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Archive for February 2017

The buses of Hamburg, part three: supported and innovative

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All aboard the hybrid bus!

All aboard the hybrid bus!

In my last posts on the buses of Hamburg, I mentioned that the bus system is great.  Buses flow down Mönckebergstrasse seamlessly, without impacting the retailers of the street negatively; no mean feat considering this Hamburg’s equivalent to our Granville street.  I also mentioned that buses are on time and go everywhere, even to as surreal a destination as a sand dunes area within city limits.

The bottom line is that it is enjoyable to take the bus.  It’s a simple reality that is easy to overlook.  But there, it works.

Obviously, this doesn’t happen by accident.  There is a lot of government support behind it.  It is interesting to compare the numbers between Hamburg and Metro Vancouver, because the populations are not that different.  There are 2.5 million people in Metro against 1.7 million in Hamburg; but the numbers are fairly similar if we include some of the areas near Hamburg, such as Geesthacht, Pinneberg, Norderstedt, or Ahrensburg, all accessible from Hamburg’s transit system.

Last time I checked, Metro’s TransLink had 1307 full size buses on the road, versus only 777 buses in Hamburg.  Yet, the service seems better in Hamburg than in Vancouver.  The difference in land area that the buses service partially explains that situation:  Hamburg covers 755 square kilometers, against 2900 for Metro.  Obviously, it is difficult to provide service on urban sprawl.  This remains true even if we add the areas of the four municipalities mentioned above and include the smaller towns in between, we’re still under 1000 km2.  To make it fair, one ought to shave off from Metro all the forested and mountainous area not serviced by transit – or roads, for that matter, and get a more realistic service area of about 1500 km2.  And for a fair comparison, one needs to add the 80 or so blue buses of West Vancouver.  But there’s still better service in Hamburg.

But the main reason for the discrepancy is that the Hamburg buses play a supporting role to its very extensive rail system: 930 km of commuter train lines, 289 stations, and nearly 2000 train cars. (In contrast, the skytrain has about 80 km of lines and 300 cars.)  So there’s no equivalent of the under-capacity 99 B-line in Hamburg; there’d be a train already.

A fuel cell bus downtown Hamburg

A fuel cell bus, downtown Hamburg

Another way in which Hamburg demonstrates its support for its bus system is by adopting new models, with the objective of improving air quality and lowering the carbon footprint.  Hamburg has no trolley buses, and the bulk of its fleet runs on diesel.  But it has recently acquired eight Volvo hybrid articulated buses.  With regenerative braking system and lithium batteries, these buses reduce their CO2 emissions by 75%.  In addition, the fleet now includes six hydrogen fuel-cell buses; these, of course, produce no carbon emissions at all.

These new additions are the first steps of a very ambitious program: Olaf Scholz, Hamburg’s mayor, declared in 2014 that as of 2020 any new additions to the fleet will be zero-emission fuel cell buses.  In Hamburg, this is the sort of thing that a mayor can decide.

Another hybrid bus

Another hybrid bus

In contrast, the fleet of Vancouver fuel cell buses, all twenty of them, has been sold off following a very successful demonstration run between Whistler and Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics.  This was decided by TransLink, for financial reasons.  It’s difficult not to be disappointed by this turn of events.  Hamburg has been testing its buses on regular city runs for years, and this is why they can be confident in their decision.  A short run focussed on the Olympics, on the other hand, is enough for proof of concept, but much too short to really put the buses, and the system, through their paces.

This is not to slag TransLink.  Every system has its own peculiarities, and TransLink can only do what a particularly tight-fisted government in Victoria will allow.  They have great people and cheerful, helpful bus drivers.  Everything is in place to make riding the bus as fun an experience as in Hamburg.  Everything, except…well, we could use more buses, and more drivers.


Written by enviropaul

February 20, 2017 at 7:52 pm

The buses of Hamburg, part two: a travelling book exchange arrives on time

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The Altesland by Finkenwerder, by bus

Altesland, Finkenwerder, by bus and ferry

I took a lot of buses in Hamburg, and that’s a bit of a surprise, in hindsight.  I love trains, and I took mostly them, the U-Bahn, the S-Bahn, to go all over the place.

