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.

Price Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give it a listen, it is a great conversation:

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

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.

Ask Pat: $1 Transit?

Terran asked—

Hey Pat,
Hope I’m allowed to still ask questions even though I don’t live in New Westminster anymore. (I’ll be back once affordability comes back)

Translink recently started asking about transit fares again. This was a long time promise for the compass card that we could better manage the system. The survey is quite overly simplistic but that’s not my question more concern.

My question stems for the comments below the Facebook post they have for the survey. The idea of $1 transit fares comes up. Considering only ~35% of the budget comes from transit fares could this actually be a realistic option? I know I would switch from using my car if I could get to work for only a $1. Would the increased ridership even come close to off setting the huge loss in revenue? Is there even a way to know?

Sure, I’ll give you one free question since you used to live in New West. Wait – was that your question?

As you mention (and I talked about a bit a few weeks ago), TransLink is going through a Fare Review process right now. This is likely in response to the integration of the Compass Card as much as to a newfound opportunity for the next stage of system growth, as the Mayor’s Plan for a decade of capital investment may be back on track.

This review is not intended to boost or reduce fare revenues, only to re-jig the system to make it work better; to make it more “fair” or more user-friendly. The working model is that any adjustment would result in about the same revenue from fares, it will just be collected in different ways. The survey therefore was designed to collect people’s feelings about fare structures such as whether people who travel farther should pay more, or the entire system should be a flat fee, but is basically silent on what the actual flat fee or distance charge would be.

What you are suggesting is not just a “flat fee” model, but one that sets the fee quite a bit lower than it is now, in hopes that it will boost ridership. Considering the purpose of the survey, what would that rate have to be?

TransLink receives a little more than 1/3 of its operating revenue from the farebox, or about $510 Million of a $1.4 Billion budget. Aside from roads and bridges and all the other things TranLink does, they annually have about 240 Million journeys on the multi-modal transit system, or 360 million boardings (obviously, some portion of journeys results in more than one boarding, as a person may transfer from SeaBus to the SkyTrain, or from one bus to another on a single journey). So depending on whether you want to issue transfers or not, you would need to charge $2.15 per journey, or $1.45 per boarding.

So a dollar won’t be enough, but would this simple and cheap fare boost ridership enough to make up for it? At current service levels, there would need to be a doubling in the number of journeys on the system, or a 45% increase in boardings. Anyone riding a SkyTrain during rush hour or standing on a 106 recognizes this is not viable without a significant increase in service levels, which would require investments in the capital part of operations (buying more trains and buses), not just increased operational costs.

Perhaps there is some wiggle room in the idea of flat $2 fares per journey, one might speculate that this would provide a 7% increase in ridership to make up for the lost revenue per ride, but that brings us back to the fairness question: should a person riding the 106 from Columbia Street to Uptown pay the same amount as someone riding SkyTrain from Surrey to Downtown Vancouver? Which type of journey are we trying to incentivize more? These are the questions the current review is trying to address, even at a relatively simple level.

Calculating an optimum fare, one that incentivizes use but also provides enough ridership to maintain a system, is some difficult calculus, even putting aside the political implications of increasing the various tax subsidies to the system (or the massive tax subsidies to the alternatives). I don’t think we are going to get there through this fare system review.

And seriously, we really need to talk about how much you are spending on your car now. If $1 fares would sway you, perhaps you might want to crunch the numbers and see where $2.15 fares put you, financially. The sad reality is that, regardless of how much we subsidize cars, they are still surprisingly expensive to operate if you do the actual math.

ASK PAT: Electrical utility

Chelsea asks—

Why does New Westminster have its own electrical utility? What benefits does it deliver to residents and businesses? Seeing as every time Hydro raises its rates to pay for new infrastructure or repairs we have to raise ours too.

Reason I ask is that as a single homeowner living in an apartment, I pay a flat rate that is higher than BC Hydro’s step 1 rates, and I never use enough electricity to move me into step 2 if we were on BC Hydro. So basically…families and people who use a lot of power over a two-month billing period are getting a discount compared to BCH, and I’m paying more.

