Monday, February 28, 2011

Why should we have free public transit

Why should we have free public transit, it's been said all before by The Tyee:

Fare-free transit brings many benefits, some of which include:
  1. a barrier-free transportation option to every member of the community (no more worries about exact change, expiring transfers, or embarrassment about how to pay)
  2. eliminating a "toll" from a mode of transportation that we as a society want to be used (transit is often the only way of getting around that charges a toll)
  3. reducing the inequity between the subsidies given to private motorized vehicle users and public transport users
  4. reducing, and in some cases eliminating, the need for private motorized vehicle parking
  5. reducing greenhouse gas emissions, other air pollutants, noise pollution (especially with electric trolleys), and run-off of toxic chemicals into fresh water supplies and ocean environments
  6. reducing overall consumption of oil and gasoline
  7. eliminating the perceived need to spend billions on roads and highways (now up to $7 billion for the proposed Gateway Project in Vancouver)
  8. eliminating the perceived need to spend billions on bigger car-carrying ferries ($2.5 billion for BC Ferries' new super-sized boats and ramps)
  9. contributing significantly to the local economy by keeping our money in our communities
  10. reducing litter (in Vancouver, the newer transfers/receipts have overtaken fast food packaging for most common garbage found on our streets)
  11. saving trees by eliminating the need to print transfers and tickets
  12. allowing all bus doors to be used to load passengers, making service faster and more efficient
  13. allowing operators (drivers) to focus on driving safely
  14. giving operators more time to answer questions
  15. providing operators a safer work environment since fare disputes are eliminated
  16. eliminating fare evasion and the criminalization of transit-using citizens
  17. fostering more public pride in shared, community resources

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Trees killed by climate change may turn green again with energy project

The University of British Columbia has recently launched a green energy project which will convert dead trees into energy without burning them.  It will use trees destroyed by pine beetles, which otherwise might become net emitters of greenhouse gases through decomposition, or if they were actually burned. 

The pine beetle infestation which killed these trees is itself a symptom of climate change.  The pine beetles have been thriving in British Columbia for decades, destroying entire Pine forests, because winters no longer get cold enough in the province to kill them.

The new project, which is pioneering the technology on the UBC campus, will produce enough energy to power 1500 homes.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Traffic, housing & poverty in “the world’s most liveable city.”

Underneath the splendid north shore mountains, between Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River delta, Vancouver is rich in nature’s eye-candy.  It also has, as cities go, a low crime rate even amidst what looks like an on-going gang war.  Maybe other cities have bigger gangs, or the amateurs get involved more.  I don’t know.  Property crime rates are fairly high in Vancouver for a Canadian city, as I understand.

But the biggest property crime, in this the most “liveable” of all the world’s cities, is what they charge for rent here.  What will rent you an ordinary one bedroom ground floor suite in Vancouver will rent you a whole house on Canada’s other coast.  There is really no surprise that you see so many people living on the street in those odd corners of Vancouver where respectable people don’t like to look.  The kind of accommodation that the very poorest people can afford simply does not exist either within city boundaries or outside of them.

Of course, I’m talking for the poor here, and that might be out of line.  So let’s talk about the traffic. 

Downtown Vancouver achieves traffic saturation sometime around 7 a.m. every morning on weekdays, and doesn’t emerge from it until about 7 p.m.  That’s the dirty little secret that organizations like the Economic Intelligence Unit seem to miss when they rate Vancouver as the world’s most liveable city.  (See Australia and Canada dominate "most liveable cities" list)  Other organizations who put out similar lists have removed Vancouver from the top of the list expressly because of the chronic traffic gridlock.  Oh, and some don’t like the homelessness, the exorbitant rents and the poverty culture, either.

It would be easy to solve the traffic problem, at least.  All we need to do for a start is charge more for parking, and—which I understand has worked effectively in other cities—continue with a policy of limiting the absolute number of parking spaces available downtown. 

City council, as well as raising public parking rates, could begin with a levy of so much a month on all commercially available parking—residential parking and special needs parking being exempt.  This would discourage many, if not the wealthiest or the most car-addicted commuters, from driving downtown.  And the extra revenue collected by the city, and the reduction in money spent on road repairs, for instance, resulting from reduced traffic, could be dedicated to reducing or removing transit fares and improving transit services.  Public transit would thus get a boost in usage which would make it even more cost effective in the short and long term.

Vancouver’s traffic problem would be eased, there’d be fewer commuters sending CO2 into the atmosphere, and the planet will be sending us an air kiss and a hug.

