Is better always the best choice? – Langley reporter writes about transit/infrastructure issues

The SkyTrain for Surrey Initiative would again like to send our applause and endorsement to a member of the community.  In recognition of his outstanding understanding of infrastructure projects and the realities that must be considered in the choices made for them, the Initiative would like to recognize Mr. Matthew Claxton, a reporter and blogger with the Langley Advance newspaper.

What Mr. Claxton has recognized in a recent editorial he wrote for a recent issue of the Advance is that there are realities in the designs and choices that are made for large-scale infrastructure projects.  He points out well that seemingly simple issues might be more complex than they really are, and there are serious considerations to the future that have to be taken into account in the design and planning process for these expensive projects.

He makes it clear at the end of his editorial what this article that at first might seemingly have to do with the City of Langley is for: how the same issues apply to the debate between the extension of SkyTrain or to build Light Rail Transit.

The realities of these projects and the realities of the rapid transit project in the South of Fraser (which may be a SkyTrain expansion or the creation of a new light rail system) that the region might soon be facing are very similar.  Profoundly, the statements he made and the information he provided are true to their word and their intent.

In his examples, the specially developed pen could be compared to a SkyTrain line (more advanced and generally more expensive, but suitable) while the pencil could be compared to a LRT line (older and more stable technology, but risky to try and quite unsuitable for this situation); likewise, the Nazi tanks can be compared to a SkyTrain line (more expensive but actually useful) while the T-34 tanks could be compared to a LRT line (cheaper but not immediately useful).

While a light rail transit (LRT) system might be cheaper up front in capital costs (although – and this is untrue to the examples presented – the technologies itself commonly used in LRT are actually more complicated than the technologies used in SkyTrain lines), it is possible that it may cost more to us in the end because it is likely that it will take a long time before the benefits of such a system are even seen – if there are any at all.

Is better always the best choice?

[LINK to Langley Advance site/article] – By Matthew Claxton, Langley Advance April 12, 2012

There’s an urban legend, spread by the internet and an old The West Wing episode, with a moral about simplicity versus complexity.

Supposedly, in the 1960s NASA realized that they didn’t have a pen that could write in zero gravity. So millions were spent to design a space pen for the Apollo astronauts.

The Soviets used pencils.

Sadly, the real story is almost exactly the reverse.

Early Mercury astronauts did use pencils in orbit, as did the Russian cosmonauts. But bits of graphite broke off and floated around the confines of a cabin, and the graphite and pencils could burn – a serious concern after the deaths of three men in the Apollo 1 fire.

So an independently developed pen was purchased, for $2.39 per pen. Pricey, by 1960s standards, but not that bad.

And the Soviets? They signed a contract with the same American company a year later, and got the same bulk discount that NASA did.

The real story is far more fascinating, because it forces us to think about the complexities of a seemingly simple issue. I would not have imagined that a pencil could be a hazard on a space capsule, but if a speck of graphite shorted out a critical system, it could be lethal.

So score one for complexity and technological superiority.

Even the stories where cheap and simple really did beat high tech and expensive turn out to be complicated.

To return to the Russians, (masters of the brutally simple mechanism) they created a relatively brutish machine that confounded their enemies: the T-34 tank.

The T-34 was created just before Nazi Germany foolishly decided to invade Russia. Hitler, who loved high-powered tanks, supported projects like the Tiger and Panther, powerful tanks that could blow apart just about anything else on the battlefield.

If they weren’t broken down, that is.

With their water-cooled engines and thousands of moving parts, the Tigers had a tendency to spend a lot of time under repair. The T-34s, on the other hand, were rugged and simple, designed so that a half-literate collective farm worker could figure out how to drive and repair one. Even more importantly, they were cheap to build. The Soviets followed the same credo as modern spam emailers: send a few thousand, some of them will get through.

But- in the early years of the war, German tanks killed a lot of Russian tanks. The Russian crews were badly trained. They had no radios. Stalin had spent a decade purging the Red Army, and as a side effect almost everyone in Russia who understood tank warfare had been shot, or starved to death in Siberia. The Russians had a steep learning curve before their cheap, reliable tanks were actually useful.

We face these questions about complexity, simplicity, and cost on a constant basis today, so there are lessons to be learned from both the space pen and the T-34.

If you’re designing a public transportation system, do you want it to be high tech and appealing to drivers? Then you want a light rail or SkyTrain system. But what if you want to change the system’s capacity rapidly, and build on the cheap? Then you want more buses. What about the F-35 fighter jets, versus unmanned drones? Build a wider, tolled highway bridge, or subsidize high-speed internet so people can work from home.

Of course, each choice has its own problems and quirks that can’t be found in the up front costs.

The simple alternative isn’t always simpler, the best isn’t always better, and the most expensive option might save in the long run.

Visit Matthew Claxton’s blog at http://tinyurl.com/7mwo2qj

at www.langleyadvance.com


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