Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Good News From Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon?

I remember reading an article many years ago, I think it was in the Reader's Digest, although I don't recall for sure. Anyway, the article compared the likely reaction of a farmer on the prairies encountering a lost Québécois tourist who only speaks French to the likely reaction of a Québécois farmer who met up with a Western tourist who only spoke English. The article figured that the Western farmer would be helpful and kind to the Québécois tourist while the Québécois farmer would be offended by the English only speaking ability of the Western tourist and so would be rude and unhelpful.

The point the author thought they were making was that English speaking Canadians are more friendly, generous and all around morally superior to Quebecers who are so uptight about their language issues. But of course that wasn't the point at all. The point was that when people feel secure, as a Western Canadian would be secure in the domination of the English language, they are kind and generous. But when people feel insecure, as a Quebecer might be surrounded by English speaking jurisdictions, they get rude and defensive.

I'm certainly no historian, but I think it is pretty much beyond dispute that the balance of power between offense and defense has change in world affairs over the last couple of centuries. Whether you consider the British Raj where a relative handful of British troops were able to maintain control over a country of hundreds of millions of people for over a century, or you consider the exploits of Pizarro, who effectively conquered the massive Inca Empire with only a handful of soldiers, there was once a time where it was possible for certain countries to conquer and hold vast territories while using relatively few resources to do so.

Fast forward to the modern day, and what is the situation? The world's (by far) leading military superpower is devoting substantial military and financial resources towards trying to control a relatively small and poor country (Iraq) and is proving unable to do so. Next door, an international force is making little headway in Afghanistan. In Lebanon, the regional military powerhouse Israel is finding it difficult to secure villages which lie just across its border from a stateless militia group.

It is an undecided question exactly why this change has occurred. Certainly, these days everybody has guns, germs and steel, but even since the last few decades it seems the balance has turned significantly (the Six Day War was less than 40 years ago). Some people suggest that it is just that the more powerful nations are unwilling to 'get their hands dirty' like they were in the past. Thanks to the media, countries are unwilling to sustain the kind of casualties that are necessary for effective war-making, and so are unwilling to use our big weapons (esp. nuclear) with the forcefulness necessary to instill the adequate level of fear in their opponents.

There is probably an element of truth here, but I figure the larger change has been the spread of guerilla warfare tactics around the world, in addition to advances in global communications, transportation and (hence) arms-trading networks which help supply guerilla movements. I note that in this Wikipedia article on guerilla warfare, the section on successful ones is a fair bit larger than the section on unsuccessful ones.

Regardless of the cause, the fact seems to be that is has become ever more difficult for any power to occupy any piece of territory, no matter how small or poor, where there is significant local resistance to that occupation. Going forward (and generalizing), I see two commonly held views on how this will play out:

1) Unless something is done, it will become impossible for the responsible powers in the world to maintain global order. Iraq will fall into the hands of fundamentalists who will sponsor terrorism against the West and extort money from oil companies, the Taliban will regain control of (at least Southern) Afghanistan, and will make pipeline construction difficult and will also support terrorism against the West. Iran will develop nuclear weapons, and Pakistan, which already has them, will fall into fundamentalism, the Palestinians will get their own state in the West Bank, etc. etc., with the end result being high gas prices, a growing threat from a militant Islamic region of the world, greatly increased terror attacks on Western targets and the possible destruction of Israel via nuclear weapons.

Therefore, the responsible powers must get tough, and do what it takes to prevent all these things from occurring. We must be willing to take the casualties (both our own, and especially those of our enemies) necessary to show that we mean business to keep all the dangerous unstable elements under control. Removing Saddam shows the other local leaders that they should stay in line. Invading Afghanistan demonstrates what happens to those who support terrorism. Allowing Israel to invade Lebanon helps prevent terror groups like Hezbollah from gaining enough strength to become a threat. Cutting funding to the Hamas government in Palestine does the same thing.


2) It will become impossible for the responsible powers in the world to maintain global order, and the actions required to prevent this (dropping numerous nuclear weapons on the middle east, for example) are too barbaric to be considered as serious options and will likely just fail in the long term anyway, leading to even greater pent-up historical resentments boiling over once the responsible powers inevitably lose control.

While all the same things mentioned in scenario #1 (increased oil prices, greater support for terror, increased resources for Israel's enemies) will happen here as well, once countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine are under the control of local inhabitants and local populations who are responsible for their own well-being, they will be forced to 'grow-up' and become responsible themselves. Eventually, once they feel secure from Western intervention to topple their government via coup, invasion or economic sanctions, these countries will moderate their belligerence and will eventually crack down on support for terrorist groups, and will not implement any plans for the destruction of each other or Israel.

