Peak car: where are we moving to?

Like a sleek convertible cresting a windy mountain pass and carrying its momentum down the other side, so goes the overall trend in driving. Over the last decade, at least in North America, people are driving less. Building throughout the 1990s to a peak in the mid-2000s, VMT (vehicle miles traveled) has maxed out and is decreasing, at different rates depending on demographics and locations. Some people are driving shorter distances, some are substituting car trips for other modes, and some are not driving at all.

What is the driving force behind this peak, and subsequent reduction in driving? Moreover, is it a good thing?

There are several reasons, depending on where you live and how old you are. In vibrant, fast-growing cities such as Vancouver, local policy favours building infrastructure and developments for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit ahead of motor vehicles. Incredibly, despite some antagonism towards cyclists and other “alternative” modes, Vancouver is a success story.  Although Vancouver’s population has grown considerably over the past two decades, it is the only city in Canada where the average car commuting time has not increased over the same time period. Vancouverites (motorists included) are able to move around as efficiently, and often moreso, than in the early 90s.

What about age? Younger demographics (16-24) today are less likely to hold a driver’s license than in previous generations. Cost is a consideration: vehicles are more expensive to maintain and operate now, and younger peoples’ incomes are stagnant or decreasing, compared to previous generations. While some young people may choose to live in transit-oriented areas (which are often also amenable to cycling and walking) for environmental reasons, there are also social benefits, as these areas have an abundance of cafes, bars, restaurants, parks and other areas for socializing.

This reduction in driving is beneficial in many ways. Alternative modes of transportation (transit, cycling, walking) consume less energy and are more environmentally sustainable (both from reduced fuel use and more dense development). They also increase opportunities for exercise and social interaction. After all, it’s much easier to chat with your neighbours when you’re on the bus or walking around, than when you’re whipping past in a car.

And there’s an even broader implication: although people are driving less overall, they are still able to go about their daily lives – work, chores and leisure – much as they did before cars became widespread in the post-WWII era.

Shouldn’t the goal be to allow people to move around freely, whether they choose to use a car or not? After all, prioritizing transit is “not about making it hard to drive, but about giving people options other than driving their car.” Shouldn’t people feel empowered to use the mode that best suits their needs, rather than feeling compelled to drive? Shouldn’t we be aiming to move people, rather than cars?

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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.

Automated vehicles, transit, and physical space

Let’s put the brakes on this one before it gets driven out of control: driverless cars are not the panacea for traffic woes as imagined by some technologists and futurists.

I agree with public transit consultant Jarrett Walker’s assertion that a “completely imagined future” of driverless vehicles is neither realistic nor desirable, given that there will be problems in the intermediary stages, such as how driverless vehicles and human-driven vehicles will appropriately interact with each other, and who will hold legal liability in the event of collisions. However, I am surprised that Walker did not argue the “geometry” angle for why mass adoption of driverless vehicles (particularly Personal Rapid Transit) is untenable – this is one of his significant themes.

In the series on which Walker’s post is based, author Richard Gilbert argues that

Travelling in an AT [autonomous taxicab] will be incomparably better than travelling by bus or even streetcar. As a consequence, ATs will replace much transit as we know it.

No, they won’t. There is the simple issue of the amount of space personal vehicles occupy on the road compared to transit vehicles, whether driven by a human or a computer. Technology, though wonderful, cannot overcome such a physical limitation.

A typical single-occupancy vehicle occupies far more space than a bus, streetcar or train. Even accounting for carpooling (which is not common in North America), public transit vehicles make far more effective use of limited road space than automobiles, reducing congestion and gridlock. While driverless, automated cars are no doubt more spatially efficient than human-driven vehicles and (four times as much, according to Gilbert) and require less space for parking, they still fall well short of the number of people that can be moved in a given physical space using public transit. The alternative, in car-dominated cities, is gridlock, visible and well-documented.

In his defence, Gilbert concedes that heavy rail transit, such as subways and commuter rail, will still be necessary. Transit will actually be necessary on most bus and train lines also, per the geometry issue above. However, driverless cars may be competitive in rural and suburban areas, which are only effectively traveled by car.

More jarring though, are Gilbert’s arguments about comfort and convenience. While “door to door” convenience may be necessary in the suburbs, medium and high-density areas can be very effectively served by public transit, easily reachable by nearly all pedestrians living nearby. There seems to be an underlying connotation of traditional public transit being for everyone else, given that our underlying individualism demands personal space, shielded from the sensory intrusions of strangers. What a sad comment on our post-modern society then.

I’ve used numerous public transit systems – Toronto’s (where Gilbert is based) is reasonably clean, comfortable, and efficient, though the best transit systems in other cities eclipse it. The same cannot always be said about taxis, which driverless cars are primed to compete with.

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.

To serve you better…

I recently took a short survey from Translink, which asked for public input on proposed service optimizations to the network (full details here).

While the phrasing “service optimization” sounds a bit bureaucratic, it is a laudable and important aim: Translink has finite resources with which to serve riders in Metro Vancouver, so it makes sense to use those as effectively as possible. Striking a balance between ridership goals on the one end of the spectrum and coverage goals at the other, the plan does an admirable job of improving service, albeit not by as much as many would like.