But even within the city limits, there are areas that have a very low population density, and trains don’t go there.  The Vierlander, a city projection that looks on a map like a pseudopod, is an agricultural area that supplies Hamburg’s vegetables.   At the opposite end, Finkenwerder is Germany’s largest orchard, and it is also part of Hamburg.  Both areas make for lovely walks, and can be accessed by buses (Finkenwerder is across the Elbe, and the bus ticket includes a passenger ferry).  Even going further afield, there’s a bus: when I went to Geesthacht, a small town in the province of Schleswig-Holstein that abuts Hamburg, I took a city bus.  (And, even in the boonies, the bus was right on schedule, within a minute of posted time.)

The Boberger dunes, within Hamburg

The Boberger dunes, within Hamburg




I also took the bus to get to the Boberger Dunen, a completely unexpected natural wonder within the city limits.  It is a series of sand dunes, bereft of vegetation, left behind by the retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age.  Despite the rainy weather of Hamburg, the porous sand can’t retain moisture, and vegetation just doesn’t get a foothold.  It’s a very surreal area.  Pretend for a moment that you’re in the Sahara, climb up a dune, and look around.  Beyond the sand, to the north, is a woodlot, behind which you can make out a few houses.  To the south, down a dip, are the flat fertile farms of the Vierlander, an area sometimes flooded by the Elbe river that you can see further away, shining in the sunshine.

It’s quite marvelous to be able to go there for a short excursion, and be able to get there and back on buses that arrive on the hour or the half-hour, reliably.  But the surprise was to see how well used the buses were.  Even in these very low density areas, there were many riders, including kids.  Near Bergedorf (an area with many refugees), a large group of schoolkids boarded my bus, laughing, horsing around.  I recognized some German, some Arabic, and who knows what else.  They were all smiles.

The book exchange in the bus

The book exchange in the bus

One of these buses to the outer city even had a book exchange inside.

Buses are the most plebeian members of public transit, sure.  Subways, tramways, even cable-cars are more sexy.  But buses are the foundation of any transit system, ensuring connectivity, reach, and reliability, all things that are essential to a good working system.  And the Hamburg buses are frequent, clean, reliable, far-reaching, and precisely on schedule, dependably.  And they’re rarely packed.  Loser cruisers they’re not.

When is the bus coming?

When is the bus coming?







I was downtown on a rainy and cold evening, going home.  On my way to the U-Bahn I looked up at the electronic sign.  My bus, the M6 Borgweg, would arrive in 5 minutes, and there’d be another one minute later.  The first one would drop me off right at my street corner, Goldbekplatz.  An easy choice.

Written by enviropaul

February 20, 2017 at 7:38 pm

The buses of Hamburg, part one: Mönckebergstrasse

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Mönckebergstrasse, with jaywalkers.  Tsk.

Mönckebergstrasse, with jaywalkers. Tsk.

When in Hamburg I would often find myself on Mönckebergstrasse.   It’s one of the busy downtown streets, a commercial artery filled with fancy boutiques and eateries, some unique and interesting, others outlets of chains found in airports the world over.  It could be compared to Montreal’s Ste-Catherine, or Vancouver’s Robson.

In a way the street is also like Vancouver’s Granville.  It is a transportation hub with subway stations and bus lines. I took a bus there many times.  Private cars aren’t allowed on Mönckebergstrasse, which is reserved for taxis and buses.  When Vancouver decided to reserve Granville for bus traffic, it was widely seen as the beginning of the end for Granville as a merchant street, with pawn and porn shops taking over.  Thankfully, the street is now healing, having reinvented itself as venue for shows and pubs.  But this near-death never happened to Mönckebergstrasse – why?

Being in a European city, you would think that the street was saved by its historic character.  But that’s not it; the street was punched through what had been a downtown slum only in 1906, making Granville street actually older.