Therefore, the responsible powers should follow a balancing act of respecting the results of local elections, even when we don't like who was elected. We should be rewarding behavior which leads toward global peace while using diplomatic and (moderate) economic means to punish behavior which threatens global peace. Overall, we need to respect and not interfere with the internal politics and decision making of places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when their actions do have impacts outside their borders, we must recognize our limited capacity to requite and the ultimate futility and counterproducivity of taking action merely for the sake of revenge.


I can certainly sympathize with those, especially in Israel, who see #2 as a fairy-tale vision which doesn't reflect the character of the bad actors around the world who only respond to cold fear of military invasion and who will use any increase in their own strength to inflict harm on other countries and generally cause trouble. But I think that, taking the long view, the first vision is a vision of endless conflict, conflict that, given the changing balance between offense and defense, the responsible powers won't win - and they will only bankrupt themselves and bloody their hands trying.

The moral approach and the pragmatic approach have converged - the way forward will generally be through diplomacy, peace-keeping and patience, even in the face of occasionally brutal provocation. In a way, I think George Bush's speechwriters had it almost right when they briefly spoke of 'bringing Democracy to the Middle-East'. But rather than democracy, which is a tricky beast, I'd say that what we need to bring to the Middle East is self determination. Of course that last sentence was self-contradictory - it is very difficult to bring someone self-determination - mostly you need to stay out of the way, only offering guidance, assistance and threats when absolutely necessary and/or asked for by the people's themselves.

Once people in the Middle East have control over their own lives and their own countries, I believe that they will then feel secure, and this will reduce the angry desire to lash out at perceived enemies that characterizes so much of that part of the world right now. Of course, the process of people in the Middel East gaining that control could be very bloody. I guess we'll see.

Over at The Pogge Group, Tim has a post which discusses roughly the same phenomenon.

Corrupt Conservative Government in PEI

From the Globe (via My Blahg News)

"PEI required a boundary review after the last provincial election. On Jan. 5, 2004, Mr. Justice John McQuaid was put in charge of the review, aided by representatives chosen by each party: John Mitchell and Roberta Hubley. After 17 public hearings and an interim report, the final review was handed to the province on Oct. 5, 2004.

But nothing happened until early 2006, when a government committee was established to review that report.

The Liberals labelled the move political interference and refused to take part. A Conservatives-only committee was then formed, held six public meetings and asked Elections PEI to draw up a new boundary map. Chief Electoral Officer Lowell Croken said the request was "very unusual," but the department did as requested. The resulting map did not differ greatly from the McQuaid report.

The Conservatives then hired former chief electoral officer Merrill Wigginton to draw up a third map. That third, Conservative-funded map was passed by a special summer sitting of the assembly on June 28 after the Liberals walked out in protest."

Maybe the voters in PEI might want to rethink their rejection of proportional representation, after this blatant example of the perils of the first-past-the-post. In a proportional system, it would be rarer that one party can take this kind of obviously anti-democratic yet self-serving action, since it is less likely for one party to have a majority of the seats (although the current Conservative government did receive over 50% of the vote, so that might not help in this case). And on top of that, the Conservatives wouldn't have the same motivation to gerrymander in a proportional system, since proportional systems are generally much harder to rig.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Need a Laugh?

Via the Poor Man Institute, this editorial in the Wall Street Journal from Peggy Noonan is hilarious,

"During the past week's heat wave - it hit 100 degrees in New York City Monday - –I got thinking, again, of how sad and frustrating it is that the world'’s greatest scientists cannot gather, discuss the question of global warming, pore over all the data from every angle, study meteorological patterns and temperature histories, and come to a believable conclusion on these questions: Is global warming real or not? If it is real, is it necessarily dangerous? What exactly are the dangers? Is global warming as dangerous as, say, global cooling would be? Are we better off with an Earth that is getting hotter or, what with the modern realities of heating homes and offices, and the world energy crisis, and the need to conserve, does global heating have, in fact, some potential side benefits, and can those benefits be broadened and deepened? Also, if global warning is real, what must the inhabitants of the Earth do to meet its challenges? And then what should they do to meet them?

You would think the world'’s greatest scientists could do this, in good faith and with complete honesty and a rigorous desire to discover the truth. And yet they can’t. Because science too, like other great institutions, is poisoned by politics. Scientists have ideologies. They are politicized.

All too many of them could be expected to enter this work not as seekers for truth but agents for a point of view who are eager to use whatever data can be agreed upon to buttress their point of view.

And so, in the end, every report from every group of scientists is treated as a political document. And no one knows what to believe. So no consensus on what to do can emerge.

If global warming is real, and if it is new, and if it is caused not by nature and her cycles but man and his rapacity, and if it in fact endangers mankind, scientists will probably one day blame The People for doing nothing.

