Happy 2010 Plus a Few Predictions

January 6, 2010

Well it is a new year and I think promises to be a good one, or better rather than 2009, which maybe for some isn’t saying too much!  One of my quasi-resolutions was to keep this blog up and running with regular posts, as there is always much to write about in the sphere of infrastructure and urban issues these days.   I thought I would start off with a few predictions on issues that may develop and/or pre-occupy us over the coming year:

Energy Prices on the Rise Again

The price of oil has quickly bolted through the $80 mark in early January 2010, a price level where it begins to have serious consequences for transportation (trucking, air and long distance car commuting) and therefore across the broader economy.  I predict that the price will continue to ascend, though not at the frenetic pace of 2007-08, and the repreive we were granted due to the late 2008 financial and economic meltdown will be over.  This fact, more than the failed ambitions of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, will drive discussions of alternative energy and sustainability.  Peak oil anyone?

Stimulated, Now What?

2010 will see the many thousands of micro-infrastructure projects funded by the 2009 federal stimulus budget well underway or completed.  While the impact of new arena roofs, repaved roads and refurbished transit stops has likely not been significant economically, it may have better attuned Canadians to the merits of infrastructure investment.  Hopefully, it will “stimulate” a discussion of how we might take a more strategic perspective to infrastructure investment, and better overlay it with policy objectives in other areas, such as sustainable development/planning, public health, greentech/reducing energy costs and improving transportation generally.  Moreover, despite the short term focus of the stimulus finds, I hope we will better come to understand that infrastructure policy is perhaps uniquely about the kind of Canada we want to have in 25 or even 50 years.

What to do About Housing Prices

2009 was the year that millions of Canadian homeowners breathed a huge sigh of relief.  After reading endless stories about the housing catastrophe in the United States with millions of homes in foreclosure and household finances decimated, happily Canadians saw most major urban markets stabilize in 2009 and, towards the end of the year, prices even resumed their upward ascent.  Good news for existing homeowners yes, but not great for aspiring ones.  House prices remain at very high levels by historical price to income levels, or buy vs rent measures, even with the lowest interest rates in two generations.  With interest rates set to rise at least some, housing affordability I predict will come to be a major issue in 2010 and beyond.  Potential prescriptions will need to address both the supply and demand sides.

Well those are three issue floating around in my crystal ball – I hope to address each further throughout the year.  Of course none exist in isolation and are related to large degree, which is what makes soapbox analysis and blogosphere policy-making fun.  Any comments are welcome!

What Makes Europe Greener than the U.S. – 360 Environment blog

November 19, 2009

Though this was an excellent anecdotal post on the relationship between civic space and behavior (above are pictures of the beautiful city of Stockholm, as referenced in the article, juxtaposed against Houston, a generic sunbelt US downtown). The author posits that the abundance of public spaces and public infrastructure (beyond the freeway) in Europe creates a far more choices and indeed a compelling case to act in the collective interest on environmental choices.  The hypothesis here, and one I firmly believe, is that built form is important, and a key determinant of culture, in the broadest sense (from the aesthetic to the social/environmental and even intellectual).  That is why the process to determine what we build, and the tools we have to do is so important!

Calgary, B.C. designs chosen as finalists for East Village bridge

November 17, 2009

Pics aren’t that great but they look like great designs and really improve connectivity in an area that sorely needs it.  CMLC should get kudos for applying really high design standards throughout the project.  Dare I say Calgarians will be floored by the results (except for the people that think only homeless people live downtown, who will probably never see it, sadly).

Calgary, B.C. designs chosen as finalists for East Village bridge.

Re-Branding Calgary

November 16, 2009

Interesting piece from Global News on re-branding Calgary.  Time to bin the cowboy image and focus on the modern reality?  I think yes!

 

Hume: We forgot how to build cities – thestar.com

November 16, 2009

Excellent commentary from Christopher Hume in today’s Toronto Star on the “heroic” age of infrastructure building, and how that perspective has been lost:

Hume: We forgot how to build cities – thestar.com.

So it’s not my imagination…the weather is gross!

November 15, 2009

Saw this on the US NOAA website – not the best news going into the Copenhagen climate conference.  So perhaps this announcement at the APEC conference this week isn’t so surprising.  Personally, after witnessing the health care debate in the U.S., I would say Obama’s odds of passing a meaningful climate change bill is is between zero and nil, especially given that per the blogosphere, most conservative Americans seem to believe that Global Warming is a left wing conspiracy for socialist world government.  It’s a shame but true.

Another Report: Toronto needs to invest in infrastructure (more duh)

November 15, 2009

This one from the venerable OECD as part of its cities initiative looks at congestion and its costs in Canada’s largest city.  It concludes that gridlock costs the urban region $3.3 billion a year, and recommends a host of initiatives common to most wealthy countries to amelierate, including:

  • Dedicated taxes for transportation (tolls, congestion charges, higher gas taxes)
  • Better intergovernmental cooperation and funding
  • Better regional planning and less sprawl

All of this is old hat to someone like me and it should be noted that baby steps are being made in this direction by the provincial government especially through the regional growth plan, the creation of Metrolinx and a significant investment plan for transit.  On the revenue tools that are most likely to have the biggest impact, there has been the predictable silence.  The same old deference to the SUVurban constituencies who will scream “tax!” while curiously ignoring the multifarious subsidies implicit in their lifestyles. 

