ASK PAT: Small trees and Beg Buttons

neil21 asks—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

ASK PAT: Road Closures.

JF asked—

Pat, what are the City of New Westminster’s policies regarding road closures that impact cycling routes? Is there a requirement for the company requesting the road closure to identify and provision safe detours for people walking and bicycling through construction zones.

This past fall and winter has seen a large number of road closures in the Sapperton area for combined sewer separation and RCH related projects, and another sewer separation project on 7th Avenue near Moody Park. The Crosstown Greenway passes through both of these areas.

Many, many times over the past few months I have encountered road closures on the Crosstown greenway or connecting streets that I utilize. Most of these closures have little in the way of advanced warning and any detours in place don’t have cycling or walking in mind – ie being detoured down an alley onto Braid Street – FUN!

I’m a daily bicycle commuter passing through New West to/from my place of work in Burnaby and easily fall into the capable/confident category of rider. I don’t have any problem being detoured onto Braid or 8th Avenue and cycling alongside traffic moving at 50+km/h, but for a new or less confident rider I could easily picture them saying “forget it. I’m taking the car.” Not exactly the goal for any Active Transportation minded community.

To answer your first question, the City’s policy is that road closures caused by road/utility works are required to be well signed, and that safe alternate routes for all users including cyclists and pedestrians are to be maintained at all times. What you have discovered is that the policy sometimes fall short in practice. This is something I have spent much time ranting about in the past. It is a perennial problem, one that is (hopefully) getting better, but is (admittedly) a work in progress.

There is a *lot* of roadwork going on right now in New West. As you surmised, much of it is related to a sewer separation program accelerated somewhat by winning a federal grant to help pay for some of it. The situation in lower Sapperton has been especially intrusive, as that is where the sewer separation work is most intense along with utility works related to the expansion of the Hospital.

Almost all of this work is done by contractors (a city the size of New West doesn’t really have staff to do works at this scale anymore), and requirements to maintain rights of way and accommodate all types of road users are written right into the tender documents. They hire road flagging crews, do traffic plans, our engineers sign off on those plans, and our engineers sometimes drop by the site to see how things are going. However, these jobs are complicated and worksites are dynamic, so maintaining 100% access is difficult, and traffic plans necessarily shift as the project requires. This is often when the best laid plans get set aside for a bit, and people are inconvenienced. Sometimes, of course, they simply don’t care. Either way, the City needs to be let know.

Often, it results in a call to the Engineering Department or a SeeClickFix entry, an e-mail to a Councillor, or my better half bending my ear over dinner (if it impacted her riding route to work, like it did on 13th Ave last month). This usually means one of our engineering staff goes out there, sees what the situation is, and the contractor (if they haven’t already) are told to make it right.

This is, unfortunately, the reality of this type of work. I simply don’t know how to make it better.

I say that as someone who rides bikes around this city all the time, but I also say it as someone who at one point in his life got paid to stand with a hardhat next to an excavator or drill rig with flagging crews protecting me from traffic and vice versa. Any time you are interacting with heavy equipment, public streets and underground utilities, there are unpredictable conditions you encounter, and you need to make adjustments to plans on the fly, and the impact on traffic is but one (important) aspect of your contingency plans.

I was actually compelled early in the year to drop by the upper Sapperton project when I received two separate compliments from cyclists I know about how well the flagging personnel managed two different conflict situations with a bike route. This seriously never happens – I never get people pointing out when something goes good – so I had to check it out and let the Director of Engineering know. That said, I have also gone through lower Sapperton in the last couple of weeks, and have found through-signage lacking at times.

This is all to say I think we are doing better that we used to on this, as we have updated our policies. Our Engineering Department requires that cycling access or alternate routes must be part of the traffic plan, and that safe pedestrian access routes must be considered prior to starting work. At the same time, it still happens that I run into road works with no warning, and little indication of how I am supposed to route around them.