But I think The People will have a greater claim to blame the scientists, for refusing to be honest, for operating in cliques and holding to ideologies. For failing to be trustworthy."

Well, that left me speechless. If you want some speech, try the comments over at the Poor Man's place for some more reaction, especially this one from FMGuru.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Transit 3

OK, the previous two posts on Transit (Transit 1 and Transit 2) were serious, now it's time to demean the discourse and have some fun looking at Margaret Wente's recent column in the Globe, "The war against the car will never succeed."

The first line actually made me realize something I should have realized a long time ago.

"The other day, as I drove to my exercise class (yes, yes, I know there's a contradiction there), people on the radio were telling me to take the TTC. There was a smog alert, and I was contributing to the problem."

What I realized is the source of Wente's endless stream of 'contrarian' articles - guilt. Specifically some friend of Wente's or (as in this case) someone on the radio will try to make Wente feel guilty about something. In order to expel the guilt, Wente writes a foolish column cherry picking the available information on the topic in order to convince herself there is nothing to feel guilty about. Of course, I have no idea what motivates her columns, but this thesis does seem to fit the facts.


Things start reasonably,
"In 1988, TTC ridership was 463 million, the second largest in North America. By last year, despite the Greater Toronto Area's explosive growth, ridership had shrunk to 410 million.

Transit advocates blame higher fares and service cutbacks for this decline. If only we invest more in improving public transit, more people will use it. To a limited extent, this may be true. But transit advocates ignore the overwhelming evidence from around the world: People still prefer their cars."

'To a limited extent this may be true?' Limited how much? And by what? How do we know it isn't true to an unlimited extent? And what on earth does the fact that people prefer their cars (as they did in 1988 as well, no doubt) have to do with the change in transit usage. Is there overwhelming evidence around the world that people's attitudes have changed since 1988? Or only in cities whose transit systems have been ridiculously starved for funds and haven't made any significant system improvements in decades?

"New statistics on commuting times reveal what everyone already knows: Public transit is a whole lot slower than driving. People who commute to work by car spend an average of 59 minutes on the road each day (round trip). Transit riders spend 106 minutes."

See my transit 1 post for more details (and a link!!) to the study Wente is referring to. The report actually suggests that controlling for other variables, taking transit takes an extra 41 minutes. So what does this mean, well it seems to suggest that the planners are right and Wente is wrong - it's not so much that people have an implicit preference for driving (although of course many do) it's just that service cutbacks mean that transit isn't effective enough for them.

"The Star says the answer is massive new investments from all levels of government so public transit can 'better compete against the unwholesome lure of the automobile.' My own trip to work takes less than 20 minutes by car, but an hour by TTC, much of it standing up. The unwholesome lure of the automobile is darned hard to resist."

Uh, isn't that the Star's point?

"Southern Ontario is the third-fastest growing region in North America - in the next 25 years, the population is projected to grow by a staggering four million people. So what's the plan for constructing new road systems and highways? Um, there isn't one. The province plans to re-engineer people's behaviour so they'll take public transit."

Wait a second, the province of Ontario has no plans for no improvements to the road network in Southern Ontario? That can't be right - phew, it isn't

"TORONTO, June 16 /CNW/ - The Ontario government is improving the quality
of life for Ontario families by launching its Southern Ontario Highways
Program (SOHP), a five-year, $3.4 billion highway construction program,
Transportation Minister Donna Cansfield announced today."

Back to Wente,
"As for Toronto, everyone agrees it should become more like Paris, where people live in higher-density apartment buildings instead of single-family houses, and walk everywhere to do their shopping. There's just one problem: Most Parisians don't live in central Paris any more. Three-quarters of them live in the suburbs, where they can find single-family houses, get around by - mon Dieu! - car and shop at - quelle horreur! -; supermarchés and big-box stores."

For those who've never been there, let me explain why most Parisians don't live in central Paris 'anymore' - central Paris is full (of Parisians). I recall being there in 1998, visiting a friend of a friend in her less than 500 sq. foot apartment, where you had to go out onto the roof to get to the washroom. The idea that central Paris has been left deserted because everyone left for the suburbs is laughable. At any rate, personally I'd say that Toronto might be better off to imitate Vancouver than look to Paris, a city where you are generally not allowed to build more than 6 stories high.

"The idea that people will use public transit to get to work ignores the fact that most people don't want to live near their work."

First of all, huh? If people don't live near work, they'll have to get there somehow, right, with transit being an option. Am I missing something here?

Second of all, most people don't want to live near their work? It could be just me, but I think if I went around and asked everybody I know whether they'd like their commute to be shorter or longer, there'd be a pretty heavy preponderance on the 'shorter' side. Seriously, who ever said, "I wish my trip to work wasn't so short".