(For that matter, being historic is no guarantee of success.  Steinstrasse, just south of Mönckebergstrasse, was the very first street paved in cobblestones of all of Germany.  This street, the heart of the ancient town, should be an assemblage of medieval and renaissance buildings, but it is just a busy street fronted by non-descript office buildings.  It witnessed three waves of destruction: the great fire of 1842; the heartless slum clearances of the 1900s, after the cholera epidemic; and, of course, the terrible firebombing of 1943.  Hamburg does not reveal its history easily; a lot of it is either scars or absence.)

Is the difference due to Hamburg being a bigger city?  Not really.  Greater Hamburg has a population similar to Greater Vancouver, and a relatively low population density for a European city, comparable to Toronto’s.

It’s not even that the street has something Germanic in its character.  Horror of horrors, Hamburgers jay-walk across Mönckebergstrasse as often as we do across Granville.  (At least the buses arrive precisely on time, but that’s neither here nor there.)

No, I remain baffled.  Vancouver’s experience says that Mönckebergstrasse should have been a failure.  It’s not.

Inside a store on Mönckebergstrasse

Inside a store on Mönckebergstrasse

Maybe it’s because of Spitalerstrasse.  This is another street, parallel and adjacent to Mönckebergstrasse, but this one is a true pedestrian mall.  Restaurants and pubs have covered tables in the street, and there’s always a crowd.  The tables are a permanent fixture, and there are outdoor patrons year-round, no matter the weather.  Hamburg does pedestrian malls very well; Spitalerstrasse probably provides some of the crowds for Mönckebergstrasse.

Maybe it’s because of some of the stores; some have a unique architecture.  Hamburg was ambitious, the gateway to the world, in the 1910s.  But this could be said of Vancouver, too, where gems like the Marine Building went up at about the same time.

Or maybe it’s because Hamburg is its own entity, the equivalent of a province.  In Hamburg, there is no need to wait for a policy on transit or store hours from some remote and indifferent capital, as between Vancouver and Victoria.  Hamburg just does what Hamburg needs to do, and can adjust its aim quickly.

Still, these are, at best, only partial answers at best.  I’ve been looking for ideas for downtown Vancouver: how do you keep a transit hub vibrant? Mönckebergstrasse should be an inspiration.  Instead, it’s an enigma.  I don’t know why it works.  But it does, and I kept being drawn to it.

Written by enviropaul

February 20, 2017 at 7:22 pm

Energy democracy (a book review)

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buchcover-mit-randOften, when I discuss energy matters in Germany, like their leadership in solar and wind power, people reply “ah well, yeah, but that’s Germany”.  As if that explained anything.  As if, somehow, it was something that was meant to happen in Germany, as opposed to, say, Canada.  As if, in a country that makes Mercedes cars, it was a planned, logical development that followed a smooth and easy path.

This was far from the case, as described in Craig Morris and Arne Jungjohann’s new book, Energy Democracy.  It was fought all the way, and nothing was easy.

Take wind energy, for instance.  Engineer Erich Hau was present at the initial test of Growian, in 1983.  Growian was a large wind turbine pioneered by the big utility company RWE.  The winds on that blustery October day were strong, about 80 km/h.  Modern turbines can handle such winds, but it may not have been the best day to test a prototype.  Still, the signal was given to start, and the blades started spinning.  Too fast, uncontrollabley. The windmill’s generator had not been connected to an electric load, never mind to the grid.  With no load to push against, the turbine quickly became unstable.  The test was a failure.

Erich Hau was aghast at the results, so he did a bit of digging.  He found that the executives present had not come to test the turbine, but to sabotage it.  A leak revealed that one of them had previously said “We need Growian to prove that wind power won’t work.”  RWE, a large utility heavily invested in coal and nuclear energy, did not want wind.

Travel in northern Germany now and wind turbines are everywhere.  What happened between now and 1983 was an epic fight, mostly fought by communities trying to regain control of their electricty against the big private utilities.  The fight that started mostly as a fight against nuclear energy turned into a fight for community energy: cooperatives pooling the assets of local citizens and investing in wind, solar, or biomass energy.  Fighting for access to the grid while retaining control of their assets and their production.  That control was key.  If there were never any local protests against windpower in Germany, it is because it was the locals who had decided, as a group, to set up wind power themselves.

