Bikeways now

We have had a couple of presentations to Council by the reinvigorated HUB Chapter for New Westminster. I have been a long-time supporter of HUB (through membership and donations), used to serve as a community representative on the Advisory Committee for Bicycles, Pedestrians and Transit (ACTBiPed), am now Chair of that committee, and even have my name attached to the city’s Master Transportation Plan as a community member of the Master Transportation Plan Advisory Committee, so I feel pretty close to this issue. I thought it was time to write a bit of an essay on where I think we are, and where we need to be going as a City when it comes to transportation. And it isn’t all good.

I need to start this by interject one of my usual caveats about how everything you read here is my opinion, coming out of my brain (or other internal organs, commonly spleen) and not official communication from the City. I am one member of a Council of 7, and they may or may not share my opinions on this stuff. There are staff in the City doing their jobs with much more engineering and planning expertise than me who may cringe in reading my relatively uninformed take. So nothing here should be taken to represent the thoughts, feelings or ideas of anyone or any organization other than myself.

The same goes for my random tweets that sometimes get picked up by the media. I was recently critical on-line of a change in the BC Parkway along my regular-job commuting route that made cycling along the parkway less safe for cyclists and pedestrians. After getting re-printed, I felt the need to state that I recognize New West has some work to do on this front as well, but I like to hope that despite our being slow at improvement, we are not actively making things worse. It is the pace of improvement that I want to lament now.

I am a little frustrated by our lack of progress on building a safe and connected cycling network in New Westminster. I understand a little more now in my role about why we have been slower to act than I like, but I think it is time for us to stop looking at lines on maps and start building some shit.

Up to now, work on the Master Transportation Plan implementation has emphasized things that I think needed to be emphasized in our transportation space – curb cuts, making transit stops accessible, and accelerated improvement of pedestrian crossings. these are good things that deserved investment to remove some of the barriers in our community that represented some obvious low-hanging fruit. We have also staffed up a real Transportation department for the first time, so we have engineers and planners dedicated to doing this work, and they have been doing some really great work.

We have built some stuff! There are areas we have improved, and though they are better than what was there previously, I cannot believe anyone would look at some of this infrastructure and see it as truly prioritizing cycling, and (more to the point) few of them meet the mark that we should be striving for – All Ages and Abilities (AAA) bike routes that an 8 year old or an 80 year old would find safe, comfortable and useable. As I am learning in this role, each project has its own legacy of challenges – resistant neighbours, limited funding, tight timelines to meet grant windows, unexpected soil conditions. Every seemingly bad decision was made with the best intentions as the least-bad-of-many-bad-options. But we need to do better, and that means spending more on better. 

So, much to HUB’s points, there are a few projects I think the City needs to get done soon, and I hope we can find the capital to make happen, even if they are not as sexy as some region-defining transportation links, they are fundamental if New Westminster is going to take the next steps towards being a proper 21st century urban centre:

7th Ave upgrades The existing temporary protected bike lanes on 7th Ave between Moody Park and 5th Street are getting torn up right now as scheduled water main and service works are happening under that street. I am adamant that permanent protected AAA bike lanes need to replace them. This is the part of the established Crosstown Greenway that sees the most non-active traffic, and is probably the least comfortable part as it also sees its fair share of rush hour “rat runners”. The rest of the Crosstown Greenway could use some enhanced traffic calming, pavement re-allocation, and cyclist priority in some intersections, but it is this 300m section where true separated lanes are the only way all users will feel safe.

Connection to the High School Related to this, the new High School will be ready for students a year from now, and we have not done anything to assure that students of the school can safely connect to Crosstown Greenway and the adjacent neighbourhoods. The sidewalks along 6th and 8th are barely adequate now for the mass of students that pour out of the school when a bell rings, and the new site is going to be more constrained for parent drop-off and pickup, so the City needs to build safe connections. In my mind, that means separated bike route along 8th Street to Moody Park and widened sidewalks along 6th Street to 7th Ave, but I’ll leave the engineers and transportation planners to opine on what we need to build – I just want to get it built so that the new school is one that encourages students to walk, roll, bike, or scoot there.

Agnes Greenway Bikeway Another major construction project in town will be starting the fall (hopefully), and is scheduled to be completed in 2023. At that time, the Pattullo, which is the second-worst crossing of a river in the Lower Mainland for bikes (Knight Street is worse, and the tunnel doesn’t count) will be replaced with what could be the best active transportation crossing in  the entire region – and it will see a concomitant increase in use. There is a lot of work being done in the City with the Ministry of Transportation to assure people landing in New West by bike or scooter have decent connections to the existing network. At the same time, we need to fix the crappy connections people trying to move east-west past the bridge now have to deal with. Agnes Street should be that connection for most of our Downtown, should provide proper AAA connections for all downtown residents to QayQayt Elementary, and can be the foundation for the much-needed-and-never-quite-done Downtown-to-Uptown grade-reduced route. This is as key to New Westminster’s Active Transportation future as the Burrard Street Bridge and Hornby Street bikeways were to Vancouver a decade ago. We need to see that vision, do it right, and make this the one gold-plated piece of bikeway infrastructure to hang all of our other dreams upon.

