Declaration for Resilience (Part 1)

At the August 10 Council meeting, we endorsed actions addressing the 2020 Declaration for Resilience in Canadian Cities.

This is a pan-Canadian (but admittedly very “urban”) movement that calls for a post-COVID recovery that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the last century of city planning, but instead imagines a greener, cleaner, decarbonized economy, built on the foundation of how we build and operate our Cities. It is signed by people across the political spectrum and from local government politics, city planning, business, academia and environmental activism.

The report New West Council received also included some re-framing of the original 20 proposed policy changes to fit better into the Metro Vancouver / New Westminster context, and included some additional policy directions coming out of staff discussions at Metro Vancouver and within the City of New Westminster.

I thought I would take a bit of sunny summer time to go through this declaration and pick out some of the sometimes-subtle changes that local staff suggested, along with my own comments (speaking, as always, for myself, not for all of Council). This might get a little long, because there is a lot here, so maybe make a cup of tea and I’ll break it up to several blog posts (divided up by the major themes of the Declaration). Each section will start with the original Declaration Text, followed by the staff-recommended adaptation for NW/MV context, followed by my comments. I’d love to hear feedback about this.


Ensuring Responsible Use of Land

1. Update zoning policies to allow more households to access existing neighbourhoods by permitting appropriately scaled multi-tenanted housing, co‐housing, laneway housing, and other forms of “gentle density” to be built, as‐of‐right, alongside houses in lowrise residential neighbourhoods.
Update zoning policies to allow more households to access existing neighbourhoods by permitting appropriately scaled multi‐tenanted housing, co-housing, laneway housing, and other forms of “gentle density” to be built, as‐of‐right, alongside houses in low‐rise residential neighbourhoods, especially along the Frequent Transit Network and in Urban Centres.
Apply the principle of equity to land use decisions so that the appropriateness of land use is determined on the basis of its impact on society as a whole rather than only the applicant or immediate neigbhours.

I think it is appropriate that this is first in the list of actions, because zoning impacts how we allocate use of land across our Cities, and the way we do it now is failing to address equity, is failing to address climate impacts or housing form, and is 100% within the power of Local Government to change.

I want to start be addressing the phrase in scare quotes – “gentle density”. This is a code word, and one I have used myself in the past. It means “slightly more housing, only to the extent that it doesn’t cause too much opposition from the people already comfortable housed in our community”. I think inserting that phrase alone calls into question the commitment to applying the principle of equity to land use decisions. I’ll just leave it with that social justice trick of questioning the implied agency and ask “gentle to whom?”

That said, I had another problem with the local context re-framing of this point. It is clear from the original text that we are talking about single family detached housing here, and large neighbourhoods in urban areas where this is currently the only permitted form of housing. The Declaration says we need to challenge that assumption if we are to meet our sustainability goals, and I agree with that. To change this by inserting “Frequent Transit Network” and “Urban Centres” as the only places appropriate for this change, undercuts the actual intent. In its original form, this is challenging the paradigm that high-traffic corridors are not the only place for multi-family housing, and the change softens that call. We need to break the mindset that the only appropriate use of density is to buffer as-right single family detached houses from the noise and pollution of traffic corridors.

Recent discussions around development of 12th Street in New Westminster are a good example of this thinking. Some folks feel that commercial-at-grade with a few floors of housing above is appropriate to support a secondary commercial district like this. Others feel that there is simply too much commercial as is to be supported by the relatively low residential density of the neighbourhood, and more commercial will simply mean more vacant commercial space where housing would be more appropriate. I would argue that the problem is not the density on 12th Street, but the lack of business-sustaining density within that all-important 5-minute walk shed. Walk three blocks back from a health pedestrian-sustained shopping street in Montreal (for example), and you find moderate-density housing, not SFD suburbs in the middle of a City.

Walkable, functional, equitable neighbourhoods cannot be car-reliant neighbourhoods. And Frequent Transit Networks rely on a density to be supportable just as commercial districts do. So let’s expand our thinking to beyond “along Frequent Transit Networks” to “every neighbourhood within walking distance of a Frequent Transit Network”, and we are onto something, which brings us to the next item:

2. Commit to the creation of 15‐minute neighbourhoods in which it is possible to live, work, and shop, by among other things permitting corner stores, local retail, and live‐work housing, and by adding more local parks in all areas of cities
Commit to the creation of 15‐minute neighbourhoods (ie: complete communities) in which it is possible to live, work, play and shop, by among other things permitting child care, corner stores, local retail, and live‐work housing, and by adding more local parks equitably throughout cities.

This idea behind 15-minute neighbourhoods is that residents should be able to access most of their daily needs within a 15-minute walk, or within about 1,200m of their home. This could mean a 5-minute bike ride, a 10-minue roll in a mobility scooter, or a 15-minute walk, but the idea is that it reduces automobile reliance for most trips. Yes, people can and will own cars, yes, not everyone can live within 1,200m of their job so there need to be commuting options, but if shopping, schools, libraries, rec centres, parks and “third places” are close enough by, stronger communities are built. Of course, this also means there need to be enough people within that 15-minute walkshed to support the things we want to see there, which brings us back to density.

3. Restrict short‐term rentals to ensure that rental homes are not once again removed from the rental market post‐COVID‐19.
Regulate short‐term rentals to ensure that rental homes are not once again removed from the rental market post‐COVID‐19.

The shift from “restrict” to “regulate” is a subtle one, perhaps. I have been banging the drum about the need for us to address AirBnB/VRBO/etc. in the City for several years, but it has just never been seen as a priority for New West staff or Council. It is a bit challenging to enforce, and we do not receive a lot of complaints about it, so perhaps the urgency is not there, and the COVID situation has probably delayed any eventual STR crisis, but the impact on the affordable rental market is pretty clear. Add this to the pile of better rental regulation we need in the province, but this one is 100% within the power of local governments to enact – we can’t pass the buck on this one.

