Trip Diary

The venn diagram overlap of transportation geeks and data geeks shines brightest when Trip Diary numbers are released. So despite the zillion other things I have to do, I sat down for some Excel Spreadsheet fun this weekend to look at what the Trip Diary data release tells us about New Westminster.

The Translink Trip Diary is a survey-based analysis of how people in Greater Vancouver get around. Unlike the Canada Census that asks simply “How do you usually get to work?” and “How long does that take you?”, the Trip Diary digs down into details about how people get around. What types of trips do they take, where do they go, how far, and how often? The difference matters because many people, especially those who use active transportation modes, use more than one way to get to work and travel for non-commuting reasons as well. I have two jobs, one I either walk or cycle to, the other I either cycle or ride transit (after a 5-minute walk on one end). My “usual” could be transit or cycling or walking, depending on the week. I usually walk to shopping, but sometimes drive. I sometimes drive to recreation, sometimes I bike or walk. For most of us living in a modern urban area, our modes are mixed, and understanding that mix is more important to how we plan our transportation system than the simplistic census question.

I’m going to skip over some of the regional stuff (maybe a later post when I find time because there is some fascinating data in here) to concentrate on New Westminster. All of the numbers below that I refer to as “New Westminster trips” are trips by people who call New West their city of residence – whether their trips start and/or end in New West or elsewhere in the region, every trip made by a New West resident is considered a New West trip.

The last Trip Diary provided data from 2011, and at the time, New West was doing OK as far as “mode share”, which is transportation geek speak for “what percentage of people are travelling by X mode.”

As might be expected for a compact city with 5 Skytrain stations, New West has high transit mode share at 17% of all trips. In 2011 we used transit at a higher rate per trip than any other City in the Lower Mainland except the City of Vancouver itself (at 20%). We also had higher walking mode share than most cities (11% of all trips, which is only behind Vancouver, North Van City and White Rock). Our 2011 cycling mode share was a dismal 0.4%, which was, even more dismally, close to the regional average. Add these up, and we had one of the lowest automobile mode shares in the region. 59% of trips were drivers, 13% were passengers, totalling 72% of trips, which was lowest in the region except (natch) Vancouver. Contrast that with the traffic we need to deal with and the amount of space we have given over to that traffic. But more on that later.

The 2017 Trip Diary data shows how our mode share has shifted over a 6-year span:

As you can see, the shift is subtle, but in a positive direction if you hate traffic. Our transit rode share went up to 20% and is now the highest in the region (Vancouver’s dropped a bit to 18%) New Westminster is now the City in BC with the highest transit mode share! Our walk share went up to 15% and is still 4th in the region, and our bike mode share doubled from dismal to still pretty bad. Or car mode share, however, dropped from 72% of all trips to 64.5%, and “passengers” went up a little bit in share, suggesting that single occupancy vehicle trips went down. Going from 59% to 51% of driving trips in 6 years is (a 14% decrease) is a really positive sign for the livability of our community.

All of those numbers are percentages of trips, but they mask that New Westminster is a growing city. Based on BC Government population estimates (BC Gov’t Local Government Statistics Schedule 201), our population went from 67,880 to 73,928 over that 6-year span, an 8.9% population increase. The trip diary raw numbers show that our number of trips went up at a higher rate: a 12% increase from 194,000 individual trips on the average day to 217,000 trips. We are moving around more. And this is where things get interesting:

With a modest increase in cycling (around 1,000), and significant increases in walk trips (11,000) and transit trips (10,000), there was no increase in trips taken by car – the increase in passengers almost exactly offset the reduced trips by drivers. I need to emphasize this, in bold, italics and in colour, because this is the big story in all of these numbers:

All of the new trips taken by New Westminster residents, as our population grew by 8.9% and our travelling around grew by 12%, resulted in no increase in car use by residents of the City. All of the extra trips were counted as transit, walking, or cycling. Simply put, this logical connection perpetuated by people who oppose the transit-oriented development model, is not supported by the data:

