Movie Night

Love him or hate him, you cannot deny his impact. There has been no one more strident and resolute about environmental issues in Canada in the last 25 years than David Suzuki. To truly understand the impact he has made, just surf over to the Right Side of the Internet, and see how much rage and vitriol is directed towards him by the Climate Change Denier crowd, by the CBC haters, and by pretty much anyone who thinks Corporations matter more than Cooperation.

Tonight at 7:30pm at the Massey Theatre, there will be a showing of an award-winning biographical documentary about Suzuki, his life and times, and the experiences that made him such a Force of Nature.

Even if you disagree with him, it is worthwhile going to see the film. Partly because, as Sun Tzu says, you must know your enemy. However, it is also a chance to support the New Westminster Arts Council, as this is part of their monthly “Last Monday at the movies” series.

See you there!

The MUCF open house

Thursday, the City held a public open house to garner feedback on the new Multi-Use Civic Facility, planned for the 700 block of Columbia Ave.

It was remarkably well attended, and there were lots of staff about to answer questions, but I liked that they were there to ask questions as well. I was approached more than a half dozen times with staff members asking what I think, or if I had input: you get the sense they really wanted to hear from us (note to TransLink: hire New Westminster Planning to facilitate your next open house, I’m sure their rates are reasonable). It was also a great idea to hold the open house at the Westminster Club, on the 7th floor overlooking the site where the MUCF will be built.

The project is somewhere beyond the visioning stage, but the design is clearly not quite done. The model was balsa wood, and was good for getting a sense of the mass and layout of the building, but not an idea of the real appearance. There were several design-type drawings, but no complete picture of what the building will look like (more on this below). However, I walked out of there impressed with the concept, and excited about what it means to downtown New Westminster.

There is much to like. With the completion of the commercial part of the Plaza 88 development, there are going to be big changes in this neighbourhood. Movie theatres and restaurants right on the Skytrain station are a potential game-changer. This will be the most accessible movie theatre for the Lougheed Mall, and SFU crowds, and will even be easier to get to than Guildford for a lot of people in the new Surrey Centre. The food, drink, and entertainment options on the street immediately adjacent that development are going to have a huge impact on the success of the Columbia Street renewal, drawing in pedestrians and shoppers. This building will be the keystone.

The restaurant space on the corner of 8th and Columbia is a smart move. No names of potential tenants are being mentioned (for obvious reasons), but a popular mid-scale local chain (think Earls, Cactus Club, etc.) would be an obvious fit. It is clear they want the restaurant to have street appeal: open window space and a large patio to bring the restaurant out onto the street. My only complaint is the plans have the deck on the 8th street side, where we really need it on Columbia if we want to connect to the rest of the businesses in the area, from Waves to the Heritage and all the way up to Brooklyn. Restaurants are about the only business (other than wedding shops apparently) that benefits from having more competition in he neighbourhood. The deck/patio will also lead to more engagement of Hyack Square, and we will have to wait to see what happens with the third corner at Columbia and 8th. I can’t help but feel the Sally Ann is going to increasingly be out of place on this new “entertainment core”.

Click to zoom in

The planned theatre space in the MUCF also looks great, a mid-sized and very convertible space. Small concert and performance space is lacking in the City, as our existing theatres downtown seem to be limited to single-use only (tickle and giggle, respectively). At 1/3 of the seating capacity, this will not threaten the (New! Improved! Eventually!) Massey Theatre, but the potential for smaller arts productions, for local music, and for screening space for indy films and docs is pretty exciting.

Bringing the City Archives, the City Museum, the Police Museum and the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame together under one roof will also bee a boon. With the Fraser River Discovery Centre just across the tracks, we will have a one-stop-shopping “museum core”, with a gift shop and food options attached. Finally, when friends and relatives are visiting for a day, we can give them a spot to go to entertain themselves for several hours, without having to send them to Vancouver.

The transportation planning around the facility has not been finalized, but I can already see a few concerns. The re-vamping of 8th Street between Carnarvon and Columbia will have to be approached with caution. Presumably, there will be no bus stops on 8th once the loop at Plaza 88 is completed, but the previous crossing issue at 8th at the SkyTrain exit will remain. People will still want to cross mid-block from the station to the new MUCF. It is too bad an elevated walkway from the Skytrain to the east side of 8th is not included in the plans.

Worse, when one leaves the Skytrain Station and the Plaza 88 commercial/entertainment centre, you will be greeted with a view of the garage ramp on 8th. Why stick a garage entrance right in the middle of your façade? We want this area to be as pedestrian-friendly as possible, and a garage entrance crossing the sidewalk does not do this. This area needs a re-think, and I suspect the answer will be to stick the cars (and garage entrance) around back on Begbie.