Uptown/Downtown connection Much like the Burrard Bridge example, the connections to the Agnes Bikeway are as important as the Bikeway itself. The Agnes Bikeway will only be transformational if it connects safely to the “heart” of downtown, which is and will continue to be the corner of Eighth Street and Columbia. It also needs to connect to a proper AAA route across Royal. HUB and ACTBiPed have talked at length about potential lower-grade routes from Columbia to Royal using the same thinking as “The Wiggle” in San Francisco, and a preferred route has been identified. However, the solution above and below Agnes are both going to require difficult engineering choices and potentially more difficult political ones.

Priorities set, that brings us to the bad part. Roads are expensive, and completely re-configuring how a road works is really expensive. Moving curbs, adjusting drainage, digging up the road, bringing in proper fill materials, asphalt, concrete, street lights, power poles, moving trees, epoxy paint – it all adds up. Right now cities like Vancouver budget about $10 Million per kilometre of separated bike route installation on existing roads. Long-term maintenance costs are likely lower than the driving-lanes-and-free-car-storage we have now on these routes, but there is no getting around that up-front ding to the budget.

Using the thumbnail estimate from Vancouver, the priorities above could total up to $20 Million, and my dream is to see this happen within the timeframe of our current $409 Million 5-year capital plan. About $155 Million of that is utility upgrades (water, sewer, and electrical), and another ~$100 Million is for the replacement of the Canada Games Pool and Centennial Community Centre. Somewhere in the remaining $150 Million we need to think about the cost of reducing the fossil fuel requirements of our fleet, pay for the current City Hall upgrades and the completion of the animal care facility in Q’Boro, among other projects. We have serious costs coming up – those $150 Million are already committed. And everyone who doesn’t love bikeways is going to hate them more when I suggest $20 Million over 5 years is about a 1% tax increase. I already get grief from some cohort in the City because I “talk too much about bikes”.

Fortunately, we are not alone. TransLink is investing in Active Transportation like never before, both in its role as the regional Transportation Authority, but also in recognizing that people are more likely to buy a ticket for SkyTrain if their 15-minute walk to SkyTrain is replaced with a safe and comfortable 5-minute bike ride. The Province recently released their Active Transportation Strategy, and at least one Federal Party in the upcoming election is hoping to see more federal money pointed at more sustainable transportation options as a campaign plank. Time to strike while the irons are hot.

In New Westminster, I’m going to be making the case that in the year 2019, the creation of safe AAA-standard active transportation infrastructure is not a “nice to have”, but is an essential part of our Climate Emergency response and the most notable missing piece of infrastructure in New Westminster’s quest to be the most accessible and livable city in the Lower Mainland.

Poe?

I get a lot of correspondence as an elected official. I try to read it all, and try to respond to most of it – almost all with the opening line “I’m sorry I am so late replying to this e-mail, I get a lot of correspondence as an elected official.”

There are those few letters that come in every once in a while to which I have no idea how to reply. Bravo? Thank you? Please let your care professional know you have access to the internet? I try hard to take every one seriously, but at times I feel like I’m being played. There is a name for the specific phenomenon I am talking about: the Poe.

Poe’s Law is an internet adage that says “Without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it is difficult or impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.”

This has been extended beyond its original intent as a characterization of religious extremism and has been applied to the wide variety of on-line crankiness. And once you recognize it (something that likely only happens to elected officials and local newspaper editors, I suspect), it changes how you view a letter like this, that we at New West Council received last week (personal info redacted out of common decency):

 We often get letters addressed to a wide reach of local and provincial elected types. The content here was, however, a curious mix: The Roman numeral date, the pejorative salutation, the way he spells “Apparatchik” correctly, but immediately uses “they’re” in place of “their”. We commonly hear…uh… unusual opinions that leave me questioning how they are even asking me to act on an issue, but in this case the ask is kind of benign if a little confused: Speak out against China doing something but let other countries do it (those other countries are allowed, as far as I know, but I digress…) So is this a slightly cranky guy venting his deeply felt convictions, or someone mocking Mayor West, and the rest of the recipients? I would have happily assumed the former, but see those two attachments to the e-mail? (ps: never open attachments to an e-mail unless your IT department has vetted them!). They are these two graphics:

OK, now I’m thinking he is having us on, so I Google the person who sent it. His name has many, many hits, mostly in the form of letters he has written to editors of local newspapers from Montreal to Spokane, often with the honorific “Rev.” added, to opine on everything from racism (he is against it), homophobia (also against), potential names of future NHL teams (interesting), pipelines (he is for them), Alberta Premiers (he is against them – past and present), and the viability of DC-Marvel crossovers. He even got a pro-Derrek Corrigan letter published a few years ago in the Burnaby Now.

So, seriously, I don’t know if the Reverend takes himself seriously, but he definitely has lots of time and opinions, and I’m not sure I have time to address them all, so I don’t think I’ll reply. But don’t let that dissuade you from writing me a letter, or asking me a question with that red ASK PAT button up there, I will try to get to it as soon as possible. If I think you are serious.

FCM 2019

The 2019 annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) was held in Quebec City at the end of May. I attended along with one other Councillor from New West and more than 2000 other delegates from across Canada. Here is a short version of what I saw during an action-packed three days.

Sessions:
The meat of any professional conference is the workshop sessions, where we can learn about the best practices, new ideas, and challenges of other municipalities across the country. I attended sessions all three days, including ones on the challenges and opportunities coming out of the upcoming federal election (read: funding!), the FCM National Funding Program update, 5G implementation, building diversity on our Councils, Smart City applications, and addressing affordable housing.