Admittedly, this does not necessarily mean traffic is getting better; That a smaller proportion of people are driving and that driving is becoming less convenient, are not contradictory ideas. Other parts of the region have not seen the same shift, and growth to the south and east of us especially is increasing demand on our local roads. This also means there are more pedestrians and cyclists about, so crosswalks are fuller and taking more time to clear, meaning some tiny amount of through-capacity from cars is lost to accommodate the mode shift and keep vulnerable road users safe. The City shifting resources to serve the growing proportion of our residents that don’t rely on a car every day also makes sense from a planning principle. If I am car-reliant (and some in our City definitely are) I can rest assured that a huge proportion of our public land space is still dedicated to moving and storing cars, and a large portion of our budget to accommodating the expectations of drivers.

But the writing is on the wall, and we need to continue to adapt our practices and resources to reflect the success that is starting to show in our regional transportation numbers.

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.

Pedestrian Cages

I’m going to pick one specific part of the new pedestrian overpass on Stewardson that bugs me. I dropped by to look at the near-completed project (which, I hasten to note, was paid for by the Province and Feds, not the City), and have a bunch of negative feelings about it for a variety of reasons I mentioned here, and concerns I raised here, but it is this picture shows what currently bugs me the most:

Why the hell do pedestrians need to be kept in cages?

A quick Google Map tour of the overpasses rebuilt as part of the recently-expanded Highway 1 through Burnaby and Surrey provides these images of overpasses for cars that have sidewalks on them for pedestrians:

Willingdon Ave
Sprott Street
Kensington Ave.
Cariboo Road
160th Street

Now compare these to overpasses build specifically for pedestrians:112th Ave.

Tynehead Park

Notice the difference?

This isn’t limited to Highway 1, or even to Ministry of Transportation infrastructure. Go to your favourite road-overpass-with-a-sidewalk-over-another-road anywhere, and you see a normal elbow-to-shoulder height fence to keep pedestrians from falling off the edge:

Winston Street, Burnaby.

Gaglardi Way, Burnaby.

But look at any pedestrian-only-overpass, and you have the perimeter fence from San Quentin:

Winston Street, Burnaby.

Gaglardi Way, Burnaby.

Can anyone explain this to me? Presumably, this is to protect the underflowing traffic from nefarious activity of suspicious non-car-having people. But if that is so, why not also put a cage up at the overpass where non-car-having people are walking beside car-having people? Is simply the presence of car-having people enough to keep non-car-having people from doing nefarious activity? Is not having a car such a suspicious activity that even when non-having, being proximal to those who are currently having is enough to mitigate the suspicious activity so the cage isn’t necessary?

Of course, I don’t  think is the actual thought process that creates this strange discrepancy, but I think it is a window in the cultural bias of transportation engineering. Building a pedestrian overpass? Need a cage to protect the drivers. Building a car overpass? Sure, we’ll throw a sidewalk on it (not like anyone is going to use it!). Pedestrians (and cyclists to a lesser extent) are accessories to transportation at best, impediments to efficient transportation at worst. They are something that needs to be accommodated as we decide the best way to move the real road users – cars and trucks – around in the City. Look around at how our transportation systems are built, even today, and you see this bias built in, even in the most walkable urban neighbourhoods like New Westminster.

It is this bias that decided spending $5.2 Million to get pedestrians out of the way was a better solution than spending a fraction of this to slow trucks and cars down to the posted speed limit to make Stewardson safe for pedestrians and cyclists. This expensive intervention is the exact opposite of Active Transportation infrastructure, because it gives up on the idea of slowing cars and trucks down to the posted speed limit before they get to the crosswalks at 5th Ave or 3rd Ave so those pedestrian spaces don’t feel so terrifying.