The plans show the use of Begbie as the Greenway connector between Columbia and Carnarvon, which is a sub-optimal solution. The slope on 8th between Carnarvon and Columbia is less then 8%, which is a much more bike-friendly grade than the slope on Begbie (higher than 10%). The Central Valley Greenway should connect to Hyack Square and the New Westminster Skytrain directly, along Columbia to 8th. For these reasons, 8th should remain the connection between Columbia and Carnarvon for bikes, with cars accessing the underground parking along the much-less-trafficked Begbie side.

The idea of closing Alexander Street and using it only for loading is great, but let’s be sensitive to what it means to the people in the low-costs housing around there, who will now be shadowed by a new tower, will be facing a loading dock for their front yard, and will have reduced access to Columbia Street. Some creative urban design might be needed here to head off a potential crime problem.

Again, this is early design phase, so these potential issues can be addressed simply, but they have to start thinking about them soon before too much detailed design is completed.

Which brings me back to design. The preliminary drawings are definitely “place making”. They have that big “I’m Here” look to them. However, much of the chatter around the room was about “where is the heritage?” Simply put, this building needs to fit the surroundings. I love the Chicago-school Westminster Building and Trapp Block. I am not a big fan of the “modern-glass-tower humping a heritage façade” technique used at the InterUrban, but recognized that the requirements of the modern Condo market (balconies, floor-to-ceiling windows, etc) made this the best we could hope for. I will be interested to see how the Art-Deco Façade at Plaza 88 is preserved, and how it fits those hideous-looking pseudo-Soviet towers. Mostly, I love Art Deco (cognizant that it can go really bad really quickly), and would love to see that part of New Westminster’s heritage be accentuated, but that is very much a personal matter of taste.

Since there is going to be an office tower on top of this building, there is a lot more flexibility in design than there would be for a condo complex. As this is going to be the keystone building for the continued revitalisation of Columbia Street, it is imperative that the visual impact of this building represent New Westminster, both its iconic heritage, and where we want the City to be. It should be an interesting challenge for a talented Architect. The pictures I have seen so far, and the comments I heard around the room, suggest they are not there yet.

Oh, and I seriously hope “MUCF” is a working title, and we will find a better name for the building, but that is a minor detail, which we can debate in 2014.

Killer Bikes Lanes

Related to bike routes, and completely separate to yesterday’s post…

Being a loud-mouth and a “crackpot environmentalist”, I often get called out on various issues in social setting where people already know my position. I guess I am a fun guy to get a rise out of. Last night at the Curling Rink one of my buddies remarked to me:

“I think your bike lane on Dunsmuir got somebody killed today”.

He then regaled me with the story of a cyclist, an ambulance, and a scene that looked like a commercial vehicle turned right across the bike lane and struck a cyclist. I have no idea if any of the info he gave me was accurate, but I have no reason to doubt him. I can only comment on the allegation he made: a cyclist on the Dunsmuir Bike Lane was killed by right-turning truck.

First off, it isn’t “my” bike lane, and before you say it, it isn’t even Gregor Robertson’s bike lane. The dedicated bike lane on Dunsmuir (and the one on Hornby) are part of Vancouver’s Transportation Plan, which was written in 1997, under NPA Mayor Phillip Owen, and fully supported by COPE Mayor Larry Campbell, NPA Mayor Sam Sullivan, and Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. Four mayors, four administrations. They are a piece of a puzzle that has been assembling for 15 years.

Second, a bike lane can’t kill anyone. The story he told me was a commercial vehicle turning right where it shouldn’t have hitting a cyclist. It was the bike lane’s fault because cars used to be able to turn right there, and cyclists in the bike lane are hard to see for truck drivers turning right.

I cannot say this clear enough: in this alleged scenario, the truck driver killed the cyclist. He broke the law by turning right when the motor vehicle code said he could not. This is no different than someone going 100km/h through a school zone and plowing down a kid on a crosswalk. It doesn’t matter that the school zone was on what used to be an open road, or that the kid should have been looking for speeding cars prior to crossing the cross walk. No rational person would wave it off by saying “well, you know those kids are always crossing streets, usually not at crosswalks, the kid had it coming”.

And no-one would say to me “I think cross walk in that School Zone got some kid killed today”.

It is a manifestation of the post from yesterday: blaming the victim (or the victim’s advocates) instead of recognizing the real problem

Bikes in Richmond

This article pisses me off, as someone who cummutes regularly, by bike, to Richmond.

First, it has the regurgitated-press-release style of lazy journalism, but I can let that pass. It is the overall message that is sent that causes me tremors. That message, on the front page, is that cycling in Richmond is unsafe, and that it is the cyclists fault.

Let’s start off with the Stats:

“Between 2005 and 2009, there were 291 crashes involving cyclists in Richmond…including two fatalities.”