4. Remove all mandatory minimum parking requirements for any new building, to both signal a shift in mobility priorities, and to remove the costly burden of parking, on housing.
Remove parking minimums, enhance visitor parking and bicycle parking supply and include vehicle sharing option for any new multi‐family and mixed‐use building particularly along the Frequent Transit Network, to both signal a shift in mobility priorities, and to remove the costly burden of parking on housing. Consider the introduction of parking maximums in transit‐oriented locations.

I think the changes here are again subtle (removing “all”, then adding other qualifiers that may soften it a bit), but reducing the requirement to build off-street parking for new multifamily developments has been an ongoing process in the City, and one Council has asked staff to advance recently. There is no doubt about the data: we are building way more parking than we need in transit-oriented developments, and there are real costs related to this overbuilding – cost to the housing, and costs to society. I think the one part missing from this is the acknowledgement that off-street parking policy needs to be coupled with properly allocating and pricing on-street storage of cars, and one again, planning policy and transportation policy overlap.

5. Prioritize the use of existing municipally‐owned land for the creation of affordable housing that remains affordable in perpetuity, and for strategic public green space that supports increased density.
Prioritize the use of existing municipally‐owned land for the creation of affordable housing and non‐profit childcare that remains affordable in perpetuity, and for strategic public green space that supports increased density.

This is another area New Westminster is already moving on. We do not have a great legacy of City-owned land compared to some jurisdictions, but we have been successful at getting two small-lot affordable housing developments built in the last couple of years, a TMH supportive housing project just opened in Queensborough on City land, and we are looking at two other sites for upcoming projects. We have also been successful at leveraging childcare space with new development. The greenspace issue is a bit of a harder nut to crack in some of our neighbourhoods, but I hope the Streets for People motion and our Bold Step #7  on re-allocated road space will provide some unexpected opportunities here.

6. Enact stronger restrictions on urban sprawl, including moratoria limiting additional, auto‐dependent, suburban sprawl developments
Enact stronger restrictions on low density, auto‐dependent residential, commercial, and employment developments.
This doesn’t speak directly to New Westminster, as we are already a built-out community, and growth will generally be through density increases and towards less sprawl. However, it does induce us to move towards less car-dependent and sprawly communities as we look at new master-planned communities like Sapperton Green and the future of the 22nd Street area in Connaught Heights.


The next section will be on “Decarbonization of our Transportation Systems”, whenever I get to writing about it.

Calmer streets

Earlier in the year, I brought this motion to Council, asking that the City be bolder in finding ways to re-level the balance between car use and other users for public space in the City. We had already made commitments in our Climate Action goals that we are going to change how road space is allocated in the City over the next decade. Then along came COVID to shine a brighter light on some of the inequities in our communities, and cities around the world started acting more aggressively on road space reallocation as a pandemic response. The time was right for New West to accelerate the ideas in our Master Transportation Plan.

Early on, there was some rapid work to address pedestrian and active transportation “pinch points”, especially in the Uptown and on a few Greenways. The city was able to quickly create more safe public space downtown by re-applying the weekend vehicle closure plan of Front Street that we already had experience with. Uptown, the BIA asked the City to allow temporary weekend-only opening of some street space for lightly-programmed public space. Response has been pretty positive:

There is a bit of push-back on these interventions, as there always is when status quo is challenged in the transportation realm. Predictably, the traffic chaos, accidents, parking hassles and general mayhem that was predicted by more vocal opposition just didn’t occur. Staff is tracking actual data, but I have made a point to visit these areas often (COVID and working from home has made me into one of those walking-for-recreation types) and have been collecting admittedly anecdotal views of how these sites are working.

There are two more ideas that are being launched for the second half of the summer, and I want to talk about them because they came from different directions, but ended up in the same place, and are also eliciting some public comments right now (as was the intent!)

The City is piloting a “Cool Streets” program that identifies key pedestrian routes in the City for light interventions to reduce the through-traffic load and give pedestrians more space to stretch out. The way these streets were identified for the pilot is what makes this interesting, and speaks to one of my previous lives when I was briefly a GIS geek.

The goal to identify areas of the City where more vulnerable people have less access to green space, shade, and safe waling/rolling routes to parks and services. The approach very much aligns with the City’s Intelligent City initiative by using data-driven analysis to help make decisions. The City used its Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data set to identify areas that met the following criteria: higher population density, lower household incomes, larger proportion of seniors, and lower parks space per capita. Using GIS to “overlay” these layers, they identified area where many of these criteria overlap:

Once the “dense” areas of this map were identified, staff went through looking at the routes that combine connectivity to key destinations (parks and services), where grades were lower and where the most tree canopy cover was available:

They then identified priority routes for “green street” interventions (1, 2, and the west part of 3 in the map below), and extended these along streets that get to key destinations (the east part of 3 and 4):

The interventions here are very light. The roads are not “closed” to cars, but are calmed using ideas drawn from experiences in other cities from New York to Oakland to Toronto to Vancouver. The hope is to create truly traffic-calmed streets where local access by car is still available, but the space is open for people to share and program as they wish. Local streets acting like streets for locals, not as through-fares.

A second initiative was led by a community group in Sapperton. Concerned about some recent close calls on the part of the Central Valley Greenway that runs through lower Sapperton, they surveyed their neighbours and brought a proposal to staff asking if a pinching down of one block of the greenway could be trialed in light of the Streets for People motion. Again, the road is not closed, but signage was installed to discourage through-traffic and removable soft barriers installed.

Both of these interventions are temporary pilots. They cost very little to put in action, and provide valuable data to our transportation planners, while also giving the public a chance to see what changes would look like before we invest in more permanent or expanded road re-allocation.

In her great book Street Fight, Jeannette Sadik-Khan talks about successes in urban residential areas where more local and lower-key interventions like this have occurred. A major part of this is trying some things (lightly, quickly, and cheaply) as a form of consultation and data collection. This allows us to get past the baked-in institutional resistance to change that says everyone has to agree on paper before we even try the most minor change, and before we can test whether a change is a net good. The Summer Streets program in New York was her model of this – feared by many, embraced by almost everyone once implemented, with the fears proving unfounded in the long term.

