On TransLink and the referendum

I really wanted to write an in-depth piece on the TransLink Funding Referendum; a withering piece using phrases like “abhorrent abdication of accountability” and “irresponsible idiocy that threatens the livability of the region”, but I realized there has already been a ton of good stuff written on this issue.

So before wading through MY diatribe below, why not see what noted Bridge-and-Freeway advocates like Mayor Diane Watts and Mayor Richard Stewart have to say on the subject. Or you can follow the writings of the leading thinkers on regional development, like Gordon Price, or Stephen Rees. Or how about the dirty hippies at Business in Vancouver? It seems no-one outside of the Premier’s office (and it’s PR wing at the Vancouver Sun) think this is a good idea. Even the new Minister of Transportation seems to skirt around the issue.

The Referendum is a bad idea, and perhaps the best way to explain how bad and idea is to take a (supposedly) thought-out and argued case FOR the referendum, and disassemble it. Please forgive me if I stray towards a Strawman fallacy here, but I am not making up a preposterously weak pro-referendum case here, I am just relating one that appeared in one of the PostMedia Papers of Note. If you hear a better argument for the referendum than the one I critique below, please send it to me, so I can tear that one apart as well.

I present to you, Province “Metro View” columnist Jon Ferry:

I’m no huge fan of referendums to resolve major public-policy issues, any more than I’m of penalty shootouts to decide hockey or soccer games.

Why are you not a fan of referenda? Perhaps you can expand this, because the 490 words following your initial expression of dislike seems to argue that referenda are a good idea, even for complex issues. If you hate them, why are you advocating for one? This sentence makes the rest of the discussion sound like one of those rants your drunk uncle goes off on that starts with “I don’t want to be racist, but…”

But they have their place, especially when an issue gets so tied up in political knots that a direct appeal to the people in a simple, take-it-or-leave-it vote is the only way to disentangle it.

But this cannot possibly be a simple take-it-or-leave it vote, can it? If that is what you are proposing, a question that says: “Do we want to raise your taxes through ‘X’ to pay for a subway to UBC and buses to White Rock and fancy offices for TransLink bureaucrats who couldn’t plan their way out of a wet paper bag? Or not? ” then we all know it doesn’t matter what the ‘X’ is: it will fail. We all know this is how any request for more tax money from any source will be framed by the Vancouver Province and Sun other car-dependant media. I hardly exaggerate, as you can see that narrative is already being drawn.

Then we will all be here in the same place 16 months from now, wondering why Skytrain keeps breaking down and why busses are passing people by on the curb, with no plan to deal with it and no new revenue source. If anyone can imagine a simple yes-no referendum question to which the majority of voters will say “Yes” and which will also lead to TransLink being funded adequately to meet the Transport 2040 goals, then I have not yet heard it expressed. The referendum will not untangle any political knots, it will only tighten the string for another two years and drag TransLink failures into the Municipal election cycle, pitching “Pro-Tax Mayors” against “Anti-Tax Mayors”.

That’s why I think the Christy Clark government must not bow to the wishes of the Metro Vancouver mayors and must refuse to renege on its election pledge to hold a referendum on possible “sources of new funding” for TransLink.

Right. Why should the Premier show any leadership at all, or even work together with the Mayors in an honest discussion of the issue without the side-show of a doomed referendum? The TransLink Board is her baby – it came with the job – so unless she is willing to turn TransLink back over to the Mayors to run, she should start thinking about how she is going to pay for it, and take the plunge. It is the willingness of Victoria to make random and ill-advised decisions regarding TransLink (FalconGates, the terrible Golden Ears Bridge deal, endlessly delaying Evergreen) that has put TransLink in its current financial bind. Now the Premier wants to continue to run TransLink from Victoria, but get the Mayors to pay for it so she doesn’t have to raise any taxes. The Mayors are right to tell her to get bent.

I believe that the mayors are being downright patronizing when they say the topic is too complicated for voters in their area to decide upon.

Look- referenda have their place, but this is not it.

I think referenda should be reserved for significant changes to government structure (e.g. changing the Constitution) or questions where our “social norms” are being evaluated (e.g. the legalization of marijuana). Where they should never be used is when the question is one of the rights of a minority (e.g. same-sex marriage equality or  the stunningly inept BC Aboriginal Treaty Referendum of 2002).

I would include tax policy as a third subject that should never go to referendum. (see discussion of HST referendum below). Ultimately, revenue generation and spending is what we hire a Government to do, it is the core of the budget every year, and in a place like BC where the government rarely sits in a legislature, it is almost the only thing a government does. There is a referendum on their tax policy, and it is held every 4 years. It is bad governance to parse out one small part of tax policy and put it up for referendum, because you cannot forecast spending or growth, you cannot even frame a balanced budget, unless the results of the referendum are pre-determined. Which, in this case, it will be, So why go through the exercise?

They’re also being alarmist in claiming a defeat by taxpayers of new “sustainable funding” — meaning new taxes — would doom metro to a stagnant transit system.

Alarmist? How is pointing out the obvious negative consequences of delaying, yet again for another year or two, investment in public Transportation being “alarmist”?  If you do not think the current funding crisis is hurting the current system, you have not tried to catch a 99 B-line or been on a westbound SkyTrain at 8:00am or had to make last-minute changes to your plans because “switching problems” scuttled the morning Skytrain Commute for the third time in a week.

A “stagnant Transit system” is, at this point, not “alarmist”, but an optimistic dream. In the last year, TransLink has not only been unable to move ahead on expansion plans (other than the Evergreen Line, which is finally seeing construction after more than 20 years in delays, mostly due to money committed years ago), they have actually cut bus routes to growing communities. Queensborough, Coquitlam, Maple Ridge- these areas are seeing bus service reduced, even as their population and density increases. The system is shrinking, squeezed of dollars at the same time that Billions are spent on new freeways and bridges. As service becomes less reliable, people will stop relying on it, and will instead avail themselves of all those new roads and bridges, increasing congestion, increasing GHG impacts, increasing roadbuilding costs and maintenance, making our communities noisier, less safe, more crowded, and more polluted. This will cut TransLink off from what has become its most stable form of income- fares. Indeed, with no more money inputs, the system will not stay stagnant- it will fail.

Now, I disagreed with scrapping the HST. But I think Victoria was right to put it to a referendum in 2011, if only to clear the air.

OK, let’s nip this comparison in the bud. Victoria was forced to put the HST to a referendum, they didn’t decide to – they had no choice! This was an example of a bad policy choice being made by the populace in a referendum, simply because the word “tax” was attached the wrong side of the story. This actually makes the case for the “patronizing” position of the Mayors.

What should have happened with the HST is the Government of Gordon Campbell should have been honest with the populace, introduced and explained the HST to the public, and sold them on the merits of the tax over the old system. They should have done this a year before the provincial election when they started negotiations with the Feds, not just introduce it with little warning a month after an election. The referendum campaign and overturning of the HST was a reaction to a dishonest and cowardly government, not a bad tax. Any policy discussion where Bill Vander Zalm is seen as the voice of reason is a clear sign governance has gone off the rails. The conversation during the referendum was distorted into an anti-Gordon Campbell plebiscite and the result was a bad decision made for the wrong reasons.

And I think a fairly worded referendum on raising, or not raising, new tax money for metro area transit would do the same.