So a hair under 300 cyclist-related crashes in 5 years reported to ICBC. We can presume that if ICBC was involved, there were not people falling off bikes or hitting trees, these were impacts between bicycles and automobiles. But where is the context? Is 300 bad?

According to ICBC stats, there are, on average, 900 auto accidents per year in Richmond, resulting in an average of 10 deaths, which extrapolates to 4500 accidents and 50 deaths over 5 years.

“Mode share” for cycling in Richmond is around 3%.. That means for every 100 trips taken, about four were by bicycle. The mode share for cars was about 65% (with the rest being walking and transit), so to compare apples with apples, we need to lose the 32% others and say 3 in 68 trips (4.4%) were by bike, and 65 in 68 (95.5%) were by car. Then we can do the same with the accident statistics, and see how much more dangerous cycling is that driving:

                  As mode share      Accidents        Deaths
Drivers          95.6%                      94%             96%
Cyclists           4.4%                      6%                4%

Considering that drivers are surrounded by 3000lbs of steel and plastic, with seatbelts and airbags, and cyclists usually wear some combination of lycra and styrofoam, I think the numbers don’t really make cyclists a public health hazard.

Another way to look at the above numbers:
                                      total      cyclists were killed      people in cars were killed
Accidents with cyclists   6%                 0.6%                                    0*
Accidents w/o  cyclists  94%                0%                                     1.1%

So you are more likely to die if you are in a car crash, than if you are in a bicycle crash. If you are in a car, you have a miniscule chance of being hit by a bike relative to being hit by another car, and as far as I can read in the stats, not a single driver or passenger was killed in a collision with a cyclist (I cannot confirm this, hence the *). So if you are hit by anything in an accident, you are better off if you are hit by a bike than a car, and you are actually better off being on a bike when you are hit than being in car.

But the biggest stat here is that 6% of crashes involved bikes, but 100%, involve a car. I will come back to this.

First, let’s look at the “most dangerous intersections” outlined in the article: the Bike map for Richmond might be useful.

#1: No 2 Road and Westminster Highway (9 crashes).

Here is a location where a designated bike route along a major arterial (the No 2 Road Bridge and Russ Baker Way) abruptly comes to a stop at the crossing of two major arterial routes. Full 1.5m bike lanes evaporate into nothing except two 6-lane arterial roads with no shoulders that lead to residential areas. The southbound bike lane squeezes out into a right-turn only lane, with no shoulder to the right…not even a curb cut to give you the illegal but safer sidewalk bailout… I’m surprised there aren’t rotating knives.

#2: Gilbert and Granville (8 crashes).

Here we have Granville, which is a dedicated bike route with full bike lanes on both sides, crossing Gilbert, which to the north is a dedicated bike route in name only (it has kind of wide shoulders, but no pavement lines or markings), and no shoulders at all to the south. Of course, the “bike lanes” on Granville both become “right turn” lanes at the intersection, confusing both cyclists and drivers, and the shoulder on Gilbert is wide enough that it acts as a defacto right-turn lane, even though it is not marked as such. The fact the corner is on one of the City’s destination public facilities (Minoru complex houses playing fields, pools, arenas, libraries, etc.) and Granville is the major east-west bike routh through town, it is no surprise this disaster of an intersection is up in the stats.

#3 (tie): Blundell and Garden City Roads.

This surprises me a bit, only because it is one of the few I don’t frequent. Garden City is a dedicated bike lane in name only (slightly wider shoulders, no pavement markings) and Blundell is an east-west racetrack with no shoulders. Also, the corner visibility is a little sketchy due to retail signage, and there is a lot of relatively dense residential area around, but there is little here to make this intersection worse than 90% of the others in the City.

#3 (tie): Granville Avenue and Minoru Boulevard;

Take everything I said about Granville and Gilbert, adjust by the fact Minoru is not a dedicated bike route, and you have Granville and Minoru. Proximity to the Minoru complex brings the bikes along the main east-west bike route, the bike lanes become right-turn only lanes, Minoru is narrow with basically no shoulder. Bada-bing Ba da boom.

#3 (tie): Garden City Road and Westminster Highway.

Garden City north and south have great, well-marked bike routes (although they have been seemingly under constant construction for the last two years, making me wonder if the stats are biased by that), and represent the best north-south route through central Richmond (much better than the disaster that is No 3 Road). Of course, the nice southbound bike lane becomes a right-turn only lane, while the north-bound one sort of hops across the extended right-turn only lane, leaving the right-turning cyclist in a nasty spot with especially poor visibility around the Gas Station on the southeast corner. Westminster Highway also has excellent wide bike lanes to the east…but absolutely nothing the west. There isn’t even a shoulder wide enough to ride on safely for an experienced cyclist. Car speeds are high here (they seem to take “highway” as a suggested speed).

