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 runs 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. 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.

Depot

As you may have heard, the current recycling centre adjacent to the Canada Games Pool has to close, and the services are being relocated to United Boulevard. For the best part of a year there has been a lot of discussion (mostly on social media) about what this means for our City’s commitment to recycling. Even the Record took the unprecedented step of making something that hasn’t actually happened yet their top news story of 2019.

Last Monday, there was both a report to Council from our engineering department on developments in the city-wide recycling program, and a number of people came to Council to delegate on the imminent closure of the recycling depot. Many of them came to speak in support of a an on-line petition promoted by a local political party asking that the current recycling centre be kept open. I find on-line petitions are a terrible way to gauge people’s opinions for several reasons, but this is an entirely different blog that I will maybe write someday. For now, I would rather address the report that came to Council and what I heard at the delegations.

First off, we need to be clear about why the current facility is closing. Through two years of consultation on the replacement of the CGP, it was clear that the community wanted the existing facilities to remain open and operational until the new centre is opened in order to maintain continuity in programs and offerings. This decision fundamentally shaped the new facility and the site plan.

Those conversations around the new facility answered the big questions (25m or 50m pool, one or two gyms? Daycare? Meeting rooms? etc.) and we settled on a fairly large structure – over 100,000 square feet. After a tonne of work by the architects and engineers, it was determined that the facility would not fit well on the parking lot to the east of the Canada Games Pool, and due to some utility issues and uncertain ground conditions related to the old Glenbrook ravine (which used to extend all the way to 8th avenue!), the only place where this large a facility fits is snuggled alongside the existing pool and community centre on the west side:

A rough drawing of the footprint of the new recreation centre (in white) and landscaping/entrance area (brown) that will be required for laydown during construction. This area (and much of the all-weather field to the top left) will be an active construction site. This is a rough drawing, I did it in MSpaint(!) based on drawings available here, please don’t use for navigation.

That means that the front parking lot will need to be excavated, meaning for two years the main road access to the current recycling depot would be a hole in the ground then an active construction site. Again, the engineers looked at a few options including shifting the one-way road adjacent to the fire hall to two lanes and providing temporary direct access off of McBride, but no solution was found that would meet safety standards our engineers demand.

This speaks a bit to the problem with on-line petitions. Several hundred people in New West signed a petition asking the City to do the one thing we could not do, unless we were going to turn our back on 2 years of public consultation and more than a year of architecture and engineering work. The author of the petition knew this, which is another example of how disingenuous politics are good at creating a scene, but not at finding solutions. Finding solutions is harder work.

Some have suggested that the recycling facility (even temporarily) be moved to the east parking lot. Staff have (of course) looked at this, and from what I hear, I cannot support that idea. The east parking lot has about 120 parking spots to support a recreation facility with more than a thousand visits a day, and a curling rink with a capacity of about 100. A parking spot for every 10 users is a very, very low number, and this is already certain to cause significant neighbourhood and user group stress during the building of the new facility. Moving even a shrunk-but-still-workable recycling depot to that spot would mean removing about half of those remaining spots. This challenges our earlier commitment to keeping the current facility functioning and accessible during constructions.

For all of the political hay-making and quoting of Joni Mitchell, this is just a question of geometry.

So the status quo is not viable. What do we do now? Some of the delegates provided some good ideas, and I think that it was useful to hear what types of recycling people are most stressed about. I think for many people in the City, the new joint recycling depot on the Coquitlam border with more services than our current facility, longer hours, and easier access to SkyTrain, will provide more convenience. I also recognize that for some people, this change represents a change to their established patterns and extra inconvenience.

We have not really had a robust conversation with the community about what that change looks like for them, and I recognize that was a communications and engagement failure on the City’s part. Over the last couple of months a few people have asked me questions about recycling, I have met a few for coffee, replied to some e-mails, tried to listen and learn (and have occasionally reported out on those conversations). During the delegations last Monday we heard a few interesting ideas, and there were also several people who came to delegate to say they fully supported the change. People had different recycling needs – some spoke of lawn clippings, some of Styrofoam and glass. Its clear most wanted to have a deeper discussion about what role recycling plays in our community, and asking for resources to make not just the City’s recycling system work better, but to assure our waste management systems are meeting our climate and sustainability goals.

