The Wrong Tool for the Job

Yeah, the Pacific Carbon Trust is crap.

It is a poorly conceived and brutally executed waste of taxpayers’ money, invented and mismanaged by a government that is either willfully corrupt or stunningly incompetent. But that doesn’t mean Anthropogenic Global Warming caused by the burning of carbon at a rate that the planet’s biosphere cannot buffer is not an issue that Governments need to take immediate measures to address.

I was amongst those whinging about the Pacific Carbon Trust years ago, and I was frankly shocked to see how close the Auditor General report paralleled my criticism of the program. The gist, repeated ad nauseum by my strange political bedfellow at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, is that cash-strapped cities and school districts are forced to pay money to Encana and other multi-national corporations to do things they would have done anyway, to create the illusion that Government operations were “carbon neutral”.

There was some flawed thinking from the onset, even if there were good intentions. Creating incentives to reduce the carbon impact of government operations was a good idea. Putting a price on carbon use is also a good idea. Causing government operations that cannot meet “zero carbon” goals to invest in offsetting activities may also a good idea, if well executed. Forcing every government entity to buy their carbon offsets from the same “Crown Corporation” run by entrenched kleptocrats was a terrible idea.

Giving these government entities access to a within-the-Province, one-stop-shop offset isn’t in itself a bad idea, but forcing them to purchase their offsets from that singular entity changes the game. The entity no longer has to compete on the burgeoning global carbon market. It knows it has buyers (actually, the more Government policy discouraged other carbon reductions, the more customers it will have!), it’s only problem is finding sufficient sellers to fill the need. That is not a healthy way to run any market. This is the same flawed market that makes it a bad idea to allow “free enterprise” to run a health care system: when your customer can’t say no, why provide a quality product or price your product fairly?

Well, I guess it works for the Mafia. but who wants to be their customer?

Worse, Municipalities that had their own internal carbon-reduction projects could not use their own carbon-offset money to fund them. For example, let’s imagine the New Westminster School Board decides to build one of their schools (stick with me here!) to be truly carbon neutral – ground-source geothermal with ATES, solar thermal water heating, and non-fossil electricity. That will cost more (up front, anyway) than running a gas boiler, but will result in real greenhouse gas reductions. At the same time, they are still burning carbon for their vehicle fleet and in their older buildings, so they need to buy offset credits. The School Board are not permitted, by law, to apply the cost of implementing those carbon savings from their new school to offset the carbon produced by their own legacy systems. They must instead buy those credits from the Pacific Carbon Trust.

That’s asinine.

This is nothing new, this has been going on for quite a while, and people much smarter than me have been saying for quite some time that the Pacific Carbon Trust is a piss-poor way to manage government carbon offsetting. Only now, when there is a hugely unpopular government heading for a wood-chipper election and the Auditor General report on the Pacific Carbon Trust Comes out, does the media pay any attention to the fiasco.

Unfortunately, much of this criticism from “conservative” parts of the conversation suggests that this is an example of how the entire idea of pricing carbon, from carbon taxes to offsetting schemes to the very idea of reducing emissions is a waste of time and “hard earned” taxpayers money.
Nothing could be further from the truth.

Some go so far to point out that “prominent environmentalists” like Dr. Mark Jaccard are highly critical of the Pacific Carbon Trust, without making clear that Dr. Jaccard argues vehemently that we need to be doing more, not less, to deal with our greenhouse gas output, and the Pacific Carbon trust is not a failure primarily because it cost the taxpayers money, but because it failed miserably to do the thing we were paying for it to do.

(side point – calling Dr. Jaccard a “prominent environmentalist” is about as ignorant as calling Albert Einstein a “noted physics advocate” or Rene Leveques a “well-known Nordiques Fan”. Dr. Jaccard is a highly respected Nobel Prize winning scientist whose research has global impact and whose area of study is the one topic the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is most ignorant of- Economics.)

So let’s make things clear: anthropogenic global warming is still happening. Actually, it is happening faster than we in the scientific community expected. The IPCC worst-case scenario projections for atmospheric carbon, surface temperatures, ice loss, ocean temperature and pH changes, and sea level rise have all been exceeded in the last 5 years. the economic and societal costs of this are going to be monumental unless we do something really soon to manage the issue.

The Pacific Carbon Trust may be the wrong tool for the job, but this doesn’t mean the job no longer needs to be done!

Tunnel to Nowhere

Last week a few friends and I dropped by the Ministry of Transportation’s open house on the future of the Massey Tunnel.