I humbly suggest there are many ways to alleviate the risk to cyclists here and city-wide. A few engineering improvements on these roads, better education of cyclists and drivers, perhaps signage improvements., but what does the article suggest after rhetorically asking “…what’s a cyclist to do to avoid being victimized?”

They advise that cyclist dress brightly so drivers can see them, look both ways before crossing streets, and wear helmets. Or to translate: if you girls don’t want to get harassed so much, maybe you shoudn’t wear them short skirts!

Every single one of these accidents involved a car. Every one of those cars had a driver. Yes, some proportion of the accidents was no doubt caused by a lack of cyclist caution, or even by cyclists violating the Motor Vehicle Code (which, I remind you, was written for motor vehicles, and does not reflect the reality of cyclists in our modern cities). However, some of the accidents were most assuredly caused by drivers not paying attention, or violating the motor vehicle code. If I want to wear camouflage on a bike, that is my right, and if a driver hits me while I am wearing that camouflage and within my rights on the road, the “I didn’t see him, he should wear something brighter” is not a freaking excuse. We don’t make you paint a car neon orange, do we?

The sad reality is that most cyclists do dress brightly, most do ride with caution and plan ahead, most do wear helmets, all because they are acutely aware that they can get hit by a car, and that would be a bad thing. This article does nothing to alert the majority of readers (who are drivers, not cyclists) that perhaps they should also exercise caution In their 3000lb vehicles so they don’t accidentally kill or injure a cyclist. Instead, it suggests bikes are dangerous (not true) and that all accidents involving bikes are caused by cyclists (not true).

That would involve thinking beyond the ICBC press release though.

Windows, part 2

Once we had settled on replacing windows, the journey really began. The house is ca.1940, and all of the main floor windows are wood frame, single-hung, single-pane. All of the counterweight strings are broken, so we had been using strategically shaped blocks of wood to prop them open. Before we arrived on the scene, renovations were done in the house in two stages, with wood-frame single-hung double pane wood windows being used in the converted attic, and double-pane sliding vinyl windows being used in the basement.

Front Picture window, with original leading.


Original single-hung single-pane wood windows.



The ones downstairs should have given us some cautionary idea of what we are getting into. At least one of them was an “off the shelf” vinyl window from a hardware store, and did not fit the hole in the side of the house ideally. It has been installed with the flashing on the outside of the house with the caulking puffing out between the flashing and the nailed-together wood spacers. It might have looked real sharp when it was done, but it looked pretty terrible a decade later. The other windows were not much better: one installed with the drain holes facing in (and blocked), none of the slid very well in their casings, or opened very wide, and the proportion of window-to sash was depressingly smaller, making basement suite darker than it needed to be.
Terrible, terrible basement vinyl window install.


The attic windows were probably OK, we might have gotten along with a bit of maintenance, but at this point we were 17 windows in, another two more wouldn’t increase the marginal cost that much, and for the sake of consistency, we decided to replace them all.?????

Double-pane wood replacements, used in 1980’s (?) attic renovation


“We decided” will be used throughout this monologue, but that really belies the amount of discussion, argument, hair-pulling, and cajoling it takes for us to make these decisions. The Better Half had her priority list, essentially around making sure that the windows added to the value of the house, by complimenting the 1940 wood flooring and the unique Amish-Bauhaus-English-antiques furnishings style she somehow pulls off quite successfully. I was mostly concerned that the windows be the most efficient we can afford. She worried about frame proportions, leading, opening styles, and colours; I worried about what Low-E glass types are most appropriate for our climate and whether Argon was really superior to regular air. We did agree that installation was as important as windows, and that we were going to buy from someone who we trusted to do the installation jog right.

The first question that needs to be answered is what type of frame material to use. The basic options are aluminum, vinyl, wood, fibreglass, or some sort of hybrid. The list of advantages and disadvantages is huge.

Aluminum was off the table pretty early. They have certain structural and maintenance advantages and provide the biggest window-to-sash ratio, which is why they are so popular with high-rises, rental and commercial properties. However, they are remarkably inefficient. Aluminum frames work like the aluminum fins on your old Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine: they are excellent heat exchangers, sucking heat out of your house and warming the air outside. They are moderate in cost (falling between the cheapest vinyl windows and the most expensive wood frames), but did not match the style of the house, and were inefficient: so the decision was easy.

Aluminum windows, lots of glass, but no efficiency.