My best advice, when this happens, is to contact our engineering operations desk (604-526-4691  or engops@newwestcity.ca) and tell them about your experiences. We don’t have engineers on site every moment of the project, and if they don’t know there is a problem, they cannot address it. You can contact me as well, but I’m just going to contact Engineering Operations anyway, so you can cut out the middle man.

If you are into filling out web forms (you got here, didn’t you?) you can also use the SeeClickFix App to report these issues, with the bonus of being able to track how staff respond to them.

Making a complaint to Engineering may help in the short term, but it also helps longer-term. There are a limited number of contractors who do this type of work in the region, and a contractor that receives complaints about their inability to manage our traffic and access requirements is one we are less likely to hire for future contracts. Their ability to address traffic access is part of the quality assessment staff need to do at the end of every contract. That is, ultimately, the only way we will get better compliance.

I just want to say one more thing. This situation is frustrating at the time, but please try to be kind to the persons holding the Stop/Slow paddles at the worksite. Their job is surprisingly difficult and stressful. They often work in terrible conditions (noise, dust, weather, silly hours), and have to deal with irate drivers, angry neighbours and demanding construction managers, while carrying the responsibility of keeping the public and the workers on the site safe – often by putting themselves in dangerous situations. They know you are frustrated, they have little control over the hazards they are protecting you from, they honestly want to get you on your way as quickly and safely as they can.

Innovation! Transportation!

Next week is Innovation Week in New West. It actually starts with an Opening Reception at City Hall this Friday night which should be off-the-hook (with free music and video presentations and a special Steel & Oak release!) If you are in the #NewWest #Twitterati, you probably know this already, but some of you may wonder: “What is Innovation Week? And what can it do for Me?”

Let. Me. Tell. You.

As part of New West’s Intelligent City initiatives, Innovation week is a showcase of how technology, innovation, and sharing information can make our City work better, can make us a stronger community, can make businesses more prosperous and residents happier. It is about strategically leveraging innovative ideas like the City’s award-winning Open Data portal with hardware like the BridgeNet fibre network to build a better and more equitable future.

Now I read that last paragraph, and it is all true, but it doesn’t really tell you what Innovation Week is, does it? Let me try again.

Innovation Week is a series of panel discussions, hands-on workshops, networking sessions, tours and activities all open to the public, and inclusive of all ages, experiences, and interests. There will be classes to teach kids about coding, a Hack-a-Thon for teams of coders to develop new tech, forum discussions about new ideas, chances for Tech start-ups and businesses of all sizes to connect with Private and Public funding sources to bring ideas to reality. All wrapped up in fun enough with arts and music to keep your mind fresh. Through the week, you will be given reasons to dream, and information and resources to make that dream work.

I will probably write again about more events (if I get time, or else I will live tweet from there!), but I want to call attention to two events in particular, as they are interesting (I think) to the entire region:

Metro Conversations is a talk series I have been helping to organize with council colleagues from other municipalities. Out Fifth Conversation will be on Tuesday the 27th in the evening on the topic of The Promise of Innovations in Transportation. But instead of just dreaming of autonomous vehicles and hyperloops and Tunnels, we are going to ask whether the technological promises addresses what we actually want from our Cities – safe streets, livable neighbourhoods, sustainable communities, social connections and equity. This will be a fast-paced hour-long conversation, free to attend, but you might want to register as we don’t have the biggest room.

As a bit of a primer: watch this video form 1958, and ask yourself, is this the community we want? And how does this differ from Elon Musk’s vision of tunnels and hyperloops “connecting” our community.

The second event I with broad regional appeal for people like me who care about Sustainable Transportation and how it interacts with City Planning will be the Transportation Forums on March 1st. I’d suggest you book the time off work and enjoy the entire day, but you really don’t want to miss the evening event, as Mobility Pricing is sure to be the hottest political topic in the Lower Mainland through the fall elections and into 2019.