I hope, but am not confident, that the provincial Active Transportation Strategy will include a cultural shift in the Ministry of Transportation to one where active transportation will be found to be equal to, or even emphasized over, the dangerously rapid movement of cars and trucks. I also hope that the City New Westminster can make this cultural shift across the organization, because without this commitment our Master Transportation Plan is just lines on maps in a book on a shelf.

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.

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.

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.

ASK PAT: a two-for-one

Bill asks—

I enjoyed the Bikes on the SFPR piece. Riding over the Alex Fraser is treacherous – the deck is slick in parts and the guard rail is not high enough to prevent you going over the edge if you fell off your bike – what can I do to influence change?

The Alex Fraser was a pretty cutting-edge piece of cycling infrastructure when it was built in the 1980s, now it is a sorry excuse for cycling access. With the Canada Line Bridge, the Port Mann, and the recently-refurbished Ironworkers Bridge, the remaining pieces of terrible infrastructure like the Pattullo, Knight, and Alex Fraser really stand out.

It was unique back in the 90s for having well-graded entrances and a uniquely grippy surface. It was almost enough to make us ignore the too-low barriers and narrowness, made worse by the occasional road sign pole in the middle of the path. Now the surface is worn so there are slippery parts, and the access paths at the Delta end are disconnected and disintegrating from neglect.

The bridge belongs to the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, so that is the place to go to raise concern. I would start by contacting your MLAs office with a respectful letter. It is timely, as there is currently a $70 Million project to expand car capacity on the bridge, and the same ministry is currently touting their new Cycling Infrastructure Program. I think the work recently completed at the Ironworkers is a great example of how a smart intervention into existing infrastructure can make the bridge safer for all users.

However, one voice is never as powerful as collected voices. If you really want to help cycling infrastructure not just in your neighbourhood but across the region, you should think about connecting with the two “All-Powerful Bike Lobby” groups in the Lower Mainland. I am a member and regular donor to HUB, who are great on-the-ground cycling advocates, with local chapters in every community in the Lower Mainland. The BC Cycling Coalition is a more of a coalition of local groups (including HUB) that do more provincial-level lobbying. Both organizations do great work, and are excellent resources for cycling advocacy info. If you want to push the needle forward on cycling infrastructure in the region, join one of both, and help them raise our voices.

In the meantime, keep the rubber side down!


Nicholas asked—

Hey Pat, I was just wondering if you knew what was happening with the old Commercial/Occidental Hotel on Columbia, across from the Westminster Block. Hoping theres some rehabilitation in the works!

No idea. It is a 120-year-old registered heritage building that has been under renovation for as long as I can remember now. There seems to be some slow progress on restoration based on my anecdotal observations, but I do not recall anything coming to City Council regarding the property in my time on Council. There is nothing shown in the City’s “Projects on the Go” listing for that property, and there are no applications for the property that I can see on the City’s public GIS. So your guess is as good as mine.

ASK PAT: Road Closures.

JF asked—

Pat, what are the City of New Westminster’s policies regarding road closures that impact cycling routes? Is there a requirement for the company requesting the road closure to identify and provision safe detours for people walking and bicycling through construction zones.

This past fall and winter has seen a large number of road closures in the Sapperton area for combined sewer separation and RCH related projects, and another sewer separation project on 7th Avenue near Moody Park. The Crosstown Greenway passes through both of these areas.

Many, many times over the past few months I have encountered road closures on the Crosstown greenway or connecting streets that I utilize. Most of these closures have little in the way of advanced warning and any detours in place don’t have cycling or walking in mind – ie being detoured down an alley onto Braid Street – FUN!

I’m a daily bicycle commuter passing through New West to/from my place of work in Burnaby and easily fall into the capable/confident category of rider. I don’t have any problem being detoured onto Braid or 8th Avenue and cycling alongside traffic moving at 50+km/h, but for a new or less confident rider I could easily picture them saying “forget it. I’m taking the car.” Not exactly the goal for any Active Transportation minded community.