MoT is currently doing “public consultations” on which flavour of tunnel fix/replacement the people like best, following the announcement by soon-to-no-longer-be-Minister-of-Transportation Mary Polak announcement that the tunnel replacement is the next critical piece of transportation infrastructure that needs to be built. Or, to translate roughly: screw you Surrey and UBC/Broadway, we are doubling down on dumb road building ideas from the last century.

At the consultation meetings we were told there would be 5 options for the future of the tunnel:

Option 1:

 Fix the Tunnel we have: Upgrade the lights, air-moving, emergency, and other mechanical systems (which are archaic, being built at about the same time as Sputnik, and hardly upgraded since). This would also involve a seismic upgrade of the tunnel to modern standards (and a young engineer in the room assured me this was very feasible, but would not provide a cost), and upgrades to the adjacent intersections at Steveston Hwy and Highway 17.

Option 2:

Replace with a Bridge: This would involve placing a bridge essentially on top of the existing tunnel footprint (again, I was assured they could do this, and who am I to doubt Engineers?). The suggestion was a cable-stayed bridge of similar design to the Port Mann 2, and make no mistake: this bridge will “provide increased capacity for all users”, although no specific lane count was provided.

Option 3:

Replace with a new Tunnel: This would presumably mean digging a new tube adjacent to the exiting one, and one again no lane counts were provided, but “increased capacity” is offered. Tunnels are generally considered to be much more expensive to engineer than a bridge, especially in loose substrates (and this substrate is as loose as they get), so I’m going to go ahead and say this idea is dead in the water (excuse the pun).

Option 4:

Twin it: This would involve doing both Option 1 upgrades to the existing tube, and building another bridge or tunnel next to it to achieve “capacity increase” goals. This is the literal lipstick on the pig option that will not satisfy anyone, as the cost savings in building a 4-lane bridge over an 8-lane (note- my numbers, not theirs! They won’t talk about lane counts!) cannot possibly be more than the cost saved by upgrading the existing tunnel. If they are feeling flush, they will take Option 2, if they are frugal, they will take Option 1, this compromise is unlikely to be Goldilocks’ choice. Dead in the water.

Option 5:

Far-off Sibling: As opposed to twinning in the same spot, this option would keep the tunnel and build another crossing elsewhere: not twins, just siblings. No way Richmond is going to go for this, and the same cost argument for Option 4 exists. Dead in the water.

The other argument for the bridge is, of course, removing a perceived impediment to harbour travel in the Lower Fraser River. Currently, the River is dredged to 11.5m depth (at considerable expense) to allow Panamax ships to pass during most river/tide stages. This won’t be quite enough for fully laden liquid bulk carriers that want to bring Jet Fuel to South Richmond (they will need to be only 80% laden to pass safely).

Suggestions that the River will soon be dredged to “New Panamax” depth of 18m are foolishly optimistic, considering the cost, engineering and environmental challenges that would face anyone attempting to modify the Fraser River that way. Six extra metres of sand for a 250-m-wide path over 30km is what is technically called one hell of a shitload of sand. It would move the saline wedge of the river tens of kilometres upstream, well past where Delta and Richmond farmers draw water to irrigate and harvest crops. I can’t thin of what it would do to fragile salmon stocks or endangered sturgeon. This is a crazy pipe dream. Besides, the Port’s business model is no longer taking things on and off of ships, it is developing real estate for truck warehouses. Why would the Port be interested in spending their own money in dredging rivers when they can enjoy the subsidy of asphalt roads.

The missing point during these consultations was raised several times during the Q&A session: there were no costs mentioned. Not even order-of-magnitude estimates were provided, or “high-medium-low” scaling of costs related to each alternative. Which makes the whole consultation thing a little premature. How can we (the taxpaying road-using public) meaningfully respond to which is best if we don’t have the price?

“Would you rather eat Kobe Beef or a Stouffers Salisbury Steak? Don’t worry about the price, we’ll tell you later which you chose.”

I’m sure the people of Tsawwassen (especially those planning monumental but short-sighted car-oriented retail development) want the biggest, widest bridge they can get (and no tolls, of course), but if you ask the average British Columbian Taxpayer if they want to spend $250 Million fixing the tunnel or $2.5Billion replacing it, you might get a very different answer! (That said, letter writers to the Delta Newspaper are more nuanced in their positions that a smug North-of-Fraser know-it-all like me might have expected)

A final problem with the entire rush-to-consultation before election production is that they are not being straight-up about the “need”. If the tunnel is old and needs repairs: fix the damn thing. If the river draft is a problem: tell us that and make the Port pay for replacement. However, MoT is suggesting that growing congestion is the real driver, but this is not only untrue, they are using the wrong tool to fix it.

