At risk of further manspreading

Thanks to a Globe and Mail article, I discovered the newly coined term “manspreading”, indicating men who sit on public transit with their legs far enough apart to occupy multiple seats. I note that by writing about this new phenomenon, I am ironically further validating its undeserved entry into popular nomenclature.

Issues of social impropriety and discourteousness on public transit are sadly not new. For years, a small number of passengers have inconvenienced or offended their fellow riders by taking up more than a single seat – using their legs, personal belongings or otherwise ( whether male or female). Manspreading is equally aggravating, but it falls under the same umbrella of disrespectful public behaviour. We should no more draw attention to it than to other issues of public discourtesy, such as eating on transit, listening to loud music, or having poor personal hygiene.

Moreover, while discourteous behaviour has always been problematic for transit riders, undue attention to manspreading distracts from much larger and more pertinent issues affecting riders (stable funding for public transit, for one).

Why all the fuss? It may be that issues of social indiscretion are smaller and perceptively easier to solve (and certainly cheaper) than more complex issues such as determining funding mechanisms for transit (i.e. “close your damn legs!” vs. “congestion pricing, vehicle levies, or carbon taxes?”).

So can we all agree to just be more courteous to our fellow passengers, and focus on the issues that really matter? I leave you with this gem:

Spread when you can
Retract when you must
Make space for others
On subway or bus

(Credit: The Grateful Auk; Globe and Mail forum)

Pleasure, practicality, and petrol

To talk of liking cars in the current environmental and economic climates sometimes seems outdated, even heretical in some circles. I recently discovered an excellent Youtube channel called Petrolicious, which captures the essence of classic and exotic cars lovingly preserved, restored, and imbued with fantastic histories and feelings through their owners. I appreciate the beauty and spirit of classic and exotic cars. Yet I am also an ardent supporter of alternative transportationdense, walkable neighbourhoods, and congestion pricing – all of which are antithetical to limitless automobility. How can this be so?

Beyond the argument that at least some art and aesthetic is necessary (human nature demands that not everything can be practical and utilitarian), these classic and exotic cars are less environmentally damaging than at first glance. In many cases, these cars are not driven often, so they essentially emit much less pollution than even the most efficient modern subcompact, driven tens of thousands of kilometres every year for commuting and numerous other trips. And restoration gives new life to worn-out exotics, saving the energy which would have been expended in scrapping, expending less than in producing new vehicles.

What cars were, and are

Exotic cars are many things – expensive, powerful, exciting, artistic – but above all, they are rare. They embody some of the qualities that even ordinary cars had decades ago. Prior to mass vehicle ownership, cities were less sprawling. Cars were originally about pleasure ahead of practicality. People commuted and made most of their trips through public transit, cycling, or walking. Cars were expensive, relatively unreliable, and only for a small, wealthy elite. The act of driving for pleasure – whether auto racing or a drive in the countryside, was similarly limited to this demographic.

Fast forward to the present, and we have effectively lost this sense of pleasure. Despite marketers’ attempts to sell us on the “fun” aspect of new vehicles, driving is often done out of necessity. Traffic congestion, urban sprawl, and the burdensome expenses of owning and operating vehicles for lower and middle class people takes the pleasure out of driving. Many would prefer to drive less, if only more practical transportation options existed in modern environments.

What we have lost, and what we can regain

Petrolicious, and similar channels and publications, remind us what we have lost. They can even explain the dichotomy of driving for pleasure rather than necessity. Driving was originally intended as an occasional and pleasurable activity, not a tool for daily living. It has become more affordable as vehicles have become more widespread and reliable and standards of living have risen, but at its inception, and at its core, it was and is expensive. Current pricing methodologies and the proliferation of mass-produced vehicles in spatially finite cities means that the open road is a thing of the past: traffic congestion will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Economic realities mean that most of us will only ever own mainstream, relatively utilitarian vehicles, though we may be fortunate enough to drive an exotic. Vintage Ferraris and Porsches are soulful works of art as much as they are vehicles. By remembering the past as we move forward, it is possible to imagine a world where it is feasible to drive our own vehicles as these exotics are driven: occasionally, and for pleasure.