I am firmly of the opinion that Canadian cities will be held back until governments adopt the same commitment to long term sustainable funding as, say, healthcare.  This could put Canada in the company of global leaders in urban infrastructure such as France, Germany and even the United States, where the federal gas tax is dedicated to transport infrastructure, and increasingly urban transit.  In Germany, cities 1/10th the size of the GTA have better transit systems, and local, regional, and national networks are fully integrated. 

The ruse that Canada cannot somehow afford this must be exposed for what it is; indeed it is imperative that we come to see infrastructure as central to our economy and future growth, not the afterthought that it too often currently is. Not surprisingly, the OECD report also notes that Toronto is solidly in the lowest quartile of growth of the global cities that it is looking at.  This will only change when governments come to the table with catalyst scale investments.  More to come on this subject – but good to know that the OECD eggheads in Paris agree with something I have been observing for a long time (from inside and outside government).

Report: Canada needs to invest in road infrastructure (duh…)

November 14, 2009

Came across this from the New Geography RSS feed.  It’s a report commission by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy by Wendell Cox, an American conservative pundit on urban and transportation issues.  He takes Canada to task for not managing to build a modern highway system of inter-city freeways as most other wealthy countries have done.  He mentions the Calgary ring road, saying this is a step in the right direction, as motorists and truckers will no longer need to navigate several dozen traffic lights to drive through the city on the “national” highway, the TransCanada.

The numbers indicated to build something like an “interstate” system are eye popping but probably in the right ball park.  Alberta could certainly afford its share, and indeed, as it’s population approaches 4 million should have a plan to upgrade it’s major highways to freeway standards within 10 years.  That’ll take the construction of a lot of overpasses and interchanges but efficiency and safety make a strong case (indeed I wonder how prudent a 110 kmh limit is on roads with at grade crossings as is often the case here).  Bundling  together projects in large stretches of Hwys 1, 2, 3, 4 and 16 could provide cost saving through scale, and potential delivery through P3 models.

A 4 lane freeway from Calgary to Vancouver should also be a priority though will certainly require some federal support – one only has to drive through Switzerland (with all of 7 million people) to see what is possible to build in the way of building mountain autobahns. Road building doesn’t have much sex appeal these days but productivity and safety are as much issues as they ever were, and are good reasons for policy leaders in this country to take this report seriously.

Good week for Calgary City-building

November 5, 2009

A couple of interesting events and announcements this week in Cowtown.  First was the opening of the north east leg of the ring road all the way down to 17th Ave SE.  The project was delivered as P3 and one should note that though it was started long after the NW section (delivered under traditional procurement), it was finished to a full freeway standard a full 4 years before the the last traffic signals will be removed on the NW side.  Nonetheless, people don’t really seem to get too excited about these things here, which is probably just as well for my work.  I have yet to drive it but plan to do so on Saturday and am looking forward to it. Roads do not have much sex appeal these days in this carbon sensitive age, but I am of the opinion that they will continue to be a necessity, as even zero emission vehicles, which will someday exist in a mass market form, will need somewhere to drive.  Furthermore, increasingly big city Calgary needs some big city infrastructure, and a decent bypass is part of that equation.

The second piece of good news was the announcement of the West Village project, modelled on the thus far successful East Village revitalization plan.  Originally this was to be part of the City’s 2017 Expo bid, but in deciding not to proceed with that bid, Council did approve a plan to create a new community revitalization level (CRL) for the area west of downtown, along the Bow River, which is also a future transit-oriented development (TOD) zone for high density along the future West LRT that will open in 2012.  Lots of good policy ideas here at work both on the financing and urban intensification side, making me further sanguine about Calgary’s future as an urban city, with a vibrant downtown.  The narrow-minded suburbanites only seemed to have honed onto the fact that the proposal includes another signature foot bridge – sigh… Well I guess they got their ring road so it all balances out!  In the meantime we can take solace that Calgary remains on the forefront of infrastructure finance with now two unique downtown TIF zones that are unique in Canada.

 

Branding the Global Warming Debate

October 15, 2009

Peggy Wente in the Globe today delivered one of her trademark spot on columns that states the painfully obvious on a hot button issue that has, perhaps oddly, found itself immersed in the partisan left-right culture wars: climate change.  The column doesn’t make any claims about the veracity of the science on one side or the other, it is more about the failure of branding on the part of those most loudly calling for action.  Stated succinctly:

Why are people cooling on warming? One reason is surely the apocalyptic language of Mr. Flannery and others. When they say we are doomed unless we radically change our way of life by the end of next week, people figure the problem is exaggerated – or else far too big to fix.

It’s a matter of tone really.  The propensity for climate change activists to adopt a “you don’t get it, and your ignorance is destroying the world” stance does not win them easy converts.  At its most extreme, these folks almost appear to take pleasure in their prophesies, a parody of the ecstatic doomsday cult.  Joe middle class suburbia looks on incredulously, thinking his 2000 sq ft of paradise and crossover in the driveway weren’t really quite that bad.   Indeed, this gets to a more central issue with regard to climate change – that governments have spent the last 60 years encouraging a suburban, consumption, car-based culture – it is fair to say the masses were doing what was desired of them and creating plenty of tax revenue in the process. Change will not come easy where the case can be made, and currently it’s not being made well.  So climate change activists and academics would do better to tone down their sanctimony (I saw another perfect example with David Suzuki on BNN’s Squeezeplay today where he mocked carbon capture), and come up with something that resonates better.  And just for the record, I do believe the science of climate change, though not the most apocalyptic scenarios, which very little of the science backs up (and I have read both Tim Flannery and Bjorn Lomberg).