BTWW 2019

My ride to work for Bike To Work Week yesterday was pretty typical. Nice weather for a 20km ride, and 4 people attempted to murder me.

One was a person in an SUV blowing through a stop sign into my path on a residential Vancouver street, which was easy to forgive because she gave me that ubiquitous “oops” wave. One person pulled a bone-headed u-turn right in front of me as I am going down a hill on another designated bike route in Vancouver, causing me to lock up both wheels on slick streets. No “oops” wave this time, but he did give me a dismissive spin of his tires as he shot away from the scene, which I guess is acknowledgement. One was an attempted dooring on a traffic-calmed bike route, followed a few hundred metres later by a guy in a CLK brush-passing me at 50km/h when I try to stay out of the door zone on another traffic calmed bike route. I foiled them all.

There were also two places where City works crews (one in Burnaby, one in Vancouver) chose to completely close off a relatively safe bike route with no warning and no indications of alternative routes in order to do horticulture work, which is kinda a nice nod to Bike to Work Week.

There were also three places where I was forced to make sketchy moves on the bike because of horrid cycling infrastructure failures. One infrastructure failure in Burnaby is a long-standing grievance at Royal Oak station that will get someone killed eventually. Another is the relatively new one in Burnaby I have already lamented, that the City of Burnaby has now made even worse with the addition of a pedestrian fence. The third one is related to recent construction at the Nanaimo Skytrain Station in Vancouver that has been there for a few months, and seems like it may continue to be there for a very long time. All three of them are adjacent to or near transit stations, so perhaps I should be complaining to TransLink? But not one of them would be acceptable, or last this long, if it was cars forced to make the sketchy move. If drivers were forced to even lighten up slightly on the gas pedal for a brief moment, there would be signs and flagging people and traffic studies. Because even where cycling routes meet transit stations in pedestrian-heavy areas adjacent to popular parks, it is cars that are accommodated first, and the rest of us can fuck right off and get killed. In the context of a ride where several people in cars did actually try to kill me, these little grievances and seemingly minor inconveniences start to grind your gears.

But I’m tired of complaining. And I’m tired of hearing that “scofflaw cyclists” are the bane of urban areas. I’m tired of reading study after study showing that pedestrians and cyclists are getting killed by cars at increasing rates at the same time that driver fatalities are going down. I am tired of Police and ICBC telling me to make eye contact and dress up like a Christmas tree or I had it coming when some asshole left hooks me. I am tired of the profound gap between the lack of responsibility that the people who choose to use cars feel, and their absolute righteousness around their use of cars. I am tired of arguing for basic cycling infrastructure against the societal priority of (preferably free) storage of cars in all public space. I am tired of meetings at City Hall where the only time we discuss cycling infrastructure, it is in the context of how we can maybe afford some half-measure some time off in the future if it doesn’t irritate too many people, but we certainly can’t afford to build something that is safe, connected, and integrated. I’m tired of ceding so much space and energy and money and atmosphere to cars. I’m tired of us treating this City-destroying and planet-killing addiction like it is untreatable, or even beneficial. I’m sick and tired of car culture, of Motordom.

Cycling is making me tired. But it isn’t my legs that hurt, its my heart. I’m afraid that this weariness has taken away the joy I used to get from riding a bicycle.

Trip Diary 2

In my recent post about the TransLink Trip Diary data release, I talked about how the use of cars in New Westminster is going down. Even as our population grows, the number of people using cars to get around is stable, and the actual number of car trips generated by New West residents on the average day is going down.

I also wrote this does not mean there are fewer cars on the road, or that traffic is getting better, because New Westminster is in the centre of a connected region, and that region is growing. Unfortunately, New Westminster’s decrease in car use is not being seen across the region, and our roads and livability are being  impacted by those trips generated mostly from the south and east of us.

All but three municipalities in the Trip Diary data had an increase in car trips, and the combined number of regional trip increased by more than half a million trips a day between 2011 and 2017. This is only slightly offset by the combined decrease in trips seen in New West, West Van and White Rock:

There are a couple of other ways to look at this data, using percentages instead of raw numbers. If there are 520,000 new car trips across the region, this pie shows the percentage of that total traffic load that is generated by each municipality:

So no surprise Surrey and Vancouver lead the way in new car trips, as they are the largest municipalities, nor is it surprising that 50% of the new trips are generated South of the Fraser, and most trips are generated in areas where the region has spent billions of dollars building new freeway infrastructure and new river crossings.