 

Changing cities – brick by brick

(Warning: spoilers ahead) At first, I was a bit disappointed. Watching the opening sequences of the new Lego Movie, with the mammoth Bricksburg Freeway snaking through the city and tall Corbusier-style skyscrapers looming over the Lego-scape, it is truly an impressive creation. However, it reinforces decades-old ideas about urbanism which are proving to be automobile-centric, harmful to pedestrians, and unsustainable. Is this truly a vision of an utopian city?

There is hope however, in that our ordinary hero Emmett takes the time to greet his neighbours on his way out of his apartment, and the city appears to be bustling with activity – people of all demographics walking throughout the downtown to various shops and places of work, reminiscent of Jane Jacobs’ famous “sidewalk ballet”. The elevated rail mass transit system (all jokes about monorails aside), is bursting with people. And even the traffic on the congested roads and freeways is flowing (perhaps they have successfully implemented congestion pricing in Lego-land).

There were some points glossed over, of course. Emmett is inexplicably able to easily find a curbside parking space right near his place of work (and does not appear to pay for it), which would be a certain fantasy in such a busy city. Sprawling surface parking lots and imposing parking garages, so common in automobile-dependent cities such as Bricksburg appears to be, are conspicuously absent. And none of the Lego vehicles run on fossil fuels, or generate air pollution.

As the movie nears its conclusion, a possible explanation appears. Bricksburg exists in our human world, where a father has created it as the “perfect” city, created according to the provided instructions and not to be altered in any way. His son mixes and matches different Lego sets, develops characters, and allows creative, spontaneous interaction and exploration which is utterly at odds with the static, prescribed nature of the existing Lego sets.

It reinforces the struggle between old, conservative ideals of the city as a place for automobiles and massive buildings and infrastructure, contrasted with a progressive vision of the city as a creative space primarily intended for people. As the father eventually embraces the more progressive, creative ways of his son, there is a tacit acceptance of a more enlightened style of urbanism (albeit in just one dimension: people-centred).

And given the movie’s underlying thematic importance of “thinking for yourself”, perhaps this is an encouraging sign that regardless of our preconceptions, we can move toward exploring livelier, more progressive, and healthier cities.

Carsharing and car culture

While I am a proponent of effective public transit systems for many kinds of intracity travel. I am also aware of the need for other modes of transportation to meet the needs of different kinds of trips. Private car use in cities (especially single-occupancy vehicles) is over-represented and over-subsidized in most North American cities, but cars are undeniably useful for many kinds of trips. How much car travel is too much? At what point do the environmental and social costs of excessive car use outweigh the benefits of the freedom of travel?

Carsharing is an increasingly popular option which allows users to access the benefits of car travel for trips where it is clearly beneficial over other modes, while also reducing the societal and personal costs of massive car use. But does a growth in carsharing actually reinforce “car culture” and automobile dependence? (I refer to car culture in this instance as the infrastructure and systems that make private car use necessary, rather than appealing or desirable.)

Emily Badger’s piece in the Atlantic Cities clearly makes the point that even if people are using carshare vehicles rather than privately owned automobiles, they are still using “the infrastructure, the parking garages and highways and curb space that we turn over to cars at great expense“. There is evidence (from the Economist, for example), that each carshare vehicle can replace 15 privately owned vehicles, so this effectively allows a more effective use of automobile infrastructure such as parking and road space.

However, the key point that Badger addresses is that participating in carsharing actually changes driving behaviour. I think this is because of the different cost model, compared to private car ownership.

Having previously owned a vehicle, I paid a number of significant fixed costs throughout a given year (insurance, maintenance, depreciation, etc). In comparison, the variable costs of driving (fuel, wear and tear), were minimal. I thought little about taking spontaneous short trips in my car, since these effectively cost little when I was already paying a lot for the fixed costs.

Carsharing ingeniously shifts the cost burden from fixed to variable. With the programs I use (car2go and Modo), apart from small administrative costs at the outset, I only pay when I use the vehicles. As a result, I’m aware of the cost of every single car trip, and I choose to use a carshare vehicle only when it is clearly necessary or more useful than another mode, such as public transit or walking. I drive far less than when I owned a vehicle.

My experience is not unique. Modo claims that members drive an average of 1400 km per year, which is substantially less than average motorists.