Council heard that call for a better discussion, and staff heard it as well. The staff report that came to Council last Monday outlines a series of opportunities to provide the City some feedback and ideas on recycling (open houses, on-line polls), and I am spreading hearing rumours of the NWEP “Trash Talkers” group getting together and working to raise public awareness and gather ideas about the barriers to waste diversion, and strategies to address them.

Resilience

This was quite a week transportation-wise. We are headed into a second week with snow and ice on the ground, and even more forecast tonight, and like many of you, this has messed with my plans.

Monday was a Council day, so I spent most of it inside not thinking about how frightful the weather was outside. Tuesday I faced transit delays on my way into work, and transit chaos in my way home, but I managed to get to the QRA meeting in Queensborough for the 7:00 start, only to find the meeting cancelled due to a power failure. Wednesday was a true “snow day” where I did some work from home, but mostly went out every couple of hours to shovel Kootenay-quality powder off of my walk and driveway. Thursday saw more transit delays with some sort of “power rail meltdown” on Skytrain. Today was slushy with promise of more to come, but was actually a seamless transit day both ways, though ridership was notably higher than usual, as I assume fewer people wanted to risk the still-wintery roads on bikes and in cars.

I love transit, and I rely on it. Though it arguably provided safer and more reliable service than driving in those weather conditions would have, this week got me thinking about the resiliency of the system. During snow events, trains run slightly less frequently (with staff on board to help manage the controls in case of a weather-induced track intrusion alarm), and there are some issues with how the automatic doors manage ice build up, but much of the overcrowding and delay was related to the system running at 110% during a normal rush hour, and 25% more people show up wanting a ride during a weather emergency. The system feels fragile: it is on edge and under pressure on the best of days, and quick to disappoint when conditions veer from nominal (in the NASA use of the adjective).

Strangely enough (and this is definitely anecdote, not data), all of my bus rides this week were uneventful and reliable, if sometimes a little more crowded than usual. I even made a strategic mistake in route planning one day, deciding to use Canada Line-SkyTrain instead of a bus-SkyTrain option that would have allowed me to skip the “trouble spot” on SkyTrain. Aside from the issues around keeping up with road clearing and our ongoing trouble with maintaining universal accessibility at bus stops during snow conditions, it is the distributed and flexible nature of the bus system that provides the resiliency to our transit system that the SkyTrian back bone sometimes fails to do.

The Skytrain system has grown remarkably in ridership over the last decade, as has always been the regional plan for transit-oriented development. But until recently, there was no money or political will to invest in making the system grow to match this increase. That has changed when Jordan Bateman started stumping for contractors with new investments and proper funding of the Mayors 10-year plan, which includes significant SkyTrain capacity increases (bigger stations, new cars, reduced time between trains, etc.). But we are still playing catch-up, and I don’t think it is enough. Everyone is doing the best with the resources we have, but there is no escaping the simple math: the system is at capacity, ridership is exploding, we need more money to expand the system now, and we need consistent capital funding from senior governments to plan for future growth. That is the only way the system will become more resilient.

There is an ongoing discussion right now about the future of TransLink, and I (as always) have my own opinions about things like embracing-the-newest vs fixing-the-fundamentals spectra and the roles of different solutions, but I hope people who care enough to read this far in my post will go there and take part in the TransLink discussion.

I also hope as the Federal and Provincial governments continue discussions about spending billions on expanding road capacity on Highway 1, under the Fraser River, or even right here in our own neighbourhood, we can re-frame the discussion to talk about economic impacts of an unreliable transit system. The tunnel replacement and highway expansion is always talked about as an economic imperative – cars and trucks stuck in traffic are a negative cost. I argue that this picture right here shows the real economic backbone of the Province. 7.5% of the national GDP, almost half of the Provincial GDP is earned within 10km of this spot, and the real cost of congestion and traffic that looks like this is never accounted for:

But I want to say a couple of positive things about this week’s experiences in Snowmageddon.