Then, once we tackle the housing and homelessness situation, too, we can start talking liveable.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Climate change, and an early spring

The sneezes have been coming for a week.  Not so bad for me, because I’m mildly but not extremely allergic.  But all the pollen sufferers in Vancouver have probably started pulling out their handkerchiefs, with the germ-phobic (pointlessly) edging away from them on the buses. 

We are sufficiently north here to feel climate change a little stronger than down south, which means that winter is starting more and more to resemble fall and spring here.  That sometimes fools the vegetation into coming alive a little early.  Hence, the allergies and the sneezing.

Of course, we’re here in the city so it doesn’t really matter, but an early spring is not so harmless in the countryside.  The countryside is ecological.  Things depend on each other.  Things interact.  And interactions require not only geographic proximity but timing as well. 

An early spring messes up timing because not all parts of the environment are reacting to the same signals.  The flowers have reported to work but the bees are still on vacation.  By the time the bees show up the flowers and all their pollen have blown away in a spring breeze.  Plants don’t get pollinated and fruit doesn’t grow.

In which case it doesn’t matter at all if there’s a longer growing season.

While the climate is changing and readjusting—which it will continue to do while our civilization continues to toss carbon into the atmosphere—we can expect more of these mixed signals in nature, and we can expect the ecology to suffer because of it.  And when the ecology suffers, our human economies suffer as well.

The climate won’t stop adjusting until we stop messing with it.  And while it’s adjusting we can expect a lot of systems to be out of kilter, not working the way we want or expect them to. 

From now on, if we don’t make some necessary changes in our lifestyles, our carbon output, our forestry practices, and our relationship with the environment, if we don’t do things as simple as climbing out of our cars and into buses, then we’re going to spend a lot of time as a civilization dealing with systems that have gone out of kilter.

We won’t like it.

So climate change, it’s more than just sneezing.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Climate science & the imaginary culture wars

Climate is a polarized issue, and when you think about it, you wonder why that should be.  Since when did scientific specialties become our cultural flavour of the week?  Lady Gaga is up.  Climate science is down.  Elephants are trending hot again, but marathon swimming polar bears are fading fast.

Why should this be?  The answer is clear when you think of it as another culture war.

Climate science is not cultural, of course.  It’s physics, measurements, predictions based on the evidence. 

But our collective response to climate change may have to be cultural in many ways.

There’s the rub.

Climate change means cultural change because it means doing things differently from the way we have been doing things up to now.  A world where our affect on tomorrow becomes as real to us as our affect on today, that’s a different world from the world we are living in.  We as a civilization are going to have to change, to adapt ourselves to a climate and to circumstances which our civilization has never had to face before.  That’s obvious.

And some people are afraid of those changes.  Their fear of change makes them demonize the scientific messengers, the climatologists who keep on telling them that things have to change.  Their fear makes them identify these sober people in lab coats with hippies and communists and tree-hugging grandmothers and all the other cultural bogies they have been taught to deride and fear. 

The fear of change transforms what is after all a merely scientific message into some kind of paranoid cultural propaganda.  The consequences that they see in the message have become confused in their minds with the message itself.

Thus scientific truth—a truth that we really must start paying attention to seriously—becomes a casualty of a fear of change and of an imaginary culture war.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Car Free Vancouver Day

Car Free Vancouver Day: "Now is your chance to get involved, get creative, meet some awesome folks, and help co-create the city of your dreams. If you love Car Free Day, please consider stepping up to take a creative leadership role in this amazing event."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Flood of the Century? Soon we’ll need another name for it

Late last September in the Bella Coola Valley, a little further up the coast from where I live, they had a major flood.  It was in fact referred to as the “flood of the century.”  Perhaps you’ve heard that phrase before and recently, maybe in other contexts, in other places. 

In the Amazon rainforest they are talking about two “drought of the century” events in the same decade.  But that’s droughts.  Let’s just stick to floods here.

Now when the Bella Coola flood happened, I admit I immediately thought of climate change.  It fits the symptoms. 

Warm air holds more moisture, 7% more with a 1o C. rise in temperature—which is a rise close to what the planet is experiencing now.  And more moisture in the air results in more moisture falling out of the air.  So scientists have been predicting that places with lots of rainfall can expect even more.

That’s us in British Columbia, the raincoast.  And more rain fell in September in Bella Coola than had fallen in living memory.

Climate change, I whispered, because I couldn’t really be sure. 

Well, now a scientific study of floods in England, while not confirming that my reasoning about Bella Coola was and is correct—that would require a careful scientific study of its own—does at least show that climate change can be connected to such events.