Vinyl is probably the most popular material for replacement windows, and the Yellow Pages (remember them?) are full of companies that will plop a vinyl insert into your existing window frames, with creative names from AAA Windows to ZYZ Windows. Vinyl has several advantages: it can be made thermally quite efficient by building frames with lots of void spaces, they can be made in various colours and can be painted, and they can be very inexpensive. Some of the problems are the generally low window-to-sash ratio, which seems to get worse with increased efficiency (as those insulating void spaces have to come from somewhere), and a general “plastic” look, which only gets worse with attempts to hide it (ornate finishes, printed or wood veneers, etc.). There is also a large apparent variation in quality of construction, and the amount of concern the companies put into the install in the house.

Vinyl windows, efficiency comes at the expense of window area.

Wood windows have significant advantages. They generally look good, and since that is what the house already has, they are the quickest match to the style of the house. They are also the most thermally-efficient frame material. They fit somewhere between Aluminum and Vinyl in the window-to-sash ratio. The disadvantages are cost (more than Aluminum or the most expensive Vinyl), and maintenance issues. Wood is wood, and needs to be protected from the elements, and that means some level of ongoing maintenance would be required. Some of this can be offset but using a clad-wood window, where the wood frame has a thin aluminum cladding on the outside. This is by far the most expensive option.

Aluminum-clad wood windows, the best of
both worlds, the highest of all costs.

Fiberglass windows can be made almost as thermally efficient as wood, and very strong in a structural sense. They can be powder-coated which makes them durable and low maintenance. Unfortunately, fibreglass options are limited (they seem to be more popular in places with continental climates the suffer temperature extremes), and are expensive. They also come in limited styles and sizes, as the manufacturing process is not as flexible as vinyl or wood. Aesthetically, they resemble Vinyl more than they probably should.

The efficiency issues were a little easier. The advantages of triple glazing (increased thermal efficiency and noise abatement) did not make sense in our coastal climate, or in our relatively quiet Brow-of-the-Hill neighbourhood. Low-E glass (where a coating is applied to one of the frames which limits the transmission of infrared (keeping heat in during the winter and out during the summer) is great, but needs to be balanced around reflectivity and brightness issues. Everything I read says Argon helps, even if I remain somewhat sceptical about the science of those claims (with my basic chemistry-physics education, which is usually deeply flawed) .

Then there is Energy-Star rating. Energy-Star windows are certified to meet some level of efficiency. Since we had an “energy audit” in the dying days of the LiveSmart BC program, we would receive $70 per window if we bought Energy Star rated windows, a not-unsubstantial $1,300 total for our house.

Replacement window insert, in this case
Vinyl going into an existing wood frame.

The decisions were difficult. No matter which way we go, this was going to be the most expensive purchase we have made in our lives (outside of the mortgage!), easily as much as a new car (it is worth noting we drive a Honda Civic we bought used for less than I paid for my last bicycle.) And the “getting informed” part of the process exposed us to too much contradictory data, too many contradictory claims, too much advice from people who would have us spend a fortune for each incremental increase in efficiency, and from people who advise us to buy the cheapest we can because “they are all the same…how long are you going to own that house anyway?” (we can debate at length the sustainability ideas of that train of thought). And we experienced lots of sssssales men (and women), with different styles, different approaches, although the results always seemed the same, that was to make us less certain of the purchase, not more certain.

For people like us who find no joy in shopping at the best of times, it was not fun.

TttF, and the Transport debate

I really dig Tenth to the Fraser. Jen, Briana, Will and Jocelyn the gang over there do an incredible job in keeping the conversation going in New Westminster, whether they are talking politics, business, environment, or community events. The great part is that they avoid being one-dimensional like some lesser local blogs, and instead have a diversity of topics, and a diversity of speakers. I am excited about their new series covering aspects of the upcoming Civic Election. They fill a big gap in New Westminster public discourse, and they should be read every day by everyone who lives in the Royal City (does that make me an “elitist”?).

I’m mostly gushing right now in order to call attention to Matt Laird’s recent two-part series on the UBE and the future of the North Fraser Perimeter Road. Matt, ever the muck-raker and pot-stirrer, raises some of the uncomfortable questions about the dream of a “seamless 4-lane truck route” through New Westminster. The problems with this dream can be broken down onto 5 points:

1) There is no room on Front Street for 4 lanes of truck traffic, without moving rails (the railway won’t agree to reduce shunting noise or modify level crossings, they won’t agree to pedestrian overpasses to the new Park, you think they are going to agree to give up real estate!?!), or chopping off the front of a couple of buildings (InterUrban, the new Sally Ann, and the Keg/Train Station for starters). The Parkade would also have to go, but I think few will shed a tear for it (although the Downtown businesses will expect the City to replace the lost 700 parking spots)

2) The idea of “stacking” the four lanes is monumentally expensive, complex from an engineering standpoint, and may create issues around the transportation of dangerous goods (which makes it’s utility as a “truck route” limited). Working the stacked road around the rail overpasses at the east end of Front Street would be a challenge, as would designing some sort of interchange at the west end that would bring trucks safely back to grade, work as an intersection for Columbia Street traffic, and not be a blight to the Plaza 88 development, all in a very small footprint.