The evening forum will feature the Chair of the Mobility Pricing Independent Commission, one of the most respected and outspoken Urban Planners in Canada, and an Economist who can unpack the idea of what “fairness” is when it comes to paying for our regional transportation infrastructure. The Mayor of New Westminster will moderate the discussion, and it is free to attend.

If you are like me, you may be interested but apprehensive about Mobility Pricing. I have engaged in TransLink’s “Its Time” consultations, and understand how Mobility Pricing works in Singpore and London and Helsinki, but am cognizant of the challenge we have in Vancouver setting up a system that fits our region, and can be politically supported by the broad interests of the region. I’m hoping this forum will answer some of the questions I have, and allow me to better engage with the proponents and critics of road pricing.

There is a tonne of other great stuff happening between February 23 and March 3. Please come out and support these events, and thanks the many sponsors who help lead these conversations in New West. That link again.

Ask Pat: Stormont redux?

CH of Burnaby asks—

Have you changed your views on the Stormont Connector now that there is an opportunity to revamp the access to the new Pattullo Bridge? You were against the connector a few years ago. Do you still want all that traffic meandering through your residential areas? 

To your first question: No. And your second question sets up a false premise.

The Stormont Connector is a really expensive solution to a poorly defined problem, as I wrote about at length six (!) years ago. Nothing has substantially changed since I wrote that, except that the plans for Pattullo replacement have shifted from a 6-lane bridge to a 4-lane bridge, and the Port Mann now provides 10 toll-free lanes shifting even more regional traffic to that bridge. If anything, we have less reason to spend billions of dollars building a freeway through the middle of our city, and asking Burnaby to do the same.

Do I want rush hour traffic meandering through New West neighbourhoods? Not really, but I also don’t want a freeway running through the centre of the City, and there is no reason to believe that adding the latter will take away the former.  It simply doesn’t work like that.

So TransLink and the Ministry of Transportation are going to replace the Pattullo with a similar-capacity bridge, and there will be some minor increases in vehicle through-put, mostly related to better designed intersections at each end of the bridge. I think the opportunities New West has through this process are to improve the east-west connections through our City. We can make it safer and easier for Victoria Hill residents to walk and cycle to Downtown or to QayQayt. We can safely connect the Central Valley Greenway across McBride (finally) with enhanced connections to the proposed Agnes Street Greenway. We can vastly improve the public realm around Albert Crescent Park. There are many potential wins here for the City of New West, I just don’t see how a Stormont connector is one of them.

This topic also gives me a chance to give props to North Vancouver MLA Bowinn Ma, whom I was able to chat with at the Pattullo press event on Friday, and who continues to impress with her straightforward smarts and ability to engage on technical topics. It is refreshing to have an MLA speak so clearly and knowledgeably about urban transportation issues as Ma did on twitter last night:

Yep, She gets it.

Whither a plan?

It appears the Mayor’s Council are once again on the hot seat.

For the best part of a decade, the Council has demonstrated apparent amity, likely due to recognition that they were going to need to work together to get a disinterested Provincial Government to support any kind of transit funding stability as the region’s growth exploded. Alas, they recently seem ready to take a step back into parochial foot-shooting. With a federal government hot to spend money on urban infrastructure renewal and low-carbon transportation and a provincial government equally willing to prioritize sustainable transportation investments, the 10 year plan developed by a consensus of Mayors is suddenly being questioned by the very Mayors that put the plan together.

The first shot in this apparent internal battle was the vote to make Mayor Corrigan of Burnaby (the one Mayor who questioned the 10-year vision all along, leading random bloggers to suggest he was “transit regressive”) the new Chair of the Mayors Council, giving him more power to set the agenda and negotiate with the province over the terms of transit investment. He did this (presumably, because the voting was secret ballot), only through a one-mayor one-vote system that provides the Mayors of Anmore and Lions Bay equal voices to those of Vancouver and Surrey. However, most votes at the Mayor’s Council have a weighted vote system in an effort to closer approximate the population differences across the region and the relative sources of the budgets that TransLink spends.