"According to one study, 20 per cent of all trips by auto are for work, 20 per cent for shopping, and 60 per cent for things that are 'social.'” The idea that public transit can replace the car in people's busy lives is a fantasy."

I knew I was living in a fantasy world...

"As for lower-income people - supposedly the main beneficiaries of public transit - they have an alternative, too. It's called used cars."

And they can pull up to the drive through in their used cars and order cake for lunch...

I love that 'supposedly'. I mean, maybe Wente has never been on transit but she should try it. Low income people really *are* (proportionally) the main beneficiaries! But next time I see some low income people on the bus I'll tell them to go buy a used car (and get out of my seat).

"And yet, nowhere in all the hype about the province's new growth plan is there a mention of the words 'roads' or 'highways.'; This omission reminds me of the Duke of Wellington's comment about railways, whose construction he opposed because they 'only encourage the common people to move about needlessly.'"

And yet the government is obviously planning billions of dollars in road and highway expansion so maybe that just wasn't the focus of this particular government plan (governments tend to produce a lot of plans)...

"Public transit systems are certainly no bargain. 'Transit subsidies are hugely greater than any subsidies to the automobile,' says Peter Gordon, a California professor of planning and economics."

Well if Peter Gordon says so, then case closed. Who is Peter Gordon?

"Reason: How are you perceived in the planning community? Are you on the fringe?

Gordon: I'm at the edge of the fringe."

OK then. And what about, 'Transit subsidies are greater than automobile susbsidies?' Actually, what Gordon says is, ""Whether you [do] it per mile or per trip, transit subsidies are hugely greater than any subsidies to the automobile. Per passenger mile, transit subsidies are 50 times what auto subsidies are."

Oh, per mile, that is a bit different than the unqualified statement in Wente's article. It's also a bit of a deceptive argument. Government pays to build the entire road network, enforces planning rules to ensure that all new businesses have adequate parking and generally takes any number of measures to ensure that all development is compatible with the automobile while doing little to nothing to develop any legitimate alternatives to the automobile.

So government has created a situation where the automobile has a monopoly on travel for most people - and government, being government, naturally sees this monopoly as a chance to slap big taxes on gas (governments like taxing monopolies and addictions like tobacco and alcohol because people aren't very price sensitive in these situations so high taxes don't scare them off). And then you can argue that because gas taxes are so high, the government doesn't have big subsidies for the automobile.

This argument is a bit like arguing that because Bill Gates made so much money, Windows must be the best operating system.

Also, one wonders whether the analysis has factored in the health costs and the environmental costs into the equation.

But while we're on the topic of Peter Gordon, here are a couple of other things he says in the interview I linked to:

"The transportation mode of choice of low-income people is used cars."


"We know that 20 percent of all trips by automobile are for work, 20 percent are for shopping, and 60 percent are for things I would call social."


"People don't have to live near work."

And the title to the interview: "Urban planning skeptic Peter Gordon on the benefits of sprawl, the war against cars" (emphasis added)

Any of that sound familiar? We've been down this road before.

Oh and another thing from that article:

"Reason: You've shown that the average-duration commute has stayed the same over the past 15 years or so. Why does everyone believe that traffic congestion is getting worse?"

Well to be fair, that interview was in 1988. One wonders if Gordon has changed his tune on that one (or maybe it is only in Canada that commute times are rising over the last 15 years - except in Vancouver, the city which has done the opposite of everything Gordon seems to recommend?)

OK, where was I?

"'Most new autos generate little or no more pollution per passenger vehicle mile than the average bus,' says Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History. He argues it would require a massive increase in the use of public transportation and improvements in transit vehicles to bring about any meaningful reduction in energy use or pollution."

Uh, why are we comparing new cars to average buses? Shouldn't we compare new cars to new buses, or the average car to average buses? (or maybe we should compare used cars to buses?)

Anyway, that statement seems a little implausible. This study from the Bay Area suggests that emissions are roughly cut in half when people take the bus.

And of course, more people on transit generally means less congestion which lowers the emissions for all vehicles making a trip. Nor does it factor in the environmental savings if people don't buy a car at all because they can use transit.

Nor does it consider the impact of things like streetcars, Vancouver's electric bus fleet, light rail, subways or commuter trains.

I think this paragraph from "Transport Energy Use and Greenhouse Gases in Urban Passenger Transport Systems: A Study of 84 Global Cities" sums it up well,

"Energy consumed per passenger km in public transport in all cities is between one-fifth and one-third that of private transport, the only exception being in the US cities where large buses dominate public transport and attempt to pick up passengers in suburbs designed principally around the car. In US cities, public transport energy use per passenger kilometre stands at 65% that of cars.