Really. You honestly think if during a Municipal election, the government asks the Taxpayers of the region if they want to pay more taxes to build a subway for UBC students and bike racks for buses (because, mark my words, that is the level of discourse we will end up having around this referendum) that there is any chance of more than 35% of them voting yes? What planet are you sending your dispatch from? Please, Mr. Ferry, or anyone, show me a question that will result in a properly funded regional transportation system. I dare you.

The Mayors Council on Regional Transportation voted June 19 to formally oppose such a referendum, planned for the fall of next year, saying “making complex policy by referendums is contrary to principles of good governance.”

Of course, no-one ever accused Christy Clark of good governance. She can sure campaign, but so far her governance skills are as suspect as her driving. This is why, when she is stuck in a corner here and needs to display some governance skills, she is choosing instead to make a “campaign” of it. She will turn the entire conversation about the future of the region into one of those he-says/she-says confrontational radio call-in shows that were her specialty. The conversation will not invest deeply in fact, established principles of regional or transportation planning, systems science, or any of the complex ideas that make up a complex infrastructure strategy. It will be quips and “ya know’s” and pandering to the voter about what is “important to families” and gotcha moments. There is no risk of good governance arising from this.

What pompous nonsense. The public makes great decisions on complex issues at the ballot box, even if the politicians they elect aren’t always the brightest of the bunch.

(I’ll leave aside the fact you just said you disagree with the results of the last referendum) Following your reasoning, what decision should NOT be made by Referendum? I never got to vote on the $5 Billion spent on Gateway freeway projects (the SFPR, Port Mann2, Highway 1 expansion, etc). I never got to vote on a $500 Million roof for a football stadium. I never got to vote on the Billions spent on the Olympics. I am not being offered a vote on the replacement for the Pattullo Bridge, or the Massey Tunnel, or on the Kinder Morgan Pipeline expansion. I cannot even vote on the betting of our entire province’s economy on building a half-dozen LNG plants. If the single largest industrial investment ever in the Province, one that will radically restructure the BC economy while contributing multiples of our current GHG output to the atmosphere isn’t worthy of referendum, if no other transportation infrastructure investment in the history of the Province has ever needed a referendum, If BC Ferries rate increases, BC Hydro Rates, Carbon Tax increases, run-of-the-river hydro expansion, the sale of our Provincial assets, if none of these can be trusted to referenda, why this one little local transportation authority held to a different standard?

No, the big problem with the provision of public transportation in our region of 24 local authorities is that those supposed to be piloting it get so paralyzed by indecision they don’t seem to know whether they’re coming or going.

So fallacious an argument that it isn’t even wrong. TransLink knows exactly where it needs to go. Transport 2040, knows the funding it needs, knows what is available to it and what isn’t. The Mayors are also on side, as is the regional government. The direction forward is clear. Planning- knowing whether they are coming or going- is not TransLink’s problem. Political interference that drops in just long enough to muck up the the business plan, then steps back to avoid accountability is the Problem. The only people who paralysed with indecision on TransLink have been completely ineffectual Ministers of Transportation Blair Lekstrom and Mary Polak. Kevin Falcon, when he was in the role, made bad decisions that are still costing us, but at least he made decisions.

Part of the reason for this is the awkward/awful governance structure of TransLink. There’s also confusion about whether TransLink is a bus firm, rail company or simply another Vision-style bicycle-promotion scheme. Or is it an agency genuinely serving the travelling public?

I cannot believe one the major newspapers in Vancouver could have a “Metro View” writer express such a stunning ignorance of the largest single issue in the region today. No wonder Postmedia’s ship is sinking. TransLink is a regional transportation authority, responsible for a “bus firm”, three distinct “rail companies”, a transit ferry, three bridges and the entire Major road Network (>1,000km of roads used by cars every day!), and, yes, indeed, last year they spent 0.2% of their budget on bicycle infrastructure to further the Great Socialist Cycling Agenda. In every aspect of the above, they are serving the travelling public (even those who dare travel on bicycles!). They move hundreds of thousands of people every day – it is virtually impossible to move in the City without interacting with one of thier assets, and are one of the most cost-efficient transportation authorities in North America. If Mr. Ferry is confused about TransLink’s role, he should start reading, or get a new job far, far away from the “Metro View” file. Maybe you can parlay your talents into full time Climate-Change denial, as you only seem to dabble in it these days, and that stuff can really pay off.

B.C.’s new transportation minister, Todd Stone, confirms there’ll be a referendum on possible new TransLink funding sources, but the wording of the question to be asked voters still has to be decided. He says discussing this with the metro mayors is one of his top priorities. How TransLink is governed will also be addressed.

Wait- maybe there is some promise here. Why not have a referendum just on the governance? Because we all agree – the taxpayer, the Mayors, and now even the Minister of Transportation, that this is the problem with TransLink. Simple question: Who should run TransLink, a Council of Mayors that the voters get to vote for, or an unaccountable board of Political appointees chosen by the Premier?

“We have committed to having the governance worked out and agreed upon in time for the spring sitting of the legislature in 2014,” Stone told me.

Worked out and Agreed upon might be two different things. It is clear the Mayors are not going along with this referendum plan, if if that is the case, will the Minister forge ahead without their consent? And just who is paying for the Referendum? Who is financing the “yes” and “no” campaigns? Will the referendum only be regional, or will people in Fort St. John get to decide if their Provincial Income Tax or Carbon Tax are used in Greater Vancouver to build bike paths to avail Hipsters of their Latte?

Vancouver city Coun. George Affleck says he doesn’t really like referendums, but the metro mayors should stop being in denial about the Clark government’s obvious commitment to one. Affleck, of the Non-Partisan Association, also believes there’s “an appetite in the region for people to start to pay a bit more for transit infrastructure.”

At the risk of repeating myself: Please, Mr. Affleck, show me a question that will result in a properly funded regional transportation system. I dare you. And if only the people in the region are voting, that pretty much takes the Provincial government off the hook, doesn’t it? If the Province is off the hook, can you ate least admit they should then disband the Victoria-appointed board and put TransLink back under regional control?

I’m not so sure about that. But I look forward to finding out about it in a referendum. So far, the alternatives haven’t exactly worked out.

OK- here it is. Mr. Ferry admits he thinks the referendum will fail. So the only alternative he thinks will work is the one that he knows won’t work. Great analysis there Mr. Ferry. That sound you hear is my slow, ironic clapping.

Alas, the Queensborough Bridge works.

I’m really going out on a limb on this one. I’ve said some unpopular things in the past, but this might be the one that ends my blog, and has me run out of town on the end of a burning pitchfork. Against the advice of all whom I respect and trust, I am just going to come right out and say this:

The intersection at the north foot of the Queensborough Bridge functions as well as possible, and could not possibly work better.

I know what you are saying now. It is a fiasco! The last fix was good money thrown against bad! A perfect example of how engineers have no idea what they are doing! An epic boondoggle that has ruined our City for a generation! The cause of the region’s (if not the world’s) worst traffic quagmire!

I suggest this well-worn trope is not true. I do not do this lightly, because I know it is a sore point for people stuck in the queue down 20th every morning, or the people stuck in the Sixth Ave access awaiting light cycles that seem red for 5 minutes and green just long enough to let three cars through, or the people lining up in the right lane on Stewardson behind the endless line of container trucks inching towards the bridge, or even the people scooting up the left lane on Stewardson hoping that one of those trucks will open just the barest fraction of a gap they can scoot into after passing a kilometre of dupes lollygagging around in the right lane.

