Working Roads

I think Metro Vancouver can improve how they are communicating about mobility pricing. I think it’s a great idea, but I also think will be a very hard sell. I think the whole campaign needs a positive frame. And when you get down to it, this isn’t about congestion or taxes. It’s about roads that get us where we’re going: it’s about Working Roads.

Mobility Pricing

We need a replacement for gas tax revenue. We rely on it for transportation and transit spending, but with fuel-efficient and electric vehicles it is eroding every year. We also face traffic that seems to be getting exponentially worse. In the past, the change was slow: traffic growth was soaked up by alternate routes and secondary roads. But there comes a point when the network is simply full. It’s like pouring water into an ice-cube tray: at first, when one cup fills up the water simply flows to another. But when all the cups are full, all the water you pour in overflows. I think we are fast approaching that point. And we simply cannot build enough new lanes to accommodate all the new cars on the roads – and do it year after year. Selling taxes is hard, but demolishing neighbourhoods to build new freeways is harder (and we would still need the taxes to pay for it).

Mobility pricing puts a price on driving, particularly at times and places when traffic is heavy. Some drivers will find alternatives, leaving road space available for those who really need it. If you need to drive to work, traffic is costing you: paying for open roads can actually save you money. This has been tried elsewhere, and it works.

Of course it won’t work unless alternatives exist. If you are driving every day to work, and transit’s not practical, that money comes straight out of your pocket. Mobility pricing cannot just be about pricing roads: it has to be about giving us choices for how to get around.

The idea is basically to charge you more to drive less. It’s a tough sell. By the time I’ve answered, “yes, less – but faster! or at least less slowly!”, I have already lost the argument. And if I focus on congestion, the obvious solution seems to be build more roads. Again, by the time I’ve explained why that’s not practical, I’ve lost the argument. So nothing happens, traffic gets worse, and everyone is angry.

The Official Line

It turns out that the official web site is already doing a pretty good job of explaining the idea:

Congestion on Metro Vancouver’s roads and bridges is a challenge many of us experience daily. Lengthy delays can leave us frustrated, stressed, and wasting time that could be spent doing things we actually like. . . . Decongestion charging is already making travel easier for people in many other major cities around the world . . . we have been paying for road use through the fuel tax and the recently removed bridge tolls. Unfortunately, the way charging has been structured in the region isn’t actually addressing congestion where it’s most needed, wasn’t always fair, and isn’t generating the revenue we need to upgrade and maintain our transportation system. . . . help us build a tailored approach for Metro Vancouver that gets people moving.

They list three key objectives:

  • ​Reduce Traffic Congestion on roads and bridges across the region, so people and goods can keep moving and businesses can thrive and be competitive.
  • Promote Fairness ​to address concerns around the previous approach to tolling some roads and bridges but not others, and to provide affordable transportation choices.​
  • Support transportation ​investment to improve the current transportation system in Metro Vancouver for all users.

This is very good. It relates to the daily experiences of residents; gives the positive reasons we want and need to get around, personal and economic; addresses fairness; emphasizes transportation choice; and talks about spending as investment.

But this is a pretty big chunk of text – and I’ve trimmed most of it. Try explaining it in 30 seconds or less. Or even naming it. The page itself is titled Metro Vancouver Independent Mobility Pricing Commission, but the url dances around the issue. The generic “it’s time” ( suggests some uncertainty or reluctance about branding. For good reason.

In Praise of Mobility

I argue that mobility should be at the centre of communicating the benefits of transit. “Mobility” isn’t the most sexy word, but lacking an alternative I don’t want to see it tainted with the negative connotations of taxes or “pricing.”

New taxes are never popular. The provincial government is only in power because they removed bridge tolls. I can’t imagine that they would risk their political lives on a new road tax. A replacement for the gas tax, on the other hand, holds promise.

Instead of selling a mobility tax, I think we should sell a mobility rebate. That’s what reducing gas tax amounts to: you keep your money, then you decide how to spend it. If you want to spend it on to drive on better-flowing roads, great! If you want to spend it on alternatives, like transit, or save it by walking or biking, that’s great too.