There was a lot there, but the last session was perhaps the most compelling, with a researcher from McGill talking about Short Term Rentals, their impact on Le Plateau neighbourhood of Montreal, and the challenges that City has run into in attempts to regulate it while their rental vacancy dips below 1%. It was compelling, and somewhat challenging…

One of these maps shows the AirBnB Listings in the Plateau neighbourhood of Montreal. the other is the *legally registered* AirBnB listings in that neighbourhood. I’ll let you figure out which is which.

Business:
These conferences also feature an AGM, where a few organizational Bylaw changes were discussed. Getting bylaw changes and annual financial reporting though with a delegation of more than 1500 people in the room was handled deftly by the table executive, using remote voting devices.

These devices were also used for voting on Resolutions. Compared to the UBCM or Lower Mainland LGA, there were very few resolutions, and most of them were aspirational asks more than specific requests for regulatory changes (cities are “creatures of the provinces”, so our regulatory interface with the federal government is slightly filtered). However, with minor amendments, all 9 resolutions were passed by the Membership.

Politics:
We had speeches from the leaders of 4 Federal Parties, all trying to sell their vision for how the Federal Government and local governments can work together – and why their success in the upcoming election is paramount to that. In the order they appeared:

The Prime Minister, unless I missed it, never referenced the leader of the Conservative Party, but at least twice directly referenced the suddenly-not-popular Doug Ford. Hard to tell if he was just trying this out because of recent news, or if this is the strategy, but the short message is: If you vote for the Conservatives, Scheer will do what Doug Ford is doing, and will cut funds to local governments for the services you need. Other than that, he attaches himself to popular mayors in the audience, promises to work closely with Cities, and not let pesky provinces get in the way (which is probably another shot at Kenney and Ford, but seems a challenge to our model of Federalism).

Scheer’s speech was a long exercise in coded words and dogwhistles, but in the end I guess they all are. He fears infrastructure funding will lead to deficits (strange thing to say to 2,000 municipal leaders looking for handouts), never mentions climate (though he does care deeply about the environment), but he hates the Carbon Tax because it “punishes innocent families”. His approach to housing is to let the market do its thing with less red tape (ugh, the market is what got us here!), and his solution to the opioid crisis is to somehow “hold China accountable..” I might say the entire thing was ugly, ignorant, and offensive, but I may betray my bias.

Jagmeet Singh was the first leader to open with a land acknowledgement, and the first to speak without a teleprompter. He had notes, but riffed off of them freely. His speech was good if unpolished. He promised a lot (pharmacare, broadband, infrastructure funding, removing barriers to post-secondary education), but to me the most telling part was that he was the only leader to link climate action to inequality and the need for a just transition away from fossil fuels. That was the message I wanted to hear (and increasingly, that is the message among people looking for climate action in Canada), and he delivered it clearly without equivocation.

Elizabeth May was the last speaker, she also opened with a land acknowledgement, and spoke without notes at all, best I could tell. Though the eldest leader, she spoke more than others about the need to listen to the youth and the duty we have to them (a very different message than the Trudeau and Scheer platitudes about “supporting families”). She spoke passionately about the Climate Emergency, and drew allusions to Dunkirk and Churchill. Though her speech lacked the substance of the other leaders, she was easily the most inspiring of the speakers.

If you want to watch the speeches yourself, you can scroll down the FCM Facebook page, where they were live streamed and are still available.

Overall:
FCM is a funny bird. It is much larger than our regional and provincial associations, and much like the Federal government, it at times seems disconnected from the day-to day. Though the message is reinforced all along that the Feds care about local government, and how local government is the order of government that has the most connection to people’s every day life, the FCM runs the risk of being too far from our everyday as to sometimes challenge me to think about local applications.

Jagmeet Singh made the comment during his Q&A that his father used to say “If the Federal government stopped working today, no-one would notice for a month, The provincial government might be missed after a week or two, but if the local government went way, you would notice almost immediately.” Water, sewer, roads, waste, parks, these things we interact with so ubiquitously that we take them for granted, and because in Canada we tend to deliver them really well, we take the system that delivers them for granted.

Part of the peculiarity of FCM is that it is a strangely rural conference. Canada has never been as urban as it is now: our biggest cities are growing fast, and our small towns are (with some notable exceptions) stagnant or hollowing out. Yet the 2,000+ delegates at FCM overwhelmingly represent smaller towns and rural areas. There are more members from Saskatchewan than from any other province, and the three Prairie Provinces have more members than Quebec and Ontario combined:Breakdown of the number of UBCM members by province, which clearly does not correlate with population.

Therefore the issues of rural areas (e.g. unmet demand for Broadband service) dominate the conversation over the issues of urban areas (e.g. unmet demand for public transit). There is a “Big Cities Mayors Caucus”, and I’m sure Naheed Nenshi gets more access to Trudeau than the Mayor of Podunk, Saskatchewan, but at the delegate level, the imbalance is palpable.