All that to say, these light interventions are designed to elicit not just public participation, but public feedback. And I have received feedback already. I’ve received e-mail form people very upset that they were not consulted; e-mail form people predicting traffic chaos; and e-mail from people asking if they can do this on their street. My short answer to those questions are, respectively: this is the consultation; the sites selected were local streets, not traffic-challenged throughfares, but staff will be collecting data to assess the impacts on traffic; and not likely this year just because of timing, but if things go well, I hope these kinds of pilots can be expanded in 2021.

So, if you like this kind of intervention, let us know. If you don’t, tell us why. Staff have included in the analysis above other priority areas for Cool Streets that may be implemented in the future, including Downtown and the McBride commercial area in Glenbrooke North. As for the community-driven version, if you would like to see this type of intervention as a temporary or permanent feature of your street, start reaching out to your neighbors (maybe hold a social distance block party?) and talk about it. If you can gather enough interest, maybe the City can make something happen in 2021.  To me, local communities reclaiming space is a major part of making Streets for People again.

ASK PAT: Sidewalks

Still getting caught up on queued ASK PATs. If you have a question, click that ASK PAT spot up in the right corner there. I’ll try to answer them succinctly, but I am likely to go on a digression, which takes a while to write so I get behind and here we go again…

Jim asks—

I thought that the City had a policy for barrier free sidewalks. If you look on the south sidewalk on Seventh Avenue – a greenway – you will see that the new utility box covers resulting from the recent work were placed right in the middle of the sidewalk. I don’t think that they need to be there as I think that there is room between the sidewalk and the private property for the utility boxes. They are plastic, not metal, but they still make the sidewalk uneven and in a few weeks when the snow comes they will ice up and be a barrier.

There is a worse example in the Moody Park entry plaza at 6th Ave and 8th Street. The recent work there was capped off by a metal utility box cover that is in the main travel path for pedestrians and was installed with a slope. This one is slippery in the rain. I believe that none of these utility box covers needed to be placed in the sidewalk. So, what happened?

I’m not sure I agree with you. I suspect if a utility box cover is placed on a sidewalk, it is because it needs to be within the corridor of a significant piece of linear infrastructure, be it a pipe or an electrical conduit. More likely, they need to be at the intersection of two major pieces of linear infrastructure, which severely limits their location. I can name several unfortunately-located box covers, from the sidewalk on Eighth Street near the entrance to the Lawn Bowling Club to the half-in the bike lane force ewer main cover on Columbia Street just east of 4th. I would suggest all of them need to be pretty much where they are.

That stretch of Eighth Street has a lot going on under your feet. There is a fiber optic conduit right-of-way, a buried 3-phase electrical distribution line, a concrete Storm Sewer gravity main, two separate combined-sewer gravity mains, and two separate potable water supply mains. For all I know, there may be private utility lines as well (BC Gas, Telus, Shaw, etc.). All of them have specific offsets from each other that must be maintained, can’t be too close to property lines or under power poles or interfere with each other. Their location now is a result of almost a century of decisions about rights-of-way and avoidance of conflict and need to upgrade as the City grew. All this to say, they are really hard to move now.

Your point is taken, though, that the surface treatment of these necessary pieces of infrastructure need to consider walkers, rollers, and people with mobility challenges. They should not be trip hazards. At times they are installed to be flush and as integrated as possible to the driving lane or sidewalk, but settle differently or swell up from frost or are damaged by heavy machinery. I would suggest efforts to make them visually “blend in” are probably a bad idea, as a changes in surface texture or material should probably stand out as warnings for those with cognitive or visual impairments. They certainly should not be slipperier than the adjacent sidewalk, even when wet.

I can ask staff about what type of standards exist for these installations, and ask what we do as far as inspections after contractors install them. If you have a specific one that you think needs repair or constitutes a hazard, the best response is to report it through SeeClickFix or drop a line to Engineering Ops and see what transportation staff say.

That said, I do want to take this opportunity to address this letter to the local paper, because it is related. As the writer suggests, more people are walking because of COVID, and more people are noting places where sidewalks are in disrepair. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing, but the City has recognized the need to increase its sidewalk repair and upkeep budget for a few years now, and are putting money into the problem at an unprecedented rate.

As we implemented the Master Transportation Plan adopted in 2015, we have prioritized pedestrian spaces. A major part of this is spending the money to assure every sidewalk at every corner in the City has an accessibility ramp. This is not a minor thing, and it was not inexpensive to do, but as the first “quick win” to improve pedestrian spaces, we prioritized that spending. New Westminster is the only City in the Lower Mainland that has achieved 100% corner ramp cuts. Some are admittedly older design, and resources as now being put to updating some of these older ones to bring them to modern standards.

We are also spending more than ever on updating and improving sidewalks and crosswalks. Our current Capital Budget has more than $7 million dedicated specifically to pedestrian improvement projects. This is above and beyond the investments we are making in Greenways and Great Streets (where improved pedestrian spaces are part of the bigger project) and the improvements that we implement to coincide with lot development. This is a huge increase over what we spent on pedestrian improvements only a decade ago. We have some catching up to do, and this work is expensive, but we are getting it done.

That said there are often local spots that degrade quickly because of frost, vehicle, or root damage. If they create a trip hazard or accessibility barrier, the best way to assure fixing this ends up in someone’s work plan is to do a SeeClickFix report or contact Engineering Ops as I linked to a few paragraphs above.

Feedback

I like to complain as much as the next guy. However, I do try to keep it constructive and useful. I recently send a complaint to TransLink via a short Twitter thread, photos and all. The very pleasant person on the other side of the anonymous @TransLink twitter account replied that they noted the concern, and asked that I follow up with the on-line TransLink feedback form. I was admittedly slow to do this, in part because the feedback form is limited to 2,000 characters (I can’t sing Happy Birthday in less than 2,000 characters) and I thought the issue really needed the photos I took to highlight my concern. So, I sent them a TL;dnr complaint to the suggestion box and added a link to this post, where I expand on my Twitter thread and add the photos that I think tell the story.