Examining the overall energy efficiency of motorised transport in the world's cities (private and public transport combined), we find that the Canadian cities are the least efficient at 3.5 MJ per passenger km. This is followed closely by US cities at 3.2 MJ per passenger km.

These results reflect the large private vehicles in use in North America, especially 4WD sports utility vehicles (SUVs), their low use of motor cycles and their high levels of private versus public mobility. The private vehicles in US and Canadian cities consume about 5 MJ/km, whereas most other regions are under 4 or even 3 MJ/km, despite generally worse levels of congestion in these latter areas."

Back to Wente,
"Mr. Bruegmann's comments about urban planners' war against sprawl are an apt description of the mindset behind Ontario's new master plan. 'Very few people believe that they themselves live in sprawl. Sprawl is where other people live, particularly people with less taste and good sense than themselves. Much anti-sprawl activism is based on a desire to reform these other people's lives.'"

An ad hominem attack against planners isn't an argument.

Here is my favourite part in the whole Wente article:

"If we really wanted to tackle smog and congestion, we wouldn't be fantasizing about massive new investments in public transit. We'd be investing in transportation infrastructure, less polluting fuels, more intelligent roads and vehicles with sensors to control traffic flows, peak-time user fees and more flexible forms of public and private transport, such as group taxis."

'If we really wanted'
Because we don't really want to, you see, we just want to mess with people's lives and give people guilt trips - people in Toronto don't care that they can't see the sky, it's all just a big game.

I like how making investments in public transit, which has been done effectively in many places around the world, is a 'fantasy'. Instead we should be investing in 'more intelligent roads' (I hate stupid roads, don't you?), and 'vehicles with sensors to control traffic flows' - because that is a realistic plan - none of that pie in the sky nonsense involving modes of transportation that have been operating for near a century...

Also, I'm not sure I understand the part about how investment in transit is 'a fantasy' and instead we should invest in 'transportation infrastructure'.

The stuff about less polluting fuels and user fees and allowing more competition in transit all makes sense but it doesn't really contradict making investments in transit. Given the political realities, some of these items may be more fantasy than investments in transit. I recall the Harris government's promise to allow competition in inter-city bus travel that quickly fell by the wayside once Greyhound hired one of Harris' advisors to lobby for them.

"But you won't find the planners talking about these things because, to do so, they would have to concede defeat to the unwholesome lure of the automobile - to say nothing of the overwhelming preference of the public. And that would be very, very wicked."

Yeah, I'm sure planners are against more efficient fuels because they don't want to concede defeat to the automobile. That makes a lot of sense - in crazyland maybe. Sheesh.

So, you see how this works:
1) Someone makes Wente feel guilty about something and, rather than question her own behavior...
2) Wente goes and tracks down somebody with some contrarian views on the topic which conveniently state that what she happens to be currently doing and wants to continue doing is actually the best course of action and then...
3) Readers of the Globe and Mail get another article with cherry picked (and occasionally unattributed, it seems) and unopposed comments from our contrarian of the day, complete with some snarky comments about the base motivations of those who dared to make her feel guilty in the first place.

When the topic was Global Warming, Wente turned to error-prone contrarian Ross McKitrick
When the topic was the effects of global warming on polar bears, Wente turned to error-prone contrarian columnist John Tierney.

And now we know that when the topic is public transportation, we'll be hearing from Peter 'edge of the fringe' Gordon.

Someday, when Wente retires, somebody should total up how many one-sided 'contrarian' columns she wrote just so she could drive her SUV without feeling bad.

Transit 2

I'm no urban planner, but one of the things I have always thought must be true of big cities is that the potential amount of traffic on the roads is effectively infinite.

A few years back, the government of Ontario twinned the highway 115 which leads from the highway 401 to Peterborough. Now, at least a decade later, the 115 remains a smoothly flowing highway which is rarely subject to traffic jams (as far as I know, anyway). The reason is that there are only so many people who want to go to Peterborough and vice-versa. This number grows with time, but relatively slowly so the highway remains relatively clear.

Now consider the highway 407 built across the top of Toronto roughly around the same time, 6 full new lanes of traffic in each direction. Only ever increasing tolls keep the 407 from becoming as busy and packed as the 401 itself.

The difference is that in Toronto there was a huge latent demand of people who would drive more if only the roads weren't so busy. People who would move further out into suburbia if the commute was going to stay the same length. People who would visit friends across town more often if it didn't take as long. People who would play in a hockey league across town if the drive was shorter and on and on. Because of all this latent demand, building new roads in a big city doesn't lead to any less congestion - as the last few decades have shown clearly. And this latent demand is so enormous that no amount of new road building could ever really bring an end to congestion on city roads.

