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.

ASK PAT: Bees and Boulevards

CN asks—

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

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

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

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

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

The City’s Street and Traffic Bylaw states:

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

And

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Pat: Protecting Trees

Someone asked—

I’m curious about the tree protection bylaw that was introduced a few years back. The amount of protection barriers around the city is quite high and frankly questionable. The city of New Westminster neither supplies the materials to build these barriers, nor do they facilitate the recycling of either wood or barrier fencing. In fact, the orange barrier fencing is not recyclable at any Metro Vancouver transfer stations. How have we come to having to contribute substantial, single use construction waste, both plastic and wood, to landfills in order to protect trees that in many cases are not in harms way. I challenge someone to accurately estimate the amount of waste we are creating. We are cutting down trees, so we can build a barrier around another tree and then throwing the wood away . It’s all a bit of a head scratcher imo.

Yep, that is a good point.

First off, let’s go over how we got here. New West adopted an Urban Forest Management Strategy back in 2016. At the time, the City’s tree canopy was measured to be about 18% of landcover and trending downwards. The City set a goal to increase this cover to the North American average of 27% over 20 years. To do that, we need to do two things: Stop cutting down so many trees (during a time when we are densifying our neighbourhoods!) and plant more trees. The Tree Protection Bylaw is primarily about the former, but if well administered will also help with the latter.

When the City introduced the Tree Protection Bylaw, we did so building on the existing Bylaws that exist around the region. Why re-invent the wheel when other nearby communities have already taken a test drive? This allowed us to get out of the gate quicker, but also resulted in a few parts of the Bylaw that didn’t really work so well in our local context, so we have been making some changes to the Bylaw as we go along, and have made some adjustments in how it is implemented. This happened in a context where (frankly) not all of Council was on board agreeing that a Bylaw was needed, or felt that the protection provisions were too strict. I don’t agree with that position, because I think trees are fundamentally important to the livability of our community – the more the better – and the cost of protecting them is easily offset by the cost benefit to the community.

One of the aspects common to most tree protection bylaws is tree protection fences at construction sites. The idea is that a fixed temporary fence line to protect the branches and critical root zones of protected trees when construction happens around them. This is to stop the occasional (usual accidental) bumping over of a tree by an excavator, or the excavation of tree roots required for the tree to remain healthy. Sometimes they are located away from any visible excavation work, however this is likely because they are located in a location identified as a likely laydown area for building supplies or fill or drive alleys for construction vehicles – loading critical root zones can be almost as damaging as excavating them.

These fences – staked-in lumber with polypropylene safety fencing – is pretty typical of these bylaws. It uses materials typical to construction sites (i.e. doesn’t introduce something builders aren’t used to) and are relatively durable and cheap to put together. They do, admittedly, look a little overkill in some applications, but they are definitely on the cheap & easy solution side of things.

However, you do point out rightly that they seem pretty wasteful. Most scrap lumber at construction sites is kept out of the standard waste stream, it is commonly “recycled” into wood products used to fire turbines and generate steam or electricity. The polypropylene, however, seems destined to the landfill. I’m not sure it is a substantial proportion of construction waste for a typical project, but there is no reason for us to add more.

I have had a preliminary discussion with city staff about this to understand the need a little more, but will follow up to see if there has been any effort to explore alternatives. I suspect temporary modular fencing might be much more expensive (so we will get backlash from builders already irritated by the need for tree protection), or if the City can suggest alternative materials, or even provide at a cost-recovery rate recyclable materials that meet the needs of the Bylaw, the industry, and homeowners. Thanks for the idea.

UBCM 2018

Apologies to regular readers (Hi Mom!) that I have not been putting a lot of content on this blog recently. The campaign is in full swing, we are still doing our regular City Council stuff, and I have another job that keeps me occupied. Hopefully back to regular programming in later October. In the meantime, I am talking more about campaign stuff on my campaign Facebook page, and on the my campaign website and trying to keep this page about City stuff that isn’t campaigning.

