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: Columbia & McBride

C D asks—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intersections

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

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

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

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

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

Price Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give it a listen, it is a great conversation:

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

Miner improvements?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be safe out there folks.

Trucks in the City

Douglas College has been running an interesting talk series this year under the banner of “Urban Challenges Forum”. The final episode of this semester occurred on Wednesday night, and deserved a better turnout than it received, considering the amount of social media bits and watercooler shatter we have in New Westminster around the topic: the livability impacts of truck routes and goods movement in our community.

Fortunately, they recorded video of the event, and will (hopefully?) be posting it on line. It is worth the time to see how the four panelists speak about trucks from different viewpoints: an urban systems geographer, a representative of the trucking industry, a representative of the Port Authority, and the CAO of New Westminster, a City that is (arguably) impacted most by the negative externalities of “goods movement” in the region.

I want to give a quick summary of my take-away points before raising the question I never got to raise at the event, partly because of the time constraints, partly because no-on needs to hear from a Politician when actual thinking people are speaking, and partially because I wasn’t sure how to phrase my question in the form of a question*.

Peter Hall (the geographer) reminded us that transportation, by its very nature, makes us selfish, and makes us act in shamefully selfish ways (speeding, tailgating, yelling at others). This is at least partly because it isn’t an ends, but a means, and its hassles are preventing us from meeting these ends. Add to this our general ignorance about freight, and we get a selfish ignorance about goods movement – we all want the benefits, none of us understand why we need to tolerate the costs. Trucking also has many benefits and externalities, and they are not evenly distributed. Altogether, this makes it a vicious political problem, not made easier by jurisdictional overlap.

Matthew May from BST Transport and Peter Xotta from the Port of Vancouver gave similar messages about their respective industries: they need to keep the goods moving in the National Interest. You ask for tomatoes in the store, you need to deal with trucks. You want a vibrant economy, you need trucks and ports. You live in a Gateway, and we will accommodate your community as best we can (even want to make you happy!), but the mandate is to drive the economy.

Lisa Spitale gave a concise summary of some of the interface issues New Westminster has dealt with over the last few decades. With rail and roads encircling the community and a Regional Growth Strategy mandate to be a dense Urban Centre supported by (and supporting) transit, we are a hot spot for the externalities of goods movement, by rail and truck.

If I had a point to make at this event (again, I could not put this in the form of a question), it is that we have *chosen* to accept the level of negative externalities that come with a large number of diesel trucks in our neighbourhoods.

To frame this point, we need to put aside the local-goods-delivery for a moment and talk about the larger getting-stuff-from-Port-to-hinterland-through-logistics-hubs part of this equation. This is what separates us as a “Gateway” city from most other regions, and is the foundation of both the Port’s arguments on this issue and the emphasis of the Gateway Council model that has commonly dominated our regional transportation conversation. But what kind of Gateway have we built?

Here in New Westminster, we host one end of a 114-year-old single-track swing bridge that is the only rail link crossing the Fraser River west of Mission. The City of New Westminster has something like 14km of river shoreline under Port of Vancouver jurisdiction, with about a third of that backed by industrial land, much of it under the Port’s direct control. Much of this land is used for logistics, cross-shipping, container storage, and other aspects of that all-important gateway-to-the-hinterland business. Yet over all of that space there are (2) conveyors moving aggregates and chips on/off barges, and one (1) pier occasionally used to move breakbulk lumber. These are the only location in New Westminster’s extensive port lands where anything is taken on or off of a boat.

The only contribution our Port lands make to the Gateway is providing space to move and store trucks, and facilitate the movement of goods in and out of trucks. Unfortunately, New Westminster is not alone in this.

How we move goods through the region is a choice we make, not a foregone conclusion. For these hinterland goods in containers, we have chosen to use trucks to move a large portion of them intra-regionally. A cynic would suggest that is because building waterfront infrastructure to make better use of short sea shipping and barges is expensive. Upgrading rail infrastructure so a single swing bridge isn’t the only vital link across a river that has seen 30 lanes of highway built across since that single track was installed, is expensive. Relying on roads and bridges is comparatively cheap from the view of the person who has to pay for the initial capital, because taxpayers will often pony up for “congestion reduction” investment, and the other costs (noise, pollution, public safety) are completely externalized, at least partially in the form of decreased livability of our communities.

I’ve made this rant before.

Since 1808 when Simon Fraser first tasted salt in the Sto:lo, there have been strains resulting from the needs of the Gateway to the Hinterland and the needs of the people living on the river’s shores. We can, however, find a better balance between these forces. It must include acknowledging that externalized costs of fueling the Gateway need to be accounted. Trucks are part of a functioning modern society, but their true role cannot be understood as long as we subsidize them over other options.