To answer your first question, the City’s policy is that road closures caused by road/utility works are required to be well signed, and that safe alternate routes for all users including cyclists and pedestrians are to be maintained at all times. What you have discovered is that the policy sometimes fall short in practice. This is something I have spent much time ranting about in the past. It is a perennial problem, one that is (hopefully) getting better, but is (admittedly) a work in progress.

There is a *lot* of roadwork going on right now in New West. As you surmised, much of it is related to a sewer separation program accelerated somewhat by winning a federal grant to help pay for some of it. The situation in lower Sapperton has been especially intrusive, as that is where the sewer separation work is most intense along with utility works related to the expansion of the Hospital.

Almost all of this work is done by contractors (a city the size of New West doesn’t really have staff to do works at this scale anymore), and requirements to maintain rights of way and accommodate all types of road users are written right into the tender documents. They hire road flagging crews, do traffic plans, our engineers sign off on those plans, and our engineers sometimes drop by the site to see how things are going. However, these jobs are complicated and worksites are dynamic, so maintaining 100% access is difficult, and traffic plans necessarily shift as the project requires. This is often when the best laid plans get set aside for a bit, and people are inconvenienced. Sometimes, of course, they simply don’t care. Either way, the City needs to be let know.

Often, it results in a call to the Engineering Department or a SeeClickFix entry, an e-mail to a Councillor, or my better half bending my ear over dinner (if it impacted her riding route to work, like it did on 13th Ave last month). This usually means one of our engineering staff goes out there, sees what the situation is, and the contractor (if they haven’t already) are told to make it right.

This is, unfortunately, the reality of this type of work. I simply don’t know how to make it better.

I say that as someone who rides bikes around this city all the time, but I also say it as someone who at one point in his life got paid to stand with a hardhat next to an excavator or drill rig with flagging crews protecting me from traffic and vice versa. Any time you are interacting with heavy equipment, public streets and underground utilities, there are unpredictable conditions you encounter, and you need to make adjustments to plans on the fly, and the impact on traffic is but one (important) aspect of your contingency plans.

I was actually compelled early in the year to drop by the upper Sapperton project when I received two separate compliments from cyclists I know about how well the flagging personnel managed two different conflict situations with a bike route. This seriously never happens – I never get people pointing out when something goes good – so I had to check it out and let the Director of Engineering know. That said, I have also gone through lower Sapperton in the last couple of weeks, and have found through-signage lacking at times.

This is all to say I think we are doing better that we used to on this, as we have updated our policies. Our Engineering Department requires that cycling access or alternate routes must be part of the traffic plan, and that safe pedestrian access routes must be considered prior to starting work. At the same time, it still happens that I run into road works with no warning, and little indication of how I am supposed to route around them.

My best advice, when this happens, is to contact our engineering operations desk (604-526-4691  or engops@newwestcity.ca) and tell them about your experiences. We don’t have engineers on site every moment of the project, and if they don’t know there is a problem, they cannot address it. You can contact me as well, but I’m just going to contact Engineering Operations anyway, so you can cut out the middle man.

If you are into filling out web forms (you got here, didn’t you?) you can also use the SeeClickFix App to report these issues, with the bonus of being able to track how staff respond to them.

Making a complaint to Engineering may help in the short term, but it also helps longer-term. There are a limited number of contractors who do this type of work in the region, and a contractor that receives complaints about their inability to manage our traffic and access requirements is one we are less likely to hire for future contracts. Their ability to address traffic access is part of the quality assessment staff need to do at the end of every contract. That is, ultimately, the only way we will get better compliance.

I just want to say one more thing. This situation is frustrating at the time, but please try to be kind to the persons holding the Stop/Slow paddles at the worksite. Their job is surprisingly difficult and stressful. They often work in terrible conditions (noise, dust, weather, silly hours), and have to deal with irate drivers, angry neighbours and demanding construction managers, while carrying the responsibility of keeping the public and the workers on the site safe – often by putting themselves in dangerous situations. They know you are frustrated, they have little control over the hazards they are protecting you from, they honestly want to get you on your way as quickly and safely as they can.