The Agenda for Thursday’s Mayors Council meeting is out, and it suggests this tenuous situation will be tested right away. The only substantive agenda item is a motion put forward by Mayor Greg Moore of Port Coquitlam:

…that the Mayors Council supports the implementation of the Phase Two Plan in early-2018 as planned, including construction of the Surrey-Newton-Guildford LRT, Millennium Line Broadway Extension, the SkyTrain Upgrade Strategy and the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge, along with increases to bus and HandyDART service and funding for walking, cycling and Major Road Network infrastructure across the region;

There is more there (you can read the Agenda and resolution, with all its whereases and nuanced language, here), but the message is clear. At least one member of the Mayors Council (the one who happens to be the Chair of Metro Vancouver) wants the plan forward to be made clear to Translink planning staff, the Provincial and Federal Governments, and to all of the regional partners involved in planning our transportation system. It is clear that at least some of the mayors on the Council still believe in the vision, see its urgency, and are willing to speak up to the pall of suspicion that has resulted from Mayor Corrigan’s election (not the least by semi-informed bloggers, like me)

This is the vote to watch to see who is on-side with well-developed and integrated sustainable transportation investments, and who is willing to delay solutions to our regional transportation challenges for yet another decade.

Us & Them

This is a terrible story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motordumb

This is terrifying.

I mean, that is what it’s supposed to be. Part of the macho-truck-tough-guy/gal image it is meant to project. Sports cars were sometimes jokingly referred to as phallic symbols, projecting compensatory manhood and virility. This is a more of a rolling sawed-off shotgun, projecting violence, instability, and wide destructive swath to compensate for an inability to aim.

Big Trucks are nothing new in Canada, but look at the language the puff piece in the “Drive” section of our national newspaper (ugh) uses to describe it:

“Insane”, “ridiculous”, “’roid rage”, “invincible”, “out of scale”.

This truck is too wide (“A single lane suddenly feels too narrow… a foot wider than an already-huge F-250”), too tall (“the bottom of the seat is at eye-level”), and both creates a visual barrier for others (“Once inside you can see clearly over the tops of all SUVs”), yet has terrible visbility itself (“Nothing directly in front of it is visible, thanks to the huge, wide hood”). This lack of visibility is enhanced by mating a 450 horsepower engine with a design that features “bad steering, bad ride and bad handling.” But don’t worry, “You’re so high off the ground, there’s little sense of speed. It’s like looking out the window of a 747 during takeoff.”

Yes, this vehicle is an exaggeration of a point, and not many are sold (although the Globe & Mail will no doubt help with that little problem). But it is symptomatic of a situation where the use of automobiles is,  for the first time in history, getting less safe. And it is increasingly innocent bystanders being killed by them, not drivers.

There are many factors leading to these trends, distracted driving being a bit part of the equation (which raises an entire new rant about big LCD screens in cars). However, we live in a situation were you can roll a Honda Civic off the lot that is faster on the racetrack than a Lamborghini Gallardo. Dodge is selling, over the counter and with no special training mind you, an 840hp drag racer that does a sub-10 second quarter mile. It is so fast, that it is actually illegal to use at a regulated drag strip without doing safety modifications, but you can drive through your local school zone with no such regulatory concerns.

Cars are getting bigger, they are getting more powerful, and things like outward visibility are being compromised for design reasons. Trucks, especially, are seemingly exempt from any regulations around bumper height and fender coverage. After-market modification of lights, suspension, and other critical safety equipment is essentially unregulated.

This is all coming from the position of someone who walks and cycles in a dense urban community, but also someone who sees it as part of his job to make it be safer for 8-year-olds to walk to school and 80-year-olds to cross the street. We already give so much of our urban space to automobiles, because they serve a utility that people value. Recognizing that, we can build wide, comfortable sidewalks. We can design better crosswalks, and paint green paint at conflict zones. We can impose speed limits, improve lighting, create walkable neighbourhoods and dynamic retail districts. But our public spaces will never feel safe – will never be safe – if some agro asshole can charge through it waving a sawed-off shotgun at everyone.