Hello.

I had a pleasant conversation through Twitter (yes, that is possible) with your social media staff last month, and they recommended I send this concern directly to this e-mail, so here we are, I finally got my rant together.

There is a bus stop on Westminster Highway right across the street from the Hamilton Transit Centre. Stop #59555 I think. The bus stop is on a (painted) bike lane. Not a perfect design, but sometimes you need to make due as there are lot of challenges for road space and curb space in the City. A bus stopping for a few seconds to pick up or drop off customers is a minor hassle for someone using the bike lane, and I think supporting transit users is really important for all cyclists – we active transportation users are all in this together!

Though it is not optimal in design, this is kind of an important bike lane. That area of Queensborough/Hamilton is a bit of a pinch point with the freeway jammed through it, and the route along Westminster Highway is really the only accessible, low-gradient and family-friendly route between the residential areas of Hamilton and the residential areas of Queensborough. It serves as an important connection for parks, shopping, the child care centre, and other travel. There really isn’t another way around here (except a ridiculous, really high, steep, and narrow pedestrian overpass a little way to the South, which no cycle should ever be on, and which doesn’t connect to anything, and is a prime example of why MOTI should not be trusted to build anything in an urban area, but I digress).

Now, the problem with Stop #59555 is that it has increasingly been used as place to store buses. It seems there is always one or two buses staged there, sometimes shut off with no drivers. I realize the 410 route often has delay/deadheading issues, but I also assume this is a spot for shift changes or other reasons bus are stored here. I have cycle commuted on this route for years, and I do not recall buses staging here prior to the opening of the Transit Centre. So now, instead of people on bikes waiting a few seconds for the bus to pick up or drop off, we need to travel around the bus.

A >2m-wide bus parked in a <2m painted bike lane means cyclists wishing to pass by must enter the driving lane of a road with the name “Highway”, and one with a significant portion of truck traffic. For experienced cyclists like myself, that is merely a bothersome decrease in my safety as I signal and take the lane and hope drivers respect my space (no doubt irritating a small number of them, pushing them towards writing their own long impotent screeds on the Vancouver Sun Facebook page about scofflaw cyclists not staying in their lane). But for other users it creates a serious barrier. Here is what I happened upon while riding along that route a few weeks ago, which launched this specific impotent screed:

As someone who cares about active transportation, as someone who proudly extols the virtues of TransLink as one of the greatest urban transit systems in North America, as someone elected to advocate for the safety and comfort of active transportation users in my community, all I want is for this mother to feel comfortable taking her daughter for a bike ride. I want the daughter to grow up confident and free and empowered by her bicycle. I want mom and daughter to be safe. The bikeway here is not optimal, but Translink’s operational choice here is making it markedly less safe every day. I mean, what is she supposed to do here? What message are we sending?

So please, see if you can change this operational practice, hopefully this summer, until a proper engineered work-around (a pull-out for the bus, or a bike lane routed behind the bus stop) can be implemented. If you need help from the City to make that happen, or if there is someone else I need to call, please let me know. Don’t do it for me, the “experienced rider” who doesn’t mind irritating the occasional driver if road engineering forces me into that choice. Do it for this family, for this mom trying to teach her daughter how to navigate her community safely, for this youth discovering one of the greatest tools for empowerment and freedom ever invented – riding a bicycle.

Thanks.

ASK PAT: NWSS safe biking routes

I have a bunch of queued up ASK PATS. Sorry, folks, some have been here for quite a while. Things have been busy, and priorities at Council have been shifting so fast and furiously that I have let these linger. I am going to try to clear the queue here in the next little bit. So the answers may be shorter than usual. But probably not, because I like to go on about things…

Don asks—

NWSS safe biking routes need some help. One of those problems is the car traffic cutting through the gas station at 6th and 8th. Perhaps if barriers were installed on the double yellow lines on both those streets would improve safety and traffic flow. Is this possible?

Maybe. That is a pretty “operational” question, and I frankly don’t know the technical requirements when it comes to installing mid-road barriers. I suspect come of those flexi-posts would reduce the number of illegal turns here, but I have also seen drivers do some pretty bizarre things to get around them. Jerks gotta jerk. As this is a more technical operational question than a Council Policy one, you may want to enter it to SeeClickFix or drop a line to Engineering Ops and see what transportation staff say.

As for bike routes to NWSS, we are working on it. The building of the new High School has given us an opportunity to review how cycling and pedestrian connections to the High School work. With the “main entrance” for the School shifting form 8th Street to 6th Street, there will definitely be a shift in how students get to the school:

An older drawing o the proposed new school site I cribbed from this source. Some stuff may have changed since then, but I wanted to show the lay of the land, and this works.

The City has worked with the School Board and project delivery team on this. The first priority is assuring safe and accessible pedestrian access a the two main “entry points”which will be mid-block on Eighth Ave (“C”) and mid-block on Sixth Street (“D”). The pathway across Eighth Street through the existing school site (“A”) is also identified as important, but will be addressed in the future as the demolition of the existing school and design of the memorialization area will delay works on that side. Light-controlled intersections, crosswalks, and sidewalk upgrades are planned at “C” and “D”.

The City is also committed to assuring there is a safe separated cycling route from Seventh Ave (part of the Crosstown Greenway) to the school. By the time the School opens, that will be a separated path along Eighth Street to Eighth Ave, a new intersection treatment at Eighth and Eighth, and improvements of the pathway past the Massey Theatre.

The Connection of the Crosstown Greenway to the Sixth Street entrance to the school property is going to be designed and implemented as part of the Uptown Streetscape Vision, which will redesign all of Sixth Street from Fourth Ave to Tenth Ave. This is currently going through some stakeholder engagement, but is a bigger road redesign project that will not be implemented by the time the School opens.