Motordumb

This is terrifying.

I mean, that is what it’s supposed to be. Part of the macho-truck-tough-guy/gal image it is meant to project. Sports cars were sometimes jokingly referred to as phallic symbols, projecting compensatory manhood and virility. This is a more of a rolling sawed-off shotgun, projecting violence, instability, and wide destructive swath to compensate for an inability to aim.

Big Trucks are nothing new in Canada, but look at the language the puff piece in the “Drive” section of our national newspaper (ugh) uses to describe it:

“Insane”, “ridiculous”, “’roid rage”, “invincible”, “out of scale”.

This truck is too wide (“A single lane suddenly feels too narrow… a foot wider than an already-huge F-250”), too tall (“the bottom of the seat is at eye-level”), and both creates a visual barrier for others (“Once inside you can see clearly over the tops of all SUVs”), yet has terrible visbility itself (“Nothing directly in front of it is visible, thanks to the huge, wide hood”). This lack of visibility is enhanced by mating a 450 horsepower engine with a design that features “bad steering, bad ride and bad handling.” But don’t worry, “You’re so high off the ground, there’s little sense of speed. It’s like looking out the window of a 747 during takeoff.”

Yes, this vehicle is an exaggeration of a point, and not many are sold (although the Globe & Mail will no doubt help with that little problem). But it is symptomatic of a situation where the use of automobiles is,  for the first time in history, getting less safe. And it is increasingly innocent bystanders being killed by them, not drivers.

There are many factors leading to these trends, distracted driving being a bit part of the equation (which raises an entire new rant about big LCD screens in cars). However, we live in a situation were you can roll a Honda Civic off the lot that is faster on the racetrack than a Lamborghini Gallardo. Dodge is selling, over the counter and with no special training mind you, an 840hp drag racer that does a sub-10 second quarter mile. It is so fast, that it is actually illegal to use at a regulated drag strip without doing safety modifications, but you can drive through your local school zone with no such regulatory concerns.

Cars are getting bigger, they are getting more powerful, and things like outward visibility are being compromised for design reasons. Trucks, especially, are seemingly exempt from any regulations around bumper height and fender coverage. After-market modification of lights, suspension, and other critical safety equipment is essentially unregulated.

This is all coming from the position of someone who walks and cycles in a dense urban community, but also someone who sees it as part of his job to make it be safer for 8-year-olds to walk to school and 80-year-olds to cross the street. We already give so much of our urban space to automobiles, because they serve a utility that people value. Recognizing that, we can build wide, comfortable sidewalks. We can design better crosswalks, and paint green paint at conflict zones. We can impose speed limits, improve lighting, create walkable neighbourhoods and dynamic retail districts. But our public spaces will never feel safe – will never be safe – if some agro asshole can charge through it waving a sawed-off shotgun at everyone.

We need to have a discussion about how far is too far for automobiles that want to share our urban space. We need enforceable standards of power, speed, bumper height, and other design elements that emphasize the safety of not just the operator and the passenger, but of other who unwillingly share space with these machines.

Some will suggest this is an intrusion – the end of freedom as we know it. Of course, we already have an actual law telling people to wear a Styrofoam helmet when sharing road space with this monstrosity. And when you get run over by it, rest assured the driver will say “I didn’t even see him!” like that is a defense, and not an admission of guilt. And Crown Counsel will agree.

There is no “War on Cars”, but if that’s what it takes to get these tanks off of our city streets, sign me up.

