Archive | May 2009

Countering Rapid Transit disinformation

Yesterday The Record ran a column by Peter Shawn Taylor commenting on the latest Region of Waterloo Rapid Transit report. It contains blatant falsehoods about the Environmental Assessment process, and thus I just sent the following complaint to The Record:

I believe the May 14 article “All aboard? Light rail transit plan is leaving the station way too early” by Peter Shawn Taylor was written in bad faith. It deliberately distorts the data in order to support its viewpoint. To see this, please take a look at page 6 of the Region of Waterloo’s latest Rapid Transit report:

Paragraph 4 of the article cites specific numbers about what seem like general meetings, when in fact they were meetings solely for “property owners and tenants living and/or working directly adjacent to the short-listed rapid transit routes”. It is abundantly clear from the information on the report that outreach to businesses was actually very good.

Regarding the general public, that report page states:
-“Rapid Transit newsletters have been sent to more than 250,000 residential and business addresses on four different occasions;”
-“Approximately 3,500 people have attended 33 Public Consultation Centres (PCCs), Workshops and Focused Consultation events and provided 1,039 official formal comments;”
-“Information about the Rapid Transit Initiative has also been provided at an additional 63 different public outreach events such as community stakeholder meetings, public events, presentations to groups, and educational displays where attendance was not recorded.”

The central premise that Peter Shawn Taylor uses in that article to advance his ideological position is in direct opposition to the data he ostensibly cites. This kind of blatant disregard for the truth is unacceptable, but especially so in a newspaper.

[Update, 2009/06/01: It’s been over two weeks, and I’ve received no response from The Record, so I must assume they condone the printing of falsehoods.]


Regional transit developments

The Region of Waterloo has finally produced its recommended proposal for Rapid Transit in the region. And that recommendation is to run a light rail (LRT) line between Conestoga Mall in Waterloo, Fairview Park Mall in Kitchener, and the AinslieĀ  Street Terminal in Cambridge. However, they propose the first stage to use LRT only between Conestoga Mall and Fairview Park Mall, with the second portion to be at first an adapted Bus Rapid Transit system due to the high cost and low initial utility of that segment. The report for this “Phase 2, Step 3b” of the Environmental Assessment can be found at the newly-redesigned website for the Region of Waterloo Rapid Transit. That website also houses various other information, including information on upcoming Public Consulation Centres within the next two weeks as well as a discussion forum, on which I have made a few comments. I encourage anyone living in the Region to investigate the direction of this project and to voice concerns and especially support (if that applies).

My feeling is that the recommended plan is fairly good, however I will leave specific concerns and details for subsequent posts.

Additionally, in advance of GO Transit’s anticipated successful Environmental Assessment and consequent rail upgrades for a service extension from Georgetown to Kitchener, GO will be starting bus service to Kitchener in the fall. This is good news, particularly as it indicates that GO is serious about getting rail service to Kitchener.

What’s wrong with buses

I’ve now had two posts about bus systems and their issues. This time I want to talk about buses themselves. It is rare, at least in my experience, for there to be frank discussion about why people do not use them. But it is worth discussing why buses have such a negative connotation for most people, and what can perhaps be done about the causes.

Buses stink. With the notable exception of trolleybuses, this has up to now always been true. The exhaust fumes of diesel buses are quite bad. It’s particularly bad when these fumes make their way inside the bus. Newer buses are generally not as bad, but the older ones are still large parts of most systems. Regardless, it is an issue that remains relevant for rider experience and health.

Buses are loud. They’re loud outside, they’re ridiculously loud inside. The newer NovaBuses here are less loud, but that’s only by comparison.

Transit agencies view buses as billboards. This may be okay to an extent, but it is not okay when the ads block most of the view out the window. Not only does that make the ride even less pleasant, but it’s also difficult to see whether the bus is near your stop.

The ride is nauseating and headache-inducing, due to jumpiness of the bus and the sudden stops and starts. Here there is a partial fault of roads, and of the nature of buses. But what I find interesting is the huge difference that the bus driver can make. In my experience, some deliberately make gradual starts and stops, while others will make them very quickly, to the extent that riders get thrown about. A bad bus ride can easily ruin my day. Judging by the huge variance I’ve experienced in Grand River Transit buses, drivers have gone through either little or no training with regards to quality of ride for passengers. I can’t imagine this kind of training cost to be comparable to the money that gets spent on buses themselves. If GRT spent the effort on training, I’m sure it could market it so people took notice.