We also don’t get the benefits of online access to our electricity consumption or basic things like e-bills. It’s nice that I could still pay my bill in person at City Hall if I chose…but I think I’d take being able to see my usage online, just like my cellphone bill or my cable/Internet.

I could have sworn I already wrote this blog post and drawn the graph below, but I can’t find anything in my archives, so I guess I just dreamed about it, or half-wrote it then moved on. So thanks for the reminder!

First off, we have our own electrical utility because we have always had our own electrical utility. It started in 1891, which makes it 70 years older than BC Hydro, and even 7 years older than Hydro’s grandfather, BC Electric Railway Company. Though most local municipal power systems across BC were amalgamated into BC Hydro (or West Kootenay Power, now FortisBC, or other entities), a few still remain independent.

The most obvious benefit is that the City makes money selling electricity. We purchase it at wholesale rates from BC Hydro, and we sell it at retail rates similar to what BC Hydro charges users in adjacent communities (more on this below). The difference between the two is about $8 Million a year. Some of that goes to pay for the operation of the utility (maintaining all those poles and wires, and the staff to do so) and contingency funds to pay for asset replacement as the system ages, but a significant portion of it goes into the City’s coffers, where it effectively offsets property taxes.

There are a few other benefits as well. We generally have more reliable power service and faster response during storm events, because we have dedicated crews and contractors who concentrate on dealing with New West issues while BC Hydro is sometimes stretched a little thin during large storm events. We also, by owning so much of our own utility assets, can leverage that for things like installing a fibre network (happening now) and district energy utilities (coming soon, I hope).

Historically, our Electrical Utility has emphasized reliable service and economy, and has (how can I put this politely…) lagged behind a bit on customer service innovation like on-line billing. They don’t have much of a web presence, and mostly operate out of a non-descript building adjacent to our works yard. Even finding out how our rates work can be a bit of a challenge with the City’s website, as most customers would not think to search for Schedule A of the Electrical Utility Bylaw to get answers. Really, in 2016, they shouldn’t have to. This is a place where a little Community Engagement effort would go a long way.

Now onto the rates issue. The City’s policy has been to maintain retail rates similar to BC Hydro retail rates, and overall when all of our different residential, commercial, industrial, and other rates are combined together, you find this is the case. However, the actual structure of how we charge is slightly different, and ultimately, some people pay a little more than they would on BC Hydro, some pay a little less.

As you have discovered, our base rate for residential users (the amount you pay to have an account, regardless of electrical use) works out to be a few cents higher per 2-month billing period (New West charges $11.92 per 2-month period, BC Hydro charges $0.1835 per day). We then charge a flat $0.0993/ kWh of use, where BC Hydro charges $0.0829 for the first 1350kWh per billing period (2 months) and $0.1243 for any above 1350kWh. So, although collectively, we pay about the same rate, residential users (like you and I ) who use less electricity probably pay more per unit relative to BC Hydro rates, that people who use a lot. To graph it out, it looks like this:

graph1

According to BC Hydro, the average BC household uses about 900kWh of electricity every month. If this average holds true for New West, then the average household is paying about $5.80 per month more than they would in a BC Hydro service area, or almost $70 more per year. Strangely, if you are an efficient apartment dweller and use half that amount of electricity, your monthly New West premium is even higher – at $93 per year.

If you use about 1130kWh per month, then your rates are the same as BC Hydro, and the more you use, the more your savings go up. At twice the average, 1800kWh/month, you would get about a $200 per year discount off BC Hydro rates by living in New West.

