants to look after them. This money could be far better spent on real improvements to our cash-strapped system.

Other justifications for these have been trotted out:

- they'll improve public safety: Give me a break. This statement must come from people who never ride SkyTrain. As a regular rider, I can tell you that I won't feel any safer if I'm penned in; in fact, these things give me the willies...what happens if there's a fire and I have to get out in a hurry? Most of the stations haven't been designed for these things, and they'll do nothing but cause inconvienience and impede access.

- we need 'em for the Compass fare card: I disagree.We don't need gates in order to be able to use the new fare cards; a "tap 'n go post" will do - similar to the current validation system for tickets. On busses, the Compass may speed boarding and help with fare evasion (since the drivers usually don't check your fare very thoroughly). But this has nothing to do with fare gates at SkyTrain stations.

In fact, I think faregates and turnstyles send completely the wrong message. They add a layer of inconvienience, punishing transit users; they give people the idea that somehow transit is inherently dangerous and that riff raff is everywhere; they propagate the notion that your fellow citizens are generally dishonest and cannot be trusted to pay. They create a "big brother" atmosphere, thereby inviting bad behaviour.

Such a system does absolutely nothing for the public good.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Replacing the Pattullo

Now...all my ranting about greening our transportation systems leads quite nicely to a discussion of the upcoming issues facing us here in New Westminster. One of them is what to do with the Pattullo Bridge.

The Pattullo Bridge is a 70+-year old structure that is in bad shape. Consultations on its replacement will probably be starting in the next few months. It's Translink's jurisdiction; New Westminster City Council received a Translink report this past Monday on the topic of its replacement. I'm sure citizen input will be solicited, so make sure you get involved!

The Pattullo has a major influence on traffic through New Westminster. Most of the traffic using it goes through New West. There will be considerable debate on what to do about this bridge:
- replace with bigger?
- toll?
- close with no replacement?

I just scanned BC's Ministry of Transportations "Tolling Guidelines", available here. This is a very interesting piece of policy. It spells out that only infrastructure which provides improvement in capacity (ie. more lanes) may be tolled. So clearly, if the replacement Pattullo is a mere 4 lanes, it will not be tolled.

The policy also states that tolls will only be implemented if a free alternative is available. "The public has a right to a basic level of free, untolled access." So how does this impact possible tolling of the Pattullo, if it were to be replaced with a 6-lane bridge? Are there "reasonable untolled alternatives"? I certainly think so: use the Alex Fraser / Queensborough, or go further west still and use the Massey Tunnel. But then, I'm not the one making the decisions. I suspect that Translink has already been told that these routes do not qualify as "basic level" alternatives...because...

If you look at Translink's FAQ page on this project, there is not a single mention of tolling anywhere. Check the statements on funding: "TransLink is in the process of investigating alternative funding sources for the new bridge, including the potential for funding from senior levels of government."

Read: no tolls on any replacement Pattullo.

Given this, let's think about what will happen when the Port Mann tolls kick in. Even without integrating under any curves, I can confidently predict that most traffic will head for the nearest free alternative! This will have two effects:

1. it will make the Port Mann's revenues decrease, and
2. it'll turn McBride Blvd and Columbia St into parking lots, and cause backups on the Pattullo and into Surrey.

This will happen no matter how many lanes you build on the Pattullo, since McBride Blvd is not going to be widened. The streets of New West, instead of the bridge, will become the bottleneck. I'm re-living the UBE discussions! New Westminster gets it in the neck because everyone south of the Fraser has to drive to work! Like the UBE, a 6-lane Pattullo will not improve the traffic flow through New West, and we need to oppose it.

The only way to reduce traffic is to reduce the effective number of lanes available, and to spend the money on giving people real, functional alternatives to a car-based commute. In a future of constrained oil, this is an urgent priority, one that I've argued we need to get on with.

Even a (toll-free) 4-lane bridge is best "traffic managed" to combat gridlock in New West. Tolls are but one option. There are others:
- timing traffic lights into New West to allow smaller bunches of cars through
- limiting times for truck traffic on the bridge
- having dedicated HOV lanes
- better yet: dedicated BUS lanes

But how about this, more radical, proposal?

Turn the Pattullo into a bus/pedestrian/bike bridge, with 2 lanes for bus traffic only and no cars or trucks at all. Give it a lick of paint and do the bare minimum seismic upgrades. With lessened weight and traffic loads, it may well last another 25 years; those engineering reports recommending replacement all assumed continuing heavy traffic loads. Then, spend the rest of the money on transit across the river!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Greenpeace Knocks, part III

So, in this final episode of Greenpeace-induced ranting, let's focus on what, exactly, do we want to accomplish with all of this green energy?

Perhaps, like myself, you think that we need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. I think - I'm hoping - that this is really what Greenpeace is after. Yay! We agree on something!

This problem has different dimensions, and hence different solutions, in different locations. You cannot supply a single solution (ex. solar PV) that might work in one location (ex. North Africa) and expect to get it to work here in BC. This is what bothers me about Greenpeace; they're a bit "one size fits all", so that their "plan" distorts what I think should be our real priorities.

