Budget 2020!

This week in Council we are going to be talking about the Budget, and are asking people to once again provide us some feedback on budget issues. Providing this feedback is difficult for many people, or it is hard to understand how your feedback will be incorporated, because municipal finance is a little bit arcane. So I thought before the meeting, with the reports and tables on line here, I would give you a bit of a run-down of how the budget process works.

We have already had some lengthy discussions about the capital budget. This is the budget we use to pay for things like buildings and vehicles and computers. These are (mostly) one-time items, though most need periodic replacement, and (mostly) tangible objects, though we can use capital funds to fund planning for tangible objects, like hiring a consultant to develop an Urban Forest Strategy that will result in capital expenses to buy and maintain trees.

The City is required to balance its budget over a five-year financial plan, so when we talk about “Budget2020”, we are talking about an excerpt of the overall 2020-2024 Financial Plan. Following from this, our 2020 Capital Budget is part of a 5-year Capital Plan, which makes sense because most large infrastructure works cannot be planned, financed, completed and paid for in a single year.

Our draft budget has a 5-year capital plan to spend ~$468 Million on new buildings, infrastructure and equipment, with a some of that representing a few major projects: The ~$100M Canada Games Pool, $54M for a district energy utility, a ~$40M electrical substation in Queensborough, ~$17M to fix up the Massey Theatre, $20M in road paving, etc. This includes the Utility capital investments ($123M for Electrical, $50M for Sewer, $25M for water, and $1.6M for solid waste). In 2020, we are budgeting to spend ~$140 Million of that total.

The City has three options to pay for any capital expenditure: reserves, debt or revenue. Reserves are the monies we have in the bank, some to assure financial solvency, some earmarked specifically for projects, like the money we have put aside for the Canada Games Pool replacement. If there is a reserve fund appropriate for the spending we plan, then drawing from those reserves make sense, though we have to be cautious about drawing those accounts too low because they provide us some financial resiliency, and improve the rates we get from banks when we borrow. Borrowing to pay for infrastructure makes sense for a recreation centre much the way it makes sense to get a mortgage for your house: the people using it pay for its use while it is being used. We have a *lot* of debt room in the City as far as regulations and good financial planning are concerned, but we have to address the public tolerance to take on debt (through a public process when we take out loans), and of course manage the cost of borrowing. The third option is to draw from revenues in the year we have the expense, be those revenues in the form of a grant from senior government or through raising taxes. These both, of course, have limits.

The part of the annual budget that directly impacts your tax rates is the Operational Budget. It is from this budget that we pay staff and buy paper and diesel. Sometimes a pundit in town will chagrin “most of the City’s spending goes directly to salaries!”, to which my only retort is “Yeah, and?” The City provides services more than we build widgets. Widget ore is not as big and expense as delivery of those services, which are delivered by people, from lifeguards to librarians to police officers. Sure, we buy asphalt and pipes, and firefighters need firetrucks, but most of our budget is service delivered by people.


We spend most of the year operating the City based on the operating budget set in the previous spring. As the year goes along, staff, Council and the public identify places where the City can do things differently, where our service is not meeting demands, or where new services are being pondered. Some small things may get done as staff find space in their existing budget to make them happen (or stop doing other things to make the room). But some things are more costly or need more staff time to manage, so managers put forward an “enhancement request” – they ask for more money.

Part of the task of our senior management team is to review all of these enhancement requests, and decide what is reasonable and what isn’t, then set some priorities. Council is not directly involved in that process, but the priority-setting is based on a framework of Strategic Planning created by Council. One of the questions staff need to ask themselves and each other at this stage is – does this enhancement meet a strategic goal of the Council? Then ask if we can afford it. Which is where Council comes in.

Before these enhancement requests, the draft 2020 budget sees costs equaling a 3.9% tax increase already baked into our 5-year financial plan. These are things like increased debt servicing, annual salary increases, inflationary pressures and financing of earlier enhancement commitments already made by Council in previous budgets. Staff have brought forward new enhancement requests equaling just under another 2% of taxes. They then recommended that about half of these enhancements be included in the 2020 budget, and the other half deferred to a future year. This equals out to a draft 4.9% tax increase.