However, I thought it apropos to provide a quick update on the annual Union of BC Municipalities meeting. I was not able to attend this year, mostly due to work and Council commitments. I did go up there on September 10th (disclosure: on the City’s dime) to attend the BC Municipal Climate Leadership Council quarterly meeting, and the Minister’s breakfast that is hosted by that Council (of which I am a member). It was a productive meeting, and we were able to discuss the BCMCLC’s response to the Province’s Clean Growth Intentions Paper, which was both supportive of the work the province wants to do, and suggestive of some further steps the province could take to support local governments in reaching the aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals that are required to meet Canada’s Paris targets.

I then returned to Whistler on Wednesday (not on the City’s dime this time) to attend the Lower Mainland LGA meeting (I am a vice president) and to present the annual Community Energy Association awards to communities taking exceptional efforts to reduce their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. In my role as Chair of the CEA, it was my honour to share the awarding duties with the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. I also had the opportunity to give one of the awards to the Mayor of Nelson for their Solar Garden project –and let her know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, demonstrated by New Westminster copying their model for our own Solar Garden project.

The good news coming out the UBCM is that some resolutions we sent to be debated were passed by the membership of UBCM. These were:

B-8: Alert Ready Emergency Alert System

… be it resolved that UBCM works with the Province of British Columbia to provide access to the Alert Ready (emergency alert) system to local governments in order to allow them to broadcast critical and potentially life threatening alerts to residents of their respective communities using the framework of the Alert Ready System.

B-54: Cannabis and Harmonizing Smoking Regulations

… be it resolved that UBCM urge the Provincial Government of British Columbia to extend the prescribed distance from a doorway, window, or air intake in which a person must not smoke tobacco, hold lighted tobacco, use an e-cigarette or hold an activated e-cigarette from 6 meters to 7.5 meters and prohibit smoking in all public parks by amending the Tobacco and Vapour Control Regulations and by ensuring the corresponding distances prescribed in the Cannabis Control and Licensing Regulations are the same.

And:
B-102: Updating the BC Motor Vehicle Act to Improve Safety for All Road Users

… be it resolved that the provincial government be requested to support modernization of the Motor Vehicle Act, addressing the recommendations in the Road Safety Law Reform Group of BC Position Paper entitled “Modernizing the BC Motor Vehicle Act” to enhance safety for all road users.

I have to admit, I’m pretty chuffed about that last one.

ASK PAT: Small trees and Beg Buttons

neil21 asks—

Howdy. Two questions having just moved here from Vancouver’s West End.

1. Why are the street trees so short? Is it just time (but I thought this city was older) or the species? The streets are really hot without that shade.

2. At 6th and Carnarvon, pedestrians don’t get to cross without pressing the button. Even if pedestrians are crossing the same way on the other side.
2b. Also why aren’t your beg buttons those buttonless ones like you have for the bikes? Those are better.
2c. Also why does 6th and C have beg buttons at all? Just let peds cross with green cars always.

Welcome to New West. I would love to hear more about your decision to move here from our western suburb, and your experiences since making the shift. The theme of my answers to the above will be “A City is always a work in progress”. We are now headed the right direction, but have more work to do.

1: (caveat: I’m not an arbourist, but I have a couple of suppositions) First, the trees may be younger than you are used to. The City of New Westminster, with the exception of Queens Park (the neighbourhood) and a few parts of Glenbrooke North and Sapperton, really lost the plot on street trees a few decades ago. It may have been the fashion of the time, the cost of development, a mandate by the electrical utility, or just short-term thinking, but our urban forest was cut back in a devastating way. Our canopy cover City-wide is less than 18%, which is similar to Vancouver, but low compared to much of North America. It was only a few years ago when New Westminster introduced a new Urban Forest Management Strategy, and started to a) proactively protect the trees we have; and b) ramp up plans to plant trees and bring back more canopy cover. Unfortunately, the ultimate results of this will not be seen for another decade or two. That said, although the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is today, and we are getting on it.

That said, it is also possible that trees are smaller above ground because they are smaller underground. Trees need healthy root systems to prosper, and our 150-year-old streets and sidewalks and utility corridors mean that the area of healthy nutrient-rich and porous soil around many of our newer trees is limited. This may mean staff decided to plant diminutive tree species to respect the available growing area, or it may be that the lack of soil is keeping the tree from meeting its ultimate size. There is a bunch of new engineering practice around creating “soil cells” as part of new street tree installations, but see last paragraph about 20 years.