Streets for People

I had a motion on the Council Agenda on Monday, which I said I would write about later. First the motion in full, then the rant:

Whereas the City of New Westminster established a Bold Step target to re-allocate 10% of automobile-only space toward sustainable transportation and/or public gathering use by 2030; and
Whereas the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant shifts in the use of public space, and “physical distancing” directives exposed the critical need for greater and more accessible pedestrian, active transportation, and public gathering space in the City; and

Whereas the recovery phase of the City’s pandemic response will put tremendous pressure on the City to address these inequities in public space, to assure that the freedom to move about and be active in public spaces not lost, and that our commercial districts are supported in finding creative ways to activate sidewalk and road space to excite customer support; and

Whereas urban areas around the world are currently demonstrating a commitment to reclaiming roads by rapidly converting automobile-only space to more equitable uses that better support neighborhood livability, commercial district viability, community resiliency, and public safety during the crisis and into post-Pandemic times;

Therefore be it resolved that:
The City of New Westminster move quickly in 2020 to expand road re-allocation toward pedestrian, cyclist, and public gathering space, using temporary measures where necessary with a mind towards more permanent solutions that can be applied after the period of crisis has passed;

And be it further resolved that:
The Transportation Task Force make rapid reallocation of road space a priority work item, are empowered to immediately apply temporary measures in 2020, and accelerate the timeline towards the 10% space reallocation goal set out in Bold Step 7 of the City’s Climate Action Plan.

In a rapidly growing city, the need for our streets to be public spaces where people can walk, shop, even recreate – as opposed to merely roads for the purpose of automobile throughput – has never been more clear. Intrinsically, we knew this all along. Every time we have opened up space for people to use at a human scale, people show up and take advantage of that space. When that space is lost again, we feel the loss. Yes, I’m talking street festivals and parades, but I’m also talking about the temporary closure of the east part of Front Street that brought people to use that space creatively for a summer, and the small calmed or reclaimed areas like the Front Street Mews and Belmont, or the pedestrian space reclaimed on McInnes.

Along comes a pandemic, and all of the sudden commuter traffic has reduced, and people are using space differently. People have shifted to walking more, there are noticeably more youth and families out on bikes, and the way we shop and assemble and queue use transit has changed. With people spending more time working at home or (alas) unemployed, there are more people outside using public spaces. Gathered in parks in small virtual pods of a few people, spread across the space. People want to be outside, but people are wary of being too close or crowded in public space. The only solution to this math is: more public space.

The City has reacted in some rapid ways to support these changes in the transportation realm. The report we received in the May 11 Council package outlines much of this: fixing the pinch point on the Central Valley Greenway at the north end of East Columbia, asking people to use the Quayside esplanade differently, making more space for safer use of the McInnes Overpass. And the obvious happened: every time we have opened up space for people to use at a human scale, people show up and take advantage of that space.

At the motion says, New Westminster has already set a goal to re-allocate 10% of road space by 2030 as one of our Bold Steps towards Climate Action. In light of current events and the radical change in the use of public space we are already seeing, the 2030 timeline no longer feels bold. In a city with as much road and as much pressing need for public space right now, we need to act faster.

And we are no alone in this, Cities from Vancouver to Montreal to London to Seattle have shifted the use of street space to make pedestrians, cyclists, and other street users more comfortable and safer.

New Westminster has a lot of road space, an excess of road space in many ways. We can demonstrate regional and national leadership not by changing our plans, but by simply re-setting the timeline for this work – the immediate shift of road space by temporary measures – paint, no post barriers, planters, delineators, and bollards. We can aggressively do this in the summer of 2020, with a mind to making these re-allocations permanent as capital budget and recovery allow.

My motion calls on us to do the things outlined in the Staff report, and more, and much more rapidly. Additionally, as much as I appreciate the great work transportation staff have done so far, I want us to also think about how we take this work out of the transportation realm, and expand it to thinking more holistically about how we can re-allocate space to support our business districts, support the arts community, support people finding new ways to connect socially while distancing physically, how the re-use of public space will be a keystone to the recovery from this crisis.

The summer of 2020 is going to be different. And coming out of the Pandemic, there will be transformations in how we live in our City. If we are bold and brave now, we can shape those transformations towards the more people-focused, more equitable, and more sustainable community we envisioned in our long-term planning. Like so many other needs in the community, the COVID-19 crisis did not create this need, but it did demonstrate the urgency of the need, and provides the opportunity for accelerated action to address the need that was always there.

I want this motion to be the start of a conversation – but getting mired in debate about priotization and compromises is the biggest risk to us actually getting change during this critical time. I will be talking out a lot in the weeks ahead about this, and I want to hear form the community about the visionary changes you want to see in your community, in your neighbourhood, on your street.

I want to see rapid deployment of greenway treatments to finally address some of the gaps. I want to see expansion of sidewalks into car storage spaces so that people have comfortable space to walk in our commercial areas, and so our commercial businesses can be supported as they re-open by taking patios or merchandizing areas out on to the sidewalk. I want to see small chunks of our local streets closed to traffic and converted to active use for neighbourhoods that are going to be itching for social connection during a summer with no festivals. I want every student to have a safe route to walk or roll to school. I want us to stop laying pavement expanses on parts of roads that don’t facilitate safe speeds or safe crossing. And I’ll be going on at length about these things…

I wrapped my little speech at Council by quoting Gordon Price – the former Director of the City Program at SFU and City Councillor for the City of Vancouver:

Reallocation as a health response, a climate-emergency response, a neighbourhood planning response, and an active-transportation response – all of the above at a time when the difficult-to-do has become the necessary-to-do.

Because it is time, because it will make us a better City, let’s do this.

#SaveTransit

There is a lot of bad news right now. Though we have reasons to be optimistic that BC will beat the curve, we cannot and should not ignore the fact people are suffering and people are dying. The disease is clearly worse than the cure. At the same time, many aspects of the cure are also causing significant stress and harm, and as health care professionals and disease researchers struggle to reduce the impact of the disease, we need everyone to be diligent about managing social distancing protocols and their impacts.

