Policy & Planning
September 25, 2006

Mutual Admirerers

In my case, the Vancouver-Portland love-affair is literal. I married an Oregonian. But lots of Portlanders and Vancouverites have a platonic relationship, particularly planners, politicians and those interested in urban development.

A busload of admirers from down south showed up a few weeks ago, organized by Metro, the regional government of the Portland area, accompanied by a few reporters. Their stories are now coming in – and you can read this one from the Portland Tribune on the web. Here’s an excerpt:

People drew different lessons from the journey.

Halfway through the trip, Metro planner Marc Guichard stood on the rooftop patio of an eight-story condo tower, complete with putting green and birdhouses, and looked down on an exquisitely landscaped courtyard. Ten years in his field had worn him down, but “I feel revitalized,” he said.

Later, as the bus rolled through suburban Vancouver, Portland developer Bradley Malsin said the Canadian city, with its difficulty keeping jobs downtown, shows that Portland should place more emphasis on supporting jobs-oriented development, especially given the softening of the condo market in Portland.

“I think the residential market is a dangerous one,” he said.

“I saw lots of very cool ways to re-create a downtown that still feels like a community … and gets people out of their cars walking around,” Milwaukie city councilor Carlotta Collette said following the trip. She then turned downright giddy: “I’m charged!”

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September 22, 2006

It used to be that new information on climate change came in every month or so. Now it’s daily, and it’s getting more prominent coverage, as illustrated in the Sun with this close-to-home story on the work of SFU earth-sciences grad Johannes Koch who has been documenting the retreating glaciers of Garibaldi:

 Lots of newspapers ran this lovely, scary map of the Arctic:
 
“This situation is unlike anything observed in previous record low-ice seasons,” said Mark Drinkwater, of the European Space Agency’s Oceans/Ice Unit. “It is highly imaginable that a ship could have passed from Spitzbergen or Northern Siberia through what is normally pack ice to reach the North Pole without difficulty.”
Ah, good news: soon it will be possible to start drilling for oil and gas, and shipping year-round through the Northwest Passage.
I’m reminded of that 2002 New Yorker cartoon:

(CEO gives a speech at a board meeting): “And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.”

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September 21, 2006

Back in 1989, in my second term on City Council, I vividly remember the week when James Hansen spoke before the U.S. Senate on climate change. Hansen, now Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, could speak with authority, and he did: global warming was real, it was happening, and for the sake of the planet and civilization, it was time to respond. Here was Science speaking to Power.
Even as a novice politician, I realized that regardless of the urgency, change would come slowly: our economy was based on fossil fuels, and we measured our prosperity by increasing the rate of consumption. But given, as the saying goes, that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, the public would accept the need for change if properly prepared. City Council accepted my argument that we as a municipality should start that preparation, and established what became known as the Clouds of Change Task Force. I expected that within a decade, real change in attitude and behaviour would be evident.
Politicians are often dismissed as a craven class who cannot think beyond the next election. But in fact the decisions they make – and hence their perspectives – are measured in much longer timeframes . Debt is issued in decade-long terms. Strategic plans and demographic projections typically take one out a quarter century. Infrastructure commitments have lifetimes sometimes measured in a hundred years.
Incorporating the impacts of climate change seemed an obvious variable to be included in the decision-making process. Indeed, when it came time to approve the official development plan for the Concord Pacific project on its False Creek site in the early 1990s, I raised the question of sea-level rise. Thanks to a prescient engineer, the developer had already intended to raise the site by a meter, if I recall correctly.
So, if someone had told me then that the symbol of the Nineties would be the sport-utility vehicle, I would have thought it absurd. If they told me that the U.S. Congress would allow tax breaks so that something like the Hummer could be fully written off, I would have thought it obscene.
What would have mystified me most – and does today – is that the decision-making elites, when faced with a credible theory reinforced by a steady stream of verified observations and dramatic images, would retreat to the three Ds : doubt, deny and delay. Still, when corporate and national leaders looked to future – to speculate on their legacy if nothing else – how could they dismiss something so intuitively correct? There is only a thin layer of atmosphere between us and a very hostile universe, and we have been pumping ever-increasing amounts of greenhouse gases for a century or so. How likely is it that there would be only inconsequential change? And what else would really matter if that change was catastrophic? How would history then judge apathy and excuse?
I remain mystified today that the leader of our province who supported Clouds of Change as mayor has little of consequence to say about climate change, even as its consequences begin to ravage our province. Instead our resources will go to widened roads, hydrocarbon exploration, luxurious real estate, the spectacle of athletics and the illusion of accelerating growth. Where is the consolation that those who are charged to lead will actually try to take us somewhere safe?
So today, let’s acknowledge some engaged leadership. One day after the Royal Society, home to Newton and Einstein, indicted the Exxon-Mobil Corporation for its campaign of deliberate distortion, Sir Richard Branson is promising an action both personal and corporate:

… all of his profits from his five airlines and train company, projected to be $3 billion through the next 10 years, would be invested in developing energy sources that do not contribute to global warming.
The money, he said, would be invested in a host of enterprises, including existing businesses within his Virgin Group of 200 companies, that are seeking ways to save energy or produce fuels, including aviation fuel, not derived from coal and oil.
“Our generation has inherited an incredibly beautiful world from our parents and they from their parents,” Mr. Branson said. “It is in our hands whether our children and their children inherit the same world. We must not be the generation responsible for irreversibly damaging the environment.”
More from the New York Times here.