*I was once at a forum-type event where the request for “question from the floor” was prefaced by this proviso: Your first sentence must be in the form of a question; there should not be a second sentence. I thought that was brilliant.

Us & Them

This is a terrible story.

Over a period of four days, two pedestrians and a cyclist were struck by drivers of vehicles on the same section of Cariboo Road. The first pedestrian, a 15 year old, died at the scene. It’s heartbreaking.

This is a piece of road I am familiar with. It used to be on my daily commute when I worked in Burnaby, and is still part of my regular cycling routine. So am quick to add my “anecdata” along with the list of people commenting that the crosswalk in question is a terrible design. It is a crosswalk that provides access to a well-used bus stop across the street from a residential area, but it is around a corner at the base of a big hill where the speed limit is ostensibly 50km/h, but every piece of the road’s design (separated centre, wide shoulder, 5m lane widths, sidewalk buffer) tells the driver to go much faster. And drivers do go much faster.

So there will be wringing of hands, and pressure for the City to fix this situation. Likely, some sort of pedestrian-activated light will be installed at the cost of a couple of hundred thousand dollars that will marginally increase pedestrian safety, but will add one more step a pedestrian must take (hit a button, wait for a light cycle) to beg for the right to safety while moving through public space. Meanwhile, a little bit of targeted enforcement by the police will increase the perception of something being done until their attention is drawn elsewhere and driver’s behaviors revert to what the road design is telling them to do. The 85th percentile will again sneak up to its design point.

I would be hopeful for, but not expecting, a more sustainable long-term solution, one that would meaningfully increase safety for all users. Reduce the lane width to something like 3.5m (which would provide opportunity for a separated protected cycling path on this well-used route). Complement the pedestrian light with a raised crosswalk, paint and texture treatment to send appropriate speed signals to the drivers. Increase the number of protected crosswalks along Cariboo Hill so people can access the Cariboo Heights residential Co-op and Briar Road, and to again signal drivers that this is a residential area where they should be driving 50km/h and expect pedestrians, not an 80km/h freeway on-ramp. This would, of course, be expensive, but the Google Earth air photo still shows the millions of dollars recently spent here to allow drivers on Cariboo Road to drive faster through here as part of a regional motordom expansion project…

Uncharacteristically, I am not going to hate on Burnaby here. That would be too easy and unfair. This situation is not unique to Cariboo Road, and it is not unique to Burnaby. It in no way undermines the seriousness of this situation to say these three incidents in such close proximity are an unfortunate coincidence. Realistically, I can name a dozen other areas where similarly hazardous conditions exist, and municipalities like Burnaby, Richmond, and (yes) New Westminster are slow to react to them.

That these safety issues are so common is part of the reason we are so slow to react; there’s a lot of infrastructure to fix and a limited infrastructure improvement budget. Still, too much of it is spent on “getting traffic moving” in places like this, were public safety would suggest the opposite. I could go off on a long tangent about “warrant analysis” here, but instead I’ll just reiterate that even if the best intentions exist, priorities need to be set. There simply isn’t enough money to make every pedestrian crossing as safe as we would like, because there are too many unsafe intersections and crossings. 70-odd pedestrians are killed every year in BC, the vast majority at a marked crossing or intersection, demonstrating that we have a lot of work to do when it comes it engineering the protection of pedestrians.

However, engineering can only get us closer to the safety we desire (and please spare me the long digression into autonomous vehicles, the fantastical promises of which seem to commonly fail when pressed against some simple inquiries into their remaining challenges). I’ve recently-enough ranted about how the vehicles pedestrians are forced to share space with are increasingly dangerous to those pedestrians, but haven’t really called out another trend supported mostly by personal anecdote: an increasingly callous disregard for the safety of other demonstrated by people driving cars in British Columbia, and the apparent reluctance of Police and Crown Counsel to meaningfully address this public health emergency.

We have work to do as municipalities (working with and supported by TransLink and the Ministry of Transportation, I hope), and I am proud that New Westminster’s draft 2018 capital budget is showing a serious commitment to meeting the goals set out in our Master Transportation Plan – we are now spending as much on pedestrian and cycling improvements as we do on road repair and asphalt to “keep traffic flowing”. But at some point, we are going to need to convince drivers to meet us half way. We need to change people’s minds about their cars, their entitlement, and how that threatens the safety of our communities.

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: the Missing Link

Tom asks—

Any news on the BC Parkway’s “missing link” between 5th Ave. and 14th St.? I understand that Southern Railways has given up its lease on the old Central Park Line, and so it’s reverted to BC Hydro and the tracks have been pulled up. Will TransLink be giving this stretch a proper surface any time soon? Can New West nudge them to do it? Or should we hold another “Worst Roads in BC” poll?