I commute across the Queensborough Bridge, often by car. I have been all of those people. I not only sympathize with their plight, I empathize with it. I have lived it. I just don’t agree with them that the intersection where Sixth Ave, 20th Street and Stewardson Way all come together is the problem. Or maybe I should say there is no way to change that intersection that will fix the problem.

First, the quick-and-dirty history of the Queensborough Bridge. It was originally built not as part of a freeway system, but to provide community access to the Queensborough neighbourhood back in the late 1950s. Like every other bridge of the era, the Queensborough’s construction was financed and paid by tolls. By the standards of the time, and considering it was connected to local roads at each end, the four narrow lanes and 1.2m sidewalk (all without separation barriers) were appropriate and did the job.

In the mid-1980s, the building of the Alex Fraser Bridge and the East-West Connector suddenly attached the Queensborough to a couple of bustling new freeways, so the Ministry of Transportation took over the bridge and significantly re-built the southern approach. With the SkyTrain arriving around the same time (resulting in re-configuration of Stewardson Way) and the opening of the new Marine Way (a semi-freeway that move Marine Drive traffic down into ALR lands in south Burnaby), the Queensborough was gradually morphed into dealing with “freeway” traffic loads, for which it was clearly not designed. The traffic load was mitigated somewhat by the traffic lights at Howes Street, on Marine Drive to the west of the bridge, and at the foot of 20th, but as traffic increased concomitant with the new highway capacity to the south, the queues on Stewardson and 20th became endemic (in both senses of the word).

Starting in 2003, there was a major re-design of the bridge approaches at both ends. On Howes, an overpass/exchange removed the last traffic light on Highway 91 (until the notorious 72nd Ave compromise), and on the north end, the not-to-standard loop on the east side of the bridge was replaced by a just-meeting-standards loop on the west side. There were also major re-configuring of the pedestrian access (an overpass to 22nd Street, re-opening of the east side sidewalk, hanging the sidewalk off the side to increase traffic lane widths and allow protective barriers be installed). It is, however, the re-configuration on the North abutment that causes the most consternation.

But what changed in that re-configuration?

BEFORE – click to zoom in. 

Before the change, there was exactly one lane entering the bridge from the east (combining the traffic from Stewardson Way, 20th St. and Sixth Ave.) and one from the West (off of Marine Way). The merge from the east was kind of sketchy, as through-traffic (that bypassing the bridge) from Stewardson and Sixth entered in the left lane and had to get to the right while mixing with vehicles entering from the right who are trying to get left. At the same time, they are entering a low-radius curve, and merging with traffic coming around the loop from the right.

Rather fortuitously, the orthophoto on Google Maps caught one of the big safety issues with the old configuration:

Look at the truck-trailer combo on the curve, and how the geometry of the curve makes it difficult for her to maintain her lane. With cars on both sides, people still completing merges, and the blindness of the turn for anyone in a car- this was not an optimal setup.

In the new set-up, the curve was made larger-radius, and all of the turning happens where it is a single lane, significantly increasing safety and reliability. The merges take place well before the curve, and the two sets of merges are separated by space, simplifying action for drivers. There are also barriers between the curved lanes, removing the risk of head-on impacts. There is no doubt this is a safer configuration for drivers.

But note the number of lanes entering the bridge. There is exactly one lane entering the bridge from the east (combining the traffic from Stewardson Way, 20th St. and Sixth Ave.) and one from the West (off of Marine Way). Exactly as it was before. The only difference is that the merges start further back and are more controlled.

I contend that any alleged increase in traffic back-ups on Stewardson, 20th and Sixth are not caused by the lights and re-configuration, but by all three lanes trying to fit into one lane on the bridge- a condition that existed before the changes and simply cannot be fixed without building a bigger bridge.

“But, But, it is worse now! Look at all the cars! It was never like this!”

That may be true, there may be longer lines and more vehicles now, but that has little to do with the most recent intersection changes. The proof is that the pinch point is not at the intersection or the lights, it is at the merge where everyone is trying to enter the bridge. The light cycles on Sixth seem short, but rarely does it turn yellow when there is room enough to run the intersection. The same with 20th. There is always a line-up of vehicles west of the lights, and the Stewardson Traffic is unaffected by the intersection, but is still congested.

Where the real traffic back-up is. 

The reality of the matter is that there is no way to stream more cars onto the 4-lane Queensborough Bridge. During morning and evening rush, it is at capacity. Removal of the traffic lights at 20th and Sixth will have very little effect on the queues on those roads.

This is something to keep in mind when people talk about changes on Stewardson, Front Street, or Royal Ave that are designed to “get the traffic moving”. How much will we spend to make this pinch point worse?

Ultimately, the situation on the Queensborough was improved – by allowing queue-jumping by transit buses and making the cycling and pedestrian infrastructure safer- both giving people a better alternative than sitting in traffic and getting steamed over that jerk who scooted up the open left lane and just dove in front of the container truck you have been patiently following in right for the last 10 minutes…

The numbers tell the story

Gordon Price has almost the opposite Blogging philosophy than me – he just puts direct, incisive, short messages out there, and provides enough links so you can put the pieces together yourself. I tend to draw things out laboriously and write with about 2,000 words what a brighter person could in 200.

Case in point- this post you are currently reading, which is a follow up to this post on Gordon’s blog “Price Tags”, where he provides two images, a quote from the source, a couple of links and says everything that has to be said in three short sentences. Contrast this with the long diatribe below.

Clearly, the Province Newspaper has the hate on for bicycles. I suspect it has less to do with bicycles and more to do with not particularly liking the current Mayor of Vancouver, whom they blame for the sudden appearance of bicycles and bike lanes in Vancouver. The fact that all these bicycles and bike lanes are appearing because of a Transportation Plan developed in the City of Vancouver in 1997, and moved forward by Mayors Philip Owen (NPA), Larry Campbell (COPE), Sam Sullivan (NPA) and Robertson (Vision), is missed in the current discussion, but I digress.

So I follow the links Gordon Price provided, did 5 minutes of Google research, and figured that the Province was indeed profoundly dishonest in their reporting on this issue. As is my wont, I went to twitter and called the Province on it. I might have used slightly stronger language than Mr. Price, but I clearly got a reaction, which led to this chain of communications:

Yeah, I’m a bit of a jerk, but I think they deserved it. Here’s why.

Start with the headline:

Bike-lane ridership stalled on Burrard Bridge

See, bike riding is increasing across the City, as is transit use and just plain old walking to work, while car use is the only mode of transportation in Vancouver that is on a steady decline. The Burrard Street Bridge bike lanes, as successful as they are, were the first time that the idea of dedicating a small percentage of the City’s asphalt to bikes hit the front page. It was, if you will, the first public battle in the imaginary “war on cars”. It also happens to be directly attached to the now-controversial Cornwall-York-Pt.Gray Road bike plan, which is the were the latest battle in the same imaginary war is being fought.

So what better story than a story about how no-one is biking over the Burrard Street Bridge anymore?

Too bad it isn’t true.

