Ask Pat: The CVG Gap

Zack asks—

When will there be a proper cycling connection between Cumberland and Brunette along E Columbia? Almost everyone rides on the sidewalk there.

I have no idea.

I’m not happy about that answer, that piece of terrible planning turned into infrastructure failure is one of the biggest active transportation pet peeves I have in the City. Now, I could blow smoke up your ass and say we are working on it, but I don’t actually think we are. And to understand why not is to understand what is currently frustrating me most about my job.

The Central Valley Greenway is a great piece of regional transportation infrastructure. After only the BC Parkway (which has its own frustrations), the CVG is the best integrated inter-community cycling and active transportation route in Greater Vancouver. Tracing pretty much the flattest and most direct route between Downtown Vancouver and the triple-point of Burnaby New West and Coquitlam, with a significant side-spur connecting to Downtown New West, the CVG is 24 km of relatively safe, pretty comfortable and pretty attractive cycling infrastructure opened to some fanfare in 2009.

It is definitely not perfect, and much of it falls far short of what we would consider “All Ages and Abilities” AAA bike routes. That in Burnaby they built a really great multi-use overpass at Winston and Sperling to cross the road and railroad tracks almost makes be forgive the adjacent 4 km where the route is a too-narrow, poorly-maintained and debris-strewn paint-demarked lane adjacent to a truck route where 4+ m lane widths assure the 50km/h speed limit is treated as a minimum. But I’m not here to complain about Burnaby, I’m here to complain about New Westminster.

At the time of the CVG opening in 2009, it was noted that some parts had “interim” treatments, and would be brought up to proper design in the near future. One of those is the section you mention, where the separated Multi Use Path (“MUP”) along East Columbia simply runs out of road room, and for 150m, cyclists are either expected to share sidewalk space with pedestrians (which is actually legal in this space, but that’s another Ask Pat) on a 6 foot wide sidewalk immediately adjacent to heavy truck traffic coming off on Brunette, or take a 360-m detour up a steep (13% grade!) hill to Sapper Street, then back down an equally steep hill a block later. It is a fudge, but tolerable as a temporary measure as we get this great $24 Million piece of region-defining infrastructure completed.

A decade later, the fudge is still there, and it is way less tolerable.

I have asked about this for pretty much a decade, and the answer seems to be that this fudge will get fixed when the intersection of Columbia and Brunette gets fixed. If you look at the traffic plan for Sapperton and the “Great Streets” section of our master transportation plan, you see that there is some notion that the Brunette/East Columbia intersection will work better if Brunette is made the through-route, and East Columbia is turned into a light-controlled T-intersection. This vision appears at times when discussing Braid and Brunette changes, or potential “solutions” to the United Braid Extension conundrum, or dreams of re-aligning the Brunette offramp from Highway 1 or the building of 6- or 8-lane Pattullo Bridges. When one or all of these things happens (so goes the story) then re-aligning this intersection will be an important part of “keeping things moving”, and then we will have the money/excuse/desire to fix the fudge in the CVG.

But none of those things have happened over the last decade, and there is really no sign that any of them are going to happen any time soon. There certainly isn’t any money in the City’s Capital plan to do this work, no senior government is offering money to do this work, and there is very little political will by anyone (for good reason) to spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars shifting choke points for drivers around in New West around. So all this to say my answer to your first question is No, there is no foreseeable timeline to fix this piece of the CVG.

But my frustration is this being just one more example of how the City of New Westminster is has still not adopted the principles of our Master Transportation Plan and it’s clear prioritization of active modes. This is still not the culture of the organization. If the improvement of this keystone regional active mode route is contingent on us spending 10x the amount it would cost on some “getting cars moving” project that we can slip this in with, it is clear where our priories lie. As long as making an active transportation route work is still accessory to motordom, we are failing our own vision.

The Booth (is back!)

The Booth, The Booth, The Booth is Back!

Last year, I threw together a foldable Lucy Booth as a fun bit of public engagement. It ended up being something I used at several locations over the summer, then pulled out a couple of times during the election campaign. It was a great way to get people talking about the City in a way that was hopefully non-threatening and fun. Recognizing that not everyone spends their lives on-line, and even those that do usually don’t want to read boring, 2,000-word essays about recycling centres, I was looking for a way to make this blog and my ASK PAT button analogue. It also supported the idea that engagement works better if you go to where the public is instead of expecting them to come to you.

After a hasty bit of re-stapling-things-together, the booth has come out again this summer. After a few events, I thought it would be good to run down some of the most common questions. Here in rough order of popularity, and somewhat paraphrased to allow for clumping, are the questions I was asked the most in 2019.

“How you doing!?” Pretty good! Busy, but it is all really positive stuff, so no complaints!

“What’s with the beard?” I don’t know, it just kinda happened after my winter vacation, and I’m curious where it is going myself.

“What’s happening with the Pattullo?” Not a City-led project, you should check with the Ministry of Transportation, but my understanding is that their Environmental Review is completed, and they are currently in procurement. I fully expect that there will be shovels in the ground early in 2020, and that the existing bridge will not be carrying traffic some time in 2023. And, no, they are not going to keep the existing bridge as a greenway or elevated park, the structural issues that require its replacement also require its removal for the safety of everyone around the bridge.

“When will the trail connect Pier Park to Sapperton Landing?” I don’t know. Best case scenario, if everything comes together (funding partners, environmental review, First Nations Consultation, etc.) then we may have something shortly after the new Pattullo Bridge opens. With the work going on with the Pattullo, it is highly unlikely (read: impossible) that we can get it built before they are done. We have the intent, there is a good model for what we want to build, we have some of the funding, but there are a few hurdles to leap before it is a done deal.

“What is the status of the QtoQ ferry?” Council recently voted to commit to a 5-year contract with a service provider for the QtoQ. There are a few service adjustments yet to come to make it work better, but the City is committed to keeping the service running to serve the Queensborough community and the Quayside for the foreseeable future.