2: (Mostly) because the City is old, doesn’t have endless money, and until recently, it wasn’t a priority.

Beg Buttons (the pejorative name given by pedestrian advocates to buttons that must be pushed by pedestrians in order for the red hand to become the white man at light-controlled intersections when the cars get a green light) were all the rage at one time, because everybody important drove, and pedestrians were just another thing that needed to be managed within car spaces to get traffic moving.

Our new Master Transportation Plan, however, prioritizes pedestrians for the first time, so we are working on changing these things. That said, Beg Buttons can still serve a purpose for system-wide traffic management in more pedestrian-oriented urban areas. They can assure that crossing times for wider roads are adequate for slower pedestrians when they are present, and not too long when they are not. They also make the audible crossing signal for the hearing impaired work better. As always, the devil is in the details.

In some places, we still have older Beg Buttons (even old-style small-button ones in place of the larger panel-type ones) in places where more modern treatments would be appropriate. These are being replaced as budgets allow on a priority basis. Every year, Transportation staff do a review of all  identified crossing improvement needs, place some draft priorities on them based on safety, potential to dovetail with bigger projects or adjacent development, and other factors. They pass that priority list through the Advisory Committee for Transit, Bicycles and Pedestrians, the Access Ability Advisory Committee, and the Neighbourhood Transportation Advisory Committee, then spend their budget making the changes. Sometimes that means curb bulges, marked cross walks, lighting changes or updating the signal operations. All of these things are ridiculously expensive, hence the need to set priorities.

In some places, the Beg Buttons will remain (although I hope we will eventually migrate all to the more accessible panel-type ones) because they are a useful tool. If well applied, they make crossing safer for pedestrians, especially in lower-pedestrian-traffic areas. However, when they are not well applied (as you point out a 6th and Carnarvon, and I can point out a few more in the City), they create an impression to pedestrians that are not a priority in our public spaces, and sometimes go so far as to create inconvenient barriers to pedestrians. Perhaps a good example is all of the crossings along Columbia Street in Downtown, where there is an almost constant east-west flow of pedestrians, and pedestrians should see the white walking guy every time cars get a green light.

Pipelined

I wanted to comment a bit on this story. Kinder Morgan is apparently using an industrial lot in the Braid Industrial Area of New Westminster for staging and equipment storage as part of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Extension Project. That has caused some people to send me correspondence around why the City is allowing this, people asking me why I am not opposing the pipeline. I replied to a Facebook Post, but I think this issue is important enough for me to expand a bit on it here on my blog.

The site within New West being used by Kinder Morgan is on Port of Vancouver land, not land where the City has any jurisdiction. Council members were very recently made aware this was happening, but we do not have any regulatory authority around land use on Port lands, as only the Federal Government can issue or withhold those permits. We were not involved in the planning for this, and we have not had any formal correspondence on the issue from the proponent or the Port.

This City and this Council have been involved in the NEB review of the Kinder Morgan pipeline from the onset. The City acted as an intervenor in the NEB review, raised a number of significant concerns during the process, and continues to emphasize these concerns since. Not the least of these concerns is the potential for impacts on the Brunette River and its riparian areas.

We have supported court cases challenging this project and the process towards its approval. The NEB and the Federal Governments (past and present) have demonstrated no interest in our position, nor do I feel they have adequately addressed our concerns. It is actually worse than that, as there were recent hearings in Burnaby to review some of the still-unresolved questions about the routing of the new pipeline along New Westminster’s border (and within the Brunette River riparian zone) and the NEB didn’t even invite New Westminster to attend. I was refused entry to the hearings when I showed up. They were held behind closed doors, and as the routing was some 30m outside of our City, my being able to even listen to the conversation was not seen as relevant. At least the Harper Government invited us into the room to be ignored.