First off, Massey Tunnel traffic is going down, and has been for a while. Part of this is less people are driving and more are moving to the alternatives, another part is that the tunnel only avails you to traffic chaos further north. Traffic can only get so congested before the traffic stops arriving. Before anyone replies with “stunting economic growth” argument – this drop in traffic has happened during a time of unprecedented growth in population, industry, and land value on both sides of the tunnel! I’m not sure Delta or Richmond could have tolerated growth faster than it has arrived in the last decade or two.

Secondly, as was pointed out at the consultation meetings by MoT representatives themselves, the real congestion problem at the tunnel is that the vast majority of the vehicles in it are not moving “goods”, or even more than one person. Single Occupant Vehicles represent 77% of the traffic. By comparison, transit represents 1% of the traffic, but moves 26% of the people going through the tunnel:

…all images courtesy Ministry of Transportation’s glossy
consultation materials, which  I didn’t ask permission to use,
but hey, I’m a taxpayer, so I paid for them. 

The MoT representative even shared the “surprising” point that of people travelling though the tunnel to get to Vancouver proper, more than 50% were on Transit, not driving. I was only surprised that he was surprised. To anyone who pays any attention to transportation trends in the Lower Mainland, this seems obvious. And it isn’t the result of some fluke of statistics, because This is what Vancouver planned! This is the model set out in the Regional Growth Strategy, in TransLink’s long–term planning documents, in the Livable Region Strategy: this is the model for the region! I find it shocking that an MoT representative would be surprised to find alternative transportation planning works in the Province, and there is data to demonstrate that.

Or maybe I shouldn’t, as we still have a Ministry of Transportation that sees the world through the windshield of their car (or their yellow trucks), and the only transportation plan they understand if roadbuilding. This is why the Minister is sitting in her office off of the Langley Bypass (“best idea for a road ever”), making the Mayors of Surrey and Vancouver fight for the few transit crumbs she may feint to toss their way, while boldly announcing billions for roads to nowhere. This is how she feels no shame in proudly declaring the 10-year-delayed Evergreen Line as “on track”, while making up glossy consultation brochures for the next freeway and while failing to provide basic operating expenses to keep TransLink running busses at the level of service they provided 5 years ago…

So go to the MOT site and fill out the survey they have running until April 2.

Tell them to build the alternatives (light rail or other transit South of Fraser, restoring funding to TransLink, replacing the real goods movement choke point in Greater Vancouver: The 104-year old one-lane Westminster Train Bridge) and they might see the need for this tunnel replacement go away.

Let’s fix the tube we have, and move on to solving real problems.

Envision 2032 Survey

Some of you may remember the Envision2032 event that took place last November.

It was a two day event where Day 1 included a collection of inspiring and informative talks on the topic of Sustainability, and one random blovator rambling on about Richard Nixon or something.

Day 2 was a more interactive event, where people talked in round-tables about a variety of topic areas, and described how a sustainable community looked to them. This was the first step in a longer process being run by the City’s Planning Department to develop a community sustainability framework.

As described by Mark Allison, Senior Planner for the City, the sustainability framework that will result from this process, “Envision 2032”, will create a “lens” through which future plans, policies, practices and projects will be viewed. This will become a major guiding document that will impact, potentially, every decision made in the City for the decades to come, so it is, uh, kind of important that we get it right.

Coming out of that initial kick-off and early consultations, the City has now developed some draft “Description of Success” (DoS) statements. These are broad, visioning statements the essentially answer the question: what are the characteristics of a sustainable community?

The City is now asking stakeholders (and if you live or work in New Westminster, that means you) to review and comment upon those DoS statements. And to do so, they have set up a Survey Monkey survey, which you can access here:

You only have until March 31st to fill those surveys in, so please go to it soon!

Note the survey is broken up into 11 policy areas, some will no doubt be more interesting and important to you than others, so don’t feel you need to delve too deeply into every single one. If you are a wonk like me, you might want to spend a few hours deliberating over this stuff, but if you just want to be heard, pick and choose the parts where you think you can contribute. As you will see, you could spend hours doing this survey, or be out of there in 10 minutes. It’s up to you.