As our rate structure is flat, you are not subsidizing larger users – we all pay the same for each unit of electricity in New West. However, comparison to BC Hydro’s stepped rate structure gives the impression that we are encouraging consumption, but not doing enough to actively discourage it. If you add the base and metered values together, here is the true cost of what you pay for every kWh of electricity, based on your usage:

graph2

For context, my (admittedly back-of-the envelope) estimate is that the average New West household saves about $160 a year in Property Taxes (or, depending on your viewpoint, receives $160 worth of extra services from the City they don’t need to pay for through taxes) because we have an electrical utility and the profit it earns for the City. That might make you feel better, except that property taxes index with the value of your home, so again, the big-house-owner probably gets more benefit than the apartment dweller.

In summary, I don’t think this is good. I support the concept of City using the Electrical Utility to provide a financial benefit to the residents that own the utility, and offset their taxes. I support using “similar to BC Hydro” as the benchmark for our retail rates. However, I think the impression of benefitting larger users that is created by our flat rate structure sends the wrong message. I remember asking some questions about this back when I was still pretty new to the job, and I seem to remember getting a report that more of less confirmed what the graph above shows.

I’m not on the Electrical Commission, and I’m not sure when the next rate review will occur, but I’ll see what I can do.

Mobi

The long-anticipated and irrationally-political Mobi bikeshare program has finally launched in Vancouver. I hope it works, but have my doubts.

Regular readers (hi Mom!) will remember that I went to New York City around Christmas time last year, and had a chance to try out their massively successful bikeshare program, product-placemently named “Citi Bikes”. The experience not only made me a fan of bikeshare- but changed a lot of my misconceptions about what bikeshare is. As I see many of my own misconceptions being repeated in the Vancouver media (social and otherwise) around Mobi, it is worth discussion.

Citi Bikes operate on short-term rental system. You can pick up a bike while walking by a station, and ride for up to 30 minutes (or 45 minutes if you have an annual pass) before you need to check the bike in again at any station. You can buy a day pass for $12, which gives you unlimited rides within 24 hours, or you can buy an annual pass for $150 and use it whenever you feel the need.

Now, 30 minutes seems a pretty short period of time to rent a bike, but that is the entire point of the system. If you want to rent a bike for a couple of hours to noodle around Stanley Park, or for a few days to add biking adventures to your vacation, then a private bike rental company is still the best option for you. Bikeshare is not about replacing other bikes, it is about expanding your walking distance and facilitating multi-modal trips.

I can probably explain better by talking about the day we spent in Brooklyn and Manhattan using Citi Bikes:

  • We walk the block from our place in residential Bedford-Sty to our nearest Citi Bike Station. After about 5 minutes of paying for a day pass and checking the bikes out, we were on our way east along brownstone-lined streets.
  • About 20 minutes later, we were at Barclay’s Centre where another Citi Bike station was awaiting. We dock the bikes and hang out a bit at the sprawling plaza. The dock also has a digital map kiosk, so we orient ourselves and plan the best route to the Brooklyn Bridge before we check out a couple of new bikes.

Barclay

  • Near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, we dock the bikes. We grab a coffee, then wander over to the bridge. The pedestrian/bike walkway is packed with tourists, so we slowly walk across enjoying the sites, the crowd, the experience, without abandoning bikes at one end we need to retrieve later, or feeling like we needed to drag them along.

brook

  • We spend an hour or two wandering around China Town and Little Italy, then hop on a Citi Bike to loop around the Bowery to the Village. Some places were better for walking, some better for riding, and we made the choice. village2
  • After some more meandering, we check out another set of bikes and cross the Williamsburg Bridge. Back on the Brooklyn side, we quickly swap bikes to get ourselves an extra few minutes, then head through Williamsburg to find a brewery.

bridge

  • After a tasting and a meal and some wandering about loving the vibe of Williamsburg, we found a nearby station and mapped out the best route home to Bed Sty as the sun was setting. Probably being a 40-minute ride at an easy pace, we figured we would need to swap out bikes half way. We didn’t know about the “Citi Bike Dead Zone” in the Hasidic part of south Williamsburg, but managed to find a station with 5 minutes to spare. If we had downloaded the Citi Bike App, we could have avoided this peril.