This was perhaps made more distinct by the phenomenon of organized (and no-doubt industry-sponsored) campaigns to get the “Support Fossil Fuels” message across getting larger every year. A booth handed out literally thousands of “Support Canada’s Energy” t-shirts, which was no doubt a challenge to the continued efforts at FCM to get the federal government to help local governments shoulder our disproportionate burden for greenhouse gas mitigation and climate change adaptation. We may have been at a bilingual conference in Quebec City, but Canada’s Two Solitudes are divided on different lines today than they once were:

So perhaps the most inspiring meeting of this year was an impromptu meeting organized by Rik Logtenberg, a new Councillor for Nelson BC to start a “Climate Caucus”. A group to coordinate local government calls for support in addressing the Climate Crisis. It was not part of the regular program, but was spread by word-of-mouth, and we had a packed room (standing room only!) representing a diversity of Canada. No free industry-supplied t-shirts, just people getting together to talk about shifting our thinking and supporting each other in the tough work ahead:

In the end, that is the best part of taking an opportunity like FCM – the power of networking formally and informally with elected officials across the nation that are trying and doing and sometimes failing the same way you are, so we can learn together. Scheming over beers has always been a powerful force for change.

Taxes 2019

If you own a home in New West, you should have received your annual tax bill in the mail in recent weeks. If your assessment went up by the city-wide average of 9.03%, then your tax bill went up over last year by 5.28%. If your assessment went up by more than 9.03%, then your tax bill went up more. Conversely, if your assessment went up by less than 3.7%, or if it went down, then your tax bill this year is lower than it was last year. I tried to show how this works in this blog post from a couple of years ago (with the numbers from a couple of years ago, mind you).

It seems an appropriate time for me to update some of my older posts comparing New West tax rates to others around the region. I’ve done this a few times in a few different ways for several years on this blog (here, here, and here, for example), and no matter what type of analysis you do, it is clear that some local pundits continue to perpetuate terminological inexactitudes when they claim that New Westminster has the highest taxes in BC, or Canada.

Recognizing my own suspicion of bias, all of the data below comes from the BC Government reports that annually compare tax rates and burdens across all local governments, and have been doing so for a while. Of course, this data is from 2018 (Cities are only now submitting 2019 budget numbers to them), but this is the best source to compare numbers across the province. You can read them all here and make your own comparisons if you don’t like my ham-fisted Excel skills.

I am going to reiterate a point I have made before: there are many ways to compare taxes between jurisdictions. Vancouver and Surrey collect more tax overall than New West, because they are much larger. West Vancouver has lower mil rates because their average house price is much higher, Creston has a much higher mil rate because its average house value is much lower. Even the use of “typical house value” to compare taxes is biased, because some cities like New West have more people living in rental and condo buildings than some others, so a “typical house” is much larger and more expensive than the median or average household occupies. So to answer the primary question: do New Westminsterites pay more municipal taxes than residents of other municipalities, I think the fairest comparison is taxes collected per capita:

Source: BC Government statistics, Schedule 703_2018

Of the 161 Municipalities in BC, ranked from highest taxes to lowest, New Westminster (orange bar above) is ranked #71, between Parksville (#70) and Saanich (#72). In 2018 we collected $77.7 Million in taxes from just under 74,000 people, making our per capita tax rate $1,051. Province-wide, $4.76 Billion in municipal taxes was collected from 4.3 Million people, making the province-wide average about $1,150 (red dashed line above). So New Westminster residents paid $100 less per year, almost 10% less, than the average resident of BC. Our tax increase in 2019 will eat into this gap, pushing us up by about $50, but at the same time, almost every other Municipality in the province increased their taxes at a rate between 2 and 7%, so our position will not shift substantially.

Naturally, there are massive differences across the province on the proportion of taxes paid by industry and businesses, and the level of services provided by the Municipality. The Lower Mainland is a bit different than the rest of the province in the level of services we supply and the cost of delivering those services, so it may be fairer to only compare New West to our Metro Vancouver cohort:

Source: BC Government statistics, Schedule 703_2018

New Westminster ranks 13th out of 21 GVRD municipalities in taxes collected per capita. The GVRD Municipalities collect about $2.6 Billion in Municipal taxes from 2.56 Million people, for an average of $1019 per person (the red dashed line). New Westminster collects slightly more (3% more) than this average. This has changed over the last couple of years for two main reasons: New Westminster’s Capital Levy we are using to fund our aggressive capital renewal plan (lead by the replacement of the Canada Games Pool) and the regional trend where there is a much higher rate of population growth in the relatively low-tax municipalities of Surrey and Maple Ridge compared to slower growth in Vancouver and (especially) the North Shore. We can talk about correlation/causation here, because it might not be what you think…

Lower Mainland LGA 2019

Last week I attended the Lower Mainland LGA’s annual conference. You paid for me to go there*, so as per my tradition, I like to report out on some of the highlights of what I saw and what I did.

The Lower Mainland Local Government Association is an organization that brings local government elected people together from across the “Lower Mainland”. Our Membership includes every Municipality and Regional District between Hope and West Vancouver, between White Rock and Pemberton. Every year we hold a two day conference over three days, and this year it was in Harrison.

The opening session included a notable speech by the Speaker of the House. Unexpectedly, this led to some media attention. In hindsight, it was bold for the Speaker to provide a speech to a room of elected officials and frame the speech around how elected officials are hated and not trusted, mostly because they are not good leaders. As a call to arms to be better leaders, or to take the role of leadership seriously (as most of the members assembled were new) it was a puzzling approach.