Not to say that new roads don't have a benefit. If people can live a little further from work or can play in a better hockey league or whatever, those are real benefits, I'm just saying that new roads won't reduce traffic congestion.

The result is that in a place like Peterborough, the level of traffic congestion is a function of population and road building and mechanical 'plannable' factors, but in a place like Toronto, the level of traffic congestion is a function of what people are willing to put up with. The roads just fill and fill until those who are least tolerant of the congestion either move closer to work, move to a different city or take transit.

And this last point is an important one. Given that the upper limit on traffic in a big city is what people are willing to put up with, the upper limit on traffic in a city could be seen as a function of the effectiveness of its transit system. The better the alternative to driving, the less congestion on the roads people will put up with - so a better transit system might actually provide the biggest benefits to those who drive - on roads blessedly free from all the people who took transit instead.

Of course, this effect would be pretty weak when we are talking about buses and streetcars because, as congestion increases, these options slow down just like car traffic does so they aren't much of an alternative.

Anyway, like I said, I'm not an urban planner, and I don't know if this idea is considered nonsense or conventional wisdom or what among those who actually have some expertise in this area, but it makes intuitive sense to me, I'd be interested to hear what others think/have heard.

Controlling for things like total population size, do we find that roads are less congested in cities with more effective alternate transit options? Within cities, are the roads less busy in corridors for which there are good transit options than in corridors for which transit is less effective?

Transit 1

StatsCan released a study on commuting a couple of weeks ago.

Unfortunately, the data behind the study isn't really detailed enough to say much more than that commute times are going up, especially in the cities, and it still takes a fair bit longer to get to work by transit than it does by car. None of which is particularly surprising, but it's nice to have some data to back up common perceptions so that we know this isn't, for example, the same situation as with crime, where a sensationalist media has created a widespread public impression of rising crime rates during a period where crime rates are actually declining.

Key findings

Longer commutes overall:

"In 2005, commuters spent an average of 63 minutes on the round trip between their place of residence and their workplace. By comparison, the average time was 54 minutes round trip in 1992 and 59 minutes in 1998."

Longer travel time for people on transit:

"All things being equal, commuters who use public transit to get to work (without also using an automobile) spend an average of 41 minutes more on their daily commute than those using an automobile."

"Above all, the study shows that a sizable gap remains between the two modes from the standpoint of travel times. It is therefore not surprising that despite higher fuel costs and increased environmental concerns, most workers continue to use mainly their automobile to get to work."

One thing I did find interesting in the study was the anomalous behavior of Vancouver with respect to other large cities. Take a look at this chart, and notice that one of the lines is moving in the opposite direction from the others - that line is Vancouver where commute times have been marginally decreasing over the last decade and a bit.

As you can see from this chart from the UBC Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate, it's not that the other cities have been growing more than Vancouver so it seems like Vancouver must be doing something right with regard to commute times, something other cities could learn from potentially.

As for what that is, I couldn't really say for sure. Vancouver is known for it's policy of not building new highways so perhaps that is helping. Vancouver is also one of the few cities which has built a major transit extension (the Millenium Line) since 1992 so maybe that has made a difference. Vancouver also does a pretty good job at increasing residential density downtown and near transit hubs so maybe that has made a difference. Perhaps it is just that geographic barriers (combined with the agricultural land reserve) is making it hard for sprawl to sprawl quite as quickly. It seems like it is worth investigating further at any rate, and suggests that efforts by other cities to imitate some of Vancouver's policies (such as the Liberals in Ontario creating a greenbelt and de-emphasizing new highway construction) might end up leading to lower commute times.

Once Vancouver finishes the RAV (Canada) line, and the Northeast Light Rail (Evergreen) Expansion, and once the Golden Ears bridge is built, I wouldn't be surprised to see the downward trend of Vancouver commuting times continue.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Some Things Can Be Counted, Some Can't

A headline on yahoo today: "2 U.S. Soldiers, dozens of Iraqis killed"

To be fair, the text of the article does enumerate the Iraqis killed in various recent indicents (7 here, 5 there, etc.), but still.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Two's Company, Three's a Crowd, Seven is a Small Army

It sure is going to feel lonely around these parts once everybody else on the progressive side of the blogosphere is part of 'The Pogge Group' and I'm still here posting away on my little blog...

Taking a Brick Out of the Wall

Andrew mentions a new bill (pdf) in Ontario designed to make it easier for immigrants with professional training/credentials in their countries of origin to practice in Ontario.

I don't think there are many who would argue against the motive of this bill, but Andrew, and George Jonas (who Andrew quotes), seem to feel that it would be better to do something else, rather than this particular bill. Specifically, Andrew says (and Jonas pretty much says), "introducing new layers of government and red tape is not the solution." and that it would be better if "Professional associations should be encouraged to accept recent immigrants into their trade."