“Cherry Picking” is a common rhetorical technique where you take a big body of data, and selectively choose from that data the specific set that makes your point. The best example of this is with the current crop of Climate Change Deniers who say something like “It hasn’t gotten any hotter since 1998”– knowing full well that 1998 was the hottest year in history (well, not really, it is complicated), and ignoring the fact that every year after 1998 was warmer than almost every year before 1998. It is the easiest way to lie with statistics.

So look at the data set that the Province graphed for your benefit, and you see some months were ahead of others (likely related to week-long runs of bad weather that dissuade some riders, but maybe also related to road repairs, Canucks playoffs, whatever little bits of data go into the bigger noise:

It is hard to take from that that data set that cycling is declining, or “stalling”. In this very first level analysis, from two specific time points, on one of the routes measured, there was a 1% reduction in counted cyclists on one route. The model for Cherry Picking data.

Being the detail-oriented guy I am, I went to the City of Vancouver website and tried to find the data source. The only thing I found was this site, which does actually report cycling traffic counts for the last few years on specific routes. I brought the .pdf  file into Excel and created a chart as close as I could make to the Province one. This proved rather challenging, as their y-axis didn’t make sense- (75,000, 10,000, 20,000 !?!)- and clearly made the raw numbers of cyclists look smaller than they were. Anyway, I used the real numbers, and it looked like this:

Which was subtly different from the numbers reported by the Province. Compare September, October, pretty much any month- the numbers they used are clearly not those from the City’s website.

So then I went to Twitter to ask Province what their data source was, and got no reply after 48 hours. What did happen was the Province, a few hours later, changed the chart that had in the online version of the story:

It looked a little more like mine in a few months (January and February), although some months still had bad data (see September). At least they had their y-axis figured out. Progress for the old media.

So let’s ignore their charts, perhaps a mistake was made by an unpaid intern – really, with the Province laying off all of their paid staff, these kinds of things will happen. Let’s look at the actual data.

If you look at the last 12 months for which data are available, there are 7 months when more cyclists used the Burrard than in the same month in the previous year. There were 5 months when there were fewer cyclists. In longer-tern trends, you can pull other things out: January, February and March 2010 were anomalously high – which is clearly an effect of the Olympic traffic disruptions, and not something you can hang a trend on. The June 2011 anomaly can likely be similarly linked to the Canucks Stanley Cup run. My point only that the data is noisy, making Cherry Picking a simple technique.

Looking at the raw data, it is clear that there have been something like 1 million bike trips cross the Burrard Bridge within any 12-month period in the last 4 years. Which makes one wonder how the Province ever found a situation where they could take a picture of the bridge and only have one cyclist in frame.

To quote the article:

“Despite years of Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver councillors peddling the merits of pedalling, ridership on the controversial Burrard Bridge separated bike lanes has declined in the past year. Total bike trips compiled by the city for the 12 months ending April 2013 — the most recent statistics available — show that ridership is down by 16,000 compared to the previous 12-month period from May 2011 to April 2012.”

The data tells us May 2012-April 2013 saw 1,028,000 crossings where May 2011 to April 2012 saw 1,044,000 crossings. So the 16,000 reduction is true. But is it relevant? I took the 12-month cumulative ridership ending in every month from July 2012 to June 2013, and here is the trend (the two time periods mentioned in the Province story are highlighted in red):

I’m no expert, but that doesn’t look like a meaningful decline. The number of cyclists crossing the Burrard is basically stable. Meanwhile, the use of bicycles on other routes in the City are increasing. How do I know that? The free toss-away paper I found on the SkyTrain offered a different version of the exact same story on the same day.

Of course, they were also lying, depending on how one reads the statistics.

BLOC – Calling a spade a spade

So I’m on my regular commute home yesterday, and find my bike lane blocked by a parked Tow Truck. It is not all that unusual to have cars parked in bike lanes; there were actually three on my route home yesterday alone.

Most of the time, I just occupy the driving lane (when safe) and mutter under my breath. If the vehicle is a little dusty, I might stop and write “don’t park in bike lanes” with my finger on the back window. Very occasionally, I stop and snap a picture, thinking it might end up on my blog at some point. The Tow Truck was near a “no stopping” sign, and right on top of the bike route decal, and was blocking the entire lane, and I thought – what the hell, I have my camera right here.

As I stop in front of the truck and frame the picture, a guy sitting on the porch of the adjacent house asks me what I’m doing.

“Some asshole parked in the Bike Lane,” I said. “I’m taking a picture”.

He replies, “That’s my truck.”

I turn slowly towards him, shrug my shoulders in a way that I hope imparted the “you called it, not me” impression. Snapped my photo, got on my bike and rode away.

He shouted something after me, I’m not sure what.

It was a good day.

Peak Oil coming home.

By now, the front page of the newspaper has moved away from Lac-Mégantic to more recent tragedies and travesties, while the body count in Quebec is still incomplete and the memorials have just begun. Cities like New Westminster that are wrapped around rail yards are taking the opportunity to do a little inward reflection – are we under similar risk? What’s in those tankers over there? What can we do about it? Meanwhile, remaining discussions of the original incident are circling around whom to blame- and who should pay.

Everyone is trying to score “political points”, mostly by accusing others of trying to score “political points”. The media treated us to the strange spectacle of an unprepared Corporate Boss ham-fistedly talking to people who recently had their City and/or families destroyed- then the media somehow concentrated on his poor management of a PR opportunity and not on his poor management of a Train Company that just killed 50 people… alas.

Mistakes were made.

People (including me) who have found themselves questioning for several years what our country slowly evolving into a Petro-State really means find we have to censor ourselves at times like these. Yeah, it may be hard to directly link the Calgary Floods and the Toronto Storm and the fact most of the western United States is currently on fire directly to fossil fuel burning and profiteering, and if I were to suggest a link, I am the one trying to capture “political points” (whatever the hell those are) from others’ tragedies.

One thing is certain about Lac-Mégantic: this is what Peak Oil looks like. Much like the Deepwater Horizon disaster and our Federal Government’s decision to approve Shell’s new Bitumen Sand megaproject while acknowledging it will violate the Species at Risk Act, the Migratory Birds Convention, and there is no technology yet invented to mitigate the destruction it will do to the environment, the people at Lac-Mégantic died because the cheap and easy oil is gone and burned.

When pipeline proponents used this as an example of why pipelines were safer than trains for moving oil, they were missing the point here. The oil that destroyed Lac-Mégantic could not be moved by pipeline, because it came from parts of the Bakken Field where pipelines are not part of the mix. This is not a place where porous rock full of oil sits in the ground until an enterprising driller sticks a pipe in it and sees a black gold gusher. This wasn’t even a viable oil field 20 years ago, even though it has been considered a hydrocarbon source rock since the 1950s, when all the easy stuff was skimmed off the top. The currently-accessed Bakken oil is trapped in non-porous shale deposits, and cannot be removed from the ground without hydraulic fracturing. Essentially, the rock needs to be made porous enough for the oil to flow to the well through violence.

Problem is, the oil produced by a hydraulic fractured well is not plentiful. Each well head does not have decades-long lifespan, but will only produce economically for months. This is why the Bakken Field looks unlike any conventional oil field. New technology had to be invented that allowed wells to be jacked up and moved around quickly. This is the reason that 2,000 wells are being drilled per year and an equal number abandoned, not to expand the field, but just to maintain production levels. With the source of the oil moving around daily- it is neigh impossible to build an economic pipeline system that connects it all. By the time the pipe is laid, the well has run dry. So Bakken Oil is moved by truck and by train, re-purposing the rail sidings in small rural towns where there used to be silos to store grain and sugar beets.