In this context, where your audience’s back is up, it is easy for some questionable examples and ham-fisted allegory to be received in the worst possible light. It was unfortunate, and ultimately failed to deliver the message that the speaker was hoping to deliver. The resultant media buzz was perhaps out of scale with the event, but the knives coming out so quick might have said more about why fewer people choose to put their names forward for leadership… but I digress.


Day two began with a moderated session about the Past and Future of the regional plan, or even of Regional planning. Gordon Price began with a description of the emergency that led our region to begin regional planning (the flood of 1948), and drew a parallel and contrast to our current slow-burning apocalypse, challenging us to ask whether we are planning to deal with it. “never waste a good apocalypse”. Patricia Heintzman and Patricia Ross brought perspectives from the Sea-to-Sky and the Fraser Valley – both addressing themes of responsible planning and the future of the environment and outlines some successes and challenges at the metaphorical edges of the metropolis, while Rhiannon Bennett reminded us that the growth of the region, planned or otherwise, did not occur in a vacuum, but on lands that provided prosperity to her people for several thousand years.

This was followed by a Munk-style moderated debate featuring four elected officials on the topic of Climate Action. Nadine Nakagawa and Christine Boyle debated in favour of the motion “We need a Canadian version of the Green New Deal” against Laura Dupont and… uh, me. At the end of the hour, we essentially tied (we didn’t move anyone in the crowd one way or the other) but we did manage to have a robust discussion around the strengths of different approaches to addressing climate change, and the role local governments can play.

Day two is the day we do the AGM, and Elections for the Lower Mainland LGA, followed by our Resolutions Session, where members debate various resolutions calling in senior governments to make changes in legislation or policy to make local governments work better. There were 34 resolutions, most of them approved, some with amendments, and you will have to wait until the full report comes out on line to see what went through and how.

New Westminster sent 4 resolutions forward:

Fresh Voices #LostVotes Campaign: Therefore be it resolved that UBCM request the Province of British Columbia make the necessary changes to allow Permanent Residents to vote in municipal elections in municipalities in British Columbia.

This and a similar resolution by Port Moody were supported.

#AllOnBoard Campaign: Therefore be it resolved that the #AllonBoard Campaign be endorsed and the TransLink Mayors’ Council, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, and the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction be asked to work with the provincial government and local governments to develop a plan that will provide free public transit for minors (ages 0‐18), free transit for people living below the poverty line (as identified by market basket measure, in line with the BC poverty measures), and reduced price transit based on a sliding scale for all low‐income people regardless of their demographic profile.

This and similar resolutions by Vancouver and Port Moody were supported.

Office of a Renters Advocate: Therefore be it resolved that the LMLGA and UBCM seek support of the Provincial Government to create an Office of The Renters Advocate, to monitor and analyzes renters’ services and issues in BC, and make recommendations to government and service providers to address systemic issues caused by rental shortages, renovictions, demovictions and housing affordability.

This resolution was supported by the membership.

Support of the Indigenous Court System: Therefore be it resolved that UBCM, FCM and LMLGA lobby the Canadian Federal and Provincial Governments to fund and expand the Indigenous Court System.

This resolution was also supported by the membership. So New West was 4 for 4 on the resolution front this year!


Friday began with addresses from representatives of the three Parties in the provincial legislature. Leader Andrew Wilkinson spoke for the BC Liberal Party, Deputy Leader Jonina Campbell for the BC Greens, and Selina Robinson the (apropos) Minister of Municipal Affairs for the BC NDP.

The highlights for me on Friday were the two sessions moderated by Justin McElroy of the CBC and stuff-ranking fame.  The first had Minister Robinson, Metro Vancouver Chair Sav Dhaliwal and UBCM President Arjun Singh talking about the work of local governments (remember, most of the elected folks in the room have only been in office for 6 months), and how to work together with senior governments to get things done. The second was a panel discussion on the future of regional transportation with the Chair of the TransLink Mayors Council, the Chair of the Fraser Valley Regional District, the MLA for the Sea-To-Sky region, and ELMTOT-friendly MLA Bowinn Ma.

Overall, the Lower Mainland LGA is an opportunity for local elected people to get together and talk about the challenges we see on our communities, and the innovative ideas we are using to overcome these challenges. I got to spend time chatting with the new Mayor of Squamish about her concise new Strategic Plan (one page, straight forward, and full of easy-to-measure goals!), to ca Councillor in Abbotsford about the challenges rolling out the Abbotsforward plan, to Vancouver Councilors about their (crazy?) new Council dynamic. I got to complain and brag about New West in equal measure. It is this networking with peers and connections we make that I value most from this meeting every year.

  • *I’m on the Executive of the Lower Mainland LGA, so part of my cost of attending was covered by the organization. Also, my attendance required me to take three unpaid days off of my regular work, so MsNWimby argues that she paid a substantial part of my costs as well…

Intersections

I’m disappointed we didn’t get some of these stepped-up intersection speed cameras in New West. Speed cameras in intersections that can automatically ticket speeders are a good idea, one that can only be opposed by those who like to speed through intersections at illegal speeds, selfishly endangering everyone around them.

Why not New Wet? Apparently the intersections where these cameras were activated were those ranked highest in accident history and  speed issues. Perhaps the silver lining here is that this suggests our intersections are relatively safe by those measures compared to other areas in the Lower Mainland. Though I recognize just by saying that I am going to see comments on social media with people listing their least-favourite intersection. Mine is shown in the picture above.