But what about population growth? The South of Fraser an northeast communities are growing fastest, so it makes sense that their car trips will increase in correlation with this, right? More people = more trips is the meme I challenged last post, and it clearly is not the case for New West, but how true is that across the region? The blue bars here represent the percentage increase in car tips between 2011 and 2017, and the red bars represent the population increases over the same time period (2011 – 2017) from the BC Government stats page:

Note that in almost every municipality, car trip numbers are increasing at a faster rate than population. In Port Moody and North Vancouver District – two communities where the councils are using increased traffic congestion as a reason to slow or halt new housing – actual population did not significantly increase over that 6-year period (the fact they show a slight decrease in population is quirk in how BC Population stats are estimated between census years), yet this did not prevent car trips increasing. The short point:

Car trips and resultant congestion do not correlate with local population changes.

I leave you to speculate about what is happening in White Rock and West Vancouver, two municipalities where population has been stagnant or decreasing for a decade, and neither specifically transit-oriented relative to those of us sprinkled along the Rapid Transit spines, but both seeing much reduced car use. Each has its own tale to tell as West Vancouver had a significant increases in walking and transit use to balance out to about the same number of total trips, while the entire trip count for White Rock across all modes went down significantly. This graph shows the percentage increase or decease in each mode for all Cities, and you can’t help but wonder what people in White Rock are doing at home all the time: 

Also note the latest data was collected not long after the opening of the Evergreen Line, but before the changes that have come with the Mayor’s 10-year Plan investments, which has brought more and more reliable bus service across the region, both in undeserved and overcrowded areas. It is also worth noting that the 2011 data was before the opening of the expanded Port Mann Bridge, and the 2017 data was from the very time when tolls on that bridge were being removed, so the longer term impact on transportation patterns related to toll removal are muted here. Like all surveys, this represents a snapshot in time, and only by collecting this type of data over a longer period can we see the long-term trends our transportation policy is creating.

Trip Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pedestrian Cages

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

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

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

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

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

Tynehead Park

Notice the difference?

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

Winston Street, Burnaby.

Gaglardi Way, Burnaby.

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

Winston Street, Burnaby.

Gaglardi Way, Burnaby.

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

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

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

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

Bikeways now

We have had a couple of presentations to Council by the reinvigorated HUB Chapter for New Westminster. I have been a long-time supporter of HUB (through membership and donations), used to serve as a community representative on the Advisory Committee for Bicycles, Pedestrians and Transit (ACTBiPed), am now Chair of that committee, and even have my name attached to the city’s Master Transportation Plan as a community member of the Master Transportation Plan Advisory Committee, so I feel pretty close to this issue. I thought it was time to write a bit of an essay on where I think we are, and where we need to be going as a City when it comes to transportation. And it isn’t all good.

I need to start this by interject one of my usual caveats about how everything you read here is my opinion, coming out of my brain (or other internal organs, commonly spleen) and not official communication from the City. I am one member of a Council of 7, and they may or may not share my opinions on this stuff. There are staff in the City doing their jobs with much more engineering and planning expertise than me who may cringe in reading my relatively uninformed take. So nothing here should be taken to represent the thoughts, feelings or ideas of anyone or any organization other than myself.

The same goes for my random tweets that sometimes get picked up by the media. I was recently critical on-line of a change in the BC Parkway along my regular-job commuting route that made cycling along the parkway less safe for cyclists and pedestrians. After getting re-printed, I felt the need to state that I recognize New West has some work to do on this front as well, but I like to hope that despite our being slow at improvement, we are not actively making things worse. It is the pace of improvement that I want to lament now.

I am a little frustrated by our lack of progress on building a safe and connected cycling network in New Westminster. I understand a little more now in my role about why we have been slower to act than I like, but I think it is time for us to stop looking at lines on maps and start building some shit.

Up to now, work on the Master Transportation Plan implementation has emphasized things that I think needed to be emphasized in our transportation space – curb cuts, making transit stops accessible, and accelerated improvement of pedestrian crossings. these are good things that deserved investment to remove some of the barriers in our community that represented some obvious low-hanging fruit. We have also staffed up a real Transportation department for the first time, so we have engineers and planners dedicated to doing this work, and they have been doing some really great work.

We have built some stuff! There are areas we have improved, and though they are better than what was there previously, I cannot believe anyone would look at some of this infrastructure and see it as truly prioritizing cycling, and (more to the point) few of them meet the mark that we should be striving for – All Ages and Abilities (AAA) bike routes that an 8 year old or an 80 year old would find safe, comfortable and useable. As I am learning in this role, each project has its own legacy of challenges – resistant neighbours, limited funding, tight timelines to meet grant windows, unexpected soil conditions. Every seemingly bad decision was made with the best intentions as the least-bad-of-many-bad-options. But we need to do better, and that means spending more on better. 