I spent a lot of time this week on crowded platforms, stuffed cheek-to-jowl on lurching trains, and lamenting on Social Media about it all, but I have to say the human experience of it was way more positive than you experience when an accident on a bridge causes traffic chaos in the adjacent neighbourhoods. We’ve all seen the cursing, honking, banging-steering-wheel impotent anger of people trapped in traffic gridlock, some of us may have even felt it at some time. But my experience in the Skytrain mob was not like that at all, There were some long sighs, a muttered curse here and there, but it was mostly concert eye-rolling and “we are all in this together” comradery. And it is amazing how diffusing that energy is. The few times I was starting to feel a little hot under the collar because I-am-going-to-miss-my-important-meeting-I-am-an-important-person stress hormones or whatever, the feeling that we were all in the same boat, and the many lame humour attempts by my fellow straphangers got me out of my own head, and out of my own ass, and into the shared reality. Transit is a community that way. Beats the hell out of traffic on the worst day.

The real local positive this week was that the QtoQ Ferry ran pretty much as scheduled, and had a lot of new riders. As repeated snow-ice cycles made it hard for our road crews to keep up with Primary route clearing, never mind Secondary routes and local roads, a lot of people on the east end of Queensborough found the QtoQ to be a better alternative than to drive on snowy/icy roads and taking a chance on traffic chaos around the bridge. This itself speaks a bit to resiliency. A robust transportation system needs to provide alternatives, and the QtoQ is one of those “niche” solutions that takes the pressure of the entire system. I hope folks at TransLink see this story, and see in it the value of integrating more flexible solutions to local transportation needs (cough cough Gondolas cough).

ASK PAT: Noise bylaws

CG asked—

Noise bylaws. Why are the allowable hours different for construction (which I presume includes homeowners working on their property) and for other noise?

Because that’s the way things have always been! That as bit of a tongue in cheek, but the real answer to why the City (and most other cities) do most things the way they do. However, in this case I can see why the bylaws are set up this way.

The “regular” Noise Bylaw in the City says no-one in the City can make a sound that “…disturbs, or tends to disturb, the quiet, peace, rest, enjoyment, comfort, or convenience of the neighbourhood or persons in the vicinity” unless that noise is specifically permitted by the Bylaw. There is another part of the Bylaw that says sounds can further not exceed some legislated level (60dBs in the day, 55dBs at night), but the Bylaw is written so that even a sound under those prescribed levels could be considered disturbing.

Most people (including me, but I listen to a lot of the Pixies) have no idea what a decibel is, but there are lots of on-line examples that will tell you 60dB is about regular conversation level, 55dB is about the noise level of a coffee percolator, and 110dB is a jet engine. I’m not sure those help.

There are various exemptions in the Bylaw for things like “power equipment” which can be used within certain hours, so leaf blowers can continue to disturb the many for the benefit of the few. There are also obvious exemptions like emergency vehicle sirens, street sweepers, parades, concerts, and the such, some requiring specific authorization, some not.

Like most Cities, New Westminster has a different Bylaw regulating noise made at construction sites. This is because construction sites are (usually) temporary in nature, and they are places where noise is made outside of the regular standards that would apply in a community. We relax regulations for construction sites because of their ephemeral nature, and because we, in general, want things to be built. However, we limit construction noise hours to those typical of business (daytime and Saturdays). We have recently made some changes to the bylaw to reduce those hours and bring us more in line with adjacent cities, and to more tightly regulate pile driving.


It has taken me forever to answer this, but funny that this ASK PAT raises two different things that have been on my mind a lot recently: whether predictable sleep is more important than predictable traffic, and Oslo, Norway. I promise this will make sense.

A few months ago, I did something I had not done before. I voted against a nighttime noise variance for a road construction project. The City often hands these out to utility companies, Metro Vancouver, or construction companies to allow them to do noise-generating construction work at night because the work involves digging up a major road. The thinking is that the traffic chaos caused by digging up a road during the day is worse for community well being than some people near the construction site not being able to sleep at night. I voted against this one variance because I wanted to challenge that idea – maybe the livability of my community is served more if residents can get a night’s sleep than it is if regional through-traffic is inconvenienced. I made some comment about this being my new position on these variances.