The bill creates the position of Fairness Commissioner, responsible for enforcing compliance with the bill, which basically stipulates that professional associations have to treat immigrants in a fair manner, not putting ridiculous barriers up against them getting accredited in Ontario or subjecting them to unreasonably lengthy/costly/opaque procedural/information barriers.

In addition, the bill sets aside funding for an "Access Centre for Internationally Trained Individuals." According to the government, the Access Centre would:

"- provide information about how to obtain licensure/registration to anyone trained internationally in a regulated profession.
-become a centre of excellence for information and assistance to employers, post-secondary organizations and community agencies on internships and mentorships for newcomers."

Personally, I think it is a pretty good idea and it made me wonder if BC has done or is considering something similar. Here is what I wrote in the comment's at Andrew's site (yes I am too lazy to come up with original content for my blog, so be it)...


What would you suggest they do instead? Encouraging professional associations to change is not an answer, government has being doing that for years, if not decades, you might as well 'encourage' the tobacco companies to not try and convince people to smoke.

Put yourselves in the shoes of a skilled immigrant from overseas - if this bill works as intended, it will mean the creation of a central information repository where you can find out all the requirements needed to gain registration in your field in Ontario.

In addition, in the past a professional organization might have subjected you to absurd qualification requirements (years or repeating courses you have already taken, thousands of dollars in application fees) or rejected your registration application with no reason given, and simply ignored or dragged out to ridiculous lengths any attempt to gain an explanation for or appeal the decision.

Now professional organizations will have a real incentive to ensure that they treat foreign applications in a timely manner, and to tear down some of the unnecessary hoops they've set up for people to jump through, just to protect their own salaries.

There is a certain amount of bureaucracy involved, but from reading the bill it doesn't seem onerous. I imagine the true impact of the bill will most likely be in professional associations being aware that someone is watching them, to ensure that their procedures pass a reasonableness test.

I'm not really sure what the specific objection you and Jonas have, beyond not liking the word 'fair' and not wanting the government to hire someone to enforce the law.

Sometimes it puzzles me that the same people who would be keen to see more policeman hired to enforce a law against, say, trespassing, are dead set against hiring someone to enforce a law which prevents the powerful from enriching themselves at the expense of poor immigrants who could contribute greatly to our society. The former, apparently, is law and order which is good, while the latter is red tape and regulation, which is bad.

It seems like an arbitrary distinction to crack down on those harmful acts which are obvious, while letting slide those which are subtle. Or perhaps it is cracking down on those acts committed by the weak, while letting slide those committed by the powerful. Maybe those two criteria are one and the same. Either way, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

For some more commentary on this topic (from an American perspective), I recommend chapter 1 of Dean Baker's freely available online book, 'The Conservative Nanny-State'. Here's a taste:

"In 1997 Congress tightened the licensing rules for foreign doctors entering the country because of concerns by the American Medical Association and other doctors' organizations that the inflow of foreign doctors was driving down their salaries. As a result, the number of foreign medical residents allowed to enter the country each year was cut in half.

For some reason, the editorial boards, political pundits, and trade economists managed to completely ignore this protectionist measure, even though its impact dwarfed the impact of most of the "free trade" trade agreements that they have promoted so vigorously. If free trade in physicians brought doctors’ salaries down to European levels, the savings would be close to $100,000 per doctor, approximately $80 billion a year. This is 10 times as large as standard estimates of the gains from NAFTA.

Most people probably do not realize that the protectionist barriers that keep out foreign professionals are actually quite extensive."

Monday, July 10, 2006

GST Cut, Another Way of Looking at It

In the comments to my last post, Andrew suggested that the pennies saved on a sandwich didn't really capture the magnitude of a sales tax cut. But if you ask me, the marginal change in the cost of a sandwich really does capture the essence of a sales tax. Sales taxes are like the Wal-Mart of taxes: low margins, but huge profits nonetheless thanks to the sheer volume of transactions.

But if you want another way of looking at the tax cut, consider that the money could have been spent on debt reduction, so it's kind of like the government is lending you money and charging 5% interest. With the benefit being that you can pass off the debt to the next generation if you don't ever repay it in your own lifetime.

Big Savings

So I went to Tim Horton's for lunch today. I ordered my usual large turkey and bacon sandwich and had the exact $7.27 ready to give to the cashier. But the total only came to $7.20. So I dropped an extra 7 cents in the little coin box they have for collecting for some charity and wandered down to the sandwich making area, reassuring myself that my memory wasn't that bad, and it really did use to be $7.27, not $7.20. Finally, with my sandwich half-made, it hit me - the 1% reduction in the GST was responsible for my 7 cent bounty.