There is an interaction between the Capital and Operational budget. The interest we earn on our reserves is a revenue that is included in our operational budget, so draw those reserves down and we have less revenue. Similarly, the interest we pay on our loans is an operational expense. There is also an operational impact to many capital projects: the NWACC will cost money to heat and light, and will need to be staffed. It will also bring in revenues. Those numbers will be different for the NWACC as they are for the current CGP. These changes have to be budgeted towards.

Since we have a regulatory requirement to balance the budget at the end of the year, if we pull in more revenue (through taxes, charges for services like parking and permits, grants from senior governments, investment income, etc.) in a year than we spend (on salaries, supplies, grants, etc.) that extra money (“profit!”) goes into our reserves and helps offset future capital budget costs. The corollary to this, of course, is that a large capital budget requires us to raise taxes a bit to keep these reserves at a stable level and to pay debt servicing costs.

(I have almost completely skipped utilities in this discussion, I talked a bit about them, with fancy coloured diagrams to show how those work in this blog post from a couple of years ago)


So, this week Council will be asked in two meetings (Monday AND Tuesday nights) to review the budget, review the results of the public consultations that occurred around the budget, and provide one more public meeting where people can come and address council with their concerns regarding the budget. We will review the capital budget commitments for 2020, and will review the recommended and non-recommended enhancements. Council will then make recommendations on any changes, and staff will take those away and work on putting together the necessary Bylaws to make the budget a reality. By the end of the Tuesday special meeting, we should have a pretty good idea what our budget increase will look like for 2020, but looking at the reports, it will likely be something around 5%.

Metro2020

Last week during our afternoon workshop, New West Council received a presentation by representatives of Metro Vancouver’s Regional Planning Services. They were here to talk about the upcoming update to Metro2040, the Regional Growth Strategy, eloquently labelled Metro2050.

The Regional Growth Strategy is the highest-level planning document in the region. All municipalities have some form of master planning document, be it an Official Community Plan or a collection of Neighborhood Plans that lay out in broad strokes what the vision is for the community over the decades ahead. This is important, because it allows government and utilities to plan new roads, water and sewer lines, recreation facilities, emergency services, schools, and all of the things that should, ideally, be planned out before they are needed. It also helps guide policy assures communities have the right mix of housing types, commercial and institutional land, and green space. Without a well-understood plan, we cannot develop the robust policy needed to shape the outcomes we are looking for.

All the municipalities in Metro Vancouver agreed upon and ratified the Metro 2040 plan back in 2011, and all of our subsequent Official Community Plans (including the OurCity 2041 plan adopted by New West in 2017) include a context statement that links it to the greater regional plan. This is because all of the things I listed above (roads, utilities, etc.) need to be planned at a regional level if we hope to have a livable region. Every community shares our regional sewer system (for example), and the growth of the region relies on significant investment in new sewer infrastructure – not just pipes in the ground, but billions of dollars in wastewater treatment plants that need to be planned out a decade or more in advance. To make that work, we need to know where the houses, the apartments, the breweries and the shopping malls Amazon Fulfillment Centres are going to be when that plant is operating. That’s the essence of planning.

As we start looking at Metro2050, I wanted to get an idea of how we were doing on Metro2040. One of the easiest things to evaluate looking at that strategy is how growth was distributed across the region. If you look at Appendix A of Metro2040, you see population growth projections for the region by decade:

This is an extract from the Metro2040 plan, I removed a few of the smaller municipalities like Lions Bay and Anmore because they account for less than 0.2% of the regional population, and though they are certainly beautiful communities full of wonderful people, their growth trends are irrelevant to the regional picture.

As we are now almost a decade in, and are doing an update, I thought it might be useful to see how these projections turned out. Unfortunately, the best source for annual population estimates is not the Metro2040 Plan, but the annual stats collected by the Province (you can see them here), and they do not correlate perfectly with the Metro Numbers. Here are the BC Population Stats for 2011 and (most recently) 2019 for the municipalities above:

The numbers are not exactly the same as the Metro estimates, but we can compare the two sets by looking at the projected total growth (2011-2021) as a percentage of the 2011 population from Metro, and the estimated actual growth between 2011-2019 from the BC Government stats. Since that growth only includes 8 years, I projected forward two more years at the same rate of growth for each community – so which communities are on trend to meet their 2011-2021 estimates? The numbers may surprise you:

As you can see, the projected rate of growth of the Metro region over the decade was 18%, or about 1.7% annually. The actual growth from 2011 to 2019 was closer to 13% (or little over 1.5% annually), and if you project this trend forward to 2021, you get 16% growth. We over-estimated slightly.