wilmsbg2

  • Back at our base station as it was getting dark (the Citi Bike has built-in front and rear lights run by a generator in the front hub), we checked in and walked the block home with time enough to catch a great Sousaphone-Accordion trio.

sousa

A nice 8-hour day, about 7 bike station stops, we probably covered 20 kilometres on bikes, just to connect up our fun walking spots. We never fussed with a bike lock (or a helmet – more on that later) or worried about bike storage or security, and were left with nothing but a pocket full of access codes.

slips2

That is just a tourist experience. If you live and work in the service area, the Citi Bike can change the decision you make every day when you walk out the door to run an errand or meet a friend. Walk for 15 minutes? Bike for 5minutes? Wait for 5 minutes for the bus? Screw it, I’ll just drive? The magic of bikeshare is that you don’t have to worry about the hassles inherent in the “Bike for 5 minutes” choice: you don’t need special clothes, you don’t have to fuss with locks or worry about bringing the bike back with you if you have a multi-stop trip planned. Bikeshare, when working properly, is like having a bunch of moving sidewalks around that can cut your walking time in a third, with no more hassle than walking.

The ease and functionality of Citi Bike relies on several things, though, and New York gets them right.

Stations need to be ubiquitous. Within the service area of Citi Bike, you are never more than a 5-miunte ride to the nearest station. They also manage the bikes well, in that I think there was only one occasion when we arrived at a station and found it empty of bikes. Fortunately, the on-line app and maps in the station kiosks have real-time measures of how full the stations are, allowing you to plan at the beginning of your rental. How ubiquitous? Look at the map of Manhattan and Brooklyn:

Citi

Bikes need to be Euro. By this, they need to be durable, friendly, simple, and built for casual use. Citi Bike rides are bomb-proof and a little heavy, but run like a Swiss watch. The transmission is internally-geared with a twist-shifter, the chain is in a case, so no grease or oil splatter problems. The wheels have full and deep fenders to keep the spray off, and to keep toes, cuffs, or scarfs out of the spokes. The pedals and seat are wide, flat and grippy so no special clothes are needed. There is a unique-sounding bell, a big basket for groceries, and front and rear lights are always on thanks to the nifty generator in the front wheel. They aren’t specifically elegant, and won’t win any criterium races, but they are the right tool for the job.

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The payment has to be simple. Similarly, the kiosks for Citi Bike are simple to use, but have a ton of utility. It takes only a few minutes to buy a day pass using a credit card, and once you are in the system, it takes literally seconds to check a bike out (check in is as easy as park-it-and-walk-away). I could see how an annual passholder would be walking down the street, see a kiosk, and, on a whim, check out a bike to get 6 blocks down the street faster. As a bonus, there are digital maps to show you your location that allow you to zoom out to other station locations, which (as a super-double-bonus) serve as wayfinding tools for all tourists who happen by, not just Citi Bike users.

You can’t have a helmet law. Everything above about the need for the system to be easy, fuss-free, and comfortable is tossed by the wayside when you add helmets. Citi Bike is successful because it accommodates street clothes and on-a-whim decision making. Aside from the (not insignificant) yuck-factor, helmets significantly increase the hassle factor, and change the math on that walk-for-15/ ride-for-5/ wait-for-bus math. The kludged Vancouver solution (ugly, uncomfortable, dirty helmets that are likely more of a choking hazard than actual brain protector) stands in contrast to everything that makes Citi Bike work.

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The most significant stat about Citi Bike is that they have, since summer of 2013, had more than 25 million rides, with no fatalities and no major injuries. Manhattan and Brooklyn are not famous for their excellent roads or courteous drivers – the roads are crowded, potholed, and at times chaotic, and Citi Bike users are (reportedly) every bit as chaotic as other users. Many are novice riders, and very few wear helmets. Bikeshare is safer than driving, and Manhattan, it is safer than walking. The statistics are the same for bikeshare systems across North America. Part of this is intrinsic to the bikes: upright, slow, stable, comfortable, and visible. Part of it is the demonstrated phenomenon that the best way to make cycling safe is to put more bikes on the road – areas with bikeshare systems have been found to be safer for those cyclists not using bikeshare systems. Helmets Laws are not only a deterrent to use, they are demonstrably unnecessary for the inherent risk.