Rather like people who say “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain about who wins”, I say if you do not take a bit of time early on in a processes like this, you have lost some of your argument when you then whinge about the results of the process. Blanket disagreement with the statements is a valid form of comment, but it might be more useful if you actually take the time to describe better statements, or point out where the statements are flawed. Of course, if you agree with them, then also say so! Remember, democracy is when decisions by people who bother to show up.

Rarely, for me, I am going to reserve my comments until the survey period is over, so as to not poison the well. I suspect if you bother to read my blog (Hi Mom!) you either agree with me, or strongly disagree with me on these topics, so why would I try to change your mind, or give you fuel for the fire (respectively) prior to your going over to the survey and completing it yourself?

In the meantime, I have already done my survey, but will provide a bit of more informed opinion here after the 31st, and after I do a bit more research:

Climate keeps on changing

There have been a couple of intersecting stories recently relating to how our Federal Government is dealing with the science of Anthropogenic Global Warming.

Cynics say they are doing nothing about it, but I counter they are taking a strong, nuanced, and multi-faceted approach to the issue; one common to theocratic Petro-States the world round.

They are lying to the public, and then making sure no-one on their payroll can call them on the lie.

First the lie part.

You might remember last month when that most Orwellian of federal officials, Minister of “Environment” Peter Kent, suggested that Canada is making real progress, and is already half way to meeting our 2020 Greenhouse Gas targets as set out in Copenhagen Accord in 2009.

The Copenhagen target was based on emissions we put out in 2005. Here is the Government’s own data on GHG emissions (in Million tonnes of CO2 equivalents):

2005 (the date upon which targets are hung): 740 Mt
2010 (the most recent data provided by the government): 692 Mt
2020 (the target): 607 Mt

Now, I’m a geologist, which basically means I’m not so good at math, but I’m pretty sure 692 is NOT half-way between 740 and 607. But it gets worse.

Reading through the Ministry of Environment report, you can see that much of the reduction up to 2010 is a result of the recession that hit in 2008 (which I don’t see the Harper Government taking credit for…). Much of the rest is a result of this little nugget:

“ For the first time, the contribution of the land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector to achieving Canada’s target is included in our projections.”

So, they have fudged the numbers going forward to include landuse changes. That may be a valid way to count net GHG impacts, but introducing it halfway through makes it look like something has changed when, in reality, nothing has!

Even with this fudging and the fortunate (in hindsight) global recession, the report does not project that Canada will meet its target of 607 Mt by 2020. See Table ES-1 where it shows emissions since 2010 have been creeping back up after the recession, and we will be putting out 720 Mt per year in 2020. This is a 2.7% decrease from 2005 numbers, but not half-way to 607 Mt. Not even close.

Of course, the problem with telling lies is that someone might call you on it. It is one thing if this is a political opponent (you can dismiss it as partisan bickering, who in Politics “owns” the truth?). It would be something different if those people work for the Government, especially if they are the people who collect this data. So in true theocratic Petro-State style, the Harper government has a three-prong attack against science:

First you stop new science from happening:
Then you stop existing scientists from talking.
Then you limit access to historic science.

Eventually, the facts hit the memory hole, and there is nothing to stop the buddies who funded your unlikely rise to power from re-writing the laws of the land for a singular, psychotic, self-destructive purpose.

How long can this go on?


UPDATE: I was just informed there will be a brief memorial at 2:00pm on Tuesday at the Queens Park bandshell, moving to the Rose Garden. My work commitments keep me from attending, but I do hope some New Westminster folks who care babout pedestrian safety will show up. It’s not about politics, or blame, it is about showing Gemma’s family that we as a community recognize the tragedy and want to do better…

This sucks.

I hate reading about this kind of thing. It makes me sad, it makes me angry, it frustrates me.

Putting a face to the name, recognizing Gemma Snowball as a young Australian woman who worked for a couple of local businesses makes it a little more personal. It’s not like I knew her name or shared any relationship more than being two people living in the same community, but just having interacted with her, recognizing her as a human being, and not just another nameless accident victim, it hits you a little harder.

It shouldn’t, though. Every person killed in what Newz Radio euphemistically calls an “incident involving a pedestrian” is a person, they were humans with families and jobs and futures and stories. Even if we didn’t have a chance to know them. Instincts deeply rooted in our evolution as tribal animals make deaths in our community more important than ones farther away, deaths of people we share a language and skin colour with more important than those whose cultures we don’t understand, people we have met more important than those we haven’t. One of those vestigial bits of human nature we would be best to get past.