Using the same baseline, you see vast differences around the region when communities are compared to their goals. White Rock, North Van City and Maple Ridge all grew much more than their projections, while Coquitlam and Port Moody were anomalously lower than their projected growth. Of course, this is compared to their projections, as Langley Township grew 7% less than projected, but was still the fastest growing municipality in the region at 29% growth, where Delta was one of the slowest-growing communities at 9% over the decade, but still exceeded its meagre growth projection.

There are, no doubt, local reasons for these trends. The fact the two newest communities in the SkyTrain family (Port Moody and Coquitlam) are the ones that lagged farthest behind may be related to how far behind projected opening the Evergreen Line was. Coquitlam seems to be catching up with significant growth around their new stations, though it seems Port Moody is on a different path. It is also interesting, if anecdotal, that many communities that had the most growth-related angst through the 2018 local elections, like White Rock, Port Moody and the District of North Vancouver, have some of the lowest actual population growth numbers. Having population growth rates of less than a half a percentage a year in this region is an anomaly worth exploring deeper as we look forward.

There is more info about the Metro2050 process, and ways you can get engaged here at the Metro2050 page. C’mon out, tell them what you think.

Year of the Beard

I’ve been taking a serious year-end break. I took a couple of weeks off work, got out of town just after the last Council meeting. I’m taking a social media break as well, though I do hazard a short lurk once in a while to assure myself #NewWest still exists. I brought a few City documents on the road with me, and I am spending a bit of down time reading capital budget stuff (January is coming on soon!)but it’s been nice to turn most things off for a bit, ride my bike, sit on a beach, and chill with @MsNWimby.

That said, the week between Christmas and the New Year is ripe for these “year in review” things, so here goes mine. 2019 was a strange and interesting year, and I have a hard time summing my 2019 up.

One big change for me personally in 2019 is a change in my work/life balance. I went back to more regular “work” outside of Council. When elected in 2014, I was working full time. After almost two years of increasingly strained attempts at making it work, I had to be honest that I was not giving the attention or energy my 40-a-week professional job deserved, and decided to quit. For the balance of my first Council term I was doing a bit of consulting work, but nowhere near full time. Being honest about the effort and time I could put in with this council work (and my volunteer work with the CEA, CSAP, and LMLGA), I had found a couple of clients that offered the right level or workload, though I think @MsNWimby would have liked a more equitable contribution to household expenses.

In early 2019, I had an opportunity to take a real job working in my field that was half time – a solid 20 hours a week at a proper professional wage. It is work I am very familiar with so the learning curve was easy to get past, and I was able to provide value right up front. The employer is super flexible, and we have a great relationship around planning a work load for the weeks ahead, so I can assure scheduling conflicts are avoided. It all seems very “millennial” in work conditions, but it is working for everyone, and I am staying connected in my field. It has been a fun team to get to know as well, and the work is really interesting. so all’s good!

I also spent a bit of time in 2019 volunteering on the local federal election campaign. This was mostly a good news story – Peter Julian is an easy Member of Parliament to support, he had a great team working for him, and it is fun to knock on doors and make phone calls when you are stumping for such a popular guy!

The disappointment side of the 2019 Federal Election, personally, is a regret that I didn’t spend more time over in Coquitlam/Port Moody helping Bonita Zarrillo’s campaign. I have known Bonita from local government stuff for a few years, and was really excited to hear she was going to represent the NDP in Fin Donnelly’s riding. She is passionate, smart, caring, and hardworking, and she loves her home in the Tri Cities. In the end, she lost a squeaker to a parachuted-in ultra-conservative who failed to meaningfully campaign when she arrived. To see such a brilliant local leader lose to a party-issue hack form central casting is sad. To me a Member of Parliament is representative of your community in Ottawa, not a representative of the Party in your community. I feel disappointment that I didn’t have the foresight to invest more of my volunteer time to help Bonita, when she just needed a few hundred votes to get over the top. Sorry Bonita, but I am glad we are still working together in Local Government in the Lower Mainland.