By continuing to drive (albeit far less), am I still reinforcing the need for automobiles? Not really. Even widespread carsharing adoption puts less strain on infrastructure than private automobile use, as explained above.

Moreover, carsharing is only effective in city areas where the car is an option rather than a requirement. In car-dependent areas, residents must own and use cars because it is ineffective, unsafe, or impossible to choose other modes such as public transit, cycling or walking. Carsharing would be ineffective as few people would choose to pay to use a carshare vehicle when they are already paying for a private vehicle.

By contrast, areas with frequent, accessible public transit and numerous amenities accessible by walking and cycling already give residents the choice to own a private vehicle or not. People who require a vehicle for work or personal use, or who choose to drive a lot will find private ownership more cost effective than carsharing, so there is little worry of people overusing carsharing programs.

People who live in these latter areas (transit-oriented development) tend to walk, cycle, and use public transit more than residents in other areas as they are cheaper and more effective transport options. Carsharing is merely supplemental for trips where a car is beneficial.

Carsharing is growing in areas where car use is already optional. A shift to more sustainable development, where “alternative” transit options are usable and effective does increase carshare use, but it simultaneously decreases car ownership, and thus overall car use.

Should we lament the popularity of carsharing as a reinforcement of car culture? On the contrary – we can see its success in correlation with an increase in the sustainable development patterns that allow it to thrive.

The next consternation is…

As I browsed my news feed on the bus this morning, I noticed a trend emerging: there were service disruptions on Skytrain’s Expo line, this time east of Main Street station. Not again, I thought.

Whisking through the downtown tunnel from Granville, through the fog to Main, I opted to bus up to Broadway and onto the B-line enroute to the Millennium Line (headed to East Vancouver). It seemed the crush of people on the Main Street platform would not be going anywhere for some time, so movement was preferable. Total time added to my commute: 40 minutes. Far more than a typical day, but far less than what many people endured.

I planned my detour ahead of arriving at Main Street station. While there were transit staff present to assist with routing, I count myself fortunate that I was able to plan an alternate route. I could take either a 3, 8, or 19 bus to Broadway and connect to the 99-B line, the most frequent bus in the system. One of the incredible things about the Translink network (and other good public transit systems) became clear to me: the superb connectivity of the system allows for contingent travel in unforeseen circumstances just such as this.

Because several bus routes connect to each station, there are always alternate routes for travel, even if they’re not as fast as the Skytrain. Far from being trapped on a bus behind a collision or stall on a bridge (as I encountered on several occasions on the old 98 B-Line travelling into Richmond), or worse in a car on a gridlocked freeway, I had options for movement. It felt liberating.

Returning to the incident: the cause of the disruption turned out to be an incorrectly replaced power rail – an unfortunate but entirely possible result of the necessary upgrades the ageing Skytrain system is currently undergoing. It’s not the first such track-related incident since the project began, and it may not be the last.

However, what seems to be lost amidst the fray of frazzled commuters is that power rail replacement is a temporary project which is necessary to extend the life of what is otherwise an excellent, reliable system (on-time percentage is over 95%). The few disruptive incidents over the past few months have been well-publicized, and are perhaps to be expected in a project of this magnitude. However, they should not be taken as indicative of an overall lack of reliability for Skytrain.

Credit where it is due to Translink for supplying shuttle buses and single-tracked trains to relieve the congestion where possible, and for relaying information about the disruption and alternate options.

And let’s remember how fortunate we are to have such a well-connected system – particularly for disruptions such as today’s.

Lexus lanes: the relentless pursuit of perfection in road pricing

As I have mentioned in a previous post, language shapes the way we perceive ideas. Different words connote different meanings, and can alter our opinions towards an idea.

For example, while a “fat tax” on certain processed foods high in sugar or fat might be an effective method of limiting consumption of these foods, and achieving public health gains, the word “fat” is heavily stigmatized in Western society (no pun intended). Such a negative connotation means that the idea is less likely to gain widespread support, and anyways, the desired outcome is the complete opposite of what the term suggests: by taxing foods high in sugar or fat, the goal is to minimize the proliferation of fat foods (and by extension, public obesity.) It’s more of a “fat avoidance tax”.