Then there’s mobility investment. Whether the money comes from road pricing or tolls, or from general revenue, providing alternatives (and, yes, improving the roads) must be part of the package.

Terms like these don’t just sell this policy, they also promote mobility itself: which is the ultimate goal that we all care about. Beyond the fantasy world of advertising, for most of us roads and cars are ultimately a means to an end. Congestion is just a downer, a barrier between us and our goals. The official web site talks about keeping goods moving, thriving businesses, and transportation choices. Mobility pricing is just a technical detail in a bigger positive message (and a bigger project) about using our roads for mobility: Working Roads.

Working Roads

These are good solid words with a good solid meaning. “Working” is a key word. It implies people getting to their jobs, the economy, hard work, effectiveness, honesty. “Roads,” meanwhile, embraces many ways to get around: driving, taking the bus, bicycling, even walking (congestion, in contrast, is all about cars). It also has positive connotations, such as the future (“the road ahead”) or success. Working Roads is a positive phrase: but it also quietly implies its opposite: roads that don’t work. Regardless of political or ideological leanings, I think everyone can agree that we need working roads.

Roads mean mobility. They take us to our jobs. They take us home to our families. They carry goods that we need. Right now, our roads aren’t working. When we are stuck in traffic, we are not working, we are not with people we care about, our time is not our own.

To make our roads work again, we are eliminating the gas tax. Instead of taxing gas, we will price the roads. We will give that money back to you as a mobility rebate, and use it to invest in transportation infrastructure. The aim is to give you choices for how to get around. Road pricing has been proven to reduce congestion: so that when you need to drive, the roads will work for you. New infrastructure will give you alternatives. And the mobility rebate will give you money to go places however works best for you.

Working roads is not about driving, it’s not about transit, it’s not about bicycling or walking or ride sharing. It’s about all of these things. It’s about mobility. It’s about giving you choices, and making those choices work.

That’s my first attempt. It may look short, but at 60 seconds to read aloud, it is actually too long. Here’s a 30 second version:

Roads take us to work, and they bring us home. When we are stuck in traffic, our roads aren’t working. To make them work again, we are replacing gas tax with a price on roads. We will return that money to you as a mobility rebate. We are investing in mobility: roads, buses, trains. Road pricing has proven to reduce congestion. The mobility rebate and mobility investment give you choices for how to get around. So that when you need to drive, the roads will work for you.


Transit Communication Ladder

Two years ago, Metro Vancouver held a failed referendum about transit expansion. I believe that with good communication it would have been possible to succeed. Regardless of whether there is another referendum, public support is essential to building and sustaining effective transit. Where the public leads, politicians will follow. This is my suggestion for how Metro Vancouver should think and talk about transit.

Values are the foundation of a powerful message. It is critical that people believe that your values are sincere, so that they will be open to the rest of what you have to say:

  1. Everyone has a right to mobility, to economic opportunity, and to a clean environment.
  2. TransLink and the Mayors’ Council are dedicated to achieving these things. They live, work and take transit here, just like us. (Lead by example: get those mayors and TransLink officials on trains and buses.)
  3. Our task is to give people choices that maximize their ability to get where they need to go safely, affordably, and cleanly.

Establish mobility as a core value:

  1. Mobility is the foundation of a modern economy. Our economy is our people. Mobility enables us to be productive.
  2. Everyone has a right to mobility: workers, children, the elderly, the disabled. (Poverty has negative connotations. Don’t bring it up, but respond if raised: “I’m glad you brought that up, because low income groups benefit the most from better transit.”)
  3. We benefit from the mobility of others: family, friends, workers, people who provide us with goods and services. Mobility brings people together. (Always talk about mobility, never about congestion.)

The importance of transit follows naturally:

  1. Transit gives us choices, enhancing our mobility. Transit and roads work together to get us where we need to go. (Do not engage in us-and-them anti-car rhetoric. “People,” not “drivers.” “Use road space more efficiently,” not “take away car lanes.” “Give people choices,” not “get people out of cars.” “Free up road space,” not “take cars off the road.”)
  2. Transit is an investment. A dollar invested in transit produces more than three dollars in economic activity.
  3. Transit is an essential part of an active, healthy and green city.