The answer to this one is short, but probably unsatisfying, so I’ll do that politics trick of shifting it to something I want to talk about and leave it with asking you another question that somehow makes you forget I didn’t answer your question. Hey, election time is coming up soon, I need practice!

But first, the answer is that it is a work in progress. The City has expressed its interest in making this connection better than it is, and the right of way on the other side of the SkyTrain pillars makes sense. However, complications arise in that the City doesn’t own that land, nor do we own the BC Parkway Trail. I’m not completely up on the details here, so don’t hold me to all of these interactions, but my understanding is that the land belongs to Southern Railway (or BC Hydro), and there are rights of way for TransLink and either Southern Railway or BC Hydro (whichever isn’t the owner). The BC Parkway is a TransLink asset, supported by surface Rights-of-Way, so I think their right-of-way is only for the SkyTrain guideway through that portion, which is why the BC Parkway was not completed through here more than as a sidewalk in the first case back in the 1980’s.

So as far as the rights to build things, including a paved cycling or multi-use path, there is some legal work to do on the part of the City and TransLink. It is in the City’s work plan, but I don’t know when all of the stars will align. I am pretty certain it won’t be this year, possibly next, but I’m not promising yet.

There is another work-in-progress in the same area also in the having-conversations-between-TransLink-and-the-City stage. When Stewardson Ave was re-aligned to build the Queensborough Bridge interchange, a link in the BC Parkway across Stewardson below Grimston Park was lost. There is a route across involving the ramps to the Queensborough Bridge, but it is quite a lengthy detour for West End residents interested in walking down to the Riverfront or Quayside. At one point, a pedestrian overpass below Grimston was proposed, but I’m not sure we should build one, which is where I turn this around and ask you a question.

When is a pedestrian overpass a pedestrian amenity, and when is it an automobile amenity?

This is not an academic question. Our City’s Master Transportation Plan puts a priority on pedestrians, with other active transportation forms and transit next, with automobiles at the bottom of the priority for new infrastructure investment. We still spend an order of magnitude more on maintaining automobile infrastructure than other forms, but when investing in new stuff, our budgets are shifting towards supporting MTP priorities.

So when asked to partner with TransLink to build a new overpass, we need to ask the question: are we building this to serve pedestrians, or are we building this to move car traffic?

The easiest and least expensive way to move pedestrians across a street is a stoplight and crosswalk. This is especially true if we want to assure the infrastructure is as accessible as possible, as any grade separation inevitably results in a compromise between slope and distance, making a simple walk across a road either impossible for those with mobility challenges or unnecessary long and complicated for everyone else. The engineering required to put active transportation users 5m in the air so cars have unfettered free passage below is always counted in the millions.

However, if we build a level crosswalk with lights and buttons and paint, that means cars need to, occasionally, stop and let pedestrians by. It also means that we need to design a crossing to reduce the chances that a driver will fail to stop and kill a pedestrian, which may mean improving sight lines and reducing vehicle speeds in general. When we consider building a pedestrian crossing on this part of Stewardson, will it be the couple-of-hundred-thousand dollar signalized crossing, or the couple-of-million-dollar overpass? If the latter, should we pay for it out of the pedestrian amenity budget, or out of the car amenity budget?

The question may be academic, because it is highly unlikely the City’s engineers or TransLink will sign off on a crosswalk on a City Street that is part of the Major Road Network (as this part of Stewardson is) where the traffic typically moves at 80km/h, despite the 50km/h speed limit. This speed issue is also part of the reason why the existing cycling connection you originally asked about feels unsafe for all users.

And this, multiplied by dozens of places throughout the City, is how we still, for all the best efforts and good intentions, lose our pedestrian spaces to motordom. It is frustratingly slow making this change, it represents a cultural shift in three levels of government and society in general, but that’s our goal.

on Data

This isn’t exactly an Ask Pat, but I was asked a question on Facebook comments thread discussing the new Crosstown Greenway changes along 7th Ave, and I needed more than a Facebook post to answer:

I read two questions here, tied up into one. Paraphrased, the first is “How many cyclist injuries or deaths are there in the City to justify all of this money spent on bike lanes?”, and the second, perhaps more nuanced, is “What data justifies spending money on all these new bike lanes”.

I didn’t answer the first question, because I think it is a terrible question, but never got around to explaining why I feel that way. If we have a spike in deaths or injuries, it may be an indication that we have a problem that needs immediate attention, but we don’t wait for those spike if we can anticipate and prevent incidents. A raw count of deaths or injuries as the sole driver of infrastructure investment is not responsible governance.