Of course, in governance, when you make a strong proclamation of principles like that, something else comes along a challenges it immediately. In this case it was a request to close Front Street in a way that would impact Quayside Drive and River Market at a time when they are already dealing with significant traffic disruptions that is hurting their business. Is a good nights sleep for one night more important than a day’s traffic chaos *and* another hit at a keystone business in the City already reeling from the impacts of adjacent construction? Then we recently got a request for nighttime work for track maintenance along the Skytrain line which we approved. Is a good night’s sleep more important that providing timely maintenance to a regional transit line where there are literally not alternative routes? In the end, I voted “no” and “no” to those two questions and voted to allow the night work. Then around the same time, I once again said that traffic disruption on Brunette Ave is not reason to keep people living near Brunette up all night for three days, and Council agreed.

This is not to say I was right, it is to say governance of complicated, and guidelines are not standards. I can see how this looks like inconsistency (nay, hypocrisy?), but balancing various community standards is part of the reason why these variances have to come to Council in the first place. The answers ultimately require some kind of compromise of one community standard to satisfy another, and as much as I’d like to think I am consistent on what I think our standards should be, there are subtle differences in every application.

Now, what does this have to do with Oslo? A friend of mine who happens to be the Mayor of another BC City was recently on a tour of Oslo where the city has developed a progressive procurement strategy. The City has said that all City construction sites are going to have to shift away from using diesel equipment. No more diesel excavators or cement mixers. No more diesel generators to spin the hydraulic pumps or air compressors or drill rigs or cranes. Through a combination of wiring up the sites for electricity and battery tech on equipment, they have major building construction happening without burning fossil fuels.

My friend noted one thing first while visiting the site – how quiet it was. Aside from the folks next to the drill rig (busting rock still makes noise), no-one as wearing ear protection. The sound of shovels and nail guns and saws are still there, but the difference was (apparently) profound in how the construction site integrates in to the neighbourhood.

I think we are a decade behind Norway on progressive policy like this. The City of New Westminster doesn’t have the procurement power of the city of Oslo (The “County of Oslo” apparently procures about 10% of the construction in the entire nation), and you know, socialism and all, but it is interesting to challenge our own assumptions about what are reasonable community standards. It is also interesting to think that so many GHG-reduction strategies have spin-off benefits that make our community more livable. Dare to dream.

BTWW 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trip Diary 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trip Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask Pat: The CVG Gap

Zack asks—

When will there be a proper cycling connection between Cumberland and Brunette along E Columbia? Almost everyone rides on the sidewalk there.

I have no idea.

I’m not happy about that answer, that piece of terrible planning turned into infrastructure failure is one of the biggest active transportation pet peeves I have in the City. Now, I could blow smoke up your ass and say we are working on it, but I don’t actually think we are. And to understand why not is to understand what is currently frustrating me most about my job.

The Central Valley Greenway is a great piece of regional transportation infrastructure. After only the BC Parkway (which has its own frustrations), the CVG is the best integrated inter-community cycling and active transportation route in Greater Vancouver. Tracing pretty much the flattest and most direct route between Downtown Vancouver and the triple-point of Burnaby New West and Coquitlam, with a significant side-spur connecting to Downtown New West, the CVG is 24 km of relatively safe, pretty comfortable and pretty attractive cycling infrastructure opened to some fanfare in 2009.

It is definitely not perfect, and much of it falls far short of what we would consider “All Ages and Abilities” AAA bike routes. That in Burnaby they built a really great multi-use overpass at Winston and Sperling to cross the road and railroad tracks almost makes be forgive the adjacent 4 km where the route is a too-narrow, poorly-maintained and debris-strewn paint-demarked lane adjacent to a truck route where 4+ m lane widths assure the 50km/h speed limit is treated as a minimum. But I’m not here to complain about Burnaby, I’m here to complain about New Westminster.

At the time of the CVG opening in 2009, it was noted that some parts had “interim” treatments, and would be brought up to proper design in the near future. One of those is the section you mention, where the separated Multi Use Path (“MUP”) along East Columbia simply runs out of road room, and for 150m, cyclists are either expected to share sidewalk space with pedestrians (which is actually legal in this space, but that’s another Ask Pat) on a 6 foot wide sidewalk immediately adjacent to heavy truck traffic coming off on Brunette, or take a 360-m detour up a steep (13% grade!) hill to Sapper Street, then back down an equally steep hill a block later. It is a fudge, but tolerable as a temporary measure as we get this great $24 Million piece of region-defining infrastructure completed.