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Stockholm extra — more analysis of the congestion-charge vote from Streetsblog:

On Sunday, residents of Stockholm, Sweden voted to continue their city’s seven-month long experiment with congestion pricing. The referendum represented a definitive success for a system that reduced traffic congestion by as much as 50 percent and decrease noxious air pollution by 14 percent. Yet, even after the referendum in which 53 percent voted in favor of congestion charging, Stockholm is still stuck in political gridlock over its gridlock. The same voters who approved the congestion charge also catapaulted into power the center-right political parties who are most opposed to it. We spoke with James Savage, the editor-in-chief of The Local, an English-language, Internet-based, Swedish newspaper in an effort to sort it out and see if he had any advice for
New York City:
 
Streetsblog: So, what happened in yesterday’s election?
James Savage: The tradition in Sweden is to hold all elections on the same day so we have municipal elections, we have a general election and local referenda on various issues. The general election resulted in a change of government with the ruling Social Democrats thrown out after twelve years. In Stockholm, the local municipal authority, which was also Social Democrat, was thrown out and replaced by a center-right coalition.
SB: The headline in your newspaper describes the result of the congestion charging referendum as “Neither a Ja nor a Nej” — I’m sure I’m not pronouncing that correctly — but what did you mean by that?
JS: Yeah [laughing], you’re not. The congestion charge was introduced by a Social Democratic municipal authority that had gone into elections in 2002 saying that, in fact, there would be no congestion charge. But then the Social Democratic Government, in order to get the support that it needed from the Green Party at the national level, agreed to impose the charge on the municipality in Stockholm. The Social Democratic leadership in Stockholm cooperated with their national leadership even though it was against their manifesto’s promises.
SB: Annika Billström (pictured right) is the leader of Stockholm’s municipal authority? She’s the mayor?
JS: She was the mayor. That’s one of the things that happened yesterday. She is no longer the mayor and how much that depends on the way congestion charging was introduced — that’s one of the questions that people are asking now. People suspect that it played quite a large role in her defeat.
SB: How come?
JS: She started out against congestion charging and then basically lay down as soon as the Central Government tried to impose it. That annoyed people even though, ironically, residents of Stockholm eventually started to appreciate the congestion charge and voted to keep it.
SB: So, the party that brought on congestion charging was essentially punished for they way they went about it and yet the referendum still voted in favor of congestion charging.
JS: It’s rather contradictory isn’t it? But that is basically what happened and the center-right alliance that has been elected to replace Billström and the Social Democrats is broadly opposed to congestion charging.

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Transportation planners around the world were waiting with anticipation to see how the electorate in Stockholm would vote on whether to continue with their controversial congestion charge.

Results are in, and they’re tight. From the International Herald Tribune:

Near-complete results for the Sunday referendum showed that 51.7 percent of Stockholm voters approved the traffic toll, while 45.6 percent voted against it.

The congestion fee was contested when city officials introduced it in a seven-month trial that ran between January and July.

But public opinion swung in favor of the charges after studies showed that weekday traffic on average dropped 20 percent during the trial, while pollution decreased 9-14 percent

A city analysis showed permanent congestion fees would bring a net profit of nearly 500 million kronor (€54 million; US$69 million) a year — money that would be spent on improving public transportation and better roads.

The debate is not over yet. New centre-right governments (still left by the rest of the world’s standards) at both the national and civic level are not predisposed to support a permanent introduction of the charge, given opposition from the Stockholm suburbs.

Which points again to a fascinating anomaly about road pricing.

You would think, in principle, that right-wing governments would be strongly in favour of road pricing. Here, after all, is a way for the market to regulate the distribution of a scarce resource by sending proper pricing signals to individuals, who can then make their own informed choices. Better yet, it provides a stream of revenue to fund the alternative – more transit – that also serves those negatively affected by the charge. And the money doesn’t have to come solely from general revenues or other taxes. Best of all, the system actually works, and delivers what it promises.

What’s not to like?

And yet proposals for road pricing turns right-wingers into raving socialists. There’s nothing so heart-warming as to hear a conservative politician defend the right of the poor working person to use the road already paid for through taxes. So let’s spend billions to build more roads to deal with the congestion created by building all the ‘free’ roads in the first place. It’s all about ‘the psychology of the previous investment’ – and to hell with ideological consistency.

One other observation for the moment: the effects of congestion charging seem remarkably similar in those cities that have introduced it. A 20 percent drop in traffic occurred both in London and Stockholm.