“What is happening with the access to Pier Park?” You can see evidence of the new fully accessible pedestrian access at the foot of 6th street being built. The current plan is to have that connected to the end of the Parkade before Bosa shuts down the access through the middle of their construction site. Yes, they are going to be digging a big hole there, and for some time the only access from the River Market to Pier Park will be along Front Street between Begbie and 6th Street, or along Columbia if you need a lower-grade stair-free connection due to mobility barriers. At the same time, you may notice some work being done down by the Big W, where the timber wharf is being fixed up to carry service and emergency vehicle access to Pier Park for when the Bosa site is dug up.

“Where are the Pot stores?” Two have been approved, one Uptown and one on 12th Street, They just need to get their buildings set up and final business licencing stuff done, which I understand is happening right now. 3 more are still awaiting final Provincial approvals, which should come some time soon, but that is out of our hands.

There were lots of questions about traffic, most of them parochial concerns about one corner or intersection. These are always interesting in that they often bring up issues I likely would never see or hear about if I didn’t do this, because everyone experiences moving around the City in a different way.  There were also a few inquiries about Parks and amenities – especially when the Arenex replacement will be done (next spring).

There housing situation was on top of some people’s minds still, with a few people feeling real housing stress. It was great to be able to tell them that the City is being proactive, and if they feel like their Landlord is headed towards renovicion or otherwise not acting in good faith, they have people in City Hall who have tools to help them. There were also several people who expressed real appreciation that New West has been so proactive on protecting affordable housing, and new residents loving living here (see below).

I was grilled for a while by a brand new Canadian who asked what a City Councillor even was, and what it meant to be elected, what training I needed, etc. This was interesting because the conversation caused me to pause and think about the things that we take for granted about our system of government, and try to explain why the system we have is a good one, down to the details. The idea that just anybody can sign up and run to be Mayor and end up running the City was quite amusing to this person. How does that make sense!?

Finally, one trend I noticed at Fridays on Front especially was the number of people who introduced themselves as being new to New West, and excited about all of the things happening here. They commonly wondered how to get more connected to happenings in the City. So take this as a warning, Stephen O’Shea, I sent them all to you to let them know what cool stuff is happening in the City. But this is something I send back out to the New West universe – How do we connect all of these new residents to events in the City? Are Twitter and Facebook and Instagram the main bulletin boards?  The Record arts section? Just looking for posters at Old Crow? In this job, events fill up my inbox, I honestly don’t know how the rest of you connect.

Anyhow, The booth is now pretty sturdy, so expect it to come out a bit more before the weather turns. Note the questions above had a pretty strong Downtown bias, as I have not yet set up in Uptown this year, but will soon. I have also never done this in Queensborough, as I haven’t thought of a good location yet, but that is part of the work plan.

And remember, if you have a pressing Ask Pat question, push that red button up top there, and I will try to answer it!

Ask Pat: Recycling

This is not strictly an “Ask Pat”, but an e-mail I received from a resident. As the conversation was timely and I wanted to take the time to write a complete response, I asked the writer if I could copy the letter (with a little editing for space and to remove personal info) and answer on my Blog, and she agreed. So here goes:

Resident asked:

I would like to add my voice to the chorus of those New Westminster residents who are dismayed and, frankly, a little incredulous, that the recycling depot is being removed from our community. At a time when it seems the entire world is bending over backwards to reverse the damage of our disposable society, New Westminster is going in the opposite direction by making it harder for residents to do the right thing.

If one of the main motivators behind the decision was to save money, I suspect we are going to spend as much as we were going to save to appease the significant number of concerned (read “outraged” from much of what I’ve been reading and hearing) citizens. Council made a mistake by not having a proper consultation with residents about this. (And we know that the process was lacking simply by the number of us who were surprised by the move.) It seems as if burying the removal of a well-used community service in the construction activities of another much needed community amenity was purposeful. If not, it suggests that our respected Mayor and Council are really less dialed into the community than they care to think.

As reasonable as you thought the move and as short-sighted and backward as it seems to many of the rest of us, I do understand that we are stuck with it. In the interest of being more positive than negative (which may not seem to the case at this point in my missive), I would like to offer some constructive suggestions to get us back on track saving the earth. I understand from latest reports we only have 18 months, so I suggest we get cracking:

  1. Some of us with big yards cart up to 25 (!!) bags of leaves and miscellaneous crap that drop from the mature trees/yards. The quick jaunt to the depot will be no more, so how about unlimited pickup of yard / compost waste bags from September 1 to December 31.
  2. Start picking up glass, styrofoam, and plastic wrap in our blue bins (or another TBD bin). This is an obvious one. The condo I used to live in at least took glass, not sure why this is not possible in QP.
  3. Dedicated ongoing mini-stations (partner with existing NW businesses?) for batteries, cardboard, lights, paint, etc. This seems to work well with the Salvation Army and electronics but because of the increased density down at the water front, this is becoming a more difficult drop point.

There are a ton of smart, thoughtful people in New Westminster who will have more and better ideas than these. I have no doubt that the best solutions will come from residents. At this point, any attempts to placate an engaged and rather intelligent audience with platitudes about the “5 minute drive” to the new station may fall on deaf and already inflamed ears.

I would be delighted to learn how Mayor and Council are planning to develop solutions and would of course be prepared to contribute to the process.

Unfortunately, you are probably right that we have not effectively communicated the situation with the recycling centre. Of course, we also haven’t made any changes yet. We have, however, committed to long-term partnerships with adjacent communities to share some recycling costs a year down the road (as I talked about in this Council report) so the process of reviewing how we provide recycling services is ongoing. This is recognizing the space problem on the current CGP site, but we cannot ignore the other issues impacting our regional EPR systems.

Every time we make any change in the City, we are met with a loud chorus of calls to maintain the status quo, usually with little acknowledgement of the pressures behind the changes. And to that point, you are right, we should have done a better job communicating those challenges.

I take a bit of umbrage at the idea that Council has tried to bury this or hide the reality of the challenges in regards to recycling and space on the CGP site. We are still trying to understand what changes we need to make, and how we can support a system that works as well as possible for all users in our City. The idea that we are sitting in a back room trying to find the most devious way to undermine the environmental efforts of our own residents plays well in the barber shop or on a politically-motivated on-line petition, but is ridiculous on the face of it.