But hopefully this is the just the first phase of the program, and we may see more cameras in the future. I would also hope that the next phases look not only at raw speed or 85th percentile or accident history, but we may expand the warrant analysis to emphasize intersections where vulnerable road users are more common. Yes, Accidents between speeding cars can be expensive, and often leads to injury or death. but a speeding car hitting a pedestrian is almost always fatal. While injuries and deaths of people inside cars is going down, injuries and deaths of pedestrians is going up. Technology like this can correct that trend.

On the good news side, New West has begun to make changes that were suggested by the Walkers Caucus last year, and are implementing a program of standardizing (and lengthening) the timing of pedestrian crossing light signals. Starting with the pedestrian-activated signals such as the one on Sixth Ave at 14th Street, which have already been adjusted to allow sufficient time for more people to cross safely. The ACTBiPed is also spending some time this year looking at the use of “Beg Buttons” in the City. Despite some lengthy critiques of these in Urbanist circles, there are places where pedestrian-controlled signals serve to make the pedestrian experience safer and more convenient, and there are places where they definitely prioritize car movement over pedestrian movement, in direct contrast to the priorities set out in our Master Transportation Plan. Teasing out these differences, and howto fix it, is an interesting topic, and one we hope to review and create some policy recommendations to Council.

But as you can see above, making our intersections safer and more comfortable for pedestrians is going to take more than signal timing and activation timing. This is why I support intersection camera, and further suggest we need to step up enforcement in the good old fashioned cop-with-a-ticketbook format if we are going to change drivers behaviour.

Jane’s Walk 2019

I’m leading a Jane’s Walk on Friday afternoon.

Apologies it needs to be on a Friday evening and not in the weekend true, but I have to be out of town Saturday/Sunday, and promised a certain Mary I would put a walk on, so here we go.

For those not in the know, Jane’s Walks are a series of walks held on the first weekend in May in places around the world in celebration of Jane Jacobs’ contributions to making Cities more livable. There are probably a dozen walks in New West this weekend, and I highly recommend you pick a few and meet some neighbours.

My walk is going to start at 5:30pm on Friday at Moody Park pool, and we will wander east along the path through Moody Park and then 7th Ave towards Glenbrook Middle School. I’m not sure how far we will get, but depending on the conversation, we will walk for 60 or 90 minutes before our perambulations lead some of us, inevitably, to a pub.

The topic of the conversation I want to have with whoever shows up will be framed by the contentious (?) temporary bike lane installations on 7th Ave between Moody Park and 6th Street. There is a lot to say about that particular stretch (I’ve said some of it here and here), but the bigger question is – What does a true AAA (“All Ages and Abilities”) bike route look like in New West? What compromises are we willing to make in regards to loss of green space, loss of traffic space, loss of parking, to see a AAA route built? Can a AAA bike route ever be one where bikes share space with cars, or is total separation needed? How do those needs shift between – a trail through a park, a route along a busy street, and a quiet residential street?

I need to emphasize, I don’t have a lot of answers here, other than what is informed by my “gut feeling” (which is no better than anyone else’s) about what is safe for cyclists. I would love if people discuss and think about these questions along the way, and try to discover for themselves what the friction points are that prevent rapid shift towards a full integrated and safe bike network. If you read my blog regularly (Hi Mom!), you may be interested in coming along. After all, what better way to spend a sunny evening walking through your neighbourhood, meeting some neighbours, and talking about ways to make your community safer and more livable?

C’mon out, bend a Councillor’s ear. Meet a neighbour. Take a walk. Love your City.

Price Talk

I was fortunate to be able to attend the taping of a Price Talks podcast. It was a real transportation policy geek fest (and, alas, a real sausage fest). Jarrett Walker is a transit planning consultant, an author, and an academic with an incredibly cosmopolitan view of urban transportation systems. He has worked on 4 continents, and can see the universal truths expressed in the great variety of built forms in cities around the world. The conversation was wide reaching, from Coriolanus to Elon Musk, from the inescapable geometric truths of urban transportation to aesthetic as a guiding principle in urban planning. There were dozens of quotable nuggets in the talk, some I will be chewing on for a long time as I think about how to apply them to my neighbourhood and community

My favourite nugget, however, was the 4-minute summary of ride hailing and its impact on communities. You can skip to 1:09 to hear this as part of the Q&A at the end of the evening, but to fully appreciate his answer, you need to hear his earlier discourses on the phenomenon of Elite Projection, and how it is the scourge of most North American transit planning.

Walker is much more profound on this topic than I can ever be, but the short definition of Elite Projection is the tendency for the most wealthiest and most influential minority in a population to think what is good or attractive to them is best for everyone. It exists throughout hierarchical decision-making, and once you open your eyes to it, it is everywhere. In urban transportation, it is manifest in Musk’s The Boring Company and in “cute streetcar stuck in traffic” approaches to urban transit world-wide. There may be a few local examples: here, here, or even here.

The heart of his argument about ride hailing is best summed up in this quote (based on his observed experience in American cities where it has rolled out):

…it has been a great way to draw out the worst aspects of elite projection, because people who can afford it have become addicted to it, [and] expect as a matter of course that it will be available… [but] like anything to do with cars, it only works as long as not many people use it.