My connection to this also comes from another direction, though. Serving on the City’s Advisory Committee on Transit, Bicycles and Pedestrians and the Master Transportation Committee, and being an outspoken advocate for improving pedestrian safety in New Westminster, I spend a lot of time talking with other (better informed and more effective) advocates for safe pedestrian environments, like Mary Wilson and Marion Orser and Bruce Warren. When we discuss the need for better traffic control, reduced speed limits, better lighting and pedestrian protection, better crosswalks, we often feel we are in our little bubble speaking to the wall.

We aren’t speaking to the wall, though. The City is making positive changes. We have a Pedestrian Charter, although fulfilling its vision seems a glacially slow process at times. Small changes are happening all the time: improved lighting or signals here, a new crosswalk there. Planning at every level in the City is doing a better job acknowledging the needs of pedestrians instead of just suffering their existence. The movement is slow, but those of us who spend our free time working on this stuff can see that we moving in the right direction, otherwise, why would we bother?.

Then something like this happens, and you shake your head and wonder if we are moving fast enough. In the priorities of “needs” a City strapped for resources has: firefighters and keeping the sewers running, plugging potholes and aiding the homeless, maintaining a vibrant community spirit and protecting people from crime, where do we stick “Pedestrian Safety” on the list?

The good news is that the pedestrian space in New Westminster is relatively safe. For a City with 400,000+ cars and trucks a day driving through, pedestrian deaths are uncommon: one in each of 2009 and 2010, none at all in 2011 or 2012. Maybe we have been lucky, dodging bullets, as MetroVancouver averages just under 20 pedestrian deaths a year. Even more depressing, the majority of automobile-related deaths in Vancouver are pedestrians – not cyclists, not drivers or passengers, certainly not Transit users, but people on foot.

The reality is that accidents happen. We don’t yet know the details of this incident. We know it was dark and rainy and the media reported the driver was making a left turn, which is clearly illegal at that intersection. Maybe it was an honest mistake by the driver; maybe it was intentional… a “victimless crime” if there was no cross traffic. But this time there was cross traffic. Maybe Gemma wasn’t as cautious as she could have been crossing the street at night, rushing to catch the bus on a rainy night after a long shift at work.

We may never know the combination of bad decisions made in a split second that resulted in one dead woman, and a driver whose life has now been tragically altered.

We don’t know the details, and I don’t know the solution. Maybe the built infrastructure had nothing to do with it – a freak combination of events that could not be avoided. But like many others, I can’t see an event like this and ignore it. Gemma was too close to my tribe and died in my back yard, I can’t let it pass unnoticed. Some have set up a vigil at 6th and 6th, and that is good for a time. Some others are holding an event on this upcoming Tuesday at the Dublin Castle to remember Gemma and raise a little support for her family. I am going to plan to go and help out in that little way.

More important, I am going to continue to advocate for pedestrian safety, to make our streets safe to cross. Gemma (and Christian Mesa) will stick in my mind, even if they were not friends. They are the reason we are working to make our urban areas better by making our streets safer for humans; so a momentary lack of attention doesn’t result in the tragically premature end of a life full of promise and hope.

If you are an advocate for pedestrians, a person who has felt that more needs to be done to make our crosswalks and sidewalks safe for the people of our City, maybe you might want to show up on Tuesday at the Dublin Castle and show some support. This isn’t a political issue (I don’t know any politician who wants streets to be less safe!), just a reminder of why we should be listening to advocates like Mary Wilson and keep fighting the good fight.

Environmental Forum – debrief

In the end, it all went remarkably well!

It started as an idea in the mind of NWEP member and consciousness-raiser Virginia Ayers, and after much hand-wringing, many meetings, and an alignment of stars, last weekend’s Environmental Policy Forum turned out very well, in spite of some last-minute organizational spackle application!

 The opening phase of the event, where people were asked to present ideas, concerns, issues and post them on out tack boards went well. In hindsight we could have stretched this time out, as the interactions in front of the board were happening well ahead of our more formal discussions. It was the meeting of minds and people during this early phase that made the rest of the day successful and, “primed the pump” for greater in-depth discussion.

Although not every topic on the bard made it to the table discussions, NWEP data-cruncher Peter McMartin has already entered all of the post-it note comments into a database, and is working out how best to make a searchable or otherwise suitable display of the data. So the ideas are not lost, and may form the nucleus of future discussions. Be sure the NWEP will refer back to them when looking at future events.