As a bonus, because there is no viable way to sell the gas that vents from these spurt-production wells, it is vented or flared, making Bakken Field Oil almost as GHG-intensive as Canada’s Bitumen Sands.

This is just another face of “unconventional oil”- the place where a society economically addicted to oil will go when the easy oil runs out – this is what Peak Oil looks like. Hydraulic fracturing (despite what some might suggest) is not a new technology- it has been used for at least 60 years – you are only hearing about it now because it has suddenly become the only economically viable way to suck the last bits of oil and gas out of formations that do not give them up easily. It is economically viable now because oil is over $100 a barrel, and because Western Governments have decided to subsidise the practice, both directly with cash and tax incentives, and indirectly by removing the type of environmental protections that would make it more difficult or expensive to do.

This doesn’t stop when it gets out of the ground, either. Moving oil by trucks and trains is more expensive, in a number-of-pennies-to-move-a-barrel-of-oil-a-mile sense, but we are out of options for these marginal fields and the good fields are gone. It isn’t David Suzuki and Al Gore who are responsible for the number of railcar loads of heavy oil crossing our country going from 500 just 4 years ago to 140,000 today; this is a product of the continued exploitation of more marginal oil supplies as our addiction goes on.

Of course, when your transportation service is more expensive than the competition, there is large incentive to cut back, reduce cost, pinch pennies to remain competitive. When asked why there was only one Engineer on the fateful train carrying $6,000,000 worth of volatile substances, the President of the rail company made vague statements about how if your competition reduces costs by 1%, you need to keep up. In an industry that is steadily becoming more self-regulated as the government reduces costs by cutting back on inspections, safety is one of those places where a few pennies saved can pay off. It’s not like no-one was warning that the DOT-111 rail cars being pressed into service to move oil were ticking time bombs. This is not limited, of course, to trains. A similar situation is facing us with Trucking in BC, where regular inspections are replaced by self-regulation and “inspection blitzes” where the vast majority of trucks are operating in violation of the law– and more than 40% are deemed too dangerous to continue their trip! No doubt saving pennies along the way.

It is the race to the bottom, as the resource becomes more marginal, and the need remains insatiable, because we refuse to consider shifting gears until we are forced to. Like any other addiction, this leads to poor decision making, hasty rationalization, and irresponsible risk taking. This is the horse our nation is tying itself too – as we migrate into full Petro-State status, throwing all of our eggs into an increasingly threadbare basket.

As long as this happens, we will have a prosperous economy that keeps too many children in poverty, a thriving business climate while long-term youth unemployment reaches record highs, and we will promise low taxes to support these important businesses, even as the systems that support the citizens fall apart from lack of funding.

A week after the deadliest corporate crime in recent Canadian history, the bodies are not even identified yet, the grim count not yet complete, but it is business as usual in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa. He shuffled his cabinet to clear the air of an increasingly stale stench– changing a few of the pawns in the middle rows while the suits in the front row maintain their armour. The Minister of Transportation- the person who should be held to account for this massive failure on his watch – is quietly shuffled out of his post and moved to Industry – making it easy for he and his replacement to cowardly avoid ever having to answer any uncomfortable questions. None of these question are going to come from the Elected Representative of Lac-Mégantic, as their MP is Christian Pardis, who was himself busy being moved away from his Minister of Industry post and into International Development – where he can oversee the continued deconstruction of Canada’s aid systems for the Third World where the impacts of our continued exacerbation of Anthropogenic Global Warming for quick profit will be felt the most.

It’s the circle of political life, Petro-State style.

A full-on New West Weekend

Yep, it is Show & Shine Weekend. New Westminster’s biggest “Car Free Day” and the only one held downtown. The irony that our only “Car Free Day” on our most perennially traffic-challenged street that suffered from autodom and resultant urban decay due to overwhelming through-traffic for too many years and has only begun to recover thanks to an aggressive road diet and the development of a transit-oriented development scheme is an event that exists to celebrate the very autodom that caused the mess in the first place is not lost to me…
That said, the Show & Shine is the biggest annual event in New Westminster, and a great opportunity to show off our City to some ridiculous number of people (100,000+) visiting from out of town. It is also a fun event, with music, food, beer gardens, overweight guys wandering around shirtless, and assorted good times. I attend every year. 

Of course, even the Show & Shine is moving into the 21st century, even as they celebrate the best of the 20th, and will have displays of Electric cars (thanks in part of the people form VEVA) and a bicycle show & shine showing off cool and retro bikes from the great folks at New West Cycle. I plan to spend some quality time hanging at the Bicycle area.
Really though, it is all about the cars, and I am not so “green” that I can’t appreciate the beautiful marriage of engineering and design that was the mid-20th century automobile. I’m partial the small, agile and European examples (If I was to own one car, any car, it would be an original 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder or – the ultimate dream – a 1962 Ferrari 250 GT Berlinetta lusso. But being about $2 Million short, I will have to settle for my 1996 Civic that is edging towards 250,000 km and just passed AirCare) but mostly admire the dedication and hard work of the people who care about collecting, restoring, and preserving these machines of a bygone era.
There is another community event on Sunday. Over at lower Hume Park, the City Parks folks and Evergreen (a not-for-profit that works to protect urban ecology) are holding the second “Uncover your Creeks” event at Hume Park. You can bring your family to learn about the ecology of Hume Park and the Brunette River, and even help with some invasive plant removal and water quality sampling in the river. It is a great chance to do a little Citizen Science and help out our local parks! 

All this Sunday action follows Summerfest in Grimston Park on Saturday afternoon/evening. 
This truly grassroots neighbourhood celebration is open to all, and is especially family-oriented. Grimston Park is taken over by a big neighbourhood picnic, with fun and games, food vendors, a musical stage, and, as the sun sets, a n outdoor screening of the the tacitly-misnomered  family movie “The Neverending Story”.

There is also a movie being shown outdoors at the Queens Park Stadium on Friday Night. This part of the City’s ongoing Summer Outdoor Movie Series – sponsored by local Realtor and Community-builder Derrick Thornhill. The summer series kicks off with the heartwarming story of a young man and his DeLorean:

This is the part of summer I love- something to do every day, and all the weather reason to stay outside enjoying it all. But also the reason why I just can’t write as much stuff here as I would like- too busy enjoying life to record it all. Have fun out there, New West!

On Moles and Retorts

The Blog is rarely much of a dialogue. It’s just a place where I shoot out ideas wrapped in questionable grammar. Occasionally, someone comments below, and I might comment back. Mostly however, this is just me spouting off, and never claimed to be anything else.

So some time last week, an extended comment appeared in my e-mail inbox in reference to a post I recently did on the proposed / alleged Q2Q Pedestrian Bridge. As that post obliquely (through an external link) referenced the person who wrote me, I suggested he add it as a “comment” on my blog. He was having technical issues with Blogger’s commenting form, so we agreed I could post it on his behalf. So here I include, in its entirety and exactly as send to me, the comments of one E.C. “Ted” Eddy:

Dear Mr. Nwimby,

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t respond to anything posted on media that isn’t fair and balanced or has a limited following. I decided to make an exception to your NWIMBY BLOG. Feel free to post my first whack-a-mole response to yours. 