A decade later, the fudge is still there, and it is way less tolerable.

I have asked about this for pretty much a decade, and the answer seems to be that this fudge will get fixed when the intersection of Columbia and Brunette gets fixed. If you look at the traffic plan for Sapperton and the “Great Streets” section of our master transportation plan, you see that there is some notion that the Brunette/East Columbia intersection will work better if Brunette is made the through-route, and East Columbia is turned into a light-controlled T-intersection. This vision appears at times when discussing Braid and Brunette changes, or potential “solutions” to the United Braid Extension conundrum, or dreams of re-aligning the Brunette offramp from Highway 1 or the building of 6- or 8-lane Pattullo Bridges. When one or all of these things happens (so goes the story) then re-aligning this intersection will be an important part of “keeping things moving”, and then we will have the money/excuse/desire to fix the fudge in the CVG.

But none of those things have happened over the last decade, and there is really no sign that any of them are going to happen any time soon. There certainly isn’t any money in the City’s Capital plan to do this work, no senior government is offering money to do this work, and there is very little political will by anyone (for good reason) to spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars shifting choke points for drivers around in New West around. So all this to say my answer to your first question is No, there is no foreseeable timeline to fix this piece of the CVG.

But my frustration is this being just one more example of how the City of New Westminster is has still not adopted the principles of our Master Transportation Plan and it’s clear prioritization of active modes. This is still not the culture of the organization. If the improvement of this keystone regional active mode route is contingent on us spending 10x the amount it would cost on some “getting cars moving” project that we can slip this in with, it is clear where our priories lie. As long as making an active transportation route work is still accessory to motordom, we are failing our own vision.

Climate Emergency

One of the big topics we discussed at Council last week was a report from staff entitled “Response to Climate Emergency”. This policy-rich, wonky, but still preliminary report had its profile raised by a variety of delegates coming to speak to Council, urging aggressive climate action. That many of the delegates represented generations of people who will be around and most impacted by the climate crisis was not lost to anyone in the room.

If you want to read the report, it is here (because of the way our Council agendas work, you need to scroll down to page 81 of that big, ugly agenda package). I want to summarize some of what is in there, and talk a little about what I see as the risks and opportunities ahead. When we declared a Climate Emergency, we were asking our staff to show us the tools we could apply if we want to act like it is an emergency and shift our emissions towards the Paris targets. Now it is up to Council to give them the authorization and resources to use those tools.

When New Westminster (or any local government) talks about greenhouse gas emissions, we talk about two types of emissions. “Corporate” emissions are those created by the City of New Westminster as a corporation – the diesel in our garbage trucks, the gasoline in our police cars, and the fossil gas used to heat water in the Canada Games Pool or City Hall. This is managed through a Corporate Energy and Emissions Reduction Strategy or CEERS. For the sake of shorthand, that is currently about 4,000 Tonnes (CO2equivilent) per year. “Community” emissions are all of the other emissions created in our community – the gas you burn in your car, the gas you use to heat your house, the emissions from the garbage that you and your neighbors toss out, etc. These are managed through a Community Energy and Emissions Plan or CEEP. And again in shorthand they amount to more than 200,000 Tonnes (CO2equivelent) per year.

When Council supported the Climate Emergency resolution, it included the targets we want to hit for emissions reductions to align with the commitments that Canada made in Paris, and with the global objective of keeping anthropogenic climate change under 1.5C. This means reducing our emissions by 45% by 2030, 60% by 2040, and 100% by 2050. These targets are for both our Corporate and Community emissions.

Clearly, the City has more control over its corporate emissions. The two biggest changes will be in re-imagining our fleet and renovating our buildings. We can accelerate the shift to low- and zero-emission vehicles as technology advances. Passenger vehicles are easy, but electric backhoes are an emergent technology, and the various energy demands of fire trucks are probably going to require some form of low-carbon liquid fuels for some time. The limits on us here are both the significant up-front capital cost of cutting-edge low-emission technology, and the ability to build charging infrastructure. Rapidly adopting low- and zero-carbon building standards for our new buildings (including the replacement for the Canada Games Pool) will be vital here, but retro-fitting some of our older building stock is something that needs to be approached in consideration of the life cycles of the buildings – when do we renovate and when do we replace?