The debate is not over yet

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Vancouver planner Jeffrey Patterson sends along a media release from the Congress for the New Urbanism, which has decided to weigh in on Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct controversy. Or more particularly, on the flaws in the analysis done by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT):

… WSDOT holds up its computer models like “the Wizard of Oz, saying the model says this, and we must accept it.” But in truth, WSDOT has adjusted the models with inflated traffic to fit their “mental models.”
WSDOT calls this practice “conservative,” but the authors note “this suggests that only the risk of building too little capacity is considered, and not the risk of purchasing too much capacity at an extravagant cost.”

You can get Smart Mobility’s whole report here, and WSDOT’s report here.
There are substantial differences between Alaskan Way and the Gateway Project, but when it comes to models and analyses, there’s one fundamental similarity: the reports produced to justify the billions to be spent use many of the same devices to come to the same pre-determined conclusions. The analyses done for Gateway, particularly with respect to transit and land-use, are almost embarrassing in their superficial brevity. So here’s an even briefer summary:
Yesterday’s solutions at tomorrow’s prices.

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Here’s the latest from Todd Litman.  He’s the guy behind the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, which, if it were somewhere other than on an island, would be more recognized for its importance.  An amazing resource.
Todd has just put out two complementary reports:
“Smart Congestion Reductions: Reevaluating The Role Of Highway Expansion For Improving Urban Transportation”
This report investigates claims that highway capacity expansion is a cost effective and desirable solution to urban traffic congestion problems. It identifies errors in proponents’ analysis that overestimate the congestion reduction impacts and economic benefits of roadway capacity expansion, overlook negative impacts of induced travel, and ignore more cost effective alternatives.
“Smart Congestion Reductions II: Reevaluating The Role Of Public Transit For Improving Urban Transportation”
This report investigates the role that public transit can play in reducing traffic congestion and achieving other transportation improvement objectives. It evaluates criticism that urban transit investments are ineffective at reducing traffic congestion and wasteful.
Bedtime reading for Kevin Falcon, the Highways minister.

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I had read about this before, but didn’t really appreciate it until I saw this picture:

According to Toronto’s Spacing Wire:

In Seoul, South Korea, they managed to both dismantle an elevated expressway that cut through the city, and unearth the Cheonggyecheon, a river buried beneath it.

Just last year, Seoul’s municipal government spent $360 million to have the stream uncovered. Walking along the river now is like being in a real life version of one of those urban planning student’s thesis projects …

The Cheonggyecheon is now lined with walkways, art, historical plaques, and tall grasses. It’s sits below street level in a concrete ravine, with busy roadways on either side. It’s 5.8 kilometers long and at night it’s packed with people. Kids actually swim in it (apparently it’s kept that clean), and adults wade or sit along its edge with their feet in the water.

Wow.

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The GVRD has politely asked the Province whether it would like to talk about our future. It wants to know whether the Province is truly committed to sustainability (one of the Premier’s Five Great Goals) in its rush to widen Highway 1 and twin the Port Mann Bridge.
On September 12th, the Land Use and Transportation Committee accepted the recommendations of a staff report that clearly identified the problem with the Gateway Project: there are no strategies to deal with its impacts. There’s no regional goods movement strategy, no transportation demand management, no mitigation for the land-use impacts, and no cost-sharing for alternatives.
For me, the best part of the report was the exposure of how the Gateway Program disingenuously used the GVRD’s own model to justify its project. The provincial staff and consultants used a modified version of the GVRD’s own Growth Management Scenario to forecast traffic to 2031. And while they acknowledged the connection beween road improvements and development patterns, they concluded the land-use impacts could not be estimated. It’s all up to the municipalities, you see. And so they based their forecasts on the assumption that the bridge and highway widenings would have no real effect.
Let me explain what’s really going on here. The Province knows that when the bridge and highway are widened, it will unleash forces that will sprawl across the green fields of the Fraser Valley with auto-dominated development. That’s what has happened with every other bridge we’ve ever built in the Lower Mainland. Only the Province doesn’t want to have to admit that such development will fill up all the new road space with more congestion – as it has every other time – thus defeating the whole purpose of Gateway. And it will never, ever acknowledge this inevitability in a report.
So it’s positioning the municipalities to take the hit. Even though the regional plan is opposed to more general-purpose highway capacity into the valley – for the very reason that it will undermine the plan – the Province is going to go ahead and build it, and then blame the municipalities for the consequences which it refuses to predict.
The GVRD is asking for “a provincial commitment to provide adequate mitigation and compensation for the impacts of the Port Mann Bridge and Highway 1 projects on agricultural lands, regional parks and ecologically sensitive areas.” It wants to develop “an appropriate regional growth strategy which ensures the Gateway Program has minimal negative impacts on the desired pattern of land use in Greater Vancouver.”
That’s the nice, polite way of putting it.
We’re talking about the destruction of a half century of wise planning, of the legacy of our regional plans, including “Creating Our Future” which Gordon Campbell pioneered. We’re talking about one of the last chances to avoid screwing up the Lower Mainland. Ironically, we’re talking about whether, after several billion dollars, the Gateway Project itself will deliver what it promises.
That is – if the Province is willing to talk.

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