I cannot speak for all of Council, nor is this the “official position” of the City, but I have been involved in this process for several years now. I bring a significant amount of professional and technical experience to this, having provided expert evidence as an Environmental Scientist to several Environmental Assessments in my career. I am concerned about the pipeline, but I am much, much more angry about the unaccountable and unacceptable process that has taken us to this point. In the last Federal election we were promised that the industry-focused reviews brought in by the Harper Government would be replaced; that didn’t happen. We were told that community consultations would be opened up, and that consent from communities would be sought; that didn’t happen. We were told that a new era of reconciliation would be ushered in before we impose unsustainable and  damaging infrastructure projects to unceded lands; that didn’t happen. We were told that subsidies to sunset oil industrial development would end and a new energy vision would be offered; that didn’t happen.

We were lied to, and now we are ignored.

CLI 2017

Concomitant to being on City Council, I am involved with more than a few other projects. Two of these are membership in the BC Municipal Climate Leadership Council, and Board Member of the Community Energy Association. These two organizations collaborated last week to put on the first Climate Leadership Institute conference in Richmond. If you are a New Westminster resident, you paid for me to attend, so here is my report on what you got for your 1/3 of a penny each.

(I feel I need to mention here that it was a pretty intensive program, and I have dozens of pages of notes, so I need to do quite a bit of distilling. Everything below if my filtered impression of the program, and may not reflect another person’s experience, and every quote is a paraphrase from memory or scribbled notes!)

This was an interesting 2.5-day event that brought together local government elected officials from across BC, municipal staff working in energy and emissions policy, and subject matter experts across the broad spectrum of energy efficiency and climate change policy. The format was a repeated pattern of a keynote presentation, a panel discussion, then an intensive break-out conversation where the participants could share their local successes and challenges related to the topics covered by the panels. This schedule drove collaborative thinking, shared learning, and more than a little inspiration.


The first session was on communications – how do we lead productive conversations on this politically difficult topic? Aside from some pretty useful self-reflection on how we are communicating personally and on the social media (Do we spout facts, or talk about our beliefs? Are we open to being wrong? Are you silent for fear of being judged?) we heard from some organizations who are learning how to effectively lead conversations: the Pembina Institute, the BC Sustainable Energy Association, Clean Energy Canada. We also discussed current communication challenges related to climate policy: How do you talk to a denier – or do you even bother? Does “Decongestion Charging” mean anything to anyone? With so much bad info on Social Media, how to react?

My takeaways from this were not profound, except in that I recognize I have shifted a bit on this blog and in public from speaking my passions to speaking facts and pragmatics. I think there is a space for the latter – I strive to be factual – but it is the first part that matters, and makes people want to listen to or read my ideas. I gotta get that passion back…


The second session was opened by former Premier and Mayor of Vancouver Mike Harcourt. He gave a pretty interesting “inside basebell” historic run-down of the politics of Greater Vancouver’s regional transportation and infrastructure planning, from Expo86 to today. He spoke of the politician’s paradox – the need to have a long term vision and also deliver in the short term to get re-elected so that vision can be realized. In the end, we all fail, but can move the baton forward, and good work can get done (or undone) by those with the ability to project a vision.

This led to a panel discussion on policy creation an implementation within complex (and often political) organizations. It was less about specific ideas (although some ideas I’ll talk about later arose here), and more about how to champion ideas through an organization as complex as a City. Do we make climate action part of a strategic plan? What happens when your strategic plan gets old (as happens quickly in this fast-moving tech-driven policy area)? What point to making new plans if you haven’t the budget or political capital to see it implemented? We also talked quite a bit about how we measure and report out the results of climate policy, in order to assure our staff are accountable to our council, and our Council is accountable to the public that elect them.


The third panel brought together energy managers from North Vancouver, East Kootenay, Richmond, Campbell River and our own New Westminster to talk about initiatives unique to each community that was making a difference in the their community in reducing energy use or emissions. We were presented a variety of policy tools, technology approaches, and strategies – including the successes and the challenges. I did note that New Westminster’s Urban Solar Garden got quite a bit of interest from other regions and communities.