In the local political realm, New West Council had probably the most quietly challenging year I have ever experienced. From my seat, it seemed there were very few big splashes, yet we pushed some really bold stuff forward. I have felt a tremendous amount of personal growth in how I approach the work, and the organization’s growth in some of the functional changes we are making at City Hall and in Council Chambers. We are making the organization more efficient and effective, though some of this is a bit out of sight for all but the vigilant council-watcher. This is alongside the real progress and growth reflected across the organization on files like climate and reconciliation. I think our Strategic Plan is (perhaps) too aggressive in wanting to achieve much more in a short time period than will be easy for a City our size. That said, I can’t disagree with the bold vision created, and hope we can continue to build the political will to be the most progressive and forward-looking local government in the province, if not in Canada. The shift represented by our Council and Staff’s embrace of aggressive climate actions is an encouraging example of progress that can be made when we are all on the same page, and I’m glad this community is still pushing us forward on that front.

In looking back at the direction we are forging, I find myself using words like “aggressive” and “bold”. Still, it feels like we are being given the clear political push from the public to get this work done. The community is telling us they can be just as bold as this Council, and perhaps through us providing transparency and a clear set of underlying values and vision, I am more confident in our ability to make this progress.

It is a bit funny, but you sometimes need to go outside to see how good things are inside. Our Council has ways of disagreeing – even new ways different than the last Council –and can drive each other nuts with our 7 different ways of approaching solutions, but if our paddles sometimes cross, we are all at least rowing the same direction. It is mostly at regional or provincial conferences where our cohort reminds us that New West is functional and punching way above its weight in the local government actions, and we do it while avoiding so much of the hijinks afflicting other less-functional Councils around the region. They get headlines, we get work done. That is a good feeling.

2019 had challenges, but I think the year ahead will be more challenging. We are deep into Capital Budget discussions right now, and are asking for the public’s help in setting those priorities. Translating an aggressive capital plan into a sustainable operational budget is the hard work part. We will be having some conversations not just about the things we want to do, but our vision for the 5 years ahead is going to have to include some conversations about what we are not going to do, or are going to stop doing. And New Westminster is not as good at letting things go as we are at starting new things (and by that I mean Council, City Staff, and the Public!). These conversations will be at times hard, but worth while. I’m looking forward to the work!

With all of this going on, I hardly had time to ride my bike for recreation, my blog here has been suffering from lack of attention (but blogs as a media are deader than dead, so who knows the future of this?), and my garden was a pretty dismal failure, except for all the tomatoes. I also found myself intentionally stepping back a bit from some things in 2019, mostly because of my new work & commuting schedule: fewer of those “I should make an appearance” events, and less patience for social media. I’m not sure what to make of my nascent impression that our local political challenges have become pettier, despite the good work we are doing (see above). I am not sure if that is a product of the changing social media landscape, or just the natural result of me settling in after five (5!) years of elected life. Or maybe I’m getting older.

Which brings the big personal news – I turned 50 in 2019. I’m not sure how that happened, but it just kinda snuck up on me and now I am looking down the second half of middle age. @MsNWimby threw a hell of a party, and I really haven’t taken the time to thank everyone who came out to celebrate. 50 makes you ornery, I guess. Or gives you a ready excuse to be so. Thank you for the great party, and for being a great support network for me and @MsNWimby.

Let me wrap my 2019 in review by thanking the wider network of great people in New West working to build this unique, progressive, compassionate community. There are so many people in this town who are doing so much to make it a great place to live. My Council colleagues are constantly challenging and surprising me, and the Mayor has really grown into a strong leader who earns more respect every day. There are true leaders in the School District, in the Arts community, in our BIAs and local businesses, in the many service agencies that make New West tick. Please keep up your good work, though it may feel you are fighting against the tide, your contributions are noticed and appreciated. If I have one resolution for 2020, it will be consciously spending less time worrying about the boo-birds on Facebook, and more time expressing gratitude to the many people around New West actually working every day to make this community so great. Happy New Year!