This leads to a positive plan of action that includes citizens as active participants:

  1. Our transit system is extremely successful relative to comparable systems elsewhere. We need to build on that investment so that we do not fall behind.
  2. Citizens support transit expansion. They understand the importance of in mobility, choice, independence and wise public investment. (People give their support when they feel that they are part of a group or movement.)
  3. Our democratic representatives have collaborated on a plan to invest in transit. Participation from the people who live here is essential to that plan, and to continuing expansion in the future. (Focus on a legitimate and inclusive ongoing process, not the technical details, trade-offs and winners and losers of a particular project.)

This argument is too long and involved for most communications. It is intended as a set of values and principles that underly communication, whether it be a poster showing an elderly woman taking the bus to visit her grandchildren (mobility and access for all) or a plan explaining how adding transit to a road will allow more people to travel. Consistency and integrity build up a set of values and assumptions that over time will help make transit a shared project.


Reader comments on the transit plan

Stuart Parker wrote a great article about the dynamics and strategy of the upcoming transit tax plebiscite in B.C. This is my quick analysis of reader comment discussion on CBC and what it shows about No supporters there.

The vote is about whether to pay for transportation improvements (including transit, roads and bike routes) with a 0.5% sales tax. I have argued that this isn’t really about transit: it’s about what kind of city we want to live in, and supporters need to communicate that vision to voters. On Gordon Price’s blog I argued for a positive message. One of my suggestions was not to hide the cost, but to own it: building a city means pitching in, making sacrifices and commitments.

Parker says this positive messaging won’t work. His experience is that voters in B.C. referendums always choose the option that they perceive as punishing the elites. Cynical that politics can achieve anything positive, they vote against, not for; to win the plebiscite, the Yes side needs to understand this anger and harness it. I won’t get into the situation in more detail here.

I study reader comments, and I participate in them. Though they are widely viewed as the cesspools of the Internet, it is there that I read things that give me tremendous optimism and hope. Even when they are bad, hateful, or wrong they force one to acknowledge the power of ideas we might rather not hear about.

I have been reading what CBC commenters have to say about the transit tax. They are not uplifting. I have been beginning to wonder whether a positive communication strategy could work. Then I read Parker’s analysis; it explains perfectly what I have been seeing.

First, to the significance of reader comments: In 2010, Pew found that significantly more Americans commented on news in comments (25%) than via social media (17%) or Twitter (3%). CBC reports that three quarters of their readers read the comments while about a third have commented at some point.

Comments are not representative. If they were, the Conservatives would not have won the last federal election. But they do show what narratives and arguments are out there and provide hints about their relative effectiveness. Examined over time they could potentially reveal changes in popular views.

Data & analysis

Last Sunday, CBC published a story about harmonizing the transit tax. In the reader poll attached to the story, 27% supported the tax while 66% opposed it.

Comments were even more strongly against. In a random sample of 30, 16 were against compared to 3 for. Comparison with the poll results suggests volume of comments is a poor indicator of the views of the readership. After all, most comments are motivated by disagreement with whatever they are responding to. Happy readers have little to say.

Still, four of the 10 most prolific commenters (including me) were in favor; we wrote 64 comments. The other six were against and wrote 93. Probably the top-rated Yes comment rates +4 (one of those votes is probably mine), with a rebuttal rated +8. One should expect fewer votes for replies: this result is consistent with the poll, pointing to opinion running worse than 2:1 against.

Why? All of the 34 comments with the highest rating are opposed. Targets of criticism or blame are: Translink (16), the province/Liberals (8); the mayors (1); other elites, including “smug Vancouverites” (5). Complaints include “hideous service,” “that scam called a zone system,” “jaunts overseas,” “the improvements dont go far enough,” “Port Mann bridge tolls,” a truncated Broadway subway for the wealthy(!). Elsewhere there are criticisms that it hurts the poor and that it subsidizes riders. As Stuart says, the No side makes strange bedfellows.

