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Where Am I? author weighs in on taking lanes from cars

May 31st, 2009 · 17 Comments

While trolling the Great Big Internet Sea for something else, I stumbled across this essay from the author of the recent book attracting attention in the human-psychology world, Where Am I? Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon But Get Lost in the Mall. One more take on the debate about taking space away from cars and giving it to anyone else.

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  • Frothingham

    “we cling to the idea that the good old internal combustion engine is our future rather than our past.” … he nails it with that statement. Many of us see it, even as we continue to prefer car trips as opposed to other forms of transportation. The tipping point will come once the transit grid makes leaving the car parked a non brainer.

  • DMJ

    Reality check: It is not public transit that attracts the motorist from the car, more specifically light rail or trams/streetcars.

    Cities, including Paris, who have installed LRT have found dramatic increases in customers. Paris’s first LRT line now carries 3 times more ridership than the bus route it replaced.

    In Vancouver because we flirt with unconventional transit and unconventional transit philosophy, we have so skewed our planning to favour SkyTrain (the only city to use the system in North America and Europe) that honest statistical analysis is almost impossible.

    Despite high ridership reports, TransLink admits that 80% of SkyTrain’s ridership first take a bus to the metro and TransLink has never published the all important modal shift from car to transit.

    As buses are extremely poor in attracting the car driver, one must assume that TransLink is cascading as many bus riders on SkyTrain as they can. This is very bad transit operation and a good indication why Vancouver, despite the hype and hoopla, has never been a model for public transit in any other city.

    Until we have a honest statistical analysis ( most cities have annual or bi annual independent audits of ridership) TransLink can claim what ever it wants with out fear of being caught out.

    Until Vancouver adopts light rail (which I doubt) the city will always have to cater to the car.

  • MB

    Reality check: It is not light rail that draws people from their cars, but higher fuel prices that drives them to transit in all forms, to walking + cycling, and to finding homes closer to work. The stats support this every time gas prices spike. And they will spike more in future.

  • hg

    I Live in the False Creek area, and for years now I foundit cheaper, if I had to go downtown, to use Transit, since the price of parking alone covers the transit fare. For that reason plus wear and tear on the vehicle and the driver, cost of fuel I believe most commuters from the Westside would be benefit from using alternate transportation

  • Frothingham

    Good points raised by DMJ! I would definitely like to see some real data that we can objectively analyze, and not have to rely on TransLink for this info. Release the data. I also agree that the bus system is going to have to improve in order to attract car users. And it would be great to have an encompassing review and study of the merits of having light Rail vs SkyTrain and the other methods of people moving… We need to explore new visions and options.

  • Joseph Jones

    SkyTrain, that legacy technology of Expo 86. Nonstandard cars at over $1 million a pop.

    Route and stations plopped across East Vancouver. Convenience rules. Parallel to Kingsway where a streetcar should be running.

    Why should this kind of planning ever produce any data? Data just gets in the way of doing deals.

  • DMJ

    Actually, SkyTrain cars cost about $4 million a pop and just to make the SkyTrain lobby grind its teeth, SkyTrain was obsolete before it was completed.

    Froth, there is a lot of data about LRT/trams/streetcars and about 150 new LRT lines built or nearing completion since 1980, proves that. In Europe, modal shift from car to tram is anywhere between 30% to 40%! In the USA, even though many new LRT lines carry fewer passengers than our SkyTrain, they have much higher modal shifts.

    Paris’s first LRT line is now carrying 3 times the ridership than the buses did before they were replaced with trams.

    About the SkyTrain LRT debate, SkyTrain lost that debate in about 1986 and only 7 are in operation (note 150 new LRT systems built since 1980). Sad fact is, LRT out performs SkyTrain and the proprietary metro is now sold as a glorified airport people mover and only when the Canadian Government provides the loans to build Bombardier’s toy.

  • Len B

    I can’t disagree with any thoughts on LRT, however the writer in comment #1 quotes a line from the essay:

    ““we cling to the idea that the good old internal combustion engine is our future rather than our past.” … he nails it with that statement.”

    He doesn’t nail it all. Who the hell thinks the future is the i.c.e?

    The problem as I see it is that there is widespread belief, including from environmentally friendly people who do not believe, or refuse to accept that electric powered vehicles will one day replace the gasoline engine.

    If and/or when that does, the North American culture will still favour the now-electric auto over public transportation.

    The reality is that for the past 80 or so years our entire lives have been built on the automobile. Everything most of us do on a daily basis revolves around the auto. EVERYTHING.