We had a couple of powerful presentations on the future of global energy systems and on bringing the changes home to our communities in meaningful ways. I really need to write a separate blog post about this, because it takes us to interesting places. In short, the world’s energy economy is changing much faster than we ever thought possible. Canada’s National Energy Board, the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry and approves pipelines recently shifted their prediction of the year when Canada will hit peak oil. Last year, they said after 2040; this year they say 2019. Think about the meaning of that on every aspect of our economy. It’s happening, the only question is whether we will be ready. I’m looking at you, Jason Kenny.


On the last day, there were break-out sessions that explored in depth some of the topics not yet covered by the conference (in my case, we talked about food security, and the role that food systems play in our community energy and emissions goals). We also had presentations from the Provincial Government, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and the Real Estate Foundation of BC, all of who outlined grant opportunities local governments can use to develop studies, to implement new programs, or even for capital costs that will result in reduced energy use and emissions.

Finally, a theme I took away from the entire conference was one of timescales. On one hand, we need to think long-game in energy reduction and community emissions. We cannot replace our vehicle fleet in a year, or our building systems in a decade. On the other hand, things are moving fast. Electrical vehicle technology is growing at an exponential rate, as is building insulation and energy system technology. The prices for what was until recently “bleeding edge” technology are dropping fast, as China invests heavily in solar systems and vehicle tech is pushing storage systems forward. Where putting off infrastructure improvement was once fiscally prudent, the pay-back time for more efficient systems is shifting that equation.

As much as we need to think long-term, there has never a better time than now to take real action.

ASK PAT: Potash

Shaji asks—

This proposal to put a potash storage and transportation facility on the Surrey-side banks of the Fraser river seems absurd!

I have recent made the New West and the Fraser river my home and come to realize how much of it is surrounded with beautiful marshlands and resident wild life – despite the Fraser being a working river. I see seals bobbing their heads out of the water everyday from my window.

Our efforts need to be to preserve and clean up this beautiful surrounding; not further pollute it with such harmful proposed projects.

What is the City’s stance and influence on the proposed project?

Thanks again

The first I heard of a plan to move potash through Fraser Surrey Docks was when a few residents of Queensborough started sending me e-mails. The general theme of these e-mails was “What is the Port trying to pull here!?” Hopefully I can explain, although I have not heard a peep from the Port (officially or informally) about this project, so most everything I know you can read yourself at the Port’s information website about the project.

It appears that one of the world’s largest mining companies, BHP Billiton, wants to build a facility in Surrey to move potash off of train cars and into bulk carrier ships for export. Much like the previous coal terminal facility proposed for Fraser Surrey Docks, this facility will be required to go through the Port’s own Environmental Review process, instead of a Federal Environmental Assessment. This procedure exists because of legislative changes made by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government that decimated the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act – changes Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Government seems in no rush to address despite significant election promises to the effect. But I digress.

Upon hearing about this proposal, my initial questions were around what it means for the Coal Terminal project. That project has already been approved by the Port, although that approval is still being challenged in court. My cursory look at the proposed coal terminal drawings:

…and the drawings for the proposed potash terminal:

…suggest to me that they do not share operational footprint, except for some rail loop infrastructure. So I am operating under the assumption that potash terminal approval would not mean coal terminal termination. We should be so lucky.

So what do we know about potash? It is mined from evaporate deposits under Saskatchewan; it is mostly potassium chloride with less than 5% sodium chloride and trace amounts of other minerals; it is primarily used for fertilizer, although it is also used in metals refining and other industrial processes. It is no more toxic that table salt, isn’t flammable, isn’t carcinogenic, and isn’t a particularly nasty environmental contaminant in soil or water. There are some well-understood and generally well mitigated environmental impacts from mining. After spending a few hours reading up on potash and its handling, finding science-based sources I consider reliable and relatively unbiased, there is little in my Environmental Geoscientist experience that causes me great concern about this material being handled in or moved through my neighbourhood.

There will be impacts, no doubt. Train traffic, noise, light, and potentially dust (though potash is usually handled though a pretty closed system due it its solubility). The Port review process (as sketchy as it is) should provide us some ability to provide input to the Port about how we want these potential issues mitigated. You can learn about the project and review process by attending an Open House at the Fraser River Discovery Centre on Thursday evening, you can read the project materials here, or you can go to the BHP project site here and provide some feedback directly. For further research, I might reach out to some council colleagues on the North Shore where potash has been handled for years to see what concerns it has caused in their communities.