Bikes on the SFPR

Bike lanes are in the news a bit again, here in New West, and out in one of our higher-profile western suburbs. It got me thinking about good and bad cycling infrastructure, and I haven’t gone off on a rant on this blog for a while, so make a cup of tea, because I am going to launch off on the Worst Piece of Cycling Infrastructure Ever®, known around these parts as the South Fraser Perimeter Road (“SFPR” or Highway 17). As this will most surely be tl;dr, you can skip down to the important part here.

When some previous Minister of Transportation (Falcon? Lekstrom? meh, it doesn’t matter) was hyping the region’s biggest-at-the-time motordom project, loosely defined as “the Gateway”, they were quick to point out the benefits to cyclists. The SFPR was announced as part of the largest MoT investment in cycling infrastructure of all time. This hyperbole was supported by the entire ~40km length of this glorious new road having cycling lanes affixed.

At the time, a few skeptics suggested that the shoulders of a high-speed truck route through farms and industrial areas may not be the ideal place to ride a bike, and by the time the new highway was opened, the previously-promised cyclist benefits were being seriously downplayed (hence all the dead links in that 4-year-old post above). But a Bike Route it is, to this day. There is a sign every 500m telling you so:

One of these green signs is found every 500 m for 40 km of great cycling infrastructure like this.

A couple of years on, the disaster of this poorly-placed, terribly-designed, and wholly-disingenuous cycling investment is pretty clear to anyone brave enough to venture onto this designated cycling route. No point dancing around the point: for cyclists of all skill levels, the SFPR is so unfriendly and dangerous that those “Bike Route” signs represent a reckless disregard for public safety.

That is a strong statement, so before I committed to it, I headed out to the SFPR with my bike to experience the length of the route in its harrowing glory, just to build up the temper necessary to commit that charge to hypertext. I went into it nervous, spent the ride terrified, and left enraged. Mission accomplished.

Funny I never ran into any other cyclists on this sunny fall day.

For the majority of the SFPR, the “Bike Route” is a 2.5 metre wide paved shoulder adjacent to industrial traffic moving at highway speeds. Nowhere is there a barrier protecting the shoulder from intrusions by trucks, not even rumble strips to warn drivers who may vary from their lane. The traffic is mixed, but the route was ostensibly built for and dominated by large trucks. The speed limit is allegedly 80 km/h, but speeds vary incredibly, from closer to 60 km/h around intersections (trucks accelerate slowly, after all, creating great rage moments for commuters!) to well over 100 km/h in the more open stretches.

Seriously?

In places where there is a soft shoulder or a low jersey barrier, having 80 km/h truck traffic blow by 2 metres from your left shoulder is unsettling. Where you are between those trucks and a 4 metre-high sound barrier wall (marked by the occasional gouge from vehicle swipes) or a 10-m concrete buttress, it is nerve-rattling.

shudder…

The knowledge that a momentary lack of attention by one of those drivers, or an impromptu swerve or technical problem with your bike means certain death provides a certain… clarity of thought. That thought is not “sure am glad I wore my helmet!”

The rational move (other than to avoid the SFPR altogether, which I will get to later) is to squeeze as far over to the right and put as much space between your body and the trucks. The problem with this strategy is that the SFPR “Bike Routes” are dotted with particularly deep and treacherous rainwater catch basins, and the further you get from the traffic-swept white line, the thicker and more challenging the road shoulder debris becomes:

Rocks and a hard place.

The road debris on this route is not surprising for an industrial truck route, unless you are surprised by the raw number of rusty and broken bolts and other important-looking parts that are ejected from trucks. Debris encountered on my ride included rocks large and small, glass, plastic vehicle parts, kitty-littered oil slicks, random lumber, nails, tire carcasses, tie-downs and bungie cords, and the occasional dead animal. These only serve to heighten the chances of one of those life-limiting impromptu swerves or technical failures. Once you realize the “swept clear” parts of the bike lanes are only done so by vehicles crossing the line at speed that you start to wonder if the route is designed specifically to kill you.

I hope that speeding truck didn’t need those parts…

Or just designed to confuse you…

Seriously, what are they trying to do to us here?