In BC, fossil fuels are overwhelmingly used in transportation. And, of course, we export a lot of coal (and will soon be exporting copious quantities of natural gas). There's some natural gas used for home heating, but this is small in comparison with fuel use of the transportation sector. Fossil fuel use has very little to do with our source of electricity, because our electricity is mostly already green. Contrast this with places like Alberta, where they burn a lot of coal to make electricity, so that getting rid of fossil fuels there must obviously involve alternative means to generate electricity. But that's not BC's problem. First and foremost, BC needs to "green" transportation. If we are going to have to subsidize anything, this should take priority over trying to encourage any "green energy" sector.

Now, we cannot "green" transportation by simply having drivers switch to (plug-in) electric vehicles. See my previous posts on this topic - the amount of energy we consume in driving ourselves and our stuff around is so large that we'd require 4 site C dams to keep ourselves rolling with current "business as usual". This is not a way forward.

(Points to consider: is it, then, a good idea to require gas stations to supply charging outlets? to require developers to install charging stations in all parking spots? to offer government rebates for plug-in vehicles?)

We need to rethink freight and personal mobility - and I mean reduce reliance on trucks and private autos. This is hard, and won't come cheap. There are many vested interests at play (the Port - thanks Pat J! , the trucking industry, the automobile industry, and commuters who have invested in homes in far-away suburbs with no public transportation in sight), and of course any new infrastructure requires fossil fuels to build. We need more public transportation (and not more roads or strip-malls). We need more alternatives like car-sharing. We need to redesign cities to be denser and workplaces closer - with the corollaries that we need to downsize our homes and to stop being so accomodating to cars - so that walking and cycling are viable alternatives. One way to finance some of this is to sell our fossil fuels, and to use the revenue to fund new (electric) public and freight transportation systems. Or, we can leave the fossil fuels in the ground, and find some other way to pay for the new stuff. Like road tolls! But pay we must.

And yes, as we change from moving ourselves around in personal tractors to electric mass transit, we may well need more electricity. So, unless we wish to drown more valleys, industrialize the landscape with windfarms, or go nuclear, we need to become much more efficient with our electricity use. We need to start using less electricity for home and water heating, by using (more expensive) technology such as heat pumps and solar preheating of water. Frugality will only happen when electricity becomes more expensive. Which will happen naturally as demand increases, without increasing the supply.

So you see, my priorities are rather different from those of Greenpeace, although we definitely want the same outcome.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Greenpeace Knocks, part II

So let's think a bit more about those suggestions from those green-eyed folks at Greenpeace, specifically about "geothermal" energy.

In this context, "geothermal" means using the residual heat in the earth (about 6 ft underground is sufficient), and extracting this heat using what is basically refrigerator technology running in reverse. This technology has been around for decades and you can check out great explanations of it here and here. Ground-based heat pumps are quite a bit more expensive than a standard nat-gas furnace or electric baseboards, and in our corner of BC they have a long payback period ((it takes decades for the upfront cost of the system to be made up in fuel savings). So they are not popular. In the colder parts of the province, where heating costs are higher, you will find more of them.

In our part of BC, you can forgo using the earth and install much cheaper "air-based" heat pumps, which compress outside air and extract the heat to warm your home. These devices are much more efficient (use less electricity) than baseboard radiators, but they are more expensive to install. Also, they don't work when temperatures drop below about 5C, so you need a backup system (don't get rid of those baseboards just yet!). But they are cheaper and "pay back" much faster than the ground-based heat pumps (10 years?).

For new construction, the problem is that because of the high capital expense of both of these systems, developers won't install them. The vast majority of home buyers will not pay more for a house because of some high-end fancy-schmancy heating system. Slap in the baseboards! Of course, once the baseboards are in, changing them out for something else is expensive. Changing the building code to force heat pumps (or at least leaving room for their future installation) might be an option, but I'm pretty sure that this would have the effect of increasing new home prices.

In terms of retrofits, most homeowners will not upgrade because of the long payback of these systems (hands up, who is willing to shell out $15k for a furnace that will pay back in 15 years, when a high-effiency natural-gas furnace costs half of this?).

Heating apartment buildings or townhouse complexes centrally is known as "district heating". Instead of using individually-controlled baseboard heaters (current practise) one could install large heat pumps based either in the ground, around sewage pipes, or in the river, and distribute the heat to the various homes/apartments. For new construction, this is definitely possible (but more expensive!), but it is very difficult to retrofit into existing complexes unless the piping is already there.

So the message here is, YES, these systems are viable, they work, you can install them today. But they will cost you more, up front. It takes a long time to realize savings from them. And since our current "free-market" economy is built on 5-year payback cycles, until electricity and natural gas are more expensive, these systems will never become widespread unless they are legislated and/or subsidized.

Finally, there is this to consider: these systems will reduce the amount of natural gas and electricity you use to heat your home. They will have absolutely no effect on the amount of oil we use here in BC.