7 whole cents! I'm rich, I'm rich...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

See You In 2010

Well, that's it for the World Cup. I guess it would be self-centred if I figured that the result of the tournament was decided when I publicly declared Italy to be my least favourite team. On the plus side, I also declared that it was unlikely for both teams to score, so that was taken care of in the first twenty minutes.

I didn't want Italy to win, but at least they were full value for their victory, playing extremely well at the back but not by refusing to go forward at all. In fact, I imagine the Italians finished the tournament 2nd in goals scored, behind the Germans (although if the Argentineans hadn't run into Germany in the quarter-finals, they probably would have been up there as well).

Aside from Zidane's momentary head-butt madness (one wonders exactly what prompted it), France played well in the final. I think it was a mistake to take off Ribery - notwithstanding that he was dog-tired out there, he was still their best hope of finding a way through the Italian defense. Tough luck for the man who replaced Ribery, Trézéguet, his (just barely) missed penalty was the difference and that will be hard to live with for the rest of his days.

I was glad to see the Germans win the third place game with some style, especially against Portugal (says my girlfriend, after another cynical Portuguese play, 'they're the new Italians!') Oh well, good tournament, I hope they give Cannavaro the golden ball since he certainly deserves it, I don't think anyone else was as important to the Italian victory.

So that's probably it for sports around the blog for a while. Although Vancouver City Council votes on the proposed new soccer stadium on July 11th, with public debate on the 10th (Monday) so I'll probably comment on that decision.

The next international soccer events will be the Euro 2008 tournament in Austria/Switzerland and, for all you masochists out there, Canada's next qualifying run for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa will probably start in the next couple of years as well. They really should play the key qualifiers in Newfoundland like they did back in 1986, the only time Canada ever qualified for the World Cup.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

World Cup, Final Prediction

Sacha says,
"I got one out of two of my semi-final predictions correct, which is par for the course. My track record for the entire World Cup has been mediocre. This makes me highly suspect that my choices have been random and should be treated as white noise for the purposes of prediction."

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. France did beat Portugal, rewarding my belated confidence in them, but Germany couldn't quite pull it off against Italy.

I was quite impressed with both teams in the Italy-Germany match, it would have made a great final, but I guess France will have something to say about that. So Italy have won me over a little since I criticized them last week, but I'll still be cheering for France. But on the other hand, I'll predict an Italian victory. Here's hoping for a good final, whatever happens. There's never been only ever been one shootout in the World Cup final before, but it wouldn't be shocking if that's what ends up deciding the game on Sunday.

[thanks Matthew for reminding me that '94 was decided on penalties, won by Brazil over Italy. I'm not sure how I forgot that one, since I can clearly remember feeling bad for Baggio - after he payed such a great semi-final, all people remember is him hitting his penalty shot almost straight into the air - just another reason why I don't like penalties much. Speaking of finals, I notice that the last final where both teams scored was '86, when Argentina beat West Germany 3-2 - I'd be pretty surprised if both Italy and France manage to score, so far the teams have only allowed three goals between them, France a late equalizer against Korea and a penalty against Spain, while Italy scored an own-goal against the Americans].

Monday, July 03, 2006

World Cup Fever / Blog Note

The blog note is just that I do plan to return to political blogging at some point - if not this week, then next week for sure.

As for this past week, aside from being on vacation back in Ontario for my parents 40th wedding anniversary, it was notable (from my perspective) for me having a fairly mild flu, with accompanying mild fever, and since I probably only got sick because I was tired, and I was tired in part from getting up to watch the 6 am World Cup games, I guess you'd call that a World Cup fever.

Anyway, I had another medicore set of predictions in the quarters, getting winners Portugal and Italy right, while getting winners France and Germany wrong. I guess that French team is picking it up as they go along in the tournament - at least Spain doesn't look as bad, the further France goes.

For the semis, I'll take Germany and France.

A few quick comments before I collapse into bed. When Hargreaves stepped up to take his penalty for England, I said, "He'll score, he'll be the only one of them that can score, because he's really from Canada, not England, so he doesn't have the (English penalty-kick) psychological disorder." So some of my predictions aren't too bad, anyway. I was actually rooting for England, and you don't see that every day.

Just when the English commentator seemed to be getting excited at the prospect of Germany being eliminated, they got their equalizer. I was cheering for Germany anyway, but I was glad on general principles to see a team (Argentina in this case) get punished for taking off their best offensive players (Riquelme & Crespo) because they had a one goal lead.

Now I just have to plan a 2 hour lunch time "meeting" for tomorrow, one with the potential of running up to an hour long...