So I wish the best for Mobi. I’m not sure there is a sufficiently saturated market outside of downtown and the Commercial-to-Kitsilano corridor to provide the effective station saturation you need to make the system work, but within that area all of the pieces for success are in place. However, until we grow up and have a rational re-evaluation of the province’s silly anti-cyclist helmet law, I am afraid the system will suffer from lack of appeal. And that would be a shame.

Bugs in my compass

I had a slightly different commute schedule last Wednesday, in that I had a morning meeting in one of New Westminster’s western suburbs, and had one of those multi-leg trips to work. Instead of riding my bike or joining my carpool partners, I took the SkyTrain on all three legs.

My transit commuting is irregular enough that FareSavers have been the most logical and economical way to pay. Since the FareSavers have become about as rare as white rhinos, I have been buying tickets at the kiosk, pretty much because that is the pattern I have fallen into. On the first leg of my Wednesday journey, I reflexively bought a 2-zone ticket and although I noticed a few weeks ago that the new tickets are essentially disposable Compass cards, it took me one of those overstuffed train moments of self-realization to ask: why the hell haven’t I bought a Compass Card?

My thinking place
My thinking place

So on the second leg of my journey, after my meeting in that distant western suburb (I like what they’ve done with the place, not sure why anyone would want to live there), I popped for the $6 deposit and a nice float of $60. The number seemed to me prudent: large enough that it will keep me for a little while as I try out these new-fangled ideas, but not so large that I will hate the world when I inevitably lose it. Tap In at Waterfront; all good.

My first problem was at Brighouse. Like many of my cohort, I was riding with earphones, listening to a Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast, and as I left the station and performed my first Tap Out, I was uncertain if I heard a beep. Actually, I heard multiple beeps, as people were tapping in and out all around me, but did MY kiosk beep? I think so, and with people behind me rushing out of the station to the busses, I didn’t want to break momentum to make sure. Even if I did, would Tapping Out twice somehow mess the system up, and count as re-entry? When did I become so old that new technology confuses me? Was it before or after I completely lost touch with popular music? Is Beyonce still a thing?

Fortunately, I can go on-line to see the status of my Compass Card. To do this, you need to set up an account, and aside from the frustratingly archaic, patriarchal and gender-normative mandatory “Mr/Mrs/Ms” data field (really, TransLink? It’s 2015), the interface was easy enough for gramps like me to navigate. I was able to confirm that, sure enough, the Tap Out didn’t take. My card balance showed $55.80, meaning I was charged the FareSaver Rate of $4.20 for a three-zone ride, instead of the $3.15 FareSaver Rate for a 2-zone ride. To fix my Tap Out mistake, I needed to call the 1-800 phone number, which launched me on yet another metaphysical debate about whether that hassle was worth $1.05 of my time.

I go through life like this, folks. It is harrowing.

Being interested in taking the ride to see where it goes, I did nothing. After work I once again hopped on transit, this time Tapping In at Brighouse Station at 5:10pm (90% sure it beeped for me), Tapping Out at waterfront at about 5:45 (70% sure, as the exit from Canada Line at Waterfront is a serious traffic pinch point that I am still certain will be the failure of the entire FalconGate Fiasco), Tapping In again across the lobby at Waterfront (100% sure, as the FalconGate was operating), and Tapping Out again at Columbia Station at about 6:15 (lets put this one at 95%). I made it to my 6:30 meeting at City Hall just in time. Thanks TransLink!