3) It only serves to move more trucks to Stewardson Way, where they will line up with the cars to get through the Queensborough Bridge spaghetti-bowl. Anyone who drives that intersection west regularly knows the right lane is commonly backed up to 4th, the left lane is full of cars looking for advantageous gaps in the right lane to squeeze in (gaps usually found between big trucks that cannot be as aggressive as cars at blocking queue-jumpers). For the New Westminster residents in Queensborough, their only access to the rest of the City is already backed up with traffic 12 hours of the day with all of the vehicles heading east… and to this mess we want to add more trucks?.

4) Take everything I said about Queensborough, and insert “Columbia and Brunette”.

5) It won’t solve a congestion problem. After the last Translink open house, there was some informal discussion around the NFPR, and I asked one of our City Councilors (I won’t name him here, but his last name rhymes with “Foster Can”) how long it would take for a 4-lane truck route to become just as congested as the current two-lane road, 5 years? Ten? And he admitted, “less than that!” So we want to spend 10 years and more than billion dollars designing and building a road we know will be just as congested as it is now in less than 10 years? That is madness.

It is going to be up to us to make the case to TransLink that this is a colossal waste of money. Your money and my money. When it comes down to it, New West as a municipality may be limited in their ability to stop a regional project if there is strong political pressure to build it (See Delta’s position on the South Fraser Perimeter Road as an example). Up to this point, New West Council has done a good job protecting New Westminster from the unnecessary intrusion of the UBE, but the future of the NFPR will need to be a campaign directed at TransLink and the Province.

The first step in that campaign would be for a strong voice from City Hall to counter the frankly ridiculous comments of the Mayor of Coquitlam.

Jonathan Cote at the NWEP Transportation Forum

Comments on the NWEP’s forum on the future of Sustainable Transportation, held at Douglas College on November 9th, 2010. – the much-belated Part 4. There has been so much going on in Transportation locally, and the UBE issue pushed itself to the front page so effectively, that I almost forgot to finish up the series on the NWEP forum held in November. That would be a shame, because the final speaker was New Westminster City Councillor Jonathan Cote, and we were lucky to have a sitting council member share some ideas about how he sees the future of transportation in New Westminster, and throughout the region.

First off, it was refreshing to have a politician sit in front of a crowd and put ideas out there, especially ideas about sustainable transportation and the things that Cities (including ours) do wrong. But Cote always struck me as one of those rare types in politics who actually thinks about these issues, who cares about communities (especially his own), and who knows who Jane Jacobs was, and what she meant. He is also young enough that he still has a thirst for learning. He was generous with his time, and with his ideas. I tried to catch the essence of what he said below, but I am working from two-month-old notes now, so any gross errors or inexactitudes below are more likely mine than his!

His talk began by putting “sustainable transportation” into context. There are lots of feel-good reasons to build sustainable transportation infrastructure and to increase sustainable mode share (safer more livable cities, lower development costs, healthier populations), but the harsh realities of Anthropogenic Climate Change and Peak Oil mean the heady decades of our parents may soon be over, and we may be forced by economics to make better choices.

Cote then discussed the “Chicken and Egg conundrum” around urban planning and transportation planning, although I think the analogy fails on two fronts: clearly the egg came first (after all, the genetic changes that result in diversity happen during the reproduction phase and very early development, not by gradual change within an individual of a species, but hey, this is about transportation, not evolutionary biology); and second, it isn’t really a conundrum as the there is a simple answer: both must happen in concert. We built automobile-serviced suburbs because people had automobiles, people had automobiles because they lived in (or wanted to live in) those suburbs. The two are so entwined that the entire model must be redrawn together. His points about street design and density (then, now and future) were well made however, and were (in my opinion) similar to the Patrick Condon mode of thinking. Read his stuff, there is much there to think about, and even things to disagree with.

There were two solid “factoids” I took out of Cote’s talk, and they stuck with me so well I have repeated them and used them in discussions about sustainable cities in various contexts.

The first is the “5 – 7 – 10” rule, and once I looked this up, I realized it was a Patrick Condon concept.

5 minutes is approximately how far the average person will walk to get to a place, or a transit stop. Any more than 5 minutes, and walking is no longer the likely choice the person will make. The Dutch Rail bicycle program takes advantage of this by setting loose thousands of bicycles into the unsuspecting public. If people will ride a bike 5 minutes to get to the train station, that triples the distance people can travel in 5 minutes, increasing passenger share, and ultimately paying off for Dutch Rail. This basically speaks the transit density we must build to make transit the truly viable option: everyone must be 5 minutes from a stop.