The Design Considerations section is an impressive primer on how to most effectively structure transit routes to avoid duplication and overcrowding, while allowing connections to numerous points in the network, and at appropriate frequencies. These are the fundamentals that are often lost when discussing why certain routes should be scaled back, and busy ones enhanced, all in the name of optimization.

As a regular reader of Jarrett Walker’s blog Human Transit, and having read his book, this section is an excellent summary of his major points on what makes for effective transit networks.

There are some great new enhancements. The new 555 Port Mann Express line, running across the new Port Mann Bridge, provides a much-needed connection to the existing Skytrain network. It should provide a fast alternative to the rush hour crawl on Highway 1, in a region historically with few transit options. Although it isn’t a rail-based option, by running in a dedicated lane, it completes the roughly 35km stretch from Langley to Braid Skytrain station in just over 20 minutes – impressive.

As for the proposed changes, closer to my neighbourhood, there are improvements to a couple of the community buses. The C21 and C23 routes are proposed to be split, improving frequencies on the more frequented C23 route along Davie Street, and extending the coverage for both routes. The C21 is poised to run to Second Beach in Stanley Park, which should help with lugging around a BBQ and camping chairs for those impromptu summer picnics – currently the route terminates at Denman and Davie, some distance from the park. And the C23 may be extended along Terminal Avenue, providing local service. (While the Expo Skytrain line has run along the industrial stretch for years, new development along the road will give people reasons to stop by, rather than simply speeding past above the empty lots.)

With these proposed enhancements, the introduction of the new Compass card for fares and a pending provincial election which could be the catalyst for major upheaval in structure and governance at Translink, 2013 will definitely be a year of changes for transit riders in Metro Vancouver – stay tuned.

A singles purpose

There seemed to be a single purpose as I walked into the club with my friend: have an enjoyable evening. Or maybe it was to meet a prospective partner, where the only certain commonality would be our current relationship status.

This was not a typical club night. I was given tickets to a singles event hosted by Events and Adventures and a couple of local radio stations. While I would typically be opposed to (what I would consider) a contrived setup, the tickets were free, so there was no risk.

Having modest expectations at the outset, I was pleasantly surprised. We arrived an hour and a half after the start, and while there weren’t many people at the club, there was certainly a fun vibe. The staff were friendly and upbeat, smiling and cracking jokes. The music was good, and not so loud as to inhibit conversation. There were games: a contest for the worst pickup line, Christmas bingo, and a photo booth with accompanying silly hats and glasses for the perfect cheesy pics. And there was complimentary wine (white of course, in case you inevitably spilled on yourself or someone else).

We walked over to a group of older women and simply introduced ourselves and started chatting. I wasn’t even wearing my “boyfriend material” shirt (the line my friend used to place second in the contest), but absent the pressure there often is on a typical club night, we were free to chat, take goofy group photos and have fun getting to know each other. I made a good connection with one of the girls in the group, and we all went for pizza at the nearby Megabite after leaving the club. A fun night all in all.

So really, what was going on? In my past experience, I’ve found that my best relationships started when I met my partner somewhere I wasn’t really looking: school, work, traveling, sports, through friends.

Scenarios where I was having fun, in a positive and confident mood, and doing things I would normally do in my life. Scenarios where I wasn’t actively out to meet someone.

This is why I haven’t been a fan of the bar scene. The connections are tenuous and overly concerned with image rather than emotion. If you go clubbing or bar hopping just to pick-up, there’s a good chance you’ll be out-alpha’ed by someone with a more attractive image, however vain and fatuous.

And yet, with singles events – where the purpose is ostensibly to meet potential long-term partners, but in fun environments as diverse as clubs or hikes in the great outdoors – I could see it possibly working well.

So is it better for singles to do things they’re passionate about and be open to meeting new people through those pursuits, in the normal course of life? Or just to have fun with other singles even if it’s not something you’d normally do? Maybe there isn’t a single best way after all.

Down with the thickness?

Amid the bustle and excitement over the consumerist orgy known as Black Friday (which is now extended through the American Thanksgiving weekend to Cyber Monday), I’ve been browsing deals on laptops.

I don’t particularly need one at the moment, but I suppose it doesn’t hurt to look. My 5 year old desktop computer has been a venerable workhorse, and continues to work well for almost everything I need – for now. However, it’s stationary. I can’t use it anywhere but at home.

I’ve never owned a laptop before (though I have used friends’ laptops at times), but the thought is appealing. I would be able to live out my hipster fantasy: sit at one of the numerous neighbourhood coffee shops and espouse on random subjects, or just browse the web more comfortably than on my phone. All while sipping a cappucino and smiling at the strangers around me. Or recline on a train speeding through the verdant countryside, as I write emails and listen to a streaming podcast through my headphones. (I missed not having a computer on my recent travels, though I made do without one.)

Then there’s the question of what type of laptop. While any mainstream laptop would suffice and really isn’t all that heavy to carry around, the advertising for sleek new ultrabooks (thin laptops) is hard to ignore. I blame Intel for proselytizing to me the same qualities in a computer that magazines, music and movies have done for years in regards to women: thin, light, attractive, and fast. They’re also expensive (the ultrabooks).

I imagine in a few years, all laptops will be as thin and lightweight as ultrabooks are currently; the debate over thin and light versus durable and powerful will be rendered moot faster than you can turn on an ultrabook.

For now though, something a bit thicker (or just “normal”) may be best. It might be just as sexy. Saving the extra money certainly is.