Two particularly bizarre top complaints stand out. “I live in Courtenay, will I be able to claim an exemption for any purchases I make in the Lower Mainland?” (+8), and “More taxes and there are no public washrooms?” (+9). In a story the next day a comment blamed Translink for a run of red traffic lights (+15). A reply elaborated: it does not matter whether they are Translink’s jurisdiction because synchronizing them would be a cheap alternative for reducing congestion.

These are rationalizations, not reasons. That does not make them wrong (many of the complaints are valid): it points to a deeper underlying motivation. People want to say No and are piling on justifications for that choice. They are angry; my impression is that positive claims only make them angrier.

I remain ambivalent because I don’t know how widespread the No views are. I do not know the representativeness or demographics of these discussion participants. A few angry commenters (most of the 134 participants in that discussion) are not that important. There are other people who are reading but not writing; perhaps they do not react the same way. But mightn’t that show up in the ratings?

I think a big part of the challenge is to get out the Yes vote, which I suspect is prevalent among a younger demographic who tend to stay home. They need to feel committed enough to act. Even if there are many opponents, focusing on them may be a misdirection of resources: just as with climate change (which CBC commenters generally don’t buy), where efforts to convert deniers has detracted from the more productive task of mobilizing supporters.

It seems to me to be easy enough to go full negative and blame politicians for this mess. I have done a little of that myself. Blaming them is fair in the narrow sense that they are responsible, but unhelpful in the sense that the pursuit of utopia only takes us away from the work of real politics. The problem I see is how to go negative without contributing to neoliberal efforts to undermine faith in the potential of collective action.


The Invisible Sales Tax for Parking

Whether you drive or not, you are paying a sales tax for parking amounting to about 1% of all your retail purchases.

I have long wondered: When I shop, how much am I paying for the parking lot? A supermarket lot is usually as large as the store itself, if not larger. That land doesn’t come cheap. Even plain asphalt has construction costs too. The only way the retailer can recoup that investment is by increasing prices. Free parking therefore amounts to a subsidy from non-drivers to drivers. But is it significant? Can it be calculated?

Calculating the Cost

The largest costs for operating a retail store are typically stock, staffing and rent. According to the Business Development Bank of Canada, rent amounts to approximately 8.5% of all costs.

The cost of rent is proportional to the cost of developing the building in the first place. This includes parking, regardless of whether it is in a parkade (spaces typically cost $40,000 and up) or surface parking (where costs are closer to $10,000 per space). The Victoria Transport Policy Institute cites 10% as the proportion of development costs that go parking for the typical building development.

If, on average, rent is 8.5% of costs, and parking is 10% of rent, then parking is 0.85% of the retailer’s costs. The retailer covers those costs by passing them on to the consumer. You and I are paying that 0.85%.

If, like me, you live in a fairly dense urban or suburban area where land is expensive, the cost of rent and parking is higher (VTPI cites parking costs of 18% in Oakland). One percent is probably too low.1

Of course this only applies to bricks and mortar stores. Amazon does not provide free customer parking. This is one factor making it possible for them to charge less. It also doesn’t apply to stores with pay parking or without parking lots. Free street parking, however, is no more free than store parking: we all pay for that through our taxes, whether or not we drive.

It’s a Tax

This subsidy is like a tax, as governments require developers to build parking. For consumers the effect is the same as if the government collected the tax and built the parking itself. This is effectively a privately administered sales tax.

As a result, drivers are being subsidized by those who walk, bike, or take transit. When you walk to your supermarket, 1% of what you spend is going to those who drive instead.2

I am hardly in the position to get on my high horse and lecture drivers. I am one of them. I drive regularly to stores where I park for free. I am not blaming drivers for driving. But some drivers assert angrily that they are already paying the full costs of the infrastructure they use and don’t want to contribute to infrastructure they don’t. They are wrong: there are mountains of evidence that cars are heavily subsidized. I humbly suggest it is they who should dismount.