That said, you asked a specific question, with pretty simple answers: Council has not been formally asked to opine on the project yet (any more than any other stakeholder), haven’t received any reports, and haven’t really discussed it, so the City doesn’t yet have a stance on the project. Our influence as a stakeholder is limited – as we learned from the coal terminal project where our firm opposition did not prevent the project from being approved. I am sure we will participate in the review process, but it would be premature for me to speak on behalf of all of Council on what the City’s position will be.

As an aside, this proposal is apparently to move potash from a new mine outside of Saskatoon, specifically one that BHP Billiton announced they were in no rush to open as recently as August. I have no idea what that means to this project, but the timing does seem strange.

Green City?

Long-time readers (Hi Mom!) will remember that I got involved in this entire blog thing through an environmental lens. When I moved my constant beaking off onto the internet back in 2010, I had been involved with groups in New West and regionally who were trying to promote sustainability and environmental protection, in my profession, in the community, and in politics.

At the time, New West Council was making significant shifts towards better environmental policy. A few of the newer members of Council, led by some young whippersnapper named Cote, were putting environmental issues on the agenda. The City was adopting environmental policies, hired an Environmental Coordinator, and was moving into developing a sustainability framework that would become Envision2032.

The City of New West considers itself a leader in environmental initiatives, however I have yet to see a local government that doesn’t consider itself a leader on this front. That may sound critical, but it is really more a reflection of the sometimes poorly-defined and always evolving concept of environmental sustainability. Local governments (like most organizations, and most people for that matter) emphasize the good things they are doing and progress they are making, but are commonly blind to the things they are not doing. When it comes to something like environmental sustainability, consistent re-evaluation of goals and metrics is the only way to avoid comfortable smugness.

Recognizing this, the City is inviting you to help us move forward on environmental policy. Council has asked staff to review what we are doing, and what we can do better – both a gap analysis and reality check. And we are asking you to help.

This week (October 25th!) there will be a Public Event called Royal City / Green City, where we are going to get people into a room to talk about where our environmental policies are, and where they need to be. We are bringing together some subject matter experts to provide inspiration, and perhaps to push us in uncomfortable directions. We will also be asking all attendees to react to what they hear, and push the City. It is completely free and open to everyone, whether you work, live, study or play in New West. We do ask that you register ahead of time so we can properly plan for the numbers who will arrive, because this will be an interactive event. You can register here:

Maybe to get the creative juices flowing, I want to challenge the three- (or increasingly four-) pillar idea model of sustainability. This has become the standard model of suggesting sustainability is a balance between three competing forces – protection of the environment, growth of the economy, and maintenance of societal standards. Diagrammatically, it usually looks like this (copied from Envision2032):

This has always caused me to itch, because I have never felt it accurately reflects the interdependence between the three pillars. Without a sustained environment, we cannot have an economy or a society. Take that one pillar away, the other two disappear. Similarly, our economy exists within, and is defined by, the structures of our society. It cannot exist without a societal structure, which is, in turn, defined by the environment in which we live. In my mind (and I’m not the only person to suggest this) the three pillars should be drawn like this:Actions, technologies, and organizations impact our economy, which in turn shape our society, which in turn impact the greater natural environment. When we shape policies, when we evaluate the worth of technology or price individual actions, we are using economic tools to adjust the shape of our society. If that re-shaping supports the protection of the natural environment in a way that doesn’t constrain future societies from access to natural resources, then we can call those actions “sustainable”.

Clearly, I’m not a philosopher, so come out on October 25th and tell me how I am wrong!

UBCM 2017- Day 2

This is part 3 on my reporting out on what I did at the 2017 UBCM conference. Part 2 is here.

My third day at UBCM had less of an educational component, more of a political one.