It has to be emphasized that this was happening during the very conservative times of Helmut Kohl,  who could have repeated Maggie Tatcher’s aphorism that “there is no such thing as society”; this epoch is remembered as reformstau, a time when every reform initiative was stalled.  But events took care of disproving this: society did react to the Chernobyl crisis.  People wanted to control, and produce, the energy they used. Even captains of industry like Alfred Ritter started helping community energy groups and nascent solar energy firms. (Ritter, a chocolate bar manufacturer, could no longer source hazelnuts for his chocolates – they were radioactive.  The realization that everything is linked to everything dawned upon him as it did on the rest of German society.)

The book is an excellent historical of how Germany went from there to now, detailing the traps that the big energy boys set for the community cooperatives, only to be hoisted by their own petards or be defeated in court.  So it’s full of hope for those here who think things can never change.

But the book is also an interesting comparative study of American and German cultures when it comes to politics and economics.  The authors show how Adam Smith has been misinterpreted as advocating greed and laissez-faire (he didn’t; he advocated for government ensuring fair rules).  They also point out that there are no German words for gerrymandering, or voter supression, or that Lügenpresse (lying media) has been declared the “non-word” of the year in 2014.  Public institutions work better and are more trusted by the German public, it seems.

The authors also mention that a situation whereby small coal-producing states have disproportionate power in the US Senate could not occur in Germany.  Germany, at the federal level, elects its politicians using the mixed-member proportional system.  In Canada, if we were to adopt such a system, it would mean that half of the elected MPs are there because they got the most votes in their ridings, but the other half are there in proportion to how many votes their party got.  So no vote is ever wasted, which promotes public participation and reduces cynicism.

This voting system also usually produces what we would call minority governments; if the Energiewende went through, it’s because the governing party adopted a policy proposed by the Greens.  As a result, Germany became a leader in wind and solar co-operatives, and a major exporter of energy technologies.  What, a proposal meant to protect the environment was good for business?  You bet.

That’s why it would be good if we could all convince Mr Trudeau to stick to his promise and reform the electoral process…

Morris, Craig & Arne Jungjohann 2016.  Energy democracy: Germany’s energiewende to renewables. Palgrave Macmillan.  Also check Craig Morris’ Energy Transition website.

Written by enviropaul

February 16, 2017 at 12:42 pm

Land assemblies

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dsc00006In my neighbourhood (Hastings-Sunrise, in Vancouver), For Sale signs are popping up like mushrooms, especially along the arterials.  A lot of those announce the potential for land assemblies: buy three or four houses side by side, and you could build a mid-rise condo building or appartment tower.

Along Broadway between Commercial and Rupert, in particular, it seems that there are more houses for sale than not.

At first glance, this should be good news.  Housing is unaffordable in Vancouver.  Increased housing supply, even if it is only one part of the solution, is a must.  And a land assembly should help: where there are, say, four adjacent homes on 33 ft lots, there could be twelve townhouses or thirty appartments, depending on the design.

But, as usual, the devil is in the details.  These houses are for sale…for a price; upwards of three million for a regular size lot has been mentioned.  Clearly, the current owners hope to cash in, and who could blame them?  Except that at that price, the only realistic development options would be luxury condos, which may well be fine but don’t help with housing affordability.  And I doubt that many developers will bite, at that price.  So we’re back to square one: no housing in sight.

But forget this for a moment, and assume that appartment blocks could soon be sprouting up all along the arterials, Broadway, Hastings, Renfrew, Rupert, Nanaimo, say, creating a stock of affordable housing.  Wonderful, right?

Not so fast.  I take issue with their location, along busy streets.  This is where noise and air pollution are concentrated.  Does it make sense to pack as many people as possible in precisely those areas that are least safe?

Close proximity to traffic leads to increased exposure to air pollutants from traffic, fine particulates and nitrogen oxides in particular, as well as increased noise.  These irritants are the main culprits in the findings that people who live near arterials are at higher risk of asthma, obesity, dementia, cardiovascular problems, you name it.