The location of the current recycling centre is problematic. We are committed to building a new 114,000+ square foot aquatic centre and recreation facility adjacent to the current Canada Games Pool. We have also committed to keeping the current pool and Centennial Community Centre operating and programmed during construction. That means that it will be a 2- or 3-year period where much of the existing parking for the CGP, CCC, and the Royal City Curling Club (which also hosts gymnastics programming and roller derby in the summer) will be covered by construction and construction staging. To keep these major community destinations operating during construction means impacts on the all-weather field, the current recycling centre, and even how Fire Rescue uses their space. As we move forward on construction planning, these compromises are still being worked out, but suffice to say space will be very much at demand on the site. The road accessing the current recycling yard will most certainly NOT be accessible for much of that period, as accessing it would require driving through an active construction site. This means status quo is not viable, so we need to look at what our other options are.

I want to address your suggestions, While recognizing that our recycling system (in New West, in BC, and across North America) has a bunch of inherent complications that are not clear to the general public. This is likely because successive governments have made (in my mind, misguided) efforts to make recycling as seamless and simple for the waste-generating public as tossing trash in the garbage was. This is based on a perverse idea that for North American consumers to “do the right thing”, it must be as easy as doing “the wrong thing”, and preferably cheaper. Unfortunately, responsibly managing our waste streams is neither cheap nor easy, and if we try to make it so, the responsible part inevitably goes away.

To modify an old adage: Cheap, Easy, or Environmentally Friendly. For waste management, you can pick any two.

So to the suggestions:

1: The removal of green waste from our garbage stream was and still is a good thing. The City supports it by allowing you to place paper yard waste bags (up to 50lbs per bag), next to your green bin for collection. This comes at a significant cost for the City (hassle + staffing + >$100/Tonne in disposal fees), but this is offset a bit in reduced cost compared to that green material going into the garbage. We are spending a bit more to do the environmentally friendly thing here and make it easier for residents who are fortunate enough to have a big yard. We are already doing what you are suggesting.

2: We can’t put glass, Styrofoam, and plastic bags in our blue bins. Simply, there are no services available in the Lower Mainland to separate those wastes at the MURF (“MUlti Re-use Facility”), and no market for the recycled materials that result. Your old condo may have had a separate glass receptacle, it may have had an older “Dirty MRF” contract that took glass, but dollars to donuts that contract no longer exists, or they may simply been taking the mixed waste to the landfill/incinerator. There are, however, several places in the City  and nearby (see below) where you can take Styrofoam or soft plastic, though these services are becoming strained as the market for the recycled material is shifting.

Some Cities (e.g. Vancouver and Burnaby) still take glass in separate curb-side bins. When New Westminster decided in 2011 to move towards comingled collection of recyclables I spoke out against it, because it was my opinion that we were sacrificing the longer-term more environmentally-friendly approach for the cheaper and easier in the short term ones. It is possible that I was under-informed at the time and that the change made perfect sense with where it looked like recycling was going in 2011. There is no doubt we saved a bunch of money in the last decade. But now we need to work within the limits created by that decision. I am almost certain that no-one in the City wants to spend the money to go back to curbside separation, just to make it easier to manage the glass waste stream.

This speaks to something else I think we need to have better discussions about: recycling glass jars may not “the right thing” when it comes to recycling. Glass is inert (i.e. it does no harm environmentally when landfilled) and it’s value as a raw material is very limited outside of a few very niche product streams that are of questionable economic value and likely result in equal or more energy and resource use once full life cycle costs are considered. As we have a necessarily limited budget to manage waste streams, there may be better cost-benefit approaches as far as the environment goes than subsidizing the use of glass peanut butter jars. But I’m headed down a rabbit hole here, so let’s get back on track.

3: There are drop-off points around the City for these things, and many of them are indeed part of local businesses. London Drugs takes batteries. Save-on-Foods takes plastic bags, Rona takes paint, the EnCorp Return-it businesses take a variety of wastes that can’t go in your recycling bin. There is even a Metro Vancouver tool to map out where you can take any material if you want to recycle it (and there is an App for that, natch). Enter you city and your material, and out pops a map like this:

For plastic bags there are a lot of places, for Coffee Pods there are only a few (because coffee pods are evil and the environment got screwed the moment you bought them). The larger point, however, is that there is no single recycling stream, there are many. Even the current City recycling depot takes many things but not everything, and the replacement depot we will share with the Tri-Cities will take a wider variety of things than the current depot. In one sense, it will be easier because more things can go to the one spot. In another sense, it will be less easy, because it is further away for many people who are accustomed to using the current facility. Some of them may make the extra trip, some may decide to use another facility closer to them, depending on what they are trying to dispose of. Your example of the Sally Anne and electronics demonstrate that people have different motivations for using different spots (should these locations be near densified communities to allow non-auto-dependent drop off, or away from them because traffic in dense areas make drop off harder?)

Every recycling stream has its own inherent complications. Collecting plastic seems like the quick win, but it is really complex. There are varieties of plastics, and introduction of the wrong type of plastic (or a metal film attached to a plastic, or a shard of broken glass) into a stream can pollute it and remove most or all value that might be attained from recycling. Never mind when people inadvertently or ignorantly toss a little bit of organics or (gross) biohazard like a diaper or dog waste into the mix – often this means the entire load needs to go to the landfill. Because of this, the wholesalers of the recycleables will pay the city a little bit for some recycle materials, in the order of $100/tonne for most plastics, if there is a staff person attending the collection and assuring the load is “clean”. Without that attendant, we would likely need to pay $100 to have someone take that same tonne of material. And the material is as likely to be “recycled” into fuel for the local concrete plant as to be made into new consumer items. I don’t think that is the kind of recycling that most people would consider a good thing.

I guess a lot of this is addressing your final point, fully recognizing that some of my writing here may come across as dismissive or defeatist. I have been working in sustainability, rabble-rousing about trash, and wailing on-line about recycling for more than decade (I have been known to tour waste recycling facilities on my vacation even before I was elected to Local Government!), and I am still only beginning to learn the complications inherent in these systems. Meanwhile, the ground below our feet is shifting all the time. I can almost guarantee you Mayor and Council are not going to come up with some clever idea to make our waste stream easier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Yes, New Westminster is full of smart, engaged people, but there are teams of engineers and planners in local governments, Metro Vancouver, RecyclingBC, and similar organizations across the continent working to address these complex issues. There are professional people whose entire careers are based on this work. I put my confidence in them to come up with solutions.