The tenor of the piece seemed to attempt to paint the Quayside Community as being “NWIMBY” (NOT WELCOME IN MY BACK YARD) with respect to a pedestrian/bicycle crossing to Queensborough. Selective historic references were utilized to underpin that shaky premise. We proceed here to whack some other mythical moles that popped up on your blog. 

First Mole – The original Queensborough Ped/cycle crossing had been proposed to cross at Poplar Island in a Queensborough Community Plan of June 2008 – a laudable enterprise that would have opened up Poplar Island as a first Nations eco-tourist destination complete with the entire environmental cleanup paid for by the Federal Gov’t. This is a good idea if it took off from the west side of the Third Avenue Overpass and solicited funds from developers of land on either side of the river. No one at the Quay was against it that I can recall. Indeed, people on the Quay have never been against an interconnection with our Queensborough neighbors. 

Second Mole- Your “who could be against it?” hyperlink was an old newspaper article and the number of signatures on the petition has grown to more than 1,000. Recall that same year the city explicitly stated in a report to council they would provide community consultation . You were fair and balanced by repeating the problems of cost, visual pollution, extreme length and destruction of the Children’s Submarine park (which is busier than the Pier Park) but failed to mention the biggest concern that there was none of the promised Public Consultation, Environmental Impact studies, usability report, etc. Indeed when the Quayside Board pressed for these requirements we were rebuffed with the comment that such consultation would create “unnecessary expectations”, or in your parlance more “whining” in any attempts to provide senior’s access, save taxpayer dollars and the only children’s park. One would think that the SRY being chuffed about encroachment should have been uncovered prior to spending any Engineering Study dollars on the three failed overpriced, over engineered and overbearing earlier options -especially in light of the comments by the rail company they wanted completed assurances the rail bridge would be safe. A cost, by the way, that was not established in the original cow pie-in-the-sky bridge proposal. 

Third Mole – Your characterization that somehow we, or possibly just me, plays whack-a-mole with all city projects is reflective of your position as an “insider mole” that everything the City proposes is great “grandeur wise” and “cost-wise”. Some of us are more circumspect about creating legacies with taxpayer dollars with neither usage studies nor public consultation. I guess you missed NEWSLEADER JUNE 17th article wherein I was quoted as follows: 

“Quayside resident Ted Eddy, an outspoken critic of the earlier verions (sic) of the bridge, says these new designs address many of his concerns — particularly the $5-million option that would pair with the existing rail bidge (sic). This low-level option with the swing bridge looks like it could be a winner,” Eddy said. “I think I could sell this to my [Quayside Community] Board quite easily. We’ve never been opposed to some kind of connectivity.” 

Perhaps a correction to your blog is in order. 

Forth Mole – The Ferry Service alternative -“show me the business case”. I venture you have not seen any business case from the city on other ventures such as the office tower but I digress. Tom Littlewood’s presentation to the Quayside Community Board a week ago was compelling with no cost to the city. There is a dock already in Queensborough along with two wheelchair accessible/bike-friendly covered ferries in his possession, a suitable dock, purchased by his business partners, for use at the Quay and two years of discussions with the city, in particular the Mayor. All that’s needed is the city to utilize the Port Metro Vancouver offer of up to $100,000 to put a dock near the Fraser River Discovery Centre (whose DAC funds have also been redirected) or at the Inn at the Quay to complete the linkage. Tom’s willingness to proceed is business case enough for me and indeed he has put forth a plan that warrants consideration at little if no cost to the taxpayers of New Westminster. What is the problem with that I ask? We don’t need second guessing, hand wringing or “whining” from City Hall. He needs their cooperation and speedy approval after two years of inaction and their already touted “enthusiasm at all levels” – not a whack-a-mole parade of negatives and hurdles. Who knows, usage of the Ferry Service could provide a proxy for figuring out if a $3,000 per person swing bridge link could be justified. Recall here that car-dependant Queensborough residents have just lost a bus route that was costing about $3.80 per trip to run based on a business case done by TransLink. If the City is to spend more than the $6 million of DAC funding remaining after raiding the DAC funds, specified for other earmarked projects, for another showcase project in cost-overrun mode, then where is that business case?” 

All-in-all, I look forward to your portended BLOG on the Water Taxi Option and assume you might want do a little research by perusing the more recent media links that I have conveniently provided in the attached. You might even go to the horse’s mouth, Tom Littlewood (whom I have copied here) rather than continue to BLOG from viewing the past from the other end. 

Become a “Ferry godfather” rather than continue to put lipstick on the legacy projects of the “Spinderellas” at City hall. 

E.C.”Ted” Eddy

Thank you, Mr. Eddy, for taking the time to express yourself so eloquently. Allow me to retort.

The only reason I would suggest the Quayside Community Board was not enthusiastic about the bridge is that the only vocal opposition I have heard to the idea of the bridge came from a couple of well known and outspoken “leaders” of the QCB. I further suggested this may not be a universal opinion of Quayside residents – and purposely linked to the story where Mr. Eddy expressed tacit approval of the new plans to support that point. I even pointed out that many of those original concerns were very much valid, and should be addressed. I’m just not sure any of them are a game-ender. I also don’t think the Quayside residents speak as a single voice on this issue. I ride with a couple of Quayside folks on a regular basis, and they are anxiously looking forward to the bridge..

First Mole – Actually, the 2008 Queensborough Community Plan documents I could find (and they are all here, scroll to the bottom of the page) only reference the Poplar Island route for the bridge as a possible “backup” plan if the direct route is considered too difficult or impossible. Looking through those documents, it appears that option was not initially considered, but was added to the conversation through community consultation. I have already written a long post about why this is a terrible plan if one is hoping to build this as a useful piece of transportation infrastructure, so I won’t go deeper into that here.

Second Mole – The submarine park will not be destroyed. Council has said they will not destroy it, and as a worst-case scenario, they will move it. The rest of this “Mole” seems to be a criticism about the format of consultations and planning, and we can all have opinions on how those should work in an ideal world. I think Mr. Eddy and I have differing opinions here, and nothing wrong with that. Here is the process best I can figure from watching the media and Council reports:

1) The community has an idea for connectivity that was included in the Queensborough Community Plan in 2009 as a priority;
2) Council secured some funding through DAC with a fairly long planning window;
3) Staff hired some consulting engineers to do an initial assessment, and scope out potential opportunities, problems, and rough costs. Included in this would be general feasibility issues- including Senior government issues location and potential for conflict with the Train Bridge;
4) Recognizing that being close to the Rail Bridge is the best spot, talks with SRY begin to suss out concerns;
5) Take the assessment to Council to seek opinions (after all, they are the elected representatives of the public), and IF council thinks we are on the right track- take it to public consultation;
6) Report out on Pubic consultation, and either move ahead, fix the plan to address public concerns, or go back to Step 1.

It sounds to me like they got to Step 5 and there were enough concerns at Council or problems for staff to iron out (i.e. railway discussions) or enough public negative reaction that they stepped back and re-assessed by going back to Step 3 and re-jigging the plan.

The point is, the plan, such as it was, was clearly not ready for a detailed public consultation, and the new plan may also not quite be there yet (as it sounds like there are some issues to work out with the Port and SRY about how a lift or swing bridge might operate). There is no point going to the public asking them to approve an idea if the Port or another agency will not allow that idea to be built.