So, much to HUB’s points, there are a few projects I think the City needs to get done soon, and I hope we can find the capital to make happen, even if they are not as sexy as some region-defining transportation links, they are fundamental if New Westminster is going to take the next steps towards being a proper 21st century urban centre:

7th Ave upgrades The existing temporary protected bike lanes on 7th Ave between Moody Park and 5th Street are getting torn up right now as scheduled water main and service works are happening under that street. I am adamant that permanent protected AAA bike lanes need to replace them. This is the part of the established Crosstown Greenway that sees the most non-active traffic, and is probably the least comfortable part as it also sees its fair share of rush hour “rat runners”. The rest of the Crosstown Greenway could use some enhanced traffic calming, pavement re-allocation, and cyclist priority in some intersections, but it is this 300m section where true separated lanes are the only way all users will feel safe.

Connection to the High School Related to this, the new High School will be ready for students a year from now, and we have not done anything to assure that students of the school can safely connect to Crosstown Greenway and the adjacent neighbourhoods. The sidewalks along 6th and 8th are barely adequate now for the mass of students that pour out of the school when a bell rings, and the new site is going to be more constrained for parent drop-off and pickup, so the City needs to build safe connections. In my mind, that means separated bike route along 8th Street to Moody Park and widened sidewalks along 6th Street to 7th Ave, but I’ll leave the engineers and transportation planners to opine on what we need to build – I just want to get it built so that the new school is one that encourages students to walk, roll, bike, or scoot there.

Agnes Greenway Bikeway Another major construction project in town will be starting the fall (hopefully), and is scheduled to be completed in 2023. At that time, the Pattullo, which is the second-worst crossing of a river in the Lower Mainland for bikes (Knight Street is worse, and the tunnel doesn’t count) will be replaced with what could be the best active transportation crossing in  the entire region – and it will see a concomitant increase in use. There is a lot of work being done in the City with the Ministry of Transportation to assure people landing in New West by bike or scooter have decent connections to the existing network. At the same time, we need to fix the crappy connections people trying to move east-west past the bridge now have to deal with. Agnes Street should be that connection for most of our Downtown, should provide proper AAA connections for all downtown residents to QayQayt Elementary, and can be the foundation for the much-needed-and-never-quite-done Downtown-to-Uptown grade-reduced route. This is as key to New Westminster’s Active Transportation future as the Burrard Street Bridge and Hornby Street bikeways were to Vancouver a decade ago. We need to see that vision, do it right, and make this the one gold-plated piece of bikeway infrastructure to hang all of our other dreams upon.

Uptown/Downtown connection Much like the Burrard Bridge example, the connections to the Agnes Bikeway are as important as the Bikeway itself. The Agnes Bikeway will only be transformational if it connects safely to the “heart” of downtown, which is and will continue to be the corner of Eighth Street and Columbia. It also needs to connect to a proper AAA route across Royal. HUB and ACTBiPed have talked at length about potential lower-grade routes from Columbia to Royal using the same thinking as “The Wiggle” in San Francisco, and a preferred route has been identified. However, the solution above and below Agnes are both going to require difficult engineering choices and potentially more difficult political ones.

Priorities set, that brings us to the bad part. Roads are expensive, and completely re-configuring how a road works is really expensive. Moving curbs, adjusting drainage, digging up the road, bringing in proper fill materials, asphalt, concrete, street lights, power poles, moving trees, epoxy paint – it all adds up. Right now cities like Vancouver budget about $10 Million per kilometre of separated bike route installation on existing roads. Long-term maintenance costs are likely lower than the driving-lanes-and-free-car-storage we have now on these routes, but there is no getting around that up-front ding to the budget.

Using the thumbnail estimate from Vancouver, the priorities above could total up to $20 Million, and my dream is to see this happen within the timeframe of our current $409 Million 5-year capital plan. About $155 Million of that is utility upgrades (water, sewer, and electrical), and another ~$100 Million is for the replacement of the Canada Games Pool and Centennial Community Centre. Somewhere in the remaining $150 Million we need to think about the cost of reducing the fossil fuel requirements of our fleet, pay for the current City Hall upgrades and the completion of the animal care facility in Q’Boro, among other projects. We have serious costs coming up – those $150 Million are already committed. And everyone who doesn’t love bikeways is going to hate them more when I suggest $20 Million over 5 years is about a 1% tax increase. I already get grief from some cohort in the City because I “talk too much about bikes”.

Fortunately, we are not alone. TransLink is investing in Active Transportation like never before, both in its role as the regional Transportation Authority, but also in recognizing that people are more likely to buy a ticket for SkyTrain if their 15-minute walk to SkyTrain is replaced with a safe and comfortable 5-minute bike ride. The Province recently released their Active Transportation Strategy, and at least one Federal Party in the upcoming election is hoping to see more federal money pointed at more sustainable transportation options as a campaign plank. Time to strike while the irons are hot.

In New Westminster, I’m going to be making the case that in the year 2019, the creation of safe AAA-standard active transportation infrastructure is not a “nice to have”, but is an essential part of our Climate Emergency response and the most notable missing piece of infrastructure in New Westminster’s quest to be the most accessible and livable city in the Lower Mainland.

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.