Today, my biggest concern is the Transit system. And it was apropos that this was the Google Doodle today:

Yes, small businesses are suffering. Many are closing, some not returning. Yes, some people are having a hard time meeting rent or mortgage payments. Yes, those who have been marginalized in our society – the precariously housed, people with disabilities, people with addiction – will suffer the most. All three orders of government are working to address these issues. There are also a lot of people working in previously-undervalued jobs who are keeping our society together. Grocery clerks, institutional cleaning staff, food processing and supply chain workers, truck drivers, warehouse staff, general labourers in any of the dozens of industries that are still operating. Many of them are being paid much less than a living wage.

Every day, despite an 80% drop in ridership, more than 75,000 people a day rely on TransLink to get them to their work, to shopping, to their appointments, and to do the things that are keeping our society operating.

Today it became clear that TransLink is in trouble, and those rides may go away as soon as next month. TransLink is losing $75M a month, and it will simply run out of cash to pay the salaries and the gas and electricity to run the system unless they get some kind of relief very soon. Unfortunately neither the provincial or federal governments have yet stepped up to provide that emergency relief, and are slow to commit that they will do anything.

The situation is dire for public transit systems across North America, but TransLink is somewhat unique. For a system its size, it relies more heavily (about 60%) on fare-box revenue than most in the North American context (most bus-based systems are around 40%). The other primary source of revenue – a regional gas tax – is also down more than 60%, while smaller revenue sources like the parking taxes are similarly vaporizing. Despite some ill-informed critique from anti-transit crusaders, TransLink runs a tight ship, so the reserves they are currently running on will not last much longer, and borrowing to run operations would be disastrous. The only option is an orderly deconstruction of the system unless emergency funds arrive.

The Federal Government has declared transit services essential, but they are not stepping up to fund it in an unprecedented emergency. Even the oft-absent US Federal government has committed $25Billion nation wide to keep transit systems afloat, including almost $500M for Sound Transit in Seattle, a system much smaller than we have in Greater Vancouver. TransLink is similarly not eligible for the Federal Wage Subsidy Program that is allowing Air Canada and WestJet to keep employees on the job. Senior Governments recognize that solvent airlines are an important part of keeping the economy rolling, and will be vital to recovery, but they have not yet demonstrated that they feel the same way about a public transit system like TransLink (which, I note, moved 5x the number of passengers last year than Air Canada).

This has come to a head right now, according to the Mayor’s Council, because a multi-modal integrated public transit system is a complicated thing. They are considering the need to scale back and reduce service right now, because a full scale-back will require several weeks. TransLink is currently burning through reserves, and will need to use those reserves to shut down and (eventually) to restart. They also note a re-start will take as long, or longer, than a shut down. In other words, if there is a serious deconstruction due to this liquidity crisis, it will take 4 to 8 weeks to get the system back up and running again once this is all over. And all this time, TransLink will not be earning enough revenue to fund the scale-up. It is crunch time.

It is bad enough to think that the people cleaning your hospitals, the people checking your groceries, the people putting your Amazon diaper order into the delivery truck, will not be able to get to work next month. It is worse to think that when this whole thing is over, the economic recovery will be dragged down by two months of not having a functional transit system in a major City. We cannot let this happen.

We need the Federal and Provincial Government to come to the Mayor’s Council immediately, and work out what value the transit system is providing to the community at this time, and the value it will bring to our eventual economic recovery, and they need to bring the money. Please connect with your MLA and your MP and spread the word that Transit is as vital to the operation of our City. Send them a short, respectful e-mail asking that they include public transit as one of the essential services that need their support right now.

Resolutions

Monday’s meeting (which I rambled on about here) was also one where several resolutions were passed. All were timely, some because of current events, some because the deadline for submission to the Lower Mainland Local Government Association is approaching. Endorsement by this area association improves the odds that the resolution will make the floor and be endorsed by the Union of BC Municipalities.

Resolutions are one way that Local Governments raise issues not strictly within our jurisdiction but still relevant to our community, and formally call upon senior governments to take actions that we don’t have the power to take. These types of resolutions are typically directed at senior governments and are a pretty standard practice in local governments across BC and Canada.

You can read the full text of the resolutions at the end of our Agenda here, so for the purpose of this blog, I’m going to skip over the “whereas” statements that create the context for them, and pare them down to the specific call, then add a few of my comments after. All of the following resolutions were supported by Council:

National Pharmacare Program Councillor Nakagawa

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the City of New Westminster write a letter calling on the Federal Government to work with the provinces and territories to develop and implement a Universal Public National Pharmacare program as a top priority; and

THAT this letter be forwarded to all BC municipalities asking to write expressing their support for a National Pharmacare Program.

THAT the following resolution be submitted to FCM:

THAT the Federation of Canadian Municipalities calls on the Federal Government to work with the provinces and territories to develop and implement a Universal Public National Pharmacare program as a top priority.

The time for national Pharmacare is now. It was actually a few decades ago, when most modern social democracies included pharamcare as part of their national healthcare systems, but hindsight is as powerful as prescription glasses. It has been said that Canada’s is the least socialized of all socialized healthcare systems in the industrialized world, as so many parts of health care considered primary in progressive nations (pharmacare, dental care, vision care, etc) are not part of our “universal” care.

Four of the 5 Parties in the House of Commons, representing 67% of the seats, have publicly supported publicly funded Phamacare, it really comes down to whether the party with the plurality is going to follow through this time, or continue to pull a Lucy with the football.


Declaration of Solidarity with Wet’suwet’en Councillor Nakagawa

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the City of New Westminster calls on the Governments of British Columbia and Canada to suspend permits authorizing construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline and commence good-faith consultation with the Wet’suwet’en People;

AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the City of New Westminster calls on the Governments of British Columbia and Canada to end any attempt at forced removal of Wet’suwet’en People from their traditional territories and refrain from any use of coercive force against Wet’suwet’en People seeking to prevent the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through non-violent methods.

This resolution seems to have garnered more attention than the others, including the usual Facebook calls for Council to “stay in its own lane” and “stop wasting time”. These appeared to mostly come from people who, by reading their comments, I assume did not read the resolution.