Of course, these tentative plans and technical reports are sent up to Council and read into the public record for a reason: so that people like me and Ted Eddy can talk about them and get the public thinking about the project. We also have a Council that allows open delegations- if anyone has a strong opinion about the bridge, or a great alternative model, they should go to Council and use their allotted 5 minutes to make their case to Council. Or write them a letter. Or Blog. This is what the public conversation looks like. I don’t want valuable staff time wasted holding evening “consultation” meetings for a half-baked plan that is not feasible, but this has hardly been a secretive process – both Mr. Eddy and I have seen the plans presented so far.

Third Mole: “Insider Mole” is an interesting accusation. I am afraid everything I know about this project comes from press accounts and reading the reports on the City’s website (and therefore, I am free to admit my knowledge of the project is incomplete), but I have worked for a consulting engineering firm and inside of a City Hall (not New West City Hall, mind you), so I can read between lines with more nuance than some. I am also out and about in the city a lot, so I have occasional conversations with Councillors or Staff, and am not afraid to ask them questions. Hey, I pay their wages, the poor people have to listen to me!

As for the inference that I am secretly working for the City (that’s what an “ insider mole” is, isn’t it?), I can only refer back to several posts on this same blog where I am highly critical of some of the moves this City has made (or refused to make). I call things as I see them, and that includes when I actually agree with the City as much as when i disagree with them.

PS: “Missed” the June 17th Newsleader Article?! I linked to it in the 10th paragraph of my post!

Forth (sic) Mole: I’m not one to challenge Tom Littlewood’s plans. I worked with Tom on the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and he is indeed a visionary who loves to spread the good word about bicycles and safe cycling infrastructure. However, I think a ferry service is a very different consideration than a bridge.

A fixed bridge provides a reliable, permanent link between the communities, something the City and the burgeoning neighbourhoods of Queensborough can plan around in the long-term (and something the DAC funds were earmarked for). A ferry service (for all its benefits) does not provide this security. It may work great in 2013, but any number of factors (rising fuel costs, change in safety regulations, change in business interest of the owner, unexpected mechanical issues with the floating stock) could make it disappear in a flash. That is not the kind of transportation infrastructure one can plan a community around.

The example of TransLink cutting bus service to Port Royal is a perfect one – a quick business decision made, a transportation link is lost, and the community has no say. This is the biggest reason why I am such a big fan of the fixed bridge, I like to think of the long game when we are talking about building this community.

I don’t want to say more about Tom’s plan until I get a chance to talk to him about it, so I’ll leave it at that. Then maybe I’ll write a blog post about it and other alternatives to the bridge, as previously suggested.

Anyway, thanks for the comments, Mr. Eddy, and feel free to comment below if I have missed any points, or am missing something. You can even do it anonymously, if that suits you…

Another uneventful commute

Sorry to not be blogging much, but I have been exceedingly busy with other aspects of life. Mostly enjoying the hell out of summer while getting several things done. Ironically, too much if going on for me to write about all the cool stuff that’s going on. So here is a blog post I just cobbled together from something I wrote around Bike-to-Work-Week, and a recent event, just to hold you over until I have something interesting to say. 

I might have mentioned this before, but I have a pretty good bike commute route to work.

First, the good news. My route is about 21 km long, and (for the most part) flat. I pass through a dizzying array of bicycle infrastructure along the way, and it is (for the most part) well designed and well maintained. I have always suspected this is because my route closely parallels that of another New West resident who is rather… um… outspoken about alternative transportation infrastructure, and who is always willing to call City Hall (be it New West or Richmond) to complain about dangerous or non-functional connections along the route. So thanks, Andrew!

My route to work looks like this on a typical day:

1.4 Km of local city roads with no specific bike infrastructure, but with quiet enough traffic at 7:00am that it isn’t generally a problem;

2.2 Km along the Crosstown Greenway along 7th Ave. This is a traffic-calmed road with limited bike infrastructure (“sharrows” on the road, bike-activated lights at major crossings) and parking on both sides, but mostly benefiting from the traffic calming of the West End neighbourhood.

The 500 m between 20th and the Queensborough bridge are a chaotic mess of pedestrians, passengers being dropped from cars, idling taxis and unpredictable buses, but that is the cost of Transit Station connectivity, and I rarely have “safety” issues here- indeed I use an overly cautious approach to the area being aware of all the unexpected.

1.2 Km crossing the Queensborough Bridge and attached bike/ped infrastructure. This route is super-safe, if a little noisy with the high-speed trucks and traffic so close behind. The sidewalk is a little narrow, which causes cyclists (at least those who aren’t complete jerks) to slow and make way for passing oncoming cyclists or pedestrians, and the surface is sometimes a bit sketchy on those frosty mornings, but no complaints from me!

3.4 Km along Boyd Street (in New West) which becomes Westminster Highway (in Richmond). There is a decent bike lane along the side of most of this route (except for about 1 km of unfortunate ugliness westbound on the Richmond side I have previously pointed out). There is a nasty tendency for large trucks to park in these bike lanes (in contravention of the “no stopping” signs) while grabbing coffee from Tim Horton’s, but this seems a pretty difficult piece of enforcement for the Police, and the City of New West installed break-away barriers to address the issue on Boyd.

2.5 Km along the “old” Westminster Highway. There is no specific bike infrastructure here, and nary a shoulder along most of it, but there is so little traffic along this dusty country road that it is rarely a concern.

1.9 Km along the actual Westminster Highway. This stretch, between the railway crossing and the new lights at No 8 Road is probably the least comfortable part of the whole ride. The shoulder is narrow and dirty, there is currently construction, there is a gentle curve (which often encourages cars to straddle the white line) and the large trucks generally go fast. This part will soon be seeing improvement if the “Economic Action Plan” signs are to be believed, so perhaps there is a plan to improve this spot for cyclists as well.

3.0 Km on a Separated Bike Route adjacent to Westminster Highway. For a stretch of Westminster, there is a 3m-wide separated bike/pedestrian route on the south side of the road. It is a bit “old school” as far as separated bike routes go, and has a few issues- the pavement is in rough shape in a few places, some of the driveways are blind, and the surrounding weeds are making the path narrower in a few places – but it is a pretty good route considering its vintage.

My biggest issue with the route is not a problem so much this time of year, but those damn bollards are going to be the death of me one rainy winter evening. There are dozens of bollards in the middle of the path, presumably to prevent people from driving a car in the bike lane – and the bollards are white with little reflective strips on top. However, at night time (especially in the rain) with headlights of oncoming cars an no other lighting, these bollards are nearly invisible. With the other concerns about the path (in-growing weeds, failing asphalt, and blind driveways), cyclists typically cheat towards the safer middle of the path, but that is where the invisible bollard await…

5.8 Km through increasingly urbanized Richmond: Westminster, Garden City, Granville. All of these roads have decent cycling lanes, well marked and cycling-appropriate controls, so no complaints there. Of course, I often have to deal with the erratic behaviour of Richmond drivers, but that is a whole other post…

But mostly a good ride. Most days.

This Friday something interesting happened, though. I came across a guy riding an electric bike up the Queensborough Bridge pathway as I was coming down. I was apparently exuding attitude, as the pilot first swung his fist at my face while passing, then yelled at me while demonstrating his finger-extension skills.