7 minutes is the maximum time between buses or trains that makes the system reliable and efficient without the need for schedules. If the maximum wait is 7 minutes, people will tend to just go to the stop and catch the next bus. If it is 10 minutes, and you need to make a connection to a bus with 15-minute frequency, all of the sudden you need to consult a schedule and plan your trip. I thought about this recently trying to take the Canada Line from Brighouse Station to the Airport at 7:00 on a Friday, when the train frequency was 12 minutes to each of the “Richmond spurs”. Which meant a 10-minute wait at Brighouse, a 5 minute ride to Bridgeport, a 12-minute wait at Bridgeport then a 8 minute ride to the airport: It took me more than a half hour to get from Richmond to the Airport… frustrating.

Finally, 10 units per acre is the density required to support transit service at the frequency required to be efficient: density is the key. But in reality, 10 units an acre is not that dense. An acre is 43,560 square feet, so 10 city lots at 50 feet by 90 feet will suffice. It isn’t Queens Park Mansions for all, but a 1500 square-foot footprint will fit nicely on a lot that size, and with good design, a comfortable 2500-square foot home can be built. At the other end of the scale, a single 20-story high-rise can be built on less than an acre and have 120 units in it. The density can be built, and for New Westminster it is already here.

The second point that stuck in my craw was an old CATO Institute economic study Cote showed that purported it would be cheaper for the governments of the United States to buy a new car for every citizen that it was costing to provide public transportation. Wethinks the old-school Reaganites at the Cato meant this to demonstrate the public transit is a waste of money and people should just find their own damn way to work. Cote turned it around and described it is a condemnation of the state of Urban Planning in the United States. If the most efficient way of moving people around is the least efficient form of transportation ever invented, then clearly something is wrong with your cities.

So what is wrong with our Cities? Where is my 7-minute service? The answer came back to the “Funding Gap”. How do we raise money for public transportation? We have federal and provincial governments claiming poverty (while subsidising the auto industry, and building 10-lane freeways, respectively). We have municipal governments absorbing more and more infrastructure and other costs that used to belong to higher levels, while extremely limited by the Local Government Act in how they can raise funds. The only source Munis have is property taxes, and there are numerous reasons why that is not the appropriate way to fund regional transit systems. Road taxes, gas taxes, vehicle levies, and these types of creative funding measures would require the Provincial government to institute them, and that isn’t something any government thinking about re-election is willing to do.

Translink has a dream of an integrated, effective, region-wide transit system. Many critics of it say it isn’t enough, that the infrastructure planned for 2040 will be inadequate for 2025. The harsh reality is that even that “too little too late” plan will never see the light of day unless the Province frees up the Municipalities and Metro Vancouver to find the creative measures it needs to properly fund the system the region needs.

Green Cone Update.

When I last talked about the Green Cone, it was rapidly filling up with food waste, and the temperature was dropping, neither of these good for promoting the initial growth of the friendly dudes that break the waste down.

With my month away, obviously the input stopped completely. However, with the month away, I have no idea what the weather was like while I was gone. Oh, maybe I do.

Seems to me the most relevant stat maintained by Environment Canada would be the “Heat Degree Days”. This is completely non-empirical, but when the HDD gets up into the high teens or 20s (like the cold snap in November), then it seems it will be a little cold for the green cone to digest efficiently. Conversely, when the HDD is down in the single digits, we are getting into a realm where bugs can proliferate and the blue fuzz starts to grow in the cone.

Looking in the last few days, there is definitely a good blue fuzz going on which means the breakdown is happening. When open, there isn’t much sign of the nasty smell we had happening in the fall when the food waste was overwhelming the cone’s breakdown speed. Looks like the Cone is finally working as hoped.

From this point forward, the only things going in the Cone are non-vegetable matter, bread scraps, or either of the above so tainted by meat, fat or milk that I can’t stick them in the compost.   

Also, after the initial exploratory digs, it appears whatever wanted to dig around the cone has lost interest. The raccoon/skunk/neighbour’s cat test has been passed. Or the offending digger has gone south for the winter. So let’s call it a provisional pass until Spring has sprung.

As for the compost, my worms have survived the deep freeze. I was doing some aerating on the compost pile, and found massive clumps of red wrigglers in spots. So many that I was able to share some with another NWEP TrashTalker whose compost didn’t do so well over the holidays.  

Windows, Part 1

Like a shrinking proportion of New Westminsterites, I live in a single-family detached home. A two-professional-income family and a history of fiscal prudence meant that a couple of years ago we were able to sell our “hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances, granite countertops” condo on Royal Ave and buy a house. There were several motivations for the purchase: the Condo didn’t really compliment my obsessive cycling habit; I really wanted a garden and the Community Gardens Project in New Westminster was still only a glimmer in David Maidman’s eye; the condo market in New West looked pretty saturated to me, and more “peaky” than the housing market; and we had committed to New Westminster as the best place in Metro Vancouver to live.