    There are not very many ‘things’ in our modern history that have moulded our lives such as the car. How many of you today can’t imagine your life without a computer?

    Once oil leaves the equation, good luck in getting people to park that car and take transit. It makes no sense at all to take car lanes away today.

    Unless of course you’re in the infrastructure business and want to sell the government on improving our roadway grid in 2030 dollars instead of maintaining it in current dollars.

    If we want to plan for the future we need more people to see the world with lenses that don’t hold any ideology.

  • Yeah, people were saying the same things about horses 150 years ago.

    Much of the world that has been built around the car was done so cheaply it is practically disposable. Even worse, most of it is boring and ugly. Already, even before the Canada Line is completed, the strip malls in downtown Richmond are being replaced by mixed use residential development. In 10 or 20 years, Richmond will have a real downtown where people can walk or take transit for most of their trips. Change happens faster than you think.

    The electric car has been around for over 100 years and still, it is not practical or affordable. For the last 30 years, fans of the electric car insist it is just around the corner, just another 5 years. Yeah right. Electric cars are more expensive and less convenient. Not exactly a winning combination in a world of stagnate or falling wages. If the car companies can even afford to develop electric vehicles. You will note that GM went bankrupt today.

    While auto travel is getting slower due to congestion, rail just keeps getting faster and faster.

  • Only in North America has the auto held such sway Len. OK, the Aussies love their cars too I suppose.

    It’s been an unusual confluence of factors that gave the auto primacy over other forms of transportation… and it’s only been for about a hundred years. I think we’d be foolish to think this blip in history represents the situation in the long run.

    Worth noting that even electric cars are reliant on fossil fuels, for manufacture and to provide electricity to fuel them. Further, the issue isn’t so much the fuel, as the amount of space required to have cars operate efficiently, that is to say, not mired in traffic jams, or circling city blocks looking for somewhere to store the machine while not in use.

    Inasmuch as bike paths and bike lanes, pedestrian facilities etc are pretty easy to build and just as easy to remove, I don’t understand how a few experiments could possibly do lasting harm. If a system is so tenuous that re-allocating a few kilometres of road space here and there among the thousands of kilometres of pavement in Metro Vancouver can bring it to its knees, pretty clearly it’s broken to begin with and needs re-appraisal.

  • Frothingham

    The solutions & probable outcomes are very well summarized by Chris Keam and Richard. While Electric Vehicles will become popular over the long term they too will be not as efficient as LRT given the way cities are developing into ever higher densities. And YES please lets get rid of those damn Strip malls that were built to accommodate cars! (full disclosure: I love riding my bike, and i love driving my car… but i can see the future… less cars Len)

  • Frothingham

    thanks to you who have pointed out the dim-witted choices made in favouring SkyTrain over LRT. It’s too bad that this dimwittedness was continued as the choice of technology for the Canada Line rather than have chosen the more popular and standard mode: LRT. Does any one know which tech consumes less energy per person per mile? LRT or SkyTrain?

  • gmgw

    Chris said:
    “Only in North America has the auto held such sway… OK, the Aussies love their cars too I suppose.”

    Ever been to London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Milan, Cairo, Bangkok, or Djakarta, Chris? You think car traffic in *Vancouver* is bad…! Mind you, all the cities I’ve named, except Djakarta, have heavily-used mass-transit systems… but still experience daily traffic congestion that is the stuff of nightmares. It’s not only North Americans that need to change their lowdown gas-guzzling ways.

  • I’ve been to a few places outside of our little bubble GMGW and sure there’s bad traffic everywhere. But, Vancouver is a brand new city, we built it with the car in mind, and it’s still not working properly. It’s almost as though cities and cars don’t really mix n’est-ce pas?

  • Don Buchanan

    Just to clarify that the Canada Line is not built using Skytrain technology – for example it does not have the linear induction motors. It is also much wider – more like the width of a heavy rail metro, though not quite.

  • Another interesting debate about the future of transportation in Vancouver. TransLink’s 2040 plan is nearing completion and needs everyone in Metro Vancouver to have their say. It’s too important not to. They’ve also developed a game “It’s your move”, where you can evaluate what is most important to you and develop a plan for how we are going to fund the necessary expansions to our transportation network over the next 30 years.
    You can also play this game in person with a group at any one of the many consultation meeting happening around the city this month.

  • MB

    There isn’t enough dams and power plants to replace 1.3 million Lower Mainland gas-burning cars with electric cars. Something will have to give when petroleum prices spike again, and that will be the number of cars.

    The real question is: What then?