Part of the problem is that providing mass transportation in an urban area is not a profitable business. It never has been, and never will be. Uber and Lyft are losing billions of dollars a year, their underpants-gnome business plans being propped up by venture capital silliness, while they can’t even pay living wages or provide basic workplace protections to the people doing the labour (we aren’t allowed to call them “employees”). At the same time, they cut into public transit revenues while increasing traffic congestion making those transit systems less reliable, pushing customers over to the ride-hailing industry, exacerbating the impacts. He doesn’t even touch on how ride hailing demonstrably correlates with less safe roads for people in cars, pedestrians and cyclists, but he doesn’t need to.

The warning for Vancouver is that the introduction of ride hailing could be “really terrible” for our traffic systems and our livability, for obvious reasons. The promise of ride hailing is that it reduces parking demand by increasing traffic congestion – this is not conjecture, but the demonstrated experience around North America. That is no win at all.

For you Uber fans out there, Walker does provide a clear policy recommendation about how we can make ride hailing work in our jurisdiction without externalizing these real impacts, but I guarantee Francesco Aquilini and Andrew Wilkinson ain’t going to like it…

Give it a listen, it is a great conversation:

A Night with Jarrett Walker: Building Human Transit with Shakespeare, String & Elephants in Wine Glasses

Miner improvements?

I went on a bit of a rant last week in Council on pedestrian crossings, and it is worth following up a bit here to expand sometimes on the things I rant about. In this case the subject was something we can all agree on – making pedestrian spaces safer in the City – but the details of the discussion outline how difficult it can sometimes be, even when everyone is on the same page. The hill on Richmond Street provides a great case in point about how we want to do things differently, but are stuck with a bad legacy to clean up. And that costs.

The Fraserview neighbourhood is somewhat unique in New Westminster. Most of our community is based on a well established and dense street grid that reflects how humans move around their communities – a layout that is “human scaled”. The Fraserview neighbourhood was developed out of the abandoned BC Pen site in the 1980s, which was the Canadian peak of auto-oriented suburb design. This is not the fault of the council or staff of the time, or of the people who live there now, but a result of where we were and how we valued space as a society in the 1980s.

The buildings on this map are coloured by the decade they were built. See Sapperton and Queens Park with a blend of ages and traditional dense street grids, Fraser View with 1980s houses (red) and 1990s condos (blue) with the suburban road scheme so sexy at the time.

At the time, New Westminster built this strange little auto-oriented suburb in the gap between two dense urban community centres. Since the primary built form was “house with a garage facing the street and a private yard in the back” (note this is a generally unusual built form in New West!), the streets were designed with the same exact mindset – they will be used to move cars between garages, and not much else.

This resulted in some road design ideas that were the opposite of current thinking. Instead of straight lines and a dense grid to connect pedestrians, we build a meandering “arterial” road connecting capillaries of culs-de-sac. Of course these are ostensibly “family neighbourhoods”, so we kept the speed down to 50km/h by putting up a sign, and left plenty of road space for road-side parking and car passage. The curvy hill part of Richmond has wide 20m right-of-way between property lines, but the road profile part (travel lanes and sidewalk) are a pretty typical 14.5m. This feels wider partly because the sidewalks are less than the 1.8-2m wide we would shoot for in 2019, there is no buffer space between the sidewalk and the road, and the parking spots along the road are unmarked and not very heavily used. Add this up, and you have no visual “friction” giving drivers cues to slow down. Wide roads tell people to drive fast, it is human nature.

This is how the road was built in the late 1980s:

I like to think if we were building the road today, it would more like this:

But that is just a representative cross section. There is another issue that makes the pedestrian experience even more uncomfortable. If you look at the intersection of Richmond and Miner, where staff were asked to evaluate placing a crosswalk, you see the corners are rounded off to facilitate higher turning speeds:

The technical term for this shape is “Corner Radius”. In this diagram you can see the curb follows a curve with a radius (blue) of about 8m, and the effective turning radius (tracing the track a vehicle would actually use for a right turn) is closer to 15m. By modern standards, this is a crazy wide corner, more suited for a race track than an urban area. Reading up on modern urban streets standards, curb radii smaller than 1m are not uncommon, and radii bigger than 5m (15 feet) fall under the category of “should be avoided”.

The impact of such a wide radius is bigger than just facilitating faster turns, it also creates a variety of sightline problems. See how far back the stop line is on this corner? How far around the corner can a driver practically see? This results in the confusing stop, creep forward, peek, make aggressive move intersection action that opens up opportunity for driver error. This is made worse when there is no clear demarcation of where the parking zone ends near the intersection. Our Street and Parking Bylaw says you can’t park within 6m of the nearest edge of an intersecting sidewalk or crosswalk, but it is less clear where that 6m buffer is when the sidewalk geometry is like this. moving the stop line further forward creates a conflict with pedestrians trying to cross the street at a rational place – where the curbs are closer.