That said, the role of Mayor and Council is to help communicate these potential solutions, and to hear from our residents and businesses what kind of solutions they would like to see applied. We also need to sometimes explain why we won’t apply them if they ultimately don’t meet our goals, no matter how sexy they look in that Facebook video. The hardest part of our job is to be clear about the cost/ease/sustainability compromises of all the solutions offered (as translated to us by actual subject matter experts) so that the public can let us know if the balance we strike is the right one. I think we will find a way to help people get more of their waste into recycling, but it will definitely be looking different in the decade ahead than it does now.

Unfortunately, the compromises to be considered cannot be summarized in even this stretching-to-2,000 word essay, never mind a simple on-line petition. There are no simple answers, but we need to continue to work on addressing our waste stream, and to start having more serious conversations about the upstream management of materials before they enter our waste stream. We had it pretty good thing going for the last decade: organics recycling came on stream, and people across Asia were happy to take our mixed plastics and papers and electronic waste. We managed to keep the cost of waste management in the City down relative to other costs, in part because of these things. It is clear those good times are coming to an end, and costs are going to be going up because of regional and global socio-economic trends. I guess the bright light in the current inevitable move of the recycling centre – this shift of the status quo – is an opportunity to open this discussion about what the next phase is in managing our waste.

ASK PAT: Bees and Boulevards

CN asks—

Are there any plans in New West to plant bee-friendly/drought resistant native plants in medians and other city-managed land? I’ve noticed many enterprising residents have taken this task on themselves by replacing grass with curbside gardens that attract pollinators but I think there is a lot of opportunity for a city initiative in this area.

If you consider trees to be bee-friendly and drought resistant, then yes! But I think you had something else in mind, so before I talk about the trees, I’ll talk about boulevard maintenance and pollinators.

“Boulevards” are the colloquial for that metre or two of grassy area between the road and the sidewalk in front of some residential properties in New West . If you have one in front of where you live, you most likely don’t own it, but you are responsible for some maintenance of it. See this diagram put out by the City:

Image
(above is official communications from the City, nothing else I write here is official communications from the City. It is kind of important that people recognize this, so I try to point it out whenever I can)

You may have noticed some boulevards like the one in the photo above are not your typical grass-with-the-occasional-tree, but have shrubs, flowers, even garden boxes. This may actually, technically, be against the law.

The City’s Street and Traffic Bylaw states:

6.30 An owner of land shall:
1 cut grass and weeds on the Boulevard abutting that owner’s property;

And

8.10 No person shall:
1 significantly alter a Boulevard without the consent of the City Engineer;

So that reads to me like you need permission to do anything on your boulevard except mow the grass and maybe water the tree, which is the thing you are you are required to do.

That said, some people have clearly done more, planting flowers, vegetables, and shrubs. Some have even gone so far as to install garden boxes, faux golf courses, and (I am not making this up) life-sized sculptures of harbour seals. The best advice I can give you is that you should probably not do anything that is a violation of City Bylaws. But, if you were to do something good for the environment like put a diversity of pollinating plants in your boulevard, I would avoid doing anything that will rise the ire of the City Engineer or Bylaw officers, by perhaps following a few tips:

Keep it neat so the neighbours don’t complain. Keep it modest so that it doesn’t restrict views or ingress for emergency responders. Don’t let it intrude into the sidewalk space making the sidewalk less accessible for your neighbours. I would strongly recommend against putting any kind of structure, even garden boxes, on the boulevard, as they can create a hazard, and the City may have to remove them (at your expense!) if they need to access the boulevard for utility maintenance or anything of the sort. Remember the boulevard doesn’t belong to you, so don’t be surprised if the City one day has to remove anything you put there, either to dig up utilities or do sidewalk or curb and gutter repairs – if it is valuable to you, the boulevard is not a place to store it. Also, you need to be very, very careful about digging in the boulevard. Anything more than a few inches down and you may run into utilities (water, gas, fiber optics, street light power, etc.) and breaking one of those lines could be an extremely expensive fix for you, or even dangerous. Finally, any digging, piling soil, or installing things like planter boxes within the critical root zone of the City’s boulevard trees is a violation of the City’s Tree Protection Bylaw. The root zones are really sensitive to damage or compaction.

Now, back to the City’s plans. Yes, we are working on pollinator gardens (I even talked about this during the last election campaign). I don’t think these will be on City boulevards so much as replacing some less ecologically diverse areas of green space in City Parks. Replacing programmed grassy spaces, or planters that have traditionally held annual flower plantings with native and pollinator-friendly plant species has already begun with our first installation at Sapperton Park with help from the NW Horticultural Society. And hopefully more will be coming from this soon, though I am not sure our public boulevards will shift this direction. As beautiful as pollinator gardens are for bees and hummingbirds, they definitely challenge our traditional aesthetic ideas of public space (nature is messy, Colonialism likes sharp lines), and of course operational changes would have an impact on landscaping budgets that we would need to consider. So progress, but probably slower than you might like.

As for trees, we are finally at a point where we can begin the serious tree-planting part of the Urban Forest Management Strategy the City adopted a couple of years ago. It has been a bit of time in coming, as staff first wanted to put their energy into getting the new Tree Protection Bylaw operating smoothly, and get caught up on some of the tree pruning and maintenance backlog (it makes sense to stop trees from going away before we start the work of putting new ones in). The plan is aggressive, with almost 12,000 new trees planned in 10 years. Most will go on City Boulevards prioritizing neighbourhoods like the Brow and Queensborough where the tree canopy is not as dense, and in un-programmed green spaces in City parks. There is a real short-term cost to taxpayers for this program, but our willingness to invest today will make for a much more livable city in the decades ahead.

The phrase I have been repeating since we started this Urban Forest Management Strategy is the old saw “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today”. Well, today has come, and I’ll see you in 20 years.