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.

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.

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

Ask Pat: 660 Quayside

Back from vacation, refreshed and ready to rock 2019, and no better start than banging off a couple of Ask Pats!

Jeff asks—

How long will the Waterfront detour at 660 Quayside be in place? For the entire duration of the build or are they getting the Waterfront walkway done before the full project gets underway? More importantly, where could I find this information? I see a lot of info online regarding the 660 Quayside project, but nothing about the required closures / detours.

The project at 660 Quayside, known as Pier West, is going to be a big, disruptive construction project. There is no way around that. Everything I write below is based on my current understanding of the project plan, but need to add the caveat that any construction project at this scale will no doubt see some changes and adjustments as they go along. The reality is that there will be a variety of factors (ground conditions, the regional building market, unknown unknowns, etc.) that will impact any timelines being proposed so early in the process. And quite often a lone City Councillor is the last to find out about things like this.

What I do know is that the developer agreed to delay the start of the project and adjust their construction staging to better accommodate the needs of the community, both by delaying the closing of their existing parking lot until the River Sky project has an operating public parking lot, and by adjusting how they do their major dig so that the inevitable closure of the railway crossing at Begbie Street is as short as possible.

There is some good news here. When this project is complete, it is going to be transformative for our Riverfront. What is now a pretty scrubby parking lot will become a newly-designed and better working Quayside Drive, two residential buildings and a daycare/commercial building, a completed waterfront boardwalk/esplanade connecting Pier Park to the River Market, 2 acres of new public greenspace expanding Pier Park to the west, and a new accessible pedestrian/cyclist overpass from the Parkade at 6th Street over to the expanded park. There will be a few surface parking spots around the base of the new buildings, but the bulk of the parking will be below grade (including something like 80 public parking spots), assuring that views of the Riverfront from Front Street and the intersections at Columbia are improved over now – we have avoided a big above-ground parking pedestal that can overwhelm public spaces. I think the project is going to be a great addition to the City’s Riverfront.

Between then and now, however, the entire 3.5 acre site is going to need to be excavated. Dug up, fill and contaminated soil removed, shored and sealed, and underground parking and mechanical spaces built. There is no way around the need to build a “bathtub” to accommodate the new landscape and underground parking. To make the situation worse, a big section of Quayside Drive that connect the River Market area to Begbie Street does not belong to the City (it has belonged to the owners of 660 Quayside for as long as anyone can remember, with the City has operated the road on a right-of-way). That area is going to be dug up to re-align the streets and build access to underground public parking. There no way to do this that isn’t disruptive, but the disruption will result in a great Riverfront improvement.

With that background, we can get to the essence of your question. The agreement the City has with the developer is that access to the west end of the existing Pier Park needs to be maintained. Until the Sixth Street overpass is built, that means that some form of pedestrian walkway needs to be maintained from Begbie Street. As installing sheet piles secant piles along the waterfront is an early part of the project, the access is not likely to be along the waterfront, but through the parking lot as it is now. Once the overpass is built and the bigger dig begins, you will need to cross at the Begbie intersection, go along Front or Columbia Street to access the Pier Park via the new overpass. How long this type of diversion will be in place is not an answer I have for you right now, but expect it to be for more than a year.

Secant piles being installed today. These are going to keep the underground garage and the river from interacting.

I suspect as the project moves along I will be able to give some better answers to some of these questions. Right now, the buildings are approved as far as zoning, and they have a partial building permit for the shoring and piling work currently happening (you can track this kind of stuff on the City’s “Projects on the Go” page) but a lot of the other details around the construction are still being worked out. Any kind of work like this that includes the River will trigger a bunch of Federal and Provincial environmental hoops for the builders to get over, work on the overpass and intersection means the Railways are going to be involved, and of course there will be legal agreements around rights of way and access relating to the redesign of the Begbie Street and Quayside Drive intersection. The developer has, up to now, shown a great deal of patience and willingness to work with the community (including the River Market, who are being impacted the most here), and I think that, in recognition of the high level of disruption this project may cause, Council will have reason to be kept more aware of progress than with a typical building project.