Curious to see how all of this activity showed up on my card, I logged on (after resetting my password, because who remembers those things?) and this is what I get:

Capture

Clearly, Compass is confused, or I really need to work on my tapping skills. My 5:10 Tap In was apparently registered, as it appears to have made the system aware I didn’t tap out, but none of the subsequent taps was registered. Fred Astaire I am not. As far as tracking my movements, we have a 2 for 6 on Taps. I suppose the two Waterfront taps cancel each other out, I’m surprised it didn’t catch me leaving Columbia Station. The good news is:

Capture2

The confusion of my movements has resulted in TransLink charging me for one three-zone trip, and not for the two 2-zone trips I made, so I guess I am $2.10 up on the deal.

I hasten to note this problem is very likely to go away once the FalconGates are fully operational, as it will be pretty much impossible for you to miss a tap-out. The current bugs in the system should probably be expected, and at least there is a method for you to receive a refund in the case you get overcharged.

As an interesting aside, I have two travel options on transit getting from my work to New West. I can take the Canada Line to Waterfront, then SkyTrain to New West, or I can hop on the 410 bus to 22nd Street station then one stop on SkyTrain. Both take almost exactly the same time, one hour station-to-station. I have always chosen the SkyTrain because it is more comfortable than the 410 bus and (traditionally) more reliable as it doesn’t get stuck in the east-west-connector single-occupant-vehicle Stockholm-syndrome traffic-radio-reality-program plebiscite-free fustercluck that our regional transportation system is becoming.

However, now that we are in the Compass world there is another difference:

Capture3

The ride on the bus will cost me $2.10 with my loaded Compass Card, the Train ride $3.15. If I was a daily commuter, that would be a difference of more than $500 a year. This makes me wonder if people will actually engage in this type of “toll avoidance”, trading convenience and comfort for a few dollars a day.

Bicycles

No secret around these parts – I like to ride bicycles more than most people.

The last couple of years, my mountain bike has been gathering dust as I spend much more time on the road, in no small part thanks to the guys of the Fraser River Fuggitivi – a rag-tag group of Sunday morning riders, some life-long cyclists, some new to the sport, some fast, some just trying to hang on. On a good day, the FRF can be a dozen riders; on some days we only have three or four; on rainy days we stay home. Them’s the Italian Rules.

This past weekend, for reasons that are more complicated than just the serious headwind we experienced on part of the ride, I was thinking about what riding a bicycle has taught me about society. Cycling is not just a social sport, it is a socialist sport. From the Pro Peloton to a local Sunday morning ride, we work together into the inevitable wind. The weaker riders protected by the efforts of the strongest, taking their pulls when they feel able, sitting back when they don’t. Rarely do we judge those who don’t take their pull, we know when you can pull, we know when you are hurting. By working together, we all go faster for less effort. There is nothing more socialist than that.

However (and here is the beautiful part), all that working together doesn’t mean there can’t be winners. Individually, few in the FRF could have pulled off our 80+km ride on a hot windy day with the average just a tick under 30km/h like we did on Sunday, but working together we got there and got home sooner. But not before we sprinted our lungs out to see who had the most left in the tank. @Gye_Incognito managed to ride the rest of us off his wheel in that flat-back slightly-too-big-gear style of his (last year’s FRF Sprint Champ @FlyingOakes was not present, and John of the Thundering Thighs is no longer with us, so we will have to put an asterisk next to this win). The sprint was fun as much as it hurt, and there is pride and respect earned for winning it, but none of us would have gotten there together to see it won without the several-hours effort we put in together, pulling together against the wind.

Over history, bicycles have been liberating and empowering, and they have been marketed, commercialized and commoditized. They were seen both as a symbol of Maoist communism, then as a roadblock to progress in post-Maoist communism. They were effectively driven off of the streets of our democratic urban areas to foster “free movement” of people and goods, and are now a symbol (arguably, THE symbol) of urban renewal across that same post-industrial capitalist world. Meanwhile, bicycles facilitate a sport that never shies away from its pure capitalist roots – Professional Cycling is a rolling consumer road show that grinds through its workers like a commodity, but where sacred symbols (including the most sacred of all – the Maillot Jaune) are just corporate branding exercises. Still, it is full of traditions that put the team before the individual: with winners who giving their cash awards to their teammates, a culture of Domestiques and Omerta and lead-out-trains and not attacking when your opponent is down.