Ask Pat: Columbia & McBride

C D asks—

Just wondering if anything can be done to keep vehicles from running the red right turn light at Columbia Street and McBride. I walk this way everyday from Columbia Stn to Victoria Hill and it’s an enjoyable walk until I get there. Today a vehicle stopped only to be passed on the left by a vehicle that was behind the stopped vehicle. This is a daily occurrence just on my walk but I know this happens to other pedestrians and cyclists. Someone is going to be killed. Perhaps we can have a railway crossing arm that can come down?

I hate this crossing. I have railed about it in the past, and even wrote a blog post about it here back before I was elected and when I was little more sassy than I am now (there is a funny story in here about how an outgoing city councillor tried to use that blog post to scupper my first election campaign – but that’s a long digression). Even since then, there have been suggestions to fix the crossing and the signage and lighting has been changed to better address the confusion drivers seem to have. I do not think there will ever be a physical barrier installed in that spot and we (vulnerable road users) are just going to have to keep acting with an overabundance of caution until the entire thing is torn up and replaced along with the Pattullo Bridge replacement, which will be starting in the next year or so.

But why wait and not do something sooner? Because there is no obvious engineering solution that meets the current design code and is remotely affordable to do. People often suggest “what cost can you put on saving a life!?” when I say something like that, but I need to point out that this is one of more than a thousand intersections in the City, and by technical evaluation and statistical analysis it is not the most dangerous one for pedestrians by far. Those analyses are the way that staff decide which intersections to prioritize the (necessarily) limited budget of time and money into pedestrian improvements.

For example, the unmarked pedestrian crossing at 11th Street and Royal Avenue is current Pedestrian Enemy #1, so that block of Royal is currently being reconfigured to make it safer. There are a few other priority crossings, and staff are constantly updating the priority list and figuring out what interventions provide the best cost/benefit ratio. I’m not a transportation engineer, so I have to rely on their analysis when it comes to determining relative risk and how to prioritize to most effectively reduce pedestrian risk. Either that, or rely on anecdotal feelings about different intersections, but I think the former serves the community better.

I hate to say it, but “someone is going to get killed” is not a characteristic that separates McBride and Columbia from most urban intersections. Although New Westminster has been fortunate in the last couple of years and have not suffered a pedestrian fatality, the reality is that the ongoing trend towards improved driver and passenger safety is not reflected in the pedestrian realm. In Morissettian Irony, it is getting more dangerous to be a pedestrian around “safer” cars. There are several alleged reasons for this, but the most likely one being the increased size, mass, and power of vehicles with which vulnerable road users are meant to share the road. The only logical response to that is slower speed limits (working on it) and better design of intersections. But with 1,000+ intersections in a little City like New West, and many that need expensive interventions, that is not a quick fix.

I am more convinced every day that the real fix is more than engineering, though. This intersection is one where there is signage, lighting, a painted crosswalk, and yet some significant percentage of drivers just don’t follow the rules. Are they unaware, inattentive, or do they just not care? Likely, there is a Venn diagram where these three factors overlap, and no amount of engineering can fix all of these.

This has me more frustrated every day, and more wondering how we are going to get the real culture change we need to make our pedestrian spaces safe. We need to change the culture of drivers, of law enforcement, and of the entire community to address the fact people in cars are killing people who are not in cars, and that threat is making our cities less livable. We need to educate people about the actual risk they are posing to others every time they step into a car. And we need more active enforcement of the specific traffic laws that serve to protect vulnerable road users, because you apparently cannot engineer negligence and stupidity out of road users.

And worse, every time a City tries to build engineering to protect vulnerable road users, such as better crossings, longer cross signals, separated cycling infrastructure or curb bump-outs, we are bombarded by entitled drivers whinging about how pedestrians and cyclists don’t follow the rules (just read the comments). This despite clear evidence that the vast majority of pedestrian deaths are a result of the *driver* breaking the rules. This is a cultural problem rooted in entitlement, and I don’t know how to fix it.

To be clear: we need to acknowledge that the automobile is the single most dangerous technology we use in our everyday life, and stop being so blasé about the real risk and damage it causes. We also need to stop telling ourselves lies like automated electric cars are going to make life better – they demonstrably are not. But that is another entire blog post.

Ask Pat: Smoking Bylaws

Norm asked—

I live in a low-rise condo in New West. Our Strata bylaws prohibit anyone from smoking in common areas, including decks and patios. The resident in the unit below me is a smoker. He stands in the patio doorway of his unit and holds his cigarette outside. He also blows the cigarette smoke outside. If I have my patio doors open, the smokes comes directly into my unit, which is several times a day. It’s a problem year-round, but obviously worse during the summer. After many complaints to the Strata Council, they say there is nothing they can do because technically he is standing inside his unit. I’m wondering if Bylaw 7583, 2014 3(p) would apply in my situation?

I was just flipping through Bylaw 7583, 2014 yesterday and…. um, no, I’m kidding, I had to look this up. And it wasn’t the easiest Google.

The City’s Smoking Control Bylaw 6263, 1995 regulates smoking within the limits of the City’s jurisdiction. Bylaw 7583, 2014 is an amendment to that Bylaw which includes your cited Section 3(p). Altogether it reads:

3. No person shall smoke:
(p) within 7.5 metres of any opening into a building, including any door or window that opens and any air intake;

Which sounds like a slam-dunk, except that Section 4 of the Bylaw reads:

The provisions of this Bylaw do not apply to private residential properties

So just like a homeowner is allowed to make rules about smoking in their own house or backyard, your strata is allowed to make such rules about smoking around doors, balconies, and common areas on your strata Lot. And I feel your pain, as MsNWimby and I once lived in an apartment where the person downstairs was a smoker, and there were no rules preventing them from second-hand fumigating our apartment. If your strata has an anti-nuisance Bylaw, and you manage to argue to the strata council that your neighbour’s action constitute a nuisance, you might get some relief, but unless one or the other of you move, there is no quick fix here. Unfortunately, there is also not much technically or legally the City can do.

This is, I suspect, going to become an increased problem in the next short while as cannabis legalization causes those who choose to use the product to be less bashful about it, and strata councils are going to be uncertain how to manage it.