I stopped and gave him the universal symbol for “WTF?!”, which is kind of a shrug with both upturned hands out front and an incredulous face. This caused him to stop, get off his bike, pull off his motorcycle helmet, and approach me yelling a long string of things about how he had every (expletive)right to (expletive)be on (expletive, expletive) the bike path, and (several expletives on the theme of me not being a very good person). I paraphrase.

Now I hadn’t actually said anything to this fellow, nor had I (knowingly) offered any hand signals or other indications prior to the post-fist-and-finger “WTF!?” gesture, as I was busy riding along the bridge. Perhaps he was irritated that I didn’t immediately pull right over and stop so he could pass me going the other way at 30km/h (likely a more comfortable passing speed for him, on his motorcycle with impact shields and a full-face motorcycle helmet than me with my lycra pants and legally-compliant beer-cooler helmet). Or perhaps he had received so much bad attitude and opinion from cyclists that he is constantly brushing past on bike lanes with his motorcycle. So whatever – I refused to engage, and politely suggested maybe he should just head his way an think about why he is so defensive about things – and move his motorcycle as he was currently blocking the entire pathway and there were two cyclists standing there waiting for him to move it so they could get past.

I had to get out of there quick, as I was in serious risk of laughing out loud, and in his state, that might not have been constructive. But it got me to thinking about this new trend- encountering electric motorcycles on bicycle routes. What’s up with that?

There are two types of electric motorcycles on the roads of BC, according to ICBC, electric scooters and electric-assisted bicycles. The first need to be licensed and insured and you need a drivers licence to use them – they are for all intents and purposes motorcycles. The second are legally bicycles, and require no licencing, insurance and are (apparently) legal on bike paths.

Here are a picture of each, see if you can spot the differences:

That’s right, the first one has little pedals sticking out. There is actually more to it than the pedals: the motor cannot be more than 500W, and the top speed must be limited to 32km/h when you are not pedaling. That isn’t fast enough to win the Tour de France, but it is faster than most casual bicycle riders maintain. The second can be up to 1500W, can pull 70km/h , and you require a licence, a motorcycle helmet, and insurance.

Should these be on bike paths? I have my doubts. They weigh around 200lbs (without a rider), are wider and less agile that a bicycle, and move faster than most cyclists. It seems they ramp up the risk-to-third-persons equation closer to motorcycles than bicycles and pedestrians. If nothing else, they blur the region between human-powered and machine-powered transportation, and the more blurry it gets, the harder it is to think about where to draw lines. Why was the line arbitrarily drawn in 2002 at 500W and 32 km/h?

Alternately, their safe operation (much like bicycles) rely on the responsible behavior of their riders. Just people on bikes need to be extra-courteous to slower users like pedestrians when sharing a multi-use path, users of e-bikes have an extra onus to be courteous to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Something my punchy and profane friend on the Queensbrough wasn’t doing on Friday.

Connecting QB to the Quay

Amongst the great legendary structures of New Westminster, none has seen as much rumour and speculation as the mythical Bridge to Queensborough.

Not the Queensborough Bridge, but the allegedly announced, apparently planned for, and suspiciously funded but not-quite-yet-built fixed pedestrian crossing from the Quayside boardwalk to the east tip of Lulu Island, where the burgeoning neighbourhood of Port Royal is remaking the shape of Queensborough.

The reality of the bridge is that it is, indeed, “planned”. There is even a bit of money set aside for it. Any time I raise the issue with anyone at the City they assure me it will definitively be built. It is next on the list for DAC projects, done by 2016. Or 2017. Or 2019.

Now, for most people, a fixed piece of transportation infrastructure between the Quay an Queensborough seems like a great idea- who could be against it? It is like being against the Quayside Boardwalk, or the Central Valley Greenway, or the Seawall. The only people seemingly against it are those few familiar names who are against everything the City does. In a curious game of whack-a-mole problem-finding, they raised various complaints: it was too costly; it was an eyesore; it would destroy the “Submarine Park”.

These complaints were based on an early, and very preliminary, engineering assessment done on potential crossing options. This original plan was what you get when you give engineering consultants as free reign to build a bridge: it is big, expensive, and does the trick. A good starting point, but hardly the best of all possible solutions.

The reason we are even entertaining this idea to build a pedestrian bridge to Queensborough is due to DAC funding. The bridge is one of several identified projects that rose out of a slick deal cut between the City and the Provincial Government related to the old Riverboat Casino (which morphed onto the Starlight Casino). The background is complicated, but when the Province wanted to change the funding model for Casinos, New Westminster asked to be compensated for loss of potential income, and the Province agreed, but the money had to be earmarked for specific projects (could not be put into things like general revenue, or operating a ferry service, or paving Daniel Fontaine’s back alley). Amongst the earmarked projects were the newly-completed Queensborough Community Centre upgrades, other park amenities in Queensborough, and the Anvil Centre. Long version short, the City has a small pile of money from the Province they need to spend on building a pedestrian link to Queensborough.

This led to the 2009 report which provided early design ideas (including the drawing above), and led to a significant amount of whinging from the Quayside residents (although there is a general ambivalence about the project displayed in the Quayside Community Board minutes from 2009 when the project was announced).

That is not to say the original bridge plan was not without problems. The projected cost was much greater than the DAC funding available. A fixed crossing would need to be 22m above the water (~20m above the landings) due to requirements for maintaining a navigable channel for river traffic, which would potentially make for ungainly ramps of something like 400m length to accommodate pedestrians, wheelchairs, bikes, etc. Apparently, the Railway was not so chuffed about the idea of the City driving piles to support a 20-m-high bridge next to their 100-year-old pilings. The original landing spot for those ramps was where the current “Expo Submarine” park is located. Finally, the eyesore issue that if the City built the cheapest bridge possible, it was going to be ugly, and if they went for the grander vision, it might not be a vision shared by everyone (grandeur-wise, and cost-wise).

There were some creative alternatives floated. A ferry service, or a gondola. Maybe I will cover those in a future post, but extremely short version: show me the business case.

So it was exciting a couple of weeks ago when the City announced a new set of plans developed in partnership with the owners of the railway bridge: Southern Railway. The big difference this time around is the low elevation of the bridge, which makes life much easier to pedestrians and cyclists, but means the bridge must swing or draw to allow marine traffic to pass. A City Councillor I was chatting with last week even suggested it could be built to accommodate an ambulance for emergency use.

The problem? Who is going to open and close the bridge? The current train swing bridge stays “open” to marine traffic and is swung closed only when a train needs to pass. This would make a pedestrian crossing pretty much useless, so there is discussion of making the default “closed” to marine traffic, opened only when a boat has top pass. The Port would need to agree, as would the owners of the rail bridge. And someone would have to be on staff to flip the switch.
These are not minor details. SRY currently staffs the swing bridge and the one that connects Queensborough to Annacis Island adjacent to Derwent Way. That second bridge has the default position of “closed”, but that is just a minor channel approachable from both ends, not the entire North Arm of the Fraser River. If the City will be required to staff, or compensate SRY for the staffing, of a swing bridge, then the economics of this “less expensive” option may go away fairly quick.
Ultimately, I only hope the crossing will be reliable – one you can count on being there when you need it, and not unexpectedly opened for a hour at random times – because I see this bridge primarily as a transportation link, not a tourist draw or a nice place for a walk on the weekend (although it will be both of those, if done well!). Then it will be the link we have been missing up to now.