I don’t have a site contact yet, but once the project begins in earnest, I expect that there will be a person at the construction company who will be able to answer inquiries from the public. In the meantime, best to send specific requests to our planning department at the City (follow this link for the contact info)

Ask Pat: Setbacks

“Jean-Luc” asks

I live in a new condo building that abuts right onto an older building. I’m not sure how the developer got away with building right to the property line. Needless to say, the owners of the other building were not happy with us, and really, it’s not what we envisioned either. What is the minimum distance requirement between two multi-family dwellings…if any?

It depends. And unfortunately, the better answer is buried in a complex and arcane document called the Zoning Bylaw. The Bylaw was originally adopted back in 2001, but has been significantly modified such that the latest version consolidated to include all changes up to July, 2018 are cobbled together into not a single pdf, but a website that links to a relatively well-organized list of several pdfs that you can access here:

https://www.newwestcity.ca/zoning-bylaw

In there you will find a 9-page list of amendments, in case you care to see the evolution of the Bylaw over 17 years. You will also find an introductory document that lays out the format of the Bylaw, including 22 pages of definitions and the names of the 75 “districts” into which the City is divided, each with their own specific rules. Telling, but not surprising if you have ever been to a Public Hearing about a rezoning, this launches off with then 22 pages of parking requirements, before a bunch of seemingly-random but no-doubt-logical-at-the-time rules about things like garbage and recycling storage facilities and satellite dishes… alas.

There is also a little bit in this section about setbacks – the required distance behind a property line where buildings can be constructed, but here it is a strange list of specific spots that were probably put in place for location-specific requirements like utility offsets or traffic sightlines. If you want to know how close you can build to your property line or how close your neighbour can build to it, you probably need to get into the specifics of the zoning district that applies.

To do that, you go to the Zoning Map (sorry, you probably need Silverlight to do that, because it is 2018), and see what zoning district applies to the spot of land you care about. Just open the map, zoom/scroll to your location and click the property, a table with zoning on it should pop up (I circled in red):

Then you need to go to the comprehensive list (7 documents, 400+ pages) of zoning districts to see what the specific rules are. All this to say, there is no single rule, but a set of rules and local exemptions apply, so everything I say here is general and the only relation it has to your specific case is that it almost certainly doesn’t apply to your specific case. Zoning is complicated.

In generality, for single family homes the “side setback” is 10% of the lot width or 5 feet, whichever is less, but never less than 4 feet, although it may be possible for some non-wall to “project” into this setback in special cases. That not clear, but about the clearest case you can have.

Condo buildings vary in their zoning type, depending on what type of building they are (townhouse or small apartment building or tower?). Some fit snugly in a Townhouse or Commercial District designation, others are “Comprehensive Development Districts”, which are stand-alone zoning rules developed to support a specific development at a specific site – and therefore have an address attached to them. The nearest one to where I am sitting now is the one I clicked on in the map above, which is CD-20: Comprehensive Development District (246 Sixth Street). This was put together in 2008 to permit a 16 storey residential tower with commercial “live-work units” at grade, now called 258 Sixth Street, just to complicate matters. It has no set-back requirement at grade, but setbacks above 9.14 metres (i.e. starting on the fourth floor) of 2.5m at the streetscape sides (to reduce the “mass” of the building as it appears from the street), 14.2m at the rear and 7.1m on the neighboring-building side (both to reduce the proximity to current and potential future residential buildings).

When you look at the building you can see that the lower part of the side was build, as most commercial buildings are, to butt up against a future adjacent building, while the upper parts are built to provide a bit of space between future residential areas:

The reality is that the fixed rules are more commonly treated as strong “guidelines” based on best practices. For example, the general practice for towers is to have more than 30m between the “towery” parts of towers, and in commercial areas the best practice is to have no space between buildings at grade in order to create a cohesive, attractive, and safe commercial frontage, where gaps don’t make any planning sense (like this spot I recognized recently in downtown Port Coquitlam but failed to take a photo of, so thanks Google Street View):