The enforcement of smoking laws is really difficult for a City – the nature of the offence is that it is short-lived and ephemeral. There are varying and possibly overlapping rules between private property, city property, and other public property (i.e. enforcement around New West Station) and our Bylaw officers do not have a lot of power to detain or force people to give them ID.

Alas, I don’t know what we can do other than rely on public education and peer pressure to manage the nuisance, and it seems to me that there is currently no public pressure to change the behavior of smokers. I sat near New West Station the other day for 30 minutes watching person after person stand right next to a “No Smoking” sign and light up. Every single one of them tossed the butt on the ground. The tossed butt alone is a $200 fine, but not a fine anyone enforces, because cigarette butts are the last bastion of free littering, despite their significant impacts on our storm drainage systems and river ecosystems. Smokers don’t seem to give a shit, nor do most of the public it seems.

I’d love to see if a Bylaw crackdown would work to address this, but also recognize much of this behavior is by people already marginalized and for whom interactions with the Strong Arm Of The Law could have seriously negative consequences. There is also the addictions issue – being addicted to nicotine is a medical condition for which there is limited access to support, especially for marginalized populations. Unlike alcohol, smokers cannot go into a pub to get their fix, and if they are lower income, they are more likely to live in a setting (rental or other shared housing) where they are legally not able to use it in their own home. Parks and most public places are also illegal. They are addicted and suffering from a prohibition – not a legal one, but a geographic and socio-economic one. We can debate the addictive properties of cannabis, but the situation is essentially the same.

So short version is I don’t know what to do. In your condo or as a City. You can check to see if your building’s nuisance bylaw is any relief, but I suspect that is a long row to hoe, with questionable results. The City could have Bylaw Officers and police walking the streets telling people to put those things out, handing out fines if appropriate, but I am not sure it is the way to change behavior or community standards, and I wonder about our actual ability to collect on those fines and the potential for further marginalizing people. I’ve banged my head against this sine I started on Council, everyone agrees that someone should do something. I’m open for suggestions.

ASK PAT: Staff and audits

Bruce asks—

Hi Patrick. Do you have a comparison of staffing levels by municipality as a percent of population / households / tax base in the lower mainland. If so, where does NW fare?

Has consideration ever been given to staff reductions?

Are you in favor of auditor general audits of all municipalities and efficiency comparisons?

This is an interesting collection of questions, and they seem to be leading somewhere, but I’ll take them all at face value and answer best I can.

Short answer to your first question is no. I have tried a few times to do a comparison across Lower Mainland communities on staffing levels, but the data is hard to come by, and it is especially hard to compare apples to apples on the topic of municipal staffing. Even if we put aside confounding factors (the type of police service a City runs, different services provided like New Westminster’s electrical utility or White Rock having their own water supply, and situations like the North Vancouver’s sharing of a Recreation Commission), there is no definitive source of data to determine what any City’s “FTE” (“full time equivalent”) staff counts is, other than our own. This is just not one of those things publicly accounted for in any standardized way. Even CivicInfo, your usual one-stop shop for municipal stats, had poor response rates last time they tried to survey local governments on their staffing levels. (note –New Westminster is one of the few Lower Mainland communities that responded):

I may ask what you would expect staffing numbers to tell you that isn’t already accounted for in budgetary comparisons between Cities? New Westminster spends less per capita on municipal operations than the average across the region, and our wages are (slightly) below average compared to our cohort communities, so it would be hard to imagine that we have comparatively higher staffing levels. The bulk of our operational costs are staff wages and benefits, because the bulk of our operations are customer service. Police, fire, recreation, parks maintenance, planning, etc., these things are all functions provided by people. If we allege (as some do) than a City with lower staff levels is more “efficient” or more prudent with taxpayer’s dollars, then we have to account for the work being done my contractors working for the City. As a general rule, smaller municipalities have to rely on more contractors than larger cities, and may or may not pay more for the services those contractors provide than they would if that work could be brought “in house”.

Should you hire a new Engineer at $90,000 per year, or contract that work out at $120 /hour? Back-of-the-envelope would suggest you do the latter if you have less than ~1,000 hours of work for that engineer in any given year, but the back of the envelope is always devoid of confounding factors. Obviously, larger municipalities have a bit of an advantage here, because more specialized work can be brought in house easier as there is higher demand for it. There also some significant political considerations around contracting out work, that will lead us down another path that ends with me ranting about neo-liberalism, and no-one wants to read that.

To answer your second question, there has never in my time been a concerted effort to cut staff. Part of that is related to the fact we are a growing City facing increased service needs, but part of it is because the question belies the way decision making in a municipal government works. Every year we go through a budgeting processes that that is centered on service delivery. We make decisions around what services we want to provide, where we can provide service more efficiently, and where we are falling short of community expectations. We are almost always under tremendous pressure from the community to increase delivery of programs, and we have to rationalize that within the budget available to us – and our willingness to increase taxes.

Of course we hear from people telling us tax increases are burdensome, but those people rarely tell us what services to cut. If they do offer suggestions, they usually are minor in comparison to the City’s budget, and others almost immediately come to defend that program. A recent Facebook example:

Finally, I am generally in favour of the process that the Auditor General for Local Government goes through, which I think puts me at odds with the majority of local government elected officials. But I’ll throw some significant qualifiers in there, because that is always what the AGLG does ;-).

One problem I have is how the audits are treated in the media and public. The City of New Westminster was selected for an audit a few years ago to review the management of our police budget and the relationship between Council and the Police Board. The result of the Audit was very positive, with a few minor improvements suggested, but overall a high level of confidence expressed about how New West does this work. Of course, it was good news, so there was virtually no media about it – no “news” to be found in a government doing a good job. Compare this to the shit-storm that a small municipality like Sechelt faces when an audit discovers some problems in how they do procurement. The negative audit is newsworthy, the positive audit is not, which results in an overall erosion in trust of local government, instead of building trust in the oversight of Local Government, which to be should be the goal of the AGLG.