Then perhaps we can figure out what kinds of communities we really want to live in, and how to make it happen. Because there is no such thing as a free lunch. (Restaurants have parking too…)


1 In Oakland, parking also decreased density by 23%, obliging everyone to travel that much farther to shop. That means burning more gas, spending more money on bus fare, more time in transit rather than working or with family, and so forth. Parking has many costs; I am only trying to estimate those captured by the retailer and passed on in the price of goods.

2 When I say “you,” I am implying someone living in North America, where my statistics are from. There are many places in the world where the shops have no parking lots. First world problems, eh? (Not so much actually: climate change.)


Surrey Centre

I just attended a presentation at Surrey City Centre about the plans for the redevelopment of that area. Assuming this goes anywhere, the great shame will be that it took so long for Surrey to wake up to the disastrous results of its failure to stand up to urban sprawl.

One of the planners at the meeting pointed out that Surrey Centre is large enough to encompass downtown Boston, Amsterdam, or the center of Florence five times over. Yet there is nothing there. For a city of 400,000 people, the 10th-largest in Canada, its core is empty of anything except strip malls, parking lots, and a handful of scattered highrises; it is famous for crime and drug dealing. The body of the city is endless barren streets and monotonous too-perfect developments of cul-de-sacs cut-off from their surroundings.

Much of the problem is that Surrey is geographically huge and has directed its growth outward. Even tonight, with the planners introducing their visions of new urbanism, mayor Doug McCallum remained unrepentant for encouraging growth – any growth, anywhere1. But if he finally takes action to increase density and livability, I applaud him.

The recent construction of the award-winning Central City building is a glimmer of hope. I wish Surrey luck: its very name has been a bad word for too long. Even those of us who live outside its borders have to live with it.


1 UPDATE: I should point out that these are not the actual words he used; this is my interpretation of his pro-growth speech and the actions of Surrey City Council while he has been mayor.


Stupid Planning Tricks #1

The photographs below show a bench in Minoru Park in Richmond. It is a beautiful park, awash with shrubs and flowers, hidden from the bustle that surrounds it by trees and hedges. The paths circle a lake flocked with ducks and geese; here and there are clusters of benches where workers from nearby offices can relax and take their lunch.

Here’s one of those benches. One day I sat down to relax in the sunshine and watch the birds paddle by.

Bench with trash bin at Minoru Park

After a while, I noticed I was leaning sideways for some reason. Now, if you were a landscape architect, where would you put the garbage can? Behind the bench? Or right in the middle of the view?

Trash bin at Minoru Park


Small is Ugly

As we left the Safeway on Hastings this evening, we noticed that a board on an easel showing plans for the redevelopment of the lot and the store. Currently, there’s a big parking lot surrounding the store on the north and east sides. They plan to tear it all down and replace it with . . . a store with a parking lot on the west side. There are three important changes here. One: the store will be bigger. Two: there will be underground parking. And three: the entrance will have a high peaked facade above it with Safeway in huge letters.

As we stood there in awe at how much effort is being invested in something so ugly, another couple walked up behind us and started gawking too. Cindy said, “it’s so ugly!” The other fellow looked puzzled; clearly the word ugly couldn’t possibly be applied to something so… um, new I guess (after all, it hasn’t been built yet). “I really don’t like the little ones downtown, they don’t have any stuff. The ones out in the suburbs are great though”, he said1.

Apparently small is ugly and big is beautiful. I guess he never spends any time at the little Italian deli down the street with the pickled whozits stacked to the ceiling and boxed whatzits hanging from the rafters. You have to turn sideways to squeeze past anyone in the aisles, and at Christmas there are piles of panetone everywhere.

I remember reading once about wind-up radios for the townships in South Africa. People didn’t want to buy them because they were so compact, so the company produced the same mechanism in a bigger box, and they became a smash hit. For the people who bought them, they weren’t just useful for being radios, they were a piece of furniture to add to the house.

I know I wouldn’t want the new Safeway in my house. Or within sight of it for that matter.


1 Well, he said something like that. I was too shocked to really take it in.