To say nothing of the traffic itself.  The demand for affordable housing is most critical for young families.  You wouldn’t want to have kids playing tag near Broadway, would you? A recent report for the BC Ministry of Environment recommends setbacks away from traffic areas; this is just going in the wrong direction.

Is moving to the far suburbs the solution for young families?  Housing is more affordable, but then there are the costs of a long commute – to say nothing of the health impacts of the commute itself, or the increased risk of accidents.

There is a better way.  Why should the neighbourhoods be zoned so that only the arterials can develop into appartment blocks?  All the streets between the arterials are zoned for single-family housing, despite the fact that this is the bulk of the land area, and it is where the air is cleaner, the streets quieter and safer.  In view of the problems this zoning causes, this is patently absurd.

Changing the zoning to higher-density low or medium rise buildings throughout the neighbourhood would solve many problems at once.  With a much larger pool of land that could be developed, it would diffuse the offer, ensuring that development occurs where it most appropriate – and not just along arterials.  It would create an interesting mix of housing: detached homes, townhouses, a few low-rise blocks interspersed through the mix.  Done intelligently, it would promote the incorporation of small business and retail shops.  Of course, the increased density would justify better transit, parks, and other services, and reduce the carbon footprint per capita.  Jus’ sayin.

And maybe, just maybe, the increased density could lead to a revitalisation of a particularly dismal stretch of Broadway.  Finding a decent café between Victoria and Rupert was impossible, until recently.  There is a little pioneering one at the corner of Nanaimo, newly opened in a recent four-story building that has been built with retail facilities at sidewalk level.  It’s a start.  It would be nice to see more like this.

Written by enviropaul

February 7, 2017 at 6:16 pm

Snow on the roof

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Glorious, beautiful snow!  It’s beedsc00154n a treat – if you like snow, of course.  If you’re a commuter in Vancouver, maybe not so much.

Sunshine on snow is bright enough to make forget that the days are short.  It’s also colder, though, which means steep heating bills.

But some houses are better than others, in that respect.  In an ideal world, houses are superbly insulated: they should snow on their roofs as much as an unheated garage does.  Walk around and you’ll see that’s far from the case, obviously.

Snow on the roof of the house on 6th - the only one.

Snow on the roof of the house on 6th – the only one.

I noticed that two weeks ago.  There were only a handful of houses that still had snow on their roofs before the general thaw: these are the super-performers.  I noticed, in particular, a house on Sixth near Commercial: brand new, occupied, the only one with a full cover of snow on its roof.  All the other houses along the street had a bare roof, meaning that the occupants had spent quite a bit of energy melting the snow on their roof instead of keeping the warmth inside the home.

Another one with an intact load of snow: unoccupied, not heated.

Another one with an intact load of snow: unoccupied, not heated.





It won’t necessarily make a huge difference on the bill at the end of the month; energy is still relatively cheap here, compared to Europe, say.  But it is an indication of inefficiency.  Multiply that by the number of homes in the Lower Mainland and that’s a substantial carbon footprint you’re looking at.

Even today (feb 7, after the weekend dump) I could see very obvious differences between houses.  This is probably where it’s a most useful guide.  If the snow on your roof starts to melt and disappear before the neighbour’s, it’s an indication that your house – or at least the roof – is a good candidate for more insulation.

Uneven melting patches on the roof on this house on Graveley, a sign of deficient insulation.

Uneven melting patches on the roof on this house on Graveley, a sign of deficient insulation.

Hopefully, the awareness that better insulation would be welcome will be accompanied by a renewal of the program to retrofit homes for energy efficiency.  As they say, it’s the low hanging fruit: it’s relatively easy to do, it sustains local jobs, it’s effective.  And it’s needed; space heating represents about a third of our carbon emissions.

And before the peanut gallery chimes in: snowy and cold in Vancouver in February does not disprove climate change.  If anything, it may be the opposite: climate change is about weather extremes, and this recent snowfall broke records.  Google up global wierding, or drunk polar vortex, you’ll see.


There are a few resources out there for home owners who want to improve their efficiency; try, for instance,, or the City of Vancouver, here and here.

Written by enviropaul

February 7, 2017 at 12:08 pm