Addressing these big two aggressively will allow us some time to deal with the category of “others”. This work will require us to challenge some service delivery assumptions through an emissions and climate justice lens. Are the aesthetic values of our (admittedly spectacular) annual gardens and groomed green grass lawns something we can continue to afford, or will we move to more perennial, native and xeriscaped natural areas? How will we provide emergency power to flood control pumps without diesel generators? Can we plant enough trees to offset embedded carbon in our concrete sidewalks?

Those longer-term details aside, corporate emissions are mostly fleet and buildings, where the only thing slowing progress is our willingness to commit budget to it, and the public tolerance for tax increases or debt spending in the short term to save money in the long term.

Community emissions are a much harder nut to crack. Part of this is because the measurement of community emissions, by their diffuse nature, are more difficult. Another part is that a local government has no legal authority to (for example) start taking away Major Road Network capacity for cars and trucks, or to regulate the type of fuel regional delivery vehicles use.

We do have a lot of control over how new buildings are built, through powers given by the Provincial “Step Code” provisions in the Building Code. A City can require that more energy efficient building be built, recognizing that this may somewhat increase the upfront cost of construction. We can also relax the energy efficiency part in exchange for requiring that space and water heating and cooking appliances be zero carbon, which may actually offset the cost increase and still achieve the emissions reductions goals. The retrofit of existing buildings will rely somewhat on Provincial and Federal incentives (that pretty much every political party is promising this election), but we may want to look at the City of Vancouver model and ask ourselves at what point should we regulate that no more new fossil gas appliances are allowed?

Shifting our transportation realm will be the hard one. The future of personal mobility is clearly electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and shared vehicles. Somehow the Techno-optimists selling this dream fail to see what those words add up to: clean, reliable public transit. Yes, we are going to have to look at electrification of our private vehicle fleets, and getting chargers for electric vehicles into existing multi-family buildings is an economic and logistical barrier to complete adoption, but ultimately we need to reduce the number of motorized private vehicles moving through our City, because that is the only way we can make the use of alternatives safer, more comfortable, and more efficient.

Denser housing, more green spaces, better waste management built on the foundation of reducing wasteful products, and distributed energy systems linked by a smarter electricity grid – these are things we can build in the City that will get us to near-zero carbon. We can layer on resiliency of our systems and food security decoupled from fossil-fuel powered transglobal supply chains, but that is another couple of blog posts. If you are not getting the hint here, we are talking about transforming much of how we live our lives, because how we have lived our lives up to now is how we ended up in this emergency despite decades of seeing it coming.

The barrier to community emissions reductions is less about money and more about community drive / tolerance for change. Every time we (for example) take away 5 parking spots on 8th Street to provide a transit queue-jumping lane, it will be described by automobile reliant neighbours as the greatest indignity this Council ever imposed on residents. Building a separated bike lane network so our residents can safely and securely use emerging zero-carbon transportation technology like e-assist bikes and electric scooters will be vilified as causing “traffic chaos”, and opponents will somehow forget that “traffic chaos” has been the operating mode of New Westminster roads for 50+ years.

The questions will be: Do we have the political will to do what must be done? Will our residents and businesses, who overwhelmingly believe that climate action is necessary, be there to support the actions that may cause them some personal inconvenience, or challenge their assumptions about how their current practice impacts the community’s emissions profile?

The delegates who came to Council asked us to act, and I threw it back at them: they need to act. As helpful as constant reminders of the need to do this work are, we need to bring the rest of the community on board as well. We passed the Climate Emergency declaration, and now we have a toolbox we are ready to open. To some in our community still mired in denial, that toolbox looks like the Ark of the Covenant from the first Indiana Jones movie. How will we shift that perception?

Shit is about to get real. We need climate champions in this community to turn their attention towards educating and motivating their neighbours – the residents, business and voters of this community – that these actions are necessary and good. Political courage only takes us to the next election, real leadership needs to come from the community. Let’s get to work.

Pedestrian Cages

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

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

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

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

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

Tynehead Park

Notice the difference?

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

Winston Street, Burnaby.

Gaglardi Way, Burnaby.

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

Winston Street, Burnaby.

Gaglardi Way, Burnaby.

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

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

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

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