I’ve been slow to enter the on-line fray about the ongoing protests launched by the arrest of land defenders in the Wet’suwe’ten territory. I am not even sure how to talk about this without centering myself in the conversation, and as the conversation is not lacking in middle aged white guys from urban areas with a hot take, I’m not I add value to the discourse.

Since the road directly in front of my office was occupied for a few hours last week, I was able to watch the orderly challenging of all that is disorderly in one of the busiest car/pedestrian/transit intersections in Vancouver. I spent a bit of time in that crowd after work, and tried my best to listen and to reflect on what this disruption means, and how its impact compares to the strong feelings I had coming out the Climate Strike last September. But ultimately, I don’t think my feelings or ideas are what this is about. This is about whether the words of reconciliation, so easily invoked by those in power, have meaning when the boots (and pipes) hit the ground.

As New Westminster engages in relationship-building with local First Nations, I think it is valuable for us, as a Council to have conversations about what these events mean in the bigger context, both here in New West and with a wider community. We need to be open to understand the relationship between the colonization that was our modern community’s founding and the ongoing colonization of unceded territory in British Columbia. Like pharmacare (above) and transportation (below), this resolution is not “outside our lane”, but the exact appropriate process in our empowering legislation for us to communicate our desires to the other orders of Government.

I thanked Councillor Nakagawa for a well-written and nuanced resolution (which, again, seems to have been missed by most Facebook commenters). It calls for good-faith consultation with the entire Wet’suwe’ten community and for an end to violence and forced removal. Those latter tools are the ones Canada has traditionally used – and often later apologized for using – when Indigenous people have tried to protect their lands, commonly following bad-faith consultation. This pattern needs to stop. The resolution is not about natural gas or benefits agreements or about traditional vs. elected leadership; it is about fostering a new form of respect for Indigenous people in light of UNDRIP. I am for respectful dialogue and against violence, so I am proud to support this resolution.


#AllOnBoardCampaign Councillor Johnstone

BE IT RESOLVED THAT the provincial government work to make transit access more equitable by supporting free public transit across BC for youth under 19 years of age; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the provincial government support a sliding scale monthly pass system based on income; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT BC Transit and TransLink proactively end the practice of fare evasion ticketing of minors, and introduce community service and restorative justice options for adults as an alternative to fare evasion tickets.

Similar resolutions were sent to UBCM last year from several communities, in support of this ongoing regional campaign being led by anti-poverty groups and including labour groups, business groups and other stakeholders, but they were not considered due to being bumped by a similar-sounding but quite different resolution around increasing Transportation Assistance for Low-Income Individuals. So we have updated the language to better address existing Provincial policy statements, and are trying again.


Clean vehicle incentives Councillor Johnstone

BE IT RESOLVED THAT: the provincial government expand the Clean Energy Vehicle program to include financial incentives for the purchase of electric assist cycles in scale with the incentives provided for the purchase of electric automobiles.

E-assist cycles are a growing market, and bridge the gap to cycling accessibility for many people. As a regular cycle commuter, I see the increase in numbers of people using e-assist bicycles to extend their cycling commute, and to get them past barriers like the hills of New Westminster. It is especially noticeable that users of e-assist bikes fit a different demographic than your typically hardy cycling commuter, and are generally older and include more women. My octogenarian mother in law has an e-assist trike that she now uses for more and more of her daily trips because the hills she used to be able to ride up are now accessible to her again. The e-assist allows people to carry groceries and other needs on the bike. It really is a game-changer

The big impact of e-assist technology is not making people on bikes faster (they are speed regulated), but in getting people out of cars. Replacing some portion of car trips for people who find cycling a barrier. As such, there is no public policy or community benefit to electric cars that is not also achieved through the use of e-assist cycles, and as such, subsidies given by government to people fortunate enough to be able to afford a $50,000 car should be extended to people purchasing $1,500 e-assist cycles.


School Bus Safety Councillor Johnstone

BE IT RESOLVED THAT UBCM call upon the BC Ministry of Education and the BC Ministry of Public Safety to mandate that all buses transporting students in British Columbia be equipped with seat belts that meet Transport-Canada regulatory standards and institute programs to assure those belts are used safely.

A similar resolution went to UBCM last year after a resident of Queensborough raised this issue to Council, however it was not considered by the membership at UBCM due to timing. In the year since, Transport Canada has developed new guidelines and is piloting a school bus seatbelt safety project. This resolution is still relevant in the modified form as it asks the relevant departments of the Provincial Government to follow up on the initiative launched by Transport Canada.

Two Bridges

A presser was called in New West this week to let people know that the design-build contract for the Pattullo Bridge replacement has been awarded, complete with a first rendering of what the bridge may look like. This is design-build, so expect that early renderings may be adjusted to accommodate the many competing demands and value engineering that the contractor will have to wrestle between now and ribbon cutting.

And then there are the political demands.

This conversation has gone on for a few years, but each new news cycle will require it to be told again. Such are our times. The City of New Westminster, the City of Surrey, and the TransLink (which was the responsible agency for the Pattullo) spent years doing planning and public consultation on the very question of what to do about the Pattullo. A quick scan of this blog finds that these conversations were happening back in 2011, and before I was elected I attended numerous public meetings, open houses, and community events (even dressed for the occasion on occasion).

At the end of that work, after all of those conversations in the impacted communities, an MOU was completed between the major stakeholders agreeing that a 4-lane bridge with appropriate ped/cycling connections was the appropriate structure to replace the aging Pattullo. Not everyone agreed, some wanted the bridge closed completely or moved, some wanted a 8-lane bridge and tunnel to Burnaby. If you look closely at the costume above, you will note it features a 3-lane refurbished Pattullo with a counter-flow middle lane, so there is my bias. Clearly, not everyone was going to be happy. As is usually the result if consultations are comprehensive and honest, the most reasonable result was settled upon.

The 4-lane bridge is the project upon which the Environmental Assessment and Indigenous Consultation were framed. It is the project that was taken to Treasury Board to fund, it is the project whose impacts were negotiated with the City at each end. It is the right size for the site, and it is the project that will be built. Re-negotiating those 8 years of consultation and planning now is ridiculous because nothing has changed in the principles that underlie that MOU.