Also, the AGLG audit process is (IMHO) stacked against smaller governments. At the first level, it expects small cities with small staff to have resources and business acumen that is often not available to them. The audit process itself is time and resource consuming, and the AGLG does not provide financial support to local governments for the staff time and resources – again much more unfairly burdening smaller governments than larger ones who are more likely to be able to absorb these costs.

So I general approve of the idea, but would like to see some shifts in how the process is put into practice.

ASK PAT: Parking Bylaws

Susan asks—

According to New West’s by-law for the parking of vehicles 4.9.1 – any New West resident can park their vehicle(s) on any residential street (except areas requiring permits, or metered parking) for as long as they wish as long as their vehicle has valid insurance.
In Burnaby & Vancouver, the by-law is more specific and requires that any vehicle cannot park for more than 3 hours in front of a residence unless the residence is the actual property of the parker.
If another New West resident decides to leave their vehicle parked in front of another residence and does not move it for week/months, there is nothing Parking Enforcement can do.
What is the process in requesting a change to this bylaw?

You basically have it right. Our Street and Traffic Bylaw makes it illegal to park a car for more than 72 hours where there are no other parking restrictions, unless you are a resident of the City. As long as your vehicle is not derelict, is insured, and is not a commercial vehicle heavier than 5,500kg, the road is yours to store your vehicle for free as long as you can find a spot.

I have vague memories of the last time we upgraded the Streets and Traffic Bylaw, and at the time staff recommended that the 72-hour restriction be applied to everyone. Checking my notes, it was in the March 23, 2015 Committee of the Whole meeting where some members of Council argued that this was unfair, and that residents should be able to park for free for as long as they want. I disagreed at the time, and continue to disagree.

That said, I doubly disagree with the Burnaby approach, where the public land in front of your house somehow belongs to the resident of the house that happens to be in front of it. That land does not belong to you, it belongs to the public. Putting up barriers, cones, milk crates, or buckets to protect it as a personal parking space like this is similarly against the law.

Here is an unpopular opinion: there is no shortage of parking in New Westminster. There are local shortages of the free or very low-cost public parking that people prefer, but every house in New Westminster has a garage or parking pad (regardless of whether they are actually used for car storage) and every new multi-family building is built with more parking than the residents use. And outside of a few special events and around churches on Sunday Morning, there is generally no lack of street parking. When it comes to resident parking and nw buildings, we are simply building too much.

There was even a recent Metro Vancouver study on parking availability whose highlight point was that across the region “Apartment parking supply remains excessive relative to observed utilization”. Here are the first two key findings:

As mentioned in an opinion in The Record a few weeks ago, there is a real cost to this. Underground parking is expensive to build ($50,000+ per spot) and an alleged lack of parking is a common reason residents oppose new housing in their neighbourhoods, making housing more expensive for all. But I now I realize I’m drifting pretty far from the nature of your question…

The process to change the Bylaw would be to ask Council to do it. Ask Pats, as fun as they are, do not represent official correspondence with Mayor and Council, so you could write a letter to Council (here are the links about how you do that). Try to keep it relatively short and respectful, and explain the rationale for why you think the Bylaw should change. Any member of Council could take the concern to Council and ask staff to follow up, though there is no guarantee. Alternately, you can come to Council yourself and make your case as a Public Delegation at most Council Meetings, and again, Council may or may not act, but it can’t hurt to ask.

Ask Pat: Private School taxes

Duke asked—

The two large private schools on opposite ends of the city are nearing completion. My question is will the City be receiving any property taxes from these schools? It’s my understanding the BC Libs exempted them from certain taxes.

Short version: no, they likely won’t pay property tax. But as always, there is a longer answer. And this needs a bit of a “this is how I understand things, and I think I am correct here, but am willing to hear any corrections if people have them and I will fix the record” warning.

There are two types of exemptions from paying property taxes: statutory and permissive. As you may have figured from the name, the first is set in provincial regulation, Section 220 of the Community Charter outlines uses that may be exempt from property tax: Provincial property, places of worship, cemeteries, fruit trees(!), private schools and other things. The general interpretation of this act is that the statutory exemption only applies to the building or ground used for the prescribed purpose, not necessarily the entire property.  So a church that has a large parking lot and/or adjacent housing on the same property may not get statutory exemption for those auxiliary lands, but just for the place of worship.

The permissive exemption is also what it sounds like: something cities are permitted to grant, but are not required to grant. There are limits to how we can hand these out, and they are listed in Section 224 of the Community Charter. This permission is generally limited to government-owned lands not caught up in Section 220, parts of lands exempted under S.220 that are not strictly exempted by S.220 (like the parking lot around a church), or lands used by a charity or public service that are used for a community service or charitable work, including sports clubs. The City may grant partial or complete exemptions on these lands, but it is generally limited by Section 25 of the Charter which prohibits the City from providing direct assistance to a business. Whew.

In practice, the City does a review of permissive exemptions (and reviews applications for new permissive exemptions) in September or October, and updates its Bylaw in time that those exemptions can be factored into our financial planning for the next year. The last time we reviewed them in New West was on September 17, 2018, and you can see in that report the list of to whom the City provides exemptions. Both John Knox and Urban Academy are listed as exempt under S.224.

Now back to the other part of your question, Back in 2015, the BC Liberal Government was led by a Premier who proudly boasted that her child attended the most exclusive private school in Vancouver (one that had a large swath of “Permissive Exemption” real estate) while also taking public school teachers to the Supreme Court to defend an illegal contract that kept her from having to staff public schools enough to meet reasonable classroom size standards. That government signed in to law Bill 29, which extended a Statutory Exemption to all of these ancillary lands around private schools are part of the school operation. Student housing, parking lots, skating arenas, the woods out back where the kids smoke pot; as long as they belong to the school, they are now exempt by statute.

Frankly, this change probably does not apply to either the new John Knox school on 12th street or the new Urban Academy school at Braid and Rousseau, because both are modern “urban school” designs, with very little footprint outside of the building site. The parking is underground and the play area on the roof, so there aren’t open fields of “accessory lands”. The shift from Permissive to Statutory exemption is probably irrelevant in this case, though I am not clear why the City gives them an S.224 exemption when a S.220 exemption probably applies.