See a report on the English study here:

Of course, if what is happening in Australia, Europe and the Amazon is any indication, soon we are not going to have to worry about classifying any particular climate event as caused by global warming or not.  We could just count the number of “event of the century” occurrences that happen in a given century, deduct one as representing natural variation, and, relying on odds alone, all the rest we can blame on climate change.

Scientifically, understand, such a method is hogwash.  Mathematically, however, it is still more likely to produce a right answer than a wrong.

Because, as James Hansen of NASA has said, the climate dice are loaded. 

After awhile we will not need the scientists to tell us that something is desperately wrong with the climate.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dana Larsen pledges to eliminate Skytrain fares

BC NDP Leadership Candidate Dana Larsen today [31-Jan-2011]  pledged to eliminate fares for using Skytrain if elected Premier. The proposal would bring funding of the regional Skytrain system into line with the those of local highways, through the provincial highways ministry.

"As Premier, I would designate the Skytrain as part of BC's Highway system," said Larsen, "and then get rid of fares for users. We don't charge a tariff to use the road, and we shouldn't charge a tariff to use the Skytrain."

“BC spends hundreds of millions of dollars subsidizing a free road system for car drivers," continued Larsen, "meanwhile Skytrain has a fare. The average lower-mainland resident must travel through two cities to get to work. Why should we selectively subsidize car travel, but not Skytrain?”

Larsen received support for his call from Dave Olsen, an urban planner and researcher who has written extensively about the benefits of eliminating fares from public transit (

"Transit systems from as far away as Belgium and as close as Washington State have eliminated transit fares and save their taxpayers millions of dollars every year" said Olsen.  "For me, there is no doubt about extreme weather changes being caused by greenhouse gas emissions.  If our children and future generations are to have a chance at survival, we need to move towards sustainable transportation systems now, not later.  Let's use the transit infrastructure we have more efficiently and encourage people to get out of their SOV.  I am truly heartened to see a politician finally standing up for common sense on transit."

When asked about the cost of fare-free Skytrain, Larsen explained that the proposal is designed to be revenue neutral.

"We're not talking about increasing taxes, instead I would refocus our Provincial funding away from subsidizing car drivers, and move to a sustainable system of publicly funded Skytrain." said Larsen. “Going forward, we need to expand rapid-rail projects like Skytrain into the Fraser Valley, and also into the other larger centres around the province. The future of our cities is in rail.”

For more information:

Dana Larsen: 604-812-4372

Dave Olsen: 604-216-6700

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Vancouver climate

Situated as we are at the mouth of the Fraser Valley, right next to the Georgia Strait, Vancouver has its own little climate system.  Mornings and during the day, there is usually a wind blowing off the water, not too hard, but steady.  This wind continues eastward up the valley, bringing with it all the pollution this car-clogged city produces during the day.

This situation means that it is in fact the towns up the valley, Chilliwack, Matsqui, Mission, and all the others, who breathe the worst of Vancouver’s pollution from morning to late afternoon.  Of course, with nightfall the wind reverses, bringing much of that pollution back to us.

The situation with climate change is a little like that.  We may not feel it right away.  In fact it’s people up the valley, people over there, people who aren’t born yet who will bear the brunt of what we do.  But that doesn’t mean none of it will come back to us too.  That doesn’t mean it won’t affect us, or that it hasn’t already started affecting us whether we taste it in the air or not.

But we don’t really need to breathe our own stink, or inflict it on others up the valley.  We can find a way of climbing out of our cars, and eating fewer fast food burgers.  A little exercise will make us happier anyway, and the burgers aren’t good for our waistlines. 

We can find a way of creating sustainable cities and of living sustainable lifestyles with dignity.  We’re capable of being very creative and resourceful when there’s a big job to do which affects us all.

First we imagine it.  Then we get it done.  (Maybe a little effort in between.)

Proposed bylaw to target old diesels, black carbon

The idea of the proposed new bylaw is to target “black carbon” emitted by non-road engines. 

The Tyee – No Fares! A Reader-funded Solutions Series

The Tyee – No Fares! A Reader-funded Solutions Series: "Olsen says it will take an engaged citizenry to help officials take seriously the potential benefits of fare-free transit. When he raised the idea with transit bureaucrats in B.C., Olsen says, 'They couldn't even get their heads around it. Didn't even want to talk about it.' But when he floated the same idea with bus drivers and riders, the response tended to be open and even enthusiastic.

Olsen says the time is ripe for that discussion to take off. Making public transit free for everyone to ride 'is no longer only a social justice issue, an equity issue, or an efficiency issue,' Olsen says. 'Now it's a survival issue.'"