Once all the ideas were up on the boards, a furious voting period ensued, when all participants were asked to vote for their “top pick topics”. The facilitators high-graded the highest-vote topics (and categories of topics) and made up 5 roundtables for discussions. The topics that rose to the top were and interesting combination of the usual New Westminster issues, and hot topics of the day:

Transportation (and dealing with traffic pressures on New West)

Food Security (GMO crops, pesticides, local and organic food)

Solid Waste (details around, and alternatives to, waste incinerators)

Green infrastructure (building codes, reducing the impact of our built environment, carbon tax)

Air Quality (especially impacts from all truck through-traffic, and the expansion of coal ports).

I was, unfortunately, running around doing other things (see below) and was not privy to all of the discussions that ensued. Word-of-mouth has some relatively benign and positive discussions where it was easy to forge a common position (i.e. food security) where other topics (I’m looking at you, Transportation) resulted in a more complex discussion, and many counter-points raised.

There were a few common themes that tied many of the topics together. Many touched on climate change, the “transportation” theme clearly interacted with “air quality” when talking about truck traffic, and “air quality” concerns were obviously related to the trash incinerator topic. This (I hope) clearly demonstrated than sustainability is a complex topic, and easy answers are hard to find, as every change in one are impacts other areas in sometime unforeseen ways. Hence the need for “systems thinking” when we approach these complex problems.

However, the one overarching theme, the one that each of the groups included in some way in their report-out, was the need for more education on every issue. This included us, as citizens, needed more education on the impacts of the various waste-to-energy technologies, and it meant more education of the general public on the hows and whys of Port approval for projects that impact the greater community, and on the impacts of vehicle exhaust on our health. As an NWEP member, this was one of my take-aways from the event- people want to be better informed on issues, and the NWEP can help with that role.

And, last but not least, the four candidates vying for our Votes in May seemed to be pleased with the event. They had ample opportunity to hear from a wide breadth of the electorate. We had a good turn-out considering it was a warm, sunny weekend day in March, and maybe they would have liked to have spent those couple of hours door-knocking, but they were all game to a rather free-form discussion. They were all provided an opportunity to interact with the discussion groups and to provide a short speech afterwards.

One bonus was that our local community web-based TV volunteer group NewWest Dot TV was there to film and live-stream the event. This provided the opportunity during the relatively dead-air time of roundtable discussion for each of the candidates to be interviewed by some clown in a cheap suit. Clearly the clown was out of his element doing interviews, having both a face and a voice more suited for newspapers, but the candidates were great, providing concise and clear answers to his rather simplistic and idiotic questioning (starting about 45 minutes into the live stream now visible on the website).

Interviewing Clown, Patient Candidate

Thanks to the folks, the reporting out of the tables discussions, and the short speeches by the candidate are also view-able, for them that couldn’t show up. The NWEP will also be “reporting out” over the next month or two on their website. I have no idea what it will look like, but stay tuned!

Personally, I had a great time at the event, and thought it went really well. Because I have a loud voice, I was asked to emcee the proceedings, which with a successful event like this, allows me to receive lots of kudos from the happy participants. Appreciated, but I really only helped a little with a few tasks them yapped loudly at the crowd. This event was the brain child of Ginny Ayers, and between her incredible idea-generation and problem solving, and Karla Olson’s boundless energy and ability to get things done, about 90% of the entire project was managed. I’d also like to thank Andrew Feltham, Reena Meijer Drees, Kathleen Somerville, Antigone Dixon-Warren, Virginia Bremner and Mary Wilson for being conversation-facilitators at the individual tables, and to Alex, Peter, Anna, and probably a few people I am forgetting, for helping with the set-up & tear down and all the other tasks that made it happen.

And especially thanks to the 40+ random New West folks from all walks of life who showed up on a sunny Saturday to make for a fun conversation.