Bicycles are about the most efficient human-powered machines ever invented, but they are also a powerful tool for society. They bring people together for common causes, and make society move forward more efficiently. You can’t help it: cycling makes you a socialist.

They also commonly remind me how out of shape I am. Thanks for the pulls, guys.

Green Drinks and Food Security!

I’ve mentioned the Southwest BC Bio-Regional Food System Design Project (SWBCBRFSDP – my acronym, not theirs!) on this blog before, but it was tied in with a bunch of bummer complaining about lack of government support for protecting the ALR, so the good news might have been buried in all that whining. So this is the “good news” follow-up post. Folks in the know are coming to New West on Tuesday to tell us about this really cool project.

Recognizing the need to support more robust local food systems, the researchers at Kwantlen’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems are applying their significant expertise, and partnering with a diverse community of business, governance, and agricultural experts, to bring about change in how we source our food.

There are a lot of words in SWBCBRFSDP, but I like the idea of showing why every word is relevant:

SWBC: Southwest BC is defined by the project as the area from Hope to Powell River, and from Delta to Lillooet: an extensive area that ties the lower stretch of the Fraser River to the Sunshine Coast, and essentially comprises the mainland Canadian portions of the traditional lands of the Coast Salish People.

BR: A Bio-Region is and area defined by a common topography, climate, plant and animal life, and human cultural influence. In this sense, the watersheds of the Salish Sea from the desert of Lillooet to Howe Sound has a diversity of eco-zones, but are tied together by bio-cultural heritage and geography.

FS: This project is not just about farming and protecting the ALR. Yes, preserving farmland when we can will be an important part of the food security equation, but we also have to consider the other major food inputs, such as the salmon we catch from the river, and the traditional food-gathering that many of us are separated from, but are still an important part of the region’s culture. However, there is much more to food than having profitable local Agri-business farms (how many cranberries do you eat in the average year?). A Food System would support the regional economy by connecting together food sources with processors, warehousing and retail, delivery systems from Farmers’ Markets to restaurants and standard retail. A true system would even connect our disjointed organic waste stream, to bring the nutrients in our food waste back to the farms and better manage in the industrial-scale waste sometimes produced in Agri-business. Ultimately, every step in the food cycle should not just just feed British Columbians, but employ, include, and benefit British Columbians. That is how local economic resiliency is built.

Design Project: This project will start by performing an actual, science-based evaluation of what the food potential of the region is – can this region actually meet its own food needs? And if so, how? They will also be evaluating the critical needs and opportunities for our local food systems to get the food we produce to our local plates. The eventual plan is to create a series of science-based policy papers and best practices reviews that decision-makers in municipal, regional and provincial government can use to help bring a more sustainable local food system into existence.

This project hopes to realize that building a local food economy is about more than just Food Sovereignty (our ability to feed ourselves domestically and not being overly reliant on volatile global markets), but also supports economic development for the region. Every bit of food we import is a bleed on the local economy – it is a flow of our wealth to other places that we could instead use to fuel our local economy. If food is grown in BC, processed in BC, sold in BC, and the waste recycled in BC, we are creating jobs at every step, we are having a smaller environmental impact on the planet. It also brings our communities together by bringing us closer to the people who provide us our nourishment.

At a time when many of us feel bombarded by bad news and general malaise about the future of sustainability planning in our communities / province / country, this is a good news story – a positive look forward towards a better future.

At this point, the project is still being set up, and the proponents are trying to tie stakeholders together. The proponents are putting on a bit of a travelling discussion about the project and food security, which is why I am talking about this here and now – because Dr. Kent Mullinix and Sofia Fortin from the SW BC Bio-Regional Food System Design Project are coming to Green Drinks in New West!