We need to have a discussion about how far is too far for automobiles that want to share our urban space. We need enforceable standards of power, speed, bumper height, and other design elements that emphasize the safety of not just the operator and the passenger, but of other who unwillingly share space with these machines.

Some will suggest this is an intrusion – the end of freedom as we know it. Of course, we already have an actual law telling people to wear a Styrofoam helmet when sharing road space with this monstrosity. And when you get run over by it, rest assured the driver will say “I didn’t even see him!” like that is a defense, and not an admission of guilt. And Crown Counsel will agree.

There is no “War on Cars”, but if that’s what it takes to get these tanks off of our city streets, sign me up.

Bikes on the SFPR

Bike lanes are in the news a bit again, here in New West, and out in one of our higher-profile western suburbs. It got me thinking about good and bad cycling infrastructure, and I haven’t gone off on a rant on this blog for a while, so make a cup of tea, because I am going to launch off on the Worst Piece of Cycling Infrastructure Ever®, known around these parts as the South Fraser Perimeter Road (“SFPR” or Highway 17). As this will most surely be tl;dr, you can skip down to the important part here.

When some previous Minister of Transportation (Falcon? Lekstrom? meh, it doesn’t matter) was hyping the region’s biggest-at-the-time motordom project, loosely defined as “the Gateway”, they were quick to point out the benefits to cyclists. The SFPR was announced as part of the largest MoT investment in cycling infrastructure of all time. This hyperbole was supported by the entire ~40km length of this glorious new road having cycling lanes affixed.

At the time, a few skeptics suggested that the shoulders of a high-speed truck route through farms and industrial areas may not be the ideal place to ride a bike, and by the time the new highway was opened, the previously-promised cyclist benefits were being seriously downplayed (hence all the dead links in that 4-year-old post above). But a Bike Route it is, to this day. There is a sign every 500m telling you so:

One of these green signs is found every 500 m for 40 km of great cycling infrastructure like this.

A couple of years on, the disaster of this poorly-placed, terribly-designed, and wholly-disingenuous cycling investment is pretty clear to anyone brave enough to venture onto this designated cycling route. No point dancing around the point: for cyclists of all skill levels, the SFPR is so unfriendly and dangerous that those “Bike Route” signs represent a reckless disregard for public safety.

That is a strong statement, so before I committed to it, I headed out to the SFPR with my bike to experience the length of the route in its harrowing glory, just to build up the temper necessary to commit that charge to hypertext. I went into it nervous, spent the ride terrified, and left enraged. Mission accomplished.

Funny I never ran into any other cyclists on this sunny fall day.

For the majority of the SFPR, the “Bike Route” is a 2.5 metre wide paved shoulder adjacent to industrial traffic moving at highway speeds. Nowhere is there a barrier protecting the shoulder from intrusions by trucks, not even rumble strips to warn drivers who may vary from their lane. The traffic is mixed, but the route was ostensibly built for and dominated by large trucks. The speed limit is allegedly 80 km/h, but speeds vary incredibly, from closer to 60 km/h around intersections (trucks accelerate slowly, after all, creating great rage moments for commuters!) to well over 100 km/h in the more open stretches.

Seriously?

In places where there is a soft shoulder or a low jersey barrier, having 80 km/h truck traffic blow by 2 metres from your left shoulder is unsettling. Where you are between those trucks and a 4 metre-high sound barrier wall (marked by the occasional gouge from vehicle swipes) or a 10-m concrete buttress, it is nerve-rattling.

shudder…

The knowledge that a momentary lack of attention by one of those drivers, or an impromptu swerve or technical problem with your bike means certain death provides a certain… clarity of thought. That thought is not “sure am glad I wore my helmet!”