One aspect of UBCM is an opportunity for Local Government elected types and staff to meet with Provincial Government elected types and staff, so we can raise important issues, lobby for support for our initiatives or programs, or learn about how provincial government programs are going to impact us. These meetings are arranged ahead of time, and with hundreds of local governments in attendance and only so many provincial folks to go around, the scheduling is pretty difficult. Meetings are generally 15 minutes to a half an hour, and rarely result in immediate action on issues – especially this year with a new government so early in their mandate.

Part of having a collaborative approach on Council that extends to working with senior governments, we split up responsibilities for these meetings among the Council Members attending UBCM, with the Mayor taking the lead at most meetings. I was able to take part in meetings regarding transportation topics, on the future of childcare in New West and the provincial role in supporting it, and on several community energy and emission reduction initiatives.


Several members of New West Council and a few of our planning staff also had a sit-down meeting with representatives of AirBnB. Clearly, AirBnB are working all levels of government in Canada to assure their business model is not regulated out of existence, and (unlike Uber), this is an area where Local Governments can exercise some regulatory control, through Zoning and Business Licensing. They came prepared to talk to any city who would listen, including providing local stats. In New Westminster (according to AirBnB, there are 130 active hosts, with the average host opening a room for 54 nights a year, for a total length of stay of between 4 and 5 days. The case they were making is that AirBnB contributes to the local economy (guests frequent local restaurants, pubs, and stores) and make housing more affordable for some people, by providing a “mortgage helper”.

We were pretty frank with AirBnB, we are concerned about the impact on our affordable housing stock, about violations of our business license and zoning laws, and about some livability concerns expressed by community members. We had a good discussion about other jurisdictions (such as Nelson and Tofino) and the strengths and weaknesses of their attempts at regulating this platform. It should be no surprise that some concerns that AirBnb raise about different regulatory models are very different that the concerns we hear in some parts of the community. There is also, I think, a bit of a disconnect between AirBnB’s interest in operating within a better regulatory framework, and the limits they put on how they could help local government with that framework- often citing (debatable) privacy issues.

This is a topic I am interested in, and am not getting a lot of traction in my calls for the City to take a more proactive approach. I think there is a role for supporting expanded BnBs in our community (Really, AirBnB is just a platform, not the core business), especially as we have so few Hotel Rooms, no “Hotel Tax” to support our Tourism efforts, and so many heritage and cultural aspects that should make us a popular destination. But with our rental vacancy rate below 0.5%, renovictions burgeoning on crisis, and so many challenges maintaining our affordable housing stock, the answers here are not easy.


Wednesday was also the first day of Resolutions for UBCM 2017 – but I’ll talk about those in a follow-up post.

The afternoon saw several “Provincial Cabinet Town Halls” which were an interesting model for engagement by the new government. There were four Panels (Health and Safety; Investing in People; Infrastructure and Economic Development; and Job, Resources, and Green Communities), each headed by 5 or 6 members of the new Provincial Cabinet. They gave a brief intro to their Mandate Letters, and where they see their files helping Local Government, then the floor was opened in a Town all style for us to grill them on any topic we liked.

I attended the Jobs, Etc. session, where the Ministers of Agriculture, Energy & Mines, FLNROrd, Environment, and Jobs&Trade were in attendance. The introductory conversations were pretty high-level, with Minister Popham clearly excited about protecting the ALR, Minister Mungall equally excited about the future of mining and green energy in the province, and Minister Donaldson proud of the provincial response to the wildfires of the summer (and giving significant props to his predecessor John Rustad for working hard to not let the transition impact firefighting efforts).

Questions given to the Ministers were wide-reaching, including yet another visit from the same Mayor from a certain agriculture-focused municipality clutching pearls over marijuana taking over prime farmland already overwrought with freeways and million-square-foot factory greenhouses (though she didn’t put it that way), to concerns about the future of northeast BC’s ample natural gas resources.

On that final point, I recognized a place where our senior governments are sending mixed messages. Where the Federal Government (in defending the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion) is saying downstream greenhouse gas emissions of pipeline products are not our problem, because they are burned elsewhere, the BC Government (including, alas, the new government) are insisting that we need to support LNG because it will reduce overall emissions in the downstream by offsetting coal in the target markets. Am I the only one who sees the contradiction here?