This brings us to one of the suggested methods for raising badly-needed funds for transit in Metro Vancouver – congestion pricing. As Jarrett Walker rightly suggests, the term “congestion pricing” implies paying for a negative condition – traffic congestion. I imagine few people would be in favour of such an idea; what they would rather do is to pay to avoid traffic congestion.

This of course elicits elitist impressions of road pricing: recall the “Lexus lanes” in California, so-called as wealthier motorists pay a premium on certain freeway lanes to avoid traffic congestion.

Instead, congestion pricing should be a free-market, demand-responsive system where the toll or price for using a particular road varies based on the traffic volume, or demand on that road at a given point in time. It recognizes that the traffic capacity on a given road is finite, and should be priced accordingly. By pricing the available road space appropriately, to goal is to achieve maximum throughput on a given road, while avoiding gridlock conditions.

What should congesting pricing be called then? While decongestion pricing is a more accurate label, I propose that “variable road pricing” may be a better fit. (Also, while I agree with the basic term “road pricing”, I take issue with the CBC describing road pricing as “controversial”, since it arouses negative suspicions before there can be an informed public debate on the idea.)

Although there are certainly many details to explore, variable road pricing is a program that could be popular across the political spectrum. The revenue from variable road pricing could contribute to both road maintenance and transit, which is an egalitarian approach, and appropriate given that many major roads have dedicated transit lanes. It is also a cheaper solution than building additional road capacity, which in the absence of road pricing, would soon become congested (induced demand).

Variable road pricing does constitute an additional cost to driving, so it should be coupled with the elimination of the gas tax specific to Metro Vancouver, which has been demonstrated as an unsustainable and outdated source of funding.

A new variable road pricing scheme could address several of the transportation issues we face in this region. Appropriately named, it could shape an honest and informed debate on the details and implementation of the program. We should be relentlessly pursuing perfection in both areas.

Putting it on ice

If there is an apodictic truth about humans, it is that we are only human. We have made mistakes, and we continue to make mistakes. Sometimes, we even repeat mistakes that we, or other humans, have made previously.

Arguably, this was the case a few weeks ago in Metro Vancouver, when chunks of ice plunged down upon unsuspecting motorists on the newly opened Port Mann Bridge. On December 19, it was actually cold enough to facilitate some sort of precipitation other than rain. We experienced snow in Vancouver, and the end of the world hadn’t even arrived!

Accumulated snow and ice on the cables of the bridge fell to the bridge deck, some of them smashing into vehicles. ICBC fielded 60 claims related to accidents on the bridge, many resulting from falling ice and snow. One driver was hospitalized.

This was unexpected in winter conditions, even those as comparably mild as Vancouver’s. Except, this type of incident has occurred before. On the same type of bridge.

As the NDP’s transportation critic Harry Bains rightly points out, we should question whether the engineers examined this type of risk on other similar bridges in other regions “like Sweden, Britain, and Boston. Perhaps, also in Seattle.”

Boston.

As part of a multi-billion dollar highway upgrade called the Big Dig, a ten lane cable-stayed bridge was built in Boston, called the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. It is the same number of lanes and basic design as the new Port Mann Bridge.

Since opening in 2003, there have been three incidents of ice falling from the bridge cables on the Zakim Bridge: in 2005, and twice in 2011.

While Boston has a harsher winter climate than Vancouver, we might rightly have asked if such incidents are possible here. After all, it snows in Metro Vancouver, and ice is not uncommon. Despite this, the new Port Mann bridge does not have heated cables to melt accumulating ice, and the engineering firm responsible, TI Corp, has admitted that the coating on the cables did not abate ice buildup. In addition, the cables cross over the bridge deck, which means falling ice and snow is likely to strike the bridge deck, unlike other bridges where the cables connect near the outside edge of the towers and do not cross over the roadway (for instance, the Alex Fraser bridge, also in Metro Vancouver).

So whether the design of the new Port Mann bridge is simply inappropriate for winter climates which include snow and ice (including Vancouver), or whether heated bridge cables would have been an expensive, but practical solution to preventing falling ice, someone made a mistake. And given that it has happened elsewhere (Boston), we should learn from that experience. What is less important than who is at fault, is what we should do to fix the bridge to avoid another ice incident the next time it gets cold in Vancouver.