That said, both schools are being built on lands that had significant commercial value, and paid commercial property taxes before the schools took over the sites. If we ballpark the two properties at (land value only) $3 Million each, then at 2018 taxation rates for commercial properties, the property tax they would pay to the City would be a little over $30,000 each per year if there was a non-exempt commercial property on that spot. Plus about $12,000 each in School Tax. Take from that what you will.

Ask Pat: Omnibus edition!

I had a few Ask Pat questions in the queue, and it being Family Day Long Weekend and all, I figured I would answer them all in one fell swoop. Have a question about the City, Council, Politics, music or fashion? Hit the red button up there to the right and send it to me, and more likely than not will answer it, hopefully before you forgot you even asked it!

RK asked—

I was in Winnipeg this last Christmas for a few days, and when I visited the public market at The Forks, I saw they had craft beer/wine stall set up in the main food court area, where people could buy a drink (served in glassware) and then enjoy it at any of the tables in the market, not just a roped-off area. Are you aware if there are legal restrictions on such a business opening in the River Market? It seems like a great and space-efficient way to not only add more life to a market but also complement the existing food-service businesses. And perhaps it was just the time of day that I was there, but I didn’t notice any roaming gangs of drunkards smashing up the place or terrorizing young children.

I’m not one to speak for the River Market. They are a private business with a business model that works for them. They have been pretty successful at activating the Market Hall, and I have enjoyed many, many events there over the last few years. It is also one of our community’s great “Third Spaces” where you never know who you will meet or the conversation you are going to have when you get there.

I also may not be completely up to date on the changes to BC liquor laws as they pertain to public spaces, but I think the Market would probably be able to license the common spaces as you suggest. However, this would very likely limit their flexibility in how they operate the space, and strange things like security measures and temporary license suspensions to accommodate special events would probably be more hassle than it is worth. The owners and operators of the Market are pretty entrepreneurial and creative, so the best evidence I have that the inherent hassles make it not worth doing is the fact they are currently not doing it.

That said, have you been to Fridays on Front? There was even a Christmas Edition under the Parkade this year. There were shifts in provincial liquor laws that allowed this to happen, and it took a bit of vision to put New West at the leading edge of activating those changes. I think the Downtown BIA (with some support from the City) has done a great job demonstrating that public market spaces can have an open license for adult beverages available without chaos ensuing. I’m old enough to remember the craziness that used to come with public drinking in BC in decades past, and the cost of managing that craziness made some great events go away (I’m looking at you Seafest Vancouver Seafest, Pentiction Peachfest, White Rock Sandcastle festival). I think the attitude around beer and wine have changed as our society has matured, though the transition away from puritan prohibition-era liquor controls is a slow one.

And as of the leading edge of current regulation, there are no special event licenses envisioned for cannabis, but I’ll hold that conversation off for a future post.


JJ asks—

are you the person that sides with justin trudeau of political correctness? Jaywalking the word to be remove? Stop the left wing removement!

[Sic] Dude, if you think Justin Trudeau represents some sort of left wing of Canadian politics, we are not conversing from the same frame of reference. My disappointment in his election in 2015 was very much tempered by the knowledge that Harper was headed for a long-overdue trip to the political wilderness, but I was also disappointed that Mulcair decided to tack towards the centre and got “out lefted” by Trudeau on the campaign trail (though that was not the only NDP campaign mistake last election). Clearly people were ready to move left politically, and voted for progressive ideas like legalization of cannabis (done), electoral reform (shamefully abandoned), and feminism (the jury is out on this one). Predictably, Trudeau swung right after the election and abandoned many of the most left-progressive ideas upon which he campaigned, from climate action to reconciliation, and his record is almost indistinguishable from Harper’s Conservatives on these files. Gord Downie would be disappointed. I am becoming less and less of a Trudeau fan as time goes on, and look forward to calling him out on his failures in October, but I will not make the mistake of looking for him to my left.


FB asked—

If i find someone isn’t sorting garbage and i take a picture as proof is it violating his personal information or privacy?

I’m not a lawyer, and know better than to give legal advice. If you have a problem with how someone is managing their waste stream , and suspect that they are contaminating the recycleables or compostables, there is good reason for you to take action, because this type of contamination costs the City money, or your Strata potentially lots of money, depending on how your waste is managed. I might suggest that friendly attempts at education might get you further than surreptitious incrimination. They may just not know better, as the rules for waste sorting are sometimes complicated and constantly shifting.

If this is going into the City’s waste stream, you can contact our Engineering Operations folks at 604-526-4691 or engops@newwestcity.ca. If you are in a Strata or a rental, please let your building manager know and ask them to take action. It is their job, and they will save money in the long run if they have a well-organized waste stream that assures as much waste as possible is diverted from the landfill.


Jenni asks—

How do I find out information about previous renovations done to my home before I purchased it? The previous owner simply said that all of the work was done before they purchased the home. Is there an archive of building or renovation permits that I can search?

Hey, I actually know the answer to this one! The City has an online tool where you can search for all kind of details about the property you own, or snoop on your neighbor if that is more your thing, because permits are public information, and the City has a pretty open approach to sharing data that belongs to the public.

If you go to the City’s website, and look for “Property Inquiry” under the Online Tools section, you get a slightly-ugly but super-functional interface that allows you to get an online report that tells you all sorts of info about your property. For the fun of it, I searched for my house and found a bounty of info about my lot size, the amount of tax I pay, and even that the Business License for my consulting hussle is up to date (redacted a bit to make it one step harder for stalkers to find out where I live):

You can also get a list of all the permits for the property:
Here I can see three permit numbers: the original building permit was from 1940, my rear sundeck was built in 1987 with a valid permit, and I can see the permit I took out for my bathroom renovation project I did two years ago.

Of course, there are no permits there for the renovation of my basement that probably happened in the 1980s, or of the attic conversion that happened around the same time, or of the transition my house clearly went from knob-and-tube electrical to modern insulated wiring. It is possible that permits were not required, or the owner at the time didn’t get a permit, or the City has lost the records. This just to say that the City knows what the City knows, and you should not assume the data you get from these searches is a definitive record of the work done in your house.