To add another layer of frustration to this alleged “bike route” is its isolation. Choose the SFPR and you are stuck with the SFPR, because it largely fails to connect to an established regional network and actively prevents you from getting on or off the SFPR where these types of connections may be obvious.

There are two locations on either side of the Alex Fraser Bridge, where a perfectly safe, low-traffic road is separated from the SFPR (one by a tall sound barrier wall) in such a way that getting out of danger’s way is impossible. For lack of a connection here, crossing this 5 foot barrier requires a multi-kilometre detour.

That over there on the left is NOT a designated bike route.

This lack of connection to regional cycling infrastructure is most obvious at the three regionally-important bridges under which the SFPR passes. The quality of the cycling paths on those three bridges is (east-to-west) really good, terrible, and not too bad, but they are all nonetheless important links. Again, either no connection has been contemplated for the bike route, or actual multi-layer physical barriers have been installed to prevent an SFPR cyclist from getting to the bridge where connections would be natural.

You can’t get there from here.

To get on the Alex Fraser Bridge from the SFPR requires a 3-km detour through two hairy multi-lane intersections. The Pattullo requires 1.5km and riding right past a pedestrian overpass, which would make for a great connection if it wasn’t barriered from access from the bike lane. The connection to the great bike infrastructure on the Port Mann is so far that is it actually a shorter distance just to ride to the terrible cycling infrastructure on the Pattullo.

Multi-layer protection – keeping cyclists from entering or leaving the SFPR at the Pattullo.

So the SFPR fails at every aspect of effective cycling infrastructure: it lacks the most basic safety and comfort considerations, it lacks connections, it lacks any form of appeal. It is not surprising that during my ride of the entire 40km length of the SFPR, both ways (done over two sunny mid-week days early in the fall), I never saw a single other person on a bicycle on the entire route. However, every 500m there is one of those little green signs. Or something like this:

Share the Road!

So it is time for the cycling community to wake up and recognize we got played. Of course, this is the Ministry of Transportation’s standard playbook, so we could have seen it coming: This “bike route” is a safety pull-off area for trucks.

One of these signs improves safety.

We were sold “cycling benefits” of a Billion-plus-dollar piece of transportation infrastructure, and got something else: bike signs placed on paved shoulder really intended to keep trucks in the other two lanes moving if the occasional vehicle needs to pull over, or of someone just needs to park a trailer for a few hours. Aside from that, it is a gutter for gravel and trash and carcasses and truck parts to prevent them from accumulating where they may impede truck travel. This “Bike Route” is just a part of the truck route, nothing else.

This is why this shoulder exists, signage be damned.

(I need to super-emphasize this) The SFPR it was never meant to be a Bike Route. 


So what to do? I’d like first to call upon the new Minister of Transportation to take down those “Bike Route” signs.

It isn’t her fault, she didn’t create this mess, but she adopted it by getting elected, so it is on her to do the right thing. The MoTI must stop threatening the lives of cyclists. Removing the signs and anything else that may incite otherwise-unaware bicycle users from mistakenly entering this cycling abattoir. Put an end to the ruse that this is any place for bicycles.

I could ask her for many more things – investment in cycling infrastructure for Surrey and Delta to make up for the funding-securing lies told by her predecessors, a commitment to policy changes to prevent her staff from ever doing this kind of bait-and-switch again – but those are opportunities for the future, and will require budget and policy decisions and such. She is a busy person with a huge mandate and new to the job; there will be time for those niceties later. First we must undo this mistake made intentionally by the previous government.

In the short term, someone in Minister Trevena’s office needs to call up the road maintenance contractor that bought the rights to not clean the shoulders here, and ask them to send a crew out to remove those signs. It shouldn’t take more than a day, it won’t cost any money, and it’s the right thing to do.

Where the SFPR meets another truck freeway, cooler heads prevail.