At the time, I described the purchase as “kind of small, kind of old, in a slightly sketchy area, but we can almost afford it”. In the end, it is more size than we need (the guest suite renos are ongoing), we lucked into the house being really solid for it’s age, the brow-of-the-hill neighbourhood turned out to be anything but sketchy and my neighbours are great, and we can still almost afford it. A few minor renos have really made it “our home”.

The house was built in 1940, and although solidly built and well cared for, it is still a 70 year old house. We had an energy audit performed, and they confirmed many things we already knew. The physical plant was in good shape, the furnace and water heater were relatively new, but could be replaced with more efficient ones. There are a few insulation and draft-sealing things we can do. But mostly: the 70-year-old single pane windows are sucking us dry. We decided efficient windows were the first priority, when we had the money and time to do real improvements.

Thus began a long, dark journey into the aftermarket window market. We had a dozen window sales people come through the house. We visited showrooms and workshops, spent our evenings walking the streets of Queens Park staring at (not into) strangers’ windows. The longer this process went on, the more frustrating it got, as we discovered some depressing realities: any windows we could reasonably afford were ugly, and most after-market windows are cheaply built.

I am currently sitting in my dining room, a year or so after we started this course, looking at the new windows we are in the process of having installed: double-pane, Low-E, Argon-filled, wood framed. Significantly not CSA-approved.

More about the journey from energy audit to new windows will be included will be coming as part of an ongoing series here

Recycling and the Multi-family dwelling.

People who keep up with the solid waste issue know that Greater Vancouver has a “diversion rate” that is the envy of most major cities in North America. The proportion of refuse that Vancouverites recycle, compost, or otherwise keep pout of the landfill is currently over 55% (my weight). Metro Vancouver’s (unfortunately misnomer-ed) Zero Waste Challenge goal is to bring this number up to 70% by 2015.

There are several challenges to this goal, but one in particular is significant in New Westminster, that is multi-family housing, as New Westminster has one of the highest proportions of people living in multi-family dwellings of any jurisdiction in BC.

Although the uptake on organic waste collection has helped boost already-impressive diversion rates for single-family homes in New Westminster, multi-family lags way behind. Regionally, the diversion rate in multi-family housing is a dismal 16% compared to more than 50% regionally for single-family dwellings.

My personal experience from when we lived in a condo on Royal Ave was frustrating. And I emphasize this was a well cared-for, clean, newer building with a proactive strata council and an on-site caretaker. It was a nice building, a great place to live, but the recycling system was a mess. There was some success with the cardboard bin in the basement, but the blue bin system was a joke. Any attempt to provide a separate receptacle for newspaper, missed paper, and containers was basically ignored. There were pizza boxes and other food-contaminated waste getting into the bins (which quickly lead to a smelly mess), people putting the wrong things in the wrong bins, and some completely random stupidity (I once had to pull a complete upright vacuum cleaner out of the mixed plastics bin).

To introduce organics collection to a broken system like this is to invite disaster.

Metro Vancouver and the City have recognized that Multi-family is a tough nut to crack, but they are really starting to put some effort into it, because the benefits to the overall diversion goals are there to be had.

The New Westminster Environmental Partners have a “TrashTalkers” group that meet regularly (like tonight at 7:00 at the Waves Coffee house at Columbia and Begbie) to work on solid waste issues. They have identified multi-family as an area they are going to put a lot of energy towards this year. Working with the Glenbrooke North ZWC folks, the City, and Metro Vancouver, we are hoping to help launch some pilots in New Westminster to see if we can find some strategies to make multi-family recycling easier and more effective.

At the same time, New Westminster’s indefatigable Environmental Coordinator Jennifer Luckianchuk is launching a program to bring these ideas to the larger community (instead of just ruminating amongst us “greenies”). Right now they are trying to collect baseline data, and it would be great if everyone who cares about recycling and lives in a multi-family unit (townhouse, rental, condo, co-op, whatever!) go there and do the on-line survey, give your City a little help.

Of course, we can talk about doing this out of the goodness of your heart, for the good of the planet, etc. etc., but really, it is about saving you money. Garbage to the landfill and the incinerator costs the taxpayer more money than diverted waste to recycling or composting. With tippage fees likely to double in the next ten years, and the efficiency of the recycling stream, and growing markets for both recycled materials and compost products, wste diversion seems like an economic no-brainer.

If you are really keen, Metro Vancouver will be holding a Zero Waste Conference in March, where people interested in strategies to reduce their own impact, or in working with larger organization to reduce all of our impact, can share ideas, learn, and engage.

No wasted time when you are talking trash.