For pedestrians, these big radius corners increase the crossing distances, expanding the time that someone (especially a young child or senior citizen, who travel slower) is exposed to traffic. Crossing Richmond Street at this intersection, the distance between curb cuts is almost 20m, where the sidewalks are only 11m apart a few meters outside of the intersection:

So what do we do? There are lots of useful guides like these great NATCO manuals that show how an intersection like this can be made safer for pedestrians. We can narrow the road at the intersection, paint new crosswalks, and reduce the turning radius through curb bulges:

But my bad painting skills here represent couple of hundred thousand dollars in concrete, road paint, asphalt, curbs, soil, planting and storm drain realignment (never mind a complete re-design of Richmond Street to pull it into the 2000s as I showed in the cross sections above; that would cost millions). And this is one intersection in a City with more than 1,000 intersections, some better designed than others, some more used than others, some with worse safety records than others. I want to change this specific intersection tomorrow, but who is going to come to Council and ask us to raise property taxes by 0.3% to do it? And why do it here and not at the intersection that bugs you in front of your house?

All this to say that some changes are going to be made to Richmond to improve pedestrian safety, and three other intersections (8th Street at 3rd Avenue, 12th Street at Queens, 6th Avenue at 11th Street) that have been prioritized for this year’s Pedestrian Crossing Improvement program, totaling about $200,000 in work. The work is, necessarily, incremental, and because of that it is never enough, and never fast enough.

Be safe out there folks.

Active Transportation

I know I haven’t blogged about this week’s Council meeting yet, I haven’t had time to edit and get the post up. It’s coming, I swear. In the meantime, I want to get this out, because it has been in my outbox for a little while and it has suddenly become time sensitive.

The Provincial Government is asking the public about active transportation. I have been known to criticize the Ministry of Transportation in the past about their approach to “cycling infrastructure”, but I am going to hope that this is the start of a new approach. You have until Monday to answer their questions!

If you are too busy to write your own thing, you can go to HUB and fill in their form letter, but as an elected person, I like to receive input that brings something new – a 1000-person petition is not as powerful as 100 personal letters that each bring different nuance. So I encourage you to take a few minutes and fill in the answers yourself. If you want some inspiration, here are my answers I will submit this weekend:

Question 1: What does active transportation mean to you and how does it fit into your life?
Active transportation means healthier, safer, happier communities where youth are safe to ride a bike to school and the elderly are comfortable walking to the grocery store. It is about replacing fossil fuel dependence with transportation independence. When we build the infrastructure to support active transportation, we give more people the freedom of choice in how they move around their community, reduce their reliance on volatile international oil markets, keep more of their money in the local economy, build resiliency in our communities and connections between neighbors.

Question 2: What are some of the challenges in your every day life that prevent you from moving towards using active transportation modes? What are some of your concerns about active transportation?
As an active transportation user, and a local government decision maker, the biggest challenge I face is addressing the “gaps” in our systems that make active transportation less safe and less comfortable. I am lucky to live in a compact, dense community where most services are a short walk or bike ride away, but so many of my neighbours still feel it is unsafe to make the journey unless surrounded by two tonnes of steel, which in turn reduces the perceived safety for other community members.

Too much of our active transportation infrastructure is developed as baubles attached to the side of new automobile infrastructure. Sidewalks, crosswalks, overpasses, cycling lanes, and transit supports are evaluated in how they support or hinder adequate “Levels of Service” for automobiles, while the high LOS goals (fast, uninterrupted vehicle travel) acts to make active transportation space less safe and less comfortable. An overpass over a busy road is seen as a pedestrian amenity, when it actually serves to provide more space for automobiles to have unrestricted travel. The trade-off is usually a longer more difficult journey for a pedestrian and introduction of a new barrier for people with mobility challenges. We need to see active transportation alternatives as a solution to community livability, not as a hindrance to the flow of traffic.

Even the language of “transportation” vs. “active transportation” reinforces the idea that using your feet and your own body to move around is somehow lesser than – a secondary consideration to – using an automobile. I have to explain to people that I use transit to get to work, I use a bike to run errands, I walk to City Hall, like that is some sort of radical action instead of a rational and normal way for a person to live in on a modern urban city. Let’s switch that default, for the good of our communities, the good of our budgets, and the good of our planet.

Question 3: What is the most important action that government could take to promote active transportation? What is unique in your community or region that needs to be considered?
Of course, funding. Local governments are straining to provide services as our infrastructure ages. We receive 8% of the tax revenue in Canada, yet own more than 50% of the infrastructure. This inequity is sharpest when it comes to transportation infrastructure. Billions flow for highways and bridges that direct automobiles into our communities (with, admittedly, the requisite active transportation baubles attached), but the local improvements to help us move around within our communities are tied to expectations about “Level of Service” for those automobiles. The cycle is vicious.

My community has one of the highest active transportation mode shares in the province. New Westminster is a transit city, it is an easy city to walk in and the revolution in electric assist bicycles means that residents no longer need to be athletes to manage our hills. We have some of the lowest car ownership rates in Canada. This is not an accident, the City has a dense urban fabric that puts most services near where people live, we are concentrating our growth around these transit hubs and working to make our pedestrian spaces safer and fully accessible. Yet we are choked by through-traffic that makes all of our active transportation spaces less safe and comfortable. This load means we need to spend millions of dollars every year in maintaining our asphalt to provide the level of service through-traffic expects, while struggling to find the thousands of dollars to build better cycling, pedestrian, and transit-supporting infrastructure.

We need help making our transportation system work better for our community, but as long as that transportation funding is tied to our ability to get cars moving, to provide high automobile “levels of service”, we are putting out fires with gasoline.