The rational move (other than to avoid the SFPR altogether, which I will get to later) is to squeeze as far over to the right and put as much space between your body and the trucks. The problem with this strategy is that the SFPR “Bike Routes” are dotted with particularly deep and treacherous rainwater catch basins, and the further you get from the traffic-swept white line, the thicker and more challenging the road shoulder debris becomes:

Rocks and a hard place.

The road debris on this route is not surprising for an industrial truck route, unless you are surprised by the raw number of rusty and broken bolts and other important-looking parts that are ejected from trucks. Debris encountered on my ride included rocks large and small, glass, plastic vehicle parts, kitty-littered oil slicks, random lumber, nails, tire carcasses, tie-downs and bungie cords, and the occasional dead animal. These only serve to heighten the chances of one of those life-limiting impromptu swerves or technical failures. Once you realize the “swept clear” parts of the bike lanes are only done so by vehicles crossing the line at speed that you start to wonder if the route is designed specifically to kill you.

I hope that speeding truck didn’t need those parts…

Or just designed to confuse you…

Seriously, what are they trying to do to us here?

To add another layer of frustration to this alleged “bike route” is its isolation. Choose the SFPR and you are stuck with the SFPR, because it largely fails to connect to an established regional network and actively prevents you from getting on or off the SFPR where these types of connections may be obvious.

There are two locations on either side of the Alex Fraser Bridge, where a perfectly safe, low-traffic road is separated from the SFPR (one by a tall sound barrier wall) in such a way that getting out of danger’s way is impossible. For lack of a connection here, crossing this 5 foot barrier requires a multi-kilometre detour.

That over there on the left is NOT a designated bike route.

This lack of connection to regional cycling infrastructure is most obvious at the three regionally-important bridges under which the SFPR passes. The quality of the cycling paths on those three bridges is (east-to-west) really good, terrible, and not too bad, but they are all nonetheless important links. Again, either no connection has been contemplated for the bike route, or actual multi-layer physical barriers have been installed to prevent an SFPR cyclist from getting to the bridge where connections would be natural.

You can’t get there from here.

To get on the Alex Fraser Bridge from the SFPR requires a 3-km detour through two hairy multi-lane intersections. The Pattullo requires 1.5km and riding right past a pedestrian overpass, which would make for a great connection if it wasn’t barriered from access from the bike lane. The connection to the great bike infrastructure on the Port Mann is so far that is it actually a shorter distance just to ride to the terrible cycling infrastructure on the Pattullo.

Multi-layer protection – keeping cyclists from entering or leaving the SFPR at the Pattullo.

So the SFPR fails at every aspect of effective cycling infrastructure: it lacks the most basic safety and comfort considerations, it lacks connections, it lacks any form of appeal. It is not surprising that during my ride of the entire 40km length of the SFPR, both ways (done over two sunny mid-week days early in the fall), I never saw a single other person on a bicycle on the entire route. However, every 500m there is one of those little green signs. Or something like this:

Share the Road!

So it is time for the cycling community to wake up and recognize we got played. Of course, this is the Ministry of Transportation’s standard playbook, so we could have seen it coming: This “bike route” is a safety pull-off area for trucks.

One of these signs improves safety.

We were sold “cycling benefits” of a Billion-plus-dollar piece of transportation infrastructure, and got something else: bike signs placed on paved shoulder really intended to keep trucks in the other two lanes moving if the occasional vehicle needs to pull over, or of someone just needs to park a trailer for a few hours. Aside from that, it is a gutter for gravel and trash and carcasses and truck parts to prevent them from accumulating where they may impede truck travel. This “Bike Route” is just a part of the truck route, nothing else.

This is why this shoulder exists, signage be damned.

(I need to super-emphasize this) The SFPR it was never meant to be a Bike Route. 


So what to do? I’d like first to call upon the new Minister of Transportation to take down those “Bike Route” signs.