NWEP Environmental Policy Forum

Tomorrow, the New Westminster Environmental Partners are trying a bold experiment in grassroots environmental policy development. I have been privy to some of the organizing, and have been asked to act as an MC and facilitator at the event. However, I have been amazed to watch other NWEP members put this thing together, and come up with, what I think, is a remarkable plan. 
The genesis of the idea is the upcoming (not yet officially begun!) election (even though it has not yet been called), and we already know who our local Candidates will be. The NWEP could get together in our group and come up with some policy ideas, raise holy hell about a specific issue or two, but how do we know we are representing how the Community really feels about an issue?
Was there some way we could poll the “environmentally engaged” populace and get ideas? Since our budget is too small to get Ipsos on the phone, one of our members had the idea for this forum.
The event is envisioned as an exercise in grassroots policy development, with the aim to encouraging lots of lively discussion and sharing of ideas. Fitting with the NWEP’s mission, the main theme will be “environmental sustainability”. However, the topics will be generated by the citizens who show up, not by the NWEP board.
Of course, we can anticipate what some if them will be (transportation, coal terminals, climate change?) but who knows what will come up in the early part of the event when we ask people to post their ideas and concerns?
After a short period or idea collection and a voting mechanism to choose the “hottest” topics, we will break the room up into several smaller groups. Each of the smaller groups will flesh out the idea at that station. Again, NWEP people will be there to help the conversation along, but it will be the participants doing the talking, and the NWEP will be doing the record keeping and note taking.
This will be the fun, dynamic part. I frankly have no idea where these conversations are going to go. I anticipate some topics (LNG comes to mind) will draw a wide breadth of opinions, and the goal will not be to argue and debate the merits of opposing positions, but to find the common ground – the essential underlying ideas or philosophies where agreement can be found (even if the details differ), or even where the real friction rests- the point where people cannot agree.
Either way, the discussion will no doubt create an interesting record of the community’s concerns, documentation of where the community conversation and the level of education that the community has on some of these (obviously controversial) topics.
The Candidates who have agreed to attend (listed in politically-neutral alphabetical order here: Hector Bremner, Judy Darcy, Paul Forseth and Terry Teather) will NOT be taking part in these discussions, but will instead be circulating around the room, eavesdropping, hearing the conversations, and no doubt taking notes. Because only after we do this community conversation and each group gives a very brief report out of the results of their conversation, will the Candidates be asked to comment on what they heard, what they know about the issue, what their feelings or their position is on that topic.
The hope here is that the candidates get to hear what the people are saying, then report back that they have heard the concerns of the citizens. In a perfect world, we would like to think that the candidate who is successful in May will take those ideas to Victoria, and be they in Government or Opposition, they can speak clearly with their community’s voice.
I was explaining this to a politico I ran into in town today, and he asked “why would candidates agree to show up just to listen? Can’t you give them more time to talk? ”
So to counter the cynicism of that mindset, I am glad to report we at the NWEP told the candidates what the format was, that their speaking part of the event was going to be relatively short and late in the event, but for the first hour, they were going to be listening, and all of the candidates agreed to attend. I think this speaks to the quality of local candidates we have.
So I am excited, if a little nervous. I honestly have no idea how this will turn out. If it goes great, we may have a new model that can be adopted for other policy areas (economic development? Education? Health Care?). If it goes less than great, we will at least create a written record of the conversation and have a better understanding of where the community stands on various environment and sustainability topics. As we all spend so much time in our own policy/political bubbles, staring inwards at our own ideas, we can all benefit from sharing ideas with the broader community, even if it means we have to hear ideas we don’t agree with. Actually, specifically because may hear ideas we don’t agree with.
Also, the event will be recorded by the good folks at NewWestTV, there may even be a webcast on the day of, (I have no idea if this is technically possible!). Also, the NWEP will collect the conversations and condense them into a document that will be published on our website before the election writ is dropped.
So , I hope to see you there! I’m a scientist by training, and some the funnest parts are when you don’t know what the results will be, but you just throw the switch and collect the data, and let the numbers fall where they will.What could possibly go wrong? 
Sapperton Pensioners Hall- 318 Kearey Street- Saturday, March 9, 1:00pm to 3:30 pm.

Digging Deeper

I love it when I agree with the people I am disagreeing with.

Chris Bryan, the Editor of the New West News Leader, is building a reputation for some compelling opinion pieces. This week, he definitely hit that mark with his column entitled “New Westminster’s traffic discussion must dig deeper” .  It is compelling because I can agree and disagree with almost every idea in the column.

The essential question (if Bryan will afford me the benefit of paraphrasing) is: “How long can New Westminster resist the paving over of our neighbourhoods to service the cities on our borders?”

My simple answer is as long as we are here. Because what is the alternative?

Yes, Surrey (pop 468,000) and Coquitlam (pop 126,000) would love it if New Westminster (pop 68,000) would get the hell out of the way and allow their residents to get from house to work or shops quicker. I would argue that is firmly in the category of “not our problem”.