Every Comprehensive Development District has its own character, as does each neighbourhood. Its shape and form of any planned building is impacted by the buildings that are adjacent to it and by the future vision of the neighbourhood based on longer-term planning guidelines like the Official Community Plan. However, all of these guidelines can be overruled by bringing a Development Plan and appropriate Zoning Amendment to Council and convincing Council there is a good reason to vary from the guidelines. Sometimes this means placing a tower towards one side of the pedestal in order to reduce the viewscape conflict with an adjacent building, sometimes it means the increasing the size of a setback in order to provide some community benefit like improved pedestrian realm or emergency vehicle access. These are the complicated maths that often require months or years of negotiation between our planning staff, the landowner, stakeholders and the community.

Perhaps that is the part of the entire development-approving process that most of the public don’t understand when they see a project come to Council for a Public Hearing. They see Council approving or denying a specific building, but in actuality it is a large and complicated stack of compromises (by than landowner and the City) and potential benefits built up over those negotiations that Council eventually is asked to approve or not approve.

So your building may have allowed zero setback as part of its zoning, or a zero setback may have been something the City wanted as part of the development to create a more amiable streetscape in the long term, or a zero setback may have been something the developer of your building wanted to maximize the amount of square footage they could sell. Likely at least two of these are true, or else it would not have been built like that.

Ask Pat: Two projects

In the spirit of getting caught up, Here are two Ask Pats with similar answers: “I don’t know”.

mmmmm beer. asks—

I appreciate the transparency your blog offers. I just have a quick question. What ever happened to the Craft Beer Market that was supposed to go in at the New West Station. Is that still moving forward?

Shaji asks—

Firstly, thank you for getting back to me on my question about Frankie G’s 😊
Secondly, there are many of us residents at the Peninsula and Port Royal in general wanting to inquire about the plans for the Eastern Neighbourhood Node. I know there were some extensive discussions and planning sessions between the City and Platform Properties. We also have noticed that some ground preparation work has started. Any updates that you can share on what work has started, what are the prospects and what are the timelines for this project. Thanks 😊

Yes, the answer to both of these questions is “I don’t know”.

The Craft Beer Market was a proposal that came to Council for a Development Permit back in July of 2016, and was proposed for the empty lot across from the Anvil Centre at Eighth and Columbia. You can read the report starting on page 348 here. It was brought to Council as a Report for Information, and the next steps were to be Design Panel review and some public consultation, then staff would bring a Development Permit bylaw to us for approval or rejection. I remember the conversation about the proposal being generally positive (see the Minutes of that meeting, Page 13 here), but we have not, in my recollection, seen any further reports.

The Eastern Neighborhood Node that would connect Port Royal to the rest of Queensborough with a mix of residential and commercial property has been the subject of several meetings. The most exciting part of the proposal (and the part that led to some discussions around the layout of the site ans stage of development) was the allocation of some 50,000 square feet of neighbourhood-serving commercial. This would bring (it is hoped) a small grocery store a some basic services to the booming Port Royal community. There would be some land assembly required, as (again, to the best of my knowledge), the developer does not own all of the land required to make the development work, and some pretty significant utility and drainage engineering needs to be done to support the development.

Both of these speak to how complicated development can sometimes be, and to the fact that Council is not directly involved in some of what makes development happen or not happen in the community. We can, obviously, say “no” to a development proposal that requires variances or zoning changes, but once we say “yes” to a development we really can’t force the developer to build. Even the “yes” we give a developer does not typically contain a timeline to completion. As plans are developed, construction costs are calculated, compromises are negotiated, and market forces are navigated, sometimes the math ends up not working out for the proposal we see at Council, and it never happens. Commonly, those things occur in a way that Council would never see. If there is no decision for us to make, no plan or change of plans for us to approve, we are most likely in the dark about the details of what is holding the situation up.

Both of those proposals have some very public-facing companies involved. They may be able to answer your questions better than I can. As a general principle, I think getting retail happening on the eastern end of Queensborough and that empty lot at Eighth and Columbia activated would be great things for the City, and for our residents. I don’t know how I can make either happen faster than the landowner plans to invest. I can tell you that there is no action that I know of that Council has taken to slow down either proposal.