Which brings me to this little news story. It is hard to tell where this is coming from, except for a zealous local reporter in Delta trying to put a local angle on a provincial news release. There is nothing new in this story, no new questions asked or answered, but a re-hashing of staff comments from 3 years ago.

With all due respect to the staff member quoted, those comments from early 2017 are now based on bad data, since the traffic impact issues raised were from before the removal of Port Mann tolls – which everyone in New West recognizes had a profound impact on Pattullo traffic. I have some data on that coming in a future post, but for now this is my (paraphrased) retort:

Of course, the Pattullo isn’t the only bridge Delta wants money poured into right now. The patently ridiculous 10-lane boondoggle project to replace the Massey Tunnel has been effectively shelved, but the province is currently reviewing other options. Unfortunately, the currently-leading option would be as expensive and no less boondoggley, doubling freeway car capacity to a low-density sprawling community that still resists the type of density or growth that would support more sustainable urban development, while somehow framing this entrenchment of motordom as a functioning part of a Climate Emergency response. This is a 1950s solution to a 1990s problem.

This is troubling climate denial, as Delta will certainly feel the impacts of climate change more than any community in the lower mainland, but I digress yet again.

The short news here is that Delta wants New West paved over and the people who live here to breathe their exhaust and walk near their speeding boxes. They also want the people of Richmond to pave over more farmland and have their community bisected by more freeway noise and disruption. If accomplished, they will (no doubt) be calling for the people of Vancouver to expand the already-congested Oak Street Bridge and the Granville Corridor and maybe a third crossing of the north arm because their suburban lifestyle demands it. And they want everyone else to pay for it, because tolls are “unfair”.

If this ode to motordom in the face of a Climate Emergency boggles your mind as much as it does mine, you can always let the provincial government know, because they are taking public comment on the Massey Tunnel Expansion Project right now. Go there, remain anonymous, and tell them what you think. I did.

Uber alles

I have tried to avoid the social media storm that is the long-awaited arrival of large, legal ride-hailing operations in Greater Vancouver. Though I think this tweet sums up my feelings at the end of the day yesterday:

And eventually, during a transit ride home that I drafted my subtweety response:

So, it is clear that I am not excited about the arrival of Uber and Lyft, despite the almost constant media saturation and lobbying pressure from Uber Spokesfolks (in contrast, I have not received a single letter, e-mail, or phone call, or invite for a meeting from the Taxi industry on this topic). My tweet lead to a few questions from people who have never connected with me on social media before. It was also referenced in a local Reddit comment thread, so I drafted up a Reddit response. Apparently multi-platforming is the hot thing in media today, so I figured I would re-draft the Reddit response for a blog here, without even taking time to edit out all the damn brackets, because who has time? Here we go!

In response to concerns that Uber or Lyft are not available today in New West (or Maple Ridge or Delta), I need to clarify that ride-hailing companies will decide what areas they want to serve. It should hardly be surprising to anyone that they are concentrating on areas already served well with transit – those are the areas where there is a density of users and destinations to support the business case of ride hailing. Because it is the same business case that supports Public Transit in the neo-liberal model of service delivery.

The regulations created by the provincial government are really clear: local governments cannot prevent operation of ride-hailing within their borders. They can regulate the service by requiring things like business licences and set conditions for pick-up/drop-off in their road and parking bylaws, but they can’t just say “no”. In this sense, the Mayor of Surrey (in my humble opinion)is blowing smoke. He could, I guess, create a regulatory and licencing regime that is so difficult to navigate that no-one bothers, but I seriously doubt he has the enforcement personnel to make that effective. I guess time will tell how that works out.

New West is working with regional partners to set up a regional business licence system for ride hailing, we talked about it back in November, and the best update I have is that staff in the many municipalities are still hammering out the details. Unfortunately, the sausage-making of making harmonized regulations work between all these jurisdictions is difficult, and they really couldn’t get started until the provincial regulatory regime was made clear. Such is government.

My understanding (and I stand to be corrected here) is that ride hailing companies licensed by the Passenger Transportation Board to operate in the Lower Mainland can operate in New Westminster (and Surrey and Coquitlam, etc.) right now. There will be a period of shake-down as they get their drivers organized, their service areas worked out, and local governments get the licencing requirements (and enforcement processes) organized. It’s a new world, and there is nothing unique about this as these kind of choppy launches occurred in every single jurisdiction where ride-hailing launched.

My personal opinions about Uber and Lyft have very little impact on this. As I mentioned, back in November, New West Council set out the framework for staff about how we feel ride-hailing should operate in New West. Some parts of it I agree with, some I don’t. My concerns about labour rights, environmental impacts, road safety, traffic impacts, transit system impacts, and neighbourhood livability are based on a *lot* of research about impacts of ride hailing in other jurisdictions. It has also proven in other jurisdictions that most of the promises of ride-hailing (cheaper! more convenient! fun!) are false, and the entire business model is propped up by massive financial losses. The system itself is not sustainable, which makes me wonder why we are rushing into embracing it (see “media saturation and lobbying effort” above). I trust urban transportation experts like Jerrett Walker on this more than I trust the well-oiled Uber/Lyft marketing machine. The Taxi system is not perfect, but I have gone on at length (note this piece from several years ago) about how it is actually the arcane regulation of the industry that makes it not work the way we might like. But that’s another rant, and times have changed since I wrote that piece. Not for the better.

But that said, my (Council) job is partly to advocate for things that make the community stronger and more sustainable, but it is equally to assure the City is run as effectively and responsibly as possible. Ride-hailing is here, (some) people want it, the local government job is to work to reduce the inevitable externalities and make it work as best as possible in our community. Of course, one of those externalities is that this “cheap” transportation option is going to cause your property taxes to go up a little bit. Uber and Lyft don’t pay taxes to the City, and regulation and enforcement are not free.

You may not like Uber or Lyft, but due to powerful lobbying and a brilliant international viral marketing program, you will be paying for it.