Layers of added value and the cost of ingredients

If organic ingredients are 50% more expensive, then an organic bagel should cost 50% more, right? A moment’s thought should convince you otherwise. The moment you take the components out of the field, off the tree, into the slaughterhouse, the expenditure on “organic” or whatever other method was used to grow the food stops.* After that, you start “adding value” to it: first to get the thing cleaned and packaged, then to process it into a foodstuff. Foodstuffs are combined to produce food, or in the case of more processed food, just ingredients for a later step. This all has to be shipped carefully, be stored, take up shelf space, and be sold. The steps may very well vary, but what remains is that there is a lot of human and machine labor and resources used up for steps beyond the actual growing of food.

With every layer of processing, the cost of ingredients becomes a smaller and smaller proportion of the total cost of food. One instance which I find striking is that of organic products that are sweetened with organic sugar. The “organic evaporated cane juice” I see on ingredient labels is never fair trade. It being so would hardly increase the overall cost.

With this line of reasoning, restaurants should be the first to go organic, local, fair trade, everything. Ingredients there simply do not make up that large a fraction of the eater’s cost. The cost of ingredients in a meal might double, say from $3 to $6, and that would convert a conventional meal of $12 to a local, organic (, etc.) meal of $15. With that sort of marginal difference and with the number of people who would prefer the latter meal, economics suggests there should be more such restaurants than the two or three that exist around here.

*The exception is the cost of additional steps necessary to ensure lack of cross-contamination in processing, including having to run smaller batches.

In transit, less is more

Following up my previous post on the role of perception in transit, I want to discuss the importance of simplicity of routes. In that post I mentioned the relative ease of using a bus that runs frequently. What that omits is the need to know where the bus actually goes. The purpose of most regular bus routes is to provide extensive service for an area, which generally means a winding route with many stops. What immediately follows from this is that it is difficult to be very familiar with more than just the routes you use routinely. This in turn makes it likely that you will simply not use the bus system for getting to somewhere unusual.

I must note that this is not always a predicament in bus systems. In cities with predictable street grids there can be bus routes that go straight along a particular street, or there can be bus routes that follow some important avenue. But inevitably there are common trips that do not follow the obvious streets, and so bus routes evolve to serve those trips.

The complexity of bus routes is a huge part of what makes bus transit a poor way to get people out of cars. A barrier to entry, if you will. If someone is reliant on buses entirely, they have no choice but to take the time to learn the route system, though they might still learn only the part that is relevant to them. Don’t expect people to willingly subject themselves to something difficult and esoteric if they can avoid it.

Though I won’t address it here, some complexity can be mitigated by properly designed information and maps.

The answer is probably some version of Bus Rapid Transit, a term that generally refers to individual lines with separate rights-of-way and express service. I believe bus systems should be holistically planned with BRT ideas in mind, in a way similar to subway systems. This entails simplified routes, limited stops as a matter of course, and maps that make it easy to understand both the overall route system as well as stop locations. Such a system could be parallel to the more comprehensive system. But it would be vastly more usable for most people.

This formulation exposes, however, a serious limitation of even a simplified bus system: the lack of permanent routes. BRT has little infrastructure and its vehicles can travel off route, so it still has this limitation, albeit to a lesser extent. The right way to think about the importance of unchanging routes is probably in terms of temporal simplicity and complexity. A simple bus system that changes over time becomes complex temporally. The effect is that people will still be wary of using the system to inform long-term decisions such as where to live and where to set up a business, as the bus routes could easily change and leave them out in the cold. Here the right sort of Bus Rapid Transit does offer a partial solution, but light rail and subways are and feel more permanent.

Kamut and marketing

There’s a decent chance you’ve heard of Kamut grain. It’s in cereals, some breads, pasta, and so on, especially ones found in health food stores. Think back to the last time you had it; was it organic?

The answer is yes, it was. That’s because Kamut is actually KamutĀ®, a registered trademark of Kamut International. The grain is generically known as khorasan wheat, a heritage variety of wheat that was barely cultivated until one Bob Quinn decided to market it. As near as I can tell, the company currently contracts with farmers in various parts of the world, though mostly around Saskatchewan and Montana, to grow their wheat, pays them a fixed high price, and then markets the resulting products.

Here’s the twist: Kamut International does not own the grain. What they do is ensure for the consumer a standard for the production of that variety of wheat, which standard includes that it be certified organic and free of other wheat contaminants. You can peruse their justification for using a trademark.

The intriguing thing about this business model is that the company has popularized the name Kamut and created both a supply of it as well as a rapidly growing consumer demand for it. Success for Kamut the brand leads quite directly to increased organic agriculture and more money for wheat farmers. It is probable that eventually generic khorasan wheat will appropriate for itself the name “kamut” and the corresponding market share. But I don’t see that serving any particular interests right now, so it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.

I’d always found it somewhat odd to see an ingredient in various organic foods be something trademarked, but I was pleasantly surprised by the results of this investigation.