The actual data being asked for is hard to come by. Local governments do not (to the best of my knowledge) collect these stats in any kind of comprehensive way for public consumption. ICBC presumably still collects stats, but their reporting out has become pretty inconsistent, and their crash maps for New Westminster have not been updated since 2013 (for Pedestrians and cyclists) or 2015 (for cars) and cannot be filtered by injury/death/property damage: 

Anecdotally (and off the top of my head) I can think of two cyclist and three pedestrian deaths in New Westminster in the last few years (there have surely been more). One of them I am comfortable in calling an “accident”, a second was clearly an act of negligence on the part of a pedestrian. The rest were just as clearly acts of negligence on the part of the drivers of a vehicles, resulting in the death of 3 innocent road users. I have also spent the last year watching a good friend struggle through recovery from a near-fatal cycling crash where he was clearly a victim of a negligent driver. New West is not unique here, as across the region, there is news every day of cyclist endangered by the negligence of drivers.

Of course, I acknowledge the obvious point that cyclists and pedestrians also sometimes act negligently, and cause accidents. However studies have shown that accidents causing injury or death of pedestrians and cyclist are in the vast majority, caused by the actions of drivers, most notably not yielding right-of way while making turns.

That said, we are talking about infrastructure, and part of designing and investing in transportation infrastructure is in making it harder for people (drivers or vulnerable users) to be negligent, and to reduce the potential impacts of any negligence on vulnerable road users. We can do this through design that reduces conflict points, improves visibility, slows cars, or puts barriers between vulnerable users and the vehicles that endanger them. At some level, this should be the primary goal of all transportation engineering. But perhaps I am already digressing too far from the point, so let me answer more succinctly:

We don’t measure the need for a bridge by counting the number of people drowning in a river.

The second question seems to be more relevant to how governance works: What kind of data do we use to make transportation investment decisions?

The City passed a Master Transportation Plan back in early 2014, and it sets out priorities for the City’s transportation investments. It was developed in context of a bunch of other planning documents, including larger regional plans like the Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy and the TransLink Transport 2040 regional transportation plan, both of which the City participated in. Internally, we have our own Official Community Plan (currently being updated), a relatively recent Sustainability Plan, and a variety of other strategies to make the City more equitable, safer, livable, and sustainable.

These plans all point to making active transportation modes (pedestrians, cycling, and transit) easier to access, safer, and more comfortable, as an important strategy towards the larger regional and local community development goals. This was reflected in our Master Transportation Plan with an established hierarchy for our transportation system:

In an ideal world, our transportation spending would reflect that hierarchy, but we are not there yet. This year, we will spend something like $4 Million* on asphalt, mostly to make roads smoother for drivers. At the same time, we will spend about $500,000* on sidewalk improvements and maintenance (which represents a pretty significant proportional increase over previous years), and the Crosstown Greenway improvements that started this entire conversation will cost us less than $125,000*. By any measure, the hierarchy in the MTP is aspirational, as travelling by car is still the preferred mode for a little more than 60% of residents.

(* all budget estimates, very close to reality, but not exact numbers) 

So the City has a well established and regionally-supported goal to encourage active modes, mostly by making them safer and more comfortable for all users. The only question left is what evidence do we have to suggest making active modes safer and more comfortable encourages their use, or provides the livability, sustainability, and inclusion goals the City is after?

I could start with Montreal, or Copenhagen, or Medellin, or even Vancouver. I can refer you to books by Jeanette Sadik-Khan or Charles Montgomery. We are not inventing a new wheel here (we are too small and too fiscally conservative a City to do that), but we are taking the best of what other jurisdictions have already demonstrated to work, and are warned by failures in other jurisdictions.

If you want to dig in to the academic underpinnings here, I can link you to resources about how protected bike lanes save lives and reduce injuries, and studies showing that communities where people are encouraged and supported in choosing active modes are happier, healthier, and more inclusive ones. Perhaps most importantly, I can show you the data that building proper infrastructure increases the number of cyclists, which actually correlates with cyclist safety much more than does helmet use (for example):

The Crosstown Greenway improvements are very small part of our transportation budget (less than 3% of this year’s budget for road improvements), and has numerous potential benefits to the community at large. As the City’s first foray into modern separated bikeway design, it may have a few kinks to work out, and it may take a bit of time for drivers to get their head around the new layout, but it is based on well-established design principles, and is a big step towards creating a safe, effective, and all-ages cycling network in the City.

That said, they were done as a bit of a trial, and I encourage everyone to let the City know what you like and don’t about the design – and provide suggestions about how the City could improve upon the design.

POST SCRIPT: I swear I did not read the New West Record that came out today before writing this post…