Douglas Adams, in my second favorite piece of absurdist writing, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy discussed the idea of building freeways through people’s homes:

“Bypasses are devices that allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast while other people dash from point B to point A very fast. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what’s so great about point A that so many people from point B are so keen to get there, and what’s so great about point B that so many people from point A are so keen to get there. They often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to be.”

This was just as relevant to Arthur Dent’s house and his planet, which were (spoiler alert) both destroyed to make way for bypasses, as it was to Jane Jacobs in Washington Square Park (spoiler alert) which she helped save along with the soul of Greenwich Village and New Westminster in 2013.

I’m not sure why we, in New Westminster, the first City in British Columbia, the former Capital of the Colony, and the original heart of the region, should give a rat’s ass what upstart suburbs like Coquitlam and Surrey need, now that they have built huge communities of sprawling auto-oriented neighbourhoods whose very economic survival relies on their expanding populace having an unfettered ability to drive through the New Westminster community – through our very neighbourhoods.

It isn’t our intractable resistance to plowing over our City that got them into this mess, it is their continued choice to develop on the assumption that we would eventually plow our City down to accommodate their needs.

Yes, The Strange Case of the Bailey Bridge is a great example of how New Westminster concerns itself with preserving its character and historic neighbourhoods instead of sacrificing everything we are to allow Coquitlam to build (to quote Chris Bryan) “a rapidly growing big-box retail area, and… the redevelopment of Fraser Mills into a residential community housing thousands of new drivers poorly served by transit.”

Perhaps a better example is the history of Braid Skytrain Station. Coquitlam was given the opportunity, back in the 1990s to have SkyTrain service to Maillardville. Fears of the “CrimeTrain” and density caused Coquitlam to resist rapid transit in their most historic neighbourhood, and the line and station were moved to more forward-thinking (and more historic) New Westminster.

By their own preference, Coquitlam instead got 8 lanes of Highway 1, and 6 horribly congested lanes of Lougheed Highway in Maillardville. They are now afraid that 7,500 people living in Fraser Mills will be the gigantic strawpile that breaks the back of their community. It may dump too many cars across their shiny new overpass into the traffic quagmire of their own (terrible) planning. A 4-lane Bailey Bridge and overpass looming over Sapperton will surely afford them some temporary relief, but only by pushing the traffic pinch point, idling pissed-off drivers and livability impacts a few hundred metres into New Westminster neighbourhoods.

These bad planning decisions were not made by New Westminster- in fact we were not even consulted on them. Why should we suddenly acquiesce to their unanticipated “needs”?

So Coquitlam is willing to finance the slow destruction of our 150-year-old City? Thanks, but no thanks. Their generous offer only makes us enablers.

Instead, New Westminster is taking the principled, responsible stand. We are leading the region in building a compact, transit-friendly, sustainable community. We are developing a Master Transportation Plan that builds on our current strength as the Municipality with the second-highest alternative transportation mode share in the Province (excuse the emphasis, but this is a pretty big point!). We are making it easier for people to live, work and shop in the same community. We are building mixed commercial-residential developments on SkyTrain lines. We are increasing density, and are taking risks building office space and investing in community amenities.

For those who must move across the region, we are making it easier to do so through transit, through cycling, through car-sharing. We are making genuine efforts to reduce our community’s load on Coquitlam and Surrey roads. The results are demonstrated in our region-leading alternative mode share, and we are aiming to do better!

So do we need to “dig deeper”? Hell yes. We all do. We are facing major growth, climate, and economic challenges. In New Westminster, that means we need to have cojones to say to our neighbours that their car-driving problems are a result of their poor planning, and we are terribly sorry, but you are not going to fill our community with pavement to solve them.

If Coquitlam wants to put 7,500 residents in Fraser Mills, they had better figure out a way to move them around that doesn’t include cars passing through Braid and Brunette.

If Surrey needs a billion dollars to expand rapid transit to serve their growing population, we will be the first to step up and advocate to senior governments on their behalf to get them the transit system of their dreams. But if they want to spend that billion dollars to expand a freeway bridge into the heart of our City, they will have a hell of a fight on their hands.

We are ready, Chris. We are ready to help the region move forward and fulfill its Regional Growth Strategy, its Regional Transportation Plans, its Sustainability Plans.

It may look to them like we are “dug in”, but we in New Westminster are actually leading. Maybe it is they who need to dig deeper.