The NWEP is moving it’s every-second-month-or-so Green Drinks to the Terminal Pub (where there is a new menu, many excellent choices at the taps, and a cool new room) on June 10. Green Drinks is always fun, casual, and no-stress. You get to chat with a wide diversity of New Westies and people from a little further afield. The formal program is kept short to give you lots of chat time, and there is no need to drink if that isn’t your thing. It’s mostly just a social gathering of folks concerned about sustainability issues, socializing, talking, and having some fun.

This time, you get a chance to talk to the folks from the above-raved-about project (and ask Kent about pruning your trees- I took a pruning course from him a few years ago and learned more than anyone should ever need to know- the guy is a font of knowledge on all things growing!)

Join us! It’s Free!

RCFM FUNdraiser!

Since I wrote that last piece about the ALR, I have had a lot of chats with people in various forums on the very topic.

I have also read a bit more about the issue, including this typically-idiotic piece by Tom Fletcher where he suggests the only people against the systematic disassembly of ALR protections are the evil NDP and others who aren’t “in the real British Columbia”. I guess he didn’t talk to this guy who seems to know a bit about land development around the ALR, he being a former mayor and land developer in a place with a lot of ALR land, or this collection of people who live and work in the BC food supply chain, from the farm to the restaurant plate, or even these folks, who represent 14,000 BC Farmers. I guess none of them live “in the real British Columbia”, which by Fletcher’s opinions, I have to assume is somewhere near the Premier’s back pocket.

Many people have asked me – what can they do about it? Hopefully you have already contacted your MLA, and the Minister of Agriculture. Really, it only takes a few minutes to write an e-mail, and if you wait until election time to tell your elected officials what you think, you have failed at Democracy 101.

Here is another thing you can do to improve the Food Security in New Westminster: Come to the Royal City Farmers Market fundraiser next Wednesday!

How does that help? The RCFM gives people like Urban Digs and Glen Valley Organic Farm and the Forstbauer Family a place to market their fresh-from-the-ground actually-grown-here good-for-you food. As the good people at the Southwest BC Food System Project remind us- it isn’t just about saving the farmland, it is about assuring we have the sustainable processing, distribution and marketing systems in place to bring the local food to local tables in a way that supports local jobs and the local economy. Your local Farmers Market is part of that.

When everyone in this City is complaining about the Competition Bureau deciding that 4 grocery outlets owned by the same company is the best way to protect our town from monopolistic control of our food supply, a weekly trip to the RCFM is part of the solution – buying fresh food from people you know while enjoying the benefits of community building.

So yeah, you love the RCFM, but why go to the fundraiser? Two reasons:

First, it raises funds to keep the RCFM going. It helps pay for things like the tents, the advertising, the paperwork, the web presence, the musicians, the kids activity table, the special promotions, and it helps the RCFM employ its single staff member to herd the cats that need to be herded to make the whole travelling circus of volunteers and vendors run. It helps the RCFM do the other stuff it provides for the community, like the community table and the food coupon program and the bursary it provides for an NWSS grad. Every bit of the fundraiser money goes right back into our community, into making the RCFM the great weekly event it is!

Second, it will be the social event of the year (or at least the social event of the year that won’t require a special wardrobe). It will be at the brand new Hub Restaurant (have you seen their deck!?) with special canapé prepared by Executive Chef Michael Knowlson from food supplied by actual RCFM vendors, local craft beer and wine, a bunch of silent auction opportunities, and (this is new) a live auction for a few special items.

And yes, the rumours are true, I am going to be acting as MC, and running the live auction. So please show up, because it will be pretty weird for me to stand there auctioning things off to myself.

I personally guarantee you will laugh, you will meet new people, you will enjoy your food and drink, and you will be doing a good thing for a good cause.

Link for ticket purchase is www.rcfm2014.eventbrite.ca