It isn’t her fault, she didn’t create this mess, but she adopted it by getting elected, so it is on her to do the right thing. The MoTI must stop threatening the lives of cyclists. Removing the signs and anything else that may incite otherwise-unaware bicycle users from mistakenly entering this cycling abattoir. Put an end to the ruse that this is any place for bicycles.

I could ask her for many more things – investment in cycling infrastructure for Surrey and Delta to make up for the funding-securing lies told by her predecessors, a commitment to policy changes to prevent her staff from ever doing this kind of bait-and-switch again – but those are opportunities for the future, and will require budget and policy decisions and such. She is a busy person with a huge mandate and new to the job; there will be time for those niceties later. First we must undo this mistake made intentionally by the previous government.

In the short term, someone in Minister Trevena’s office needs to call up the road maintenance contractor that bought the rights to not clean the shoulders here, and ask them to send a crew out to remove those signs. It shouldn’t take more than a day, it won’t cost any money, and it’s the right thing to do.

Where the SFPR meets another truck freeway, cooler heads prevail.

Ask Pat: Braids

Rudy asks—

Hey, Pat. Is the Braid section of the Brunette Fraser Greenway still planning on being constructed in then near future? I know the city webpage doesn’t seem to have been updated in over a year, and still states that it’s due to be completed by December of 2017. Has the uncertainty over the design of the Brunette Interchange project affecting this? To be honest, while I would appreciate this section being completed soon (as I bike from Sapperton through to United Blvd every weekday), it does sound like a bit of waste if the interchange ends up making all of this irrelevant in just a few years.

Short answer is yes, for the most part, though it should be done by now.

There has been a plan to improve the connection between Braid Station and the Bailey Bridge, Canfor Avenue, and the rest of the Braid industrial area for cyclists and pedestrians for a couple of years. It’s been a pretty well-developed plan for long enough that I went to one of those run-up-to-the-election funding announcements for the money we got from the Federal Government to pay for part of this. The federal election of 2015. Here is my understanding of what has happened since:

After a year of design and consultation, which led to some pretty significant re-design, the plan was to do the work this summer. However, the changed plans were changed again when a significant sewer line under the road was found to be in unexpectedly poor condition, and in need of replacement. In general, we try to avoid putting fresh asphalt and curbs on top of a pipe you are going to have to dig up very soon, so the pipe work needs to come before the road improvements. To add fun to the mix, the portion of pipe needing the extra work is near the existing rail lines, which significantly increases the complications related to doing the pipe work. So the project was delayed, but will be moving forward, and we should see some work done this winter and spring (the City page has been updated!), pending interesting findings during excavation*.

As far as I know, the work should not be influenced by the Brunette Interchange work. The greenway section where works are planned will be a greenway for the foreseeable future, and the related driveway improvements for the adjacent buildings will need to be there to provide access to those buildings regardless of Braid/Brunette upgrades. The eventual interchange project may influence the ends of the greenway, or even intersect it, but the majority of the pedestrian/bike improvements will still be needed. As far as I know, we are good to go.


Rick asks—

Whatever happened to the Coquitlam-New Westminster Brunette Interchange joint task force? The announcement press release states that reports back to council were due by February 27.

These folks?

I have no updates since the news release of March. At that time, the Task Force had established some common interests, and we issued a letter to the Ministry to let them know where we found agreement, and to provide some opinions on the proposed interchange options. Perhaps not surprisingly, the work came to a pause shortly after that as we went into an election. I’m not sure the lengthy period between that election and a new Minister of Transportation being given a mandate expedited the work in any way. As the new Minister has a pretty full plate, I expect a moderate-priority project like this will be addressed after a few more raging fires are stamped down.

If I was to guess (and this is nothing more than a guess), I suspect we will hear something in the spring about next steps on this project, and the Ministry’s goals in light of the suggestions set forth by Coquitlam and New Westminster.

*one of the charms of a 150 year old City is that most times you dig a hole, you are surprised by what you find down there. These surprises apparently delay a large number of City projects, which gets me thinking about how we do contingency budgeting in this City needs a bit of a re-vamp.