The long-anticipated and irrationally-political Mobi bikeshare program has finally launched in Vancouver. I hope it works, but have my doubts.

Regular readers (hi Mom!) will remember that I went to New York City around Christmas time last year, and had a chance to try out their massively successful bikeshare program, product-placemently named “Citi Bikes”. The experience not only made me a fan of bikeshare- but changed a lot of my misconceptions about what bikeshare is. As I see many of my own misconceptions being repeated in the Vancouver media (social and otherwise) around Mobi, it is worth discussion.

Citi Bikes operate on short-term rental system. You can pick up a bike while walking by a station, and ride for up to 30 minutes (or 45 minutes if you have an annual pass) before you need to check the bike in again at any station. You can buy a day pass for $12, which gives you unlimited rides within 24 hours, or you can buy an annual pass for $150 and use it whenever you feel the need.

Now, 30 minutes seems a pretty short period of time to rent a bike, but that is the entire point of the system. If you want to rent a bike for a couple of hours to noodle around Stanley Park, or for a few days to add biking adventures to your vacation, then a private bike rental company is still the best option for you. Bikeshare is not about replacing other bikes, it is about expanding your walking distance and facilitating multi-modal trips.

I can probably explain better by talking about the day we spent in Brooklyn and Manhattan using Citi Bikes:

  • We walk the block from our place in residential Bedford-Sty to our nearest Citi Bike Station. After about 5 minutes of paying for a day pass and checking the bikes out, we were on our way east along brownstone-lined streets.
  • About 20 minutes later, we were at Barclay’s Centre where another Citi Bike station was awaiting. We dock the bikes and hang out a bit at the sprawling plaza. The dock also has a digital map kiosk, so we orient ourselves and plan the best route to the Brooklyn Bridge before we check out a couple of new bikes.


  • Near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, we dock the bikes. We grab a coffee, then wander over to the bridge. The pedestrian/bike walkway is packed with tourists, so we slowly walk across enjoying the sites, the crowd, the experience, without abandoning bikes at one end we need to retrieve later, or feeling like we needed to drag them along.


  • We spend an hour or two wandering around China Town and Little Italy, then hop on a Citi Bike to loop around the Bowery to the Village. Some places were better for walking, some better for riding, and we made the choice. village2
  • After some more meandering, we check out another set of bikes and cross the Williamsburg Bridge. Back on the Brooklyn side, we quickly swap bikes to get ourselves an extra few minutes, then head through Williamsburg to find a brewery.


  • After a tasting and a meal and some wandering about loving the vibe of Williamsburg, we found a nearby station and mapped out the best route home to Bed Sty as the sun was setting. Probably being a 40-minute ride at an easy pace, we figured we would need to swap out bikes half way. We didn’t know about the “Citi Bike Dead Zone” in the Hasidic part of south Williamsburg, but managed to find a station with 5 minutes to spare. If we had downloaded the Citi Bike App, we could have avoided this peril.


  • Back at our base station as it was getting dark (the Citi Bike has built-in front and rear lights run by a generator in the front hub), we checked in and walked the block home with time enough to catch a great Sousaphone-Accordion trio.


A nice 8-hour day, about 7 bike station stops, we probably covered 20 kilometres on bikes, just to connect up our fun walking spots. We never fussed with a bike lock (or a helmet – more on that later) or worried about bike storage or security, and were left with nothing but a pocket full of access codes.


That is just a tourist experience. If you live and work in the service area, the Citi Bike can change the decision you make every day when you walk out the door to run an errand or meet a friend. Walk for 15 minutes? Bike for 5minutes? Wait for 5 minutes for the bus? Screw it, I’ll just drive? The magic of bikeshare is that you don’t have to worry about the hassles inherent in the “Bike for 5 minutes” choice: you don’t need special clothes, you don’t have to fuss with locks or worry about bringing the bike back with you if you have a multi-stop trip planned. Bikeshare, when working properly, is like having a bunch of moving sidewalks around that can cut your walking time in a third, with no more hassle than walking.

The ease and functionality of Citi Bike relies on several things, though, and New York gets them right.

Stations need to be ubiquitous. Within the service area of Citi Bike, you are never more than a 5-miunte ride to the nearest station. They also manage the bikes well, in that I think there was only one occasion when we arrived at a station and found it empty of bikes. Fortunately, the on-line app and maps in the station kiosks have real-time measures of how full the stations are, allowing you to plan at the beginning of your rental. How ubiquitous? Look at the map of Manhattan and Brooklyn:


Bikes need to be Euro. By this, they need to be durable, friendly, simple, and built for casual use. Citi Bike rides are bomb-proof and a little heavy, but run like a Swiss watch. The transmission is internally-geared with a twist-shifter, the chain is in a case, so no grease or oil splatter problems. The wheels have full and deep fenders to keep the spray off, and to keep toes, cuffs, or scarfs out of the spokes. The pedals and seat are wide, flat and grippy so no special clothes are needed. There is a unique-sounding bell, a big basket for groceries, and front and rear lights are always on thanks to the nifty generator in the front wheel. They aren’t specifically elegant, and won’t win any criterium races, but they are the right tool for the job.


The payment has to be simple. Similarly, the kiosks for Citi Bike are simple to use, but have a ton of utility. It takes only a few minutes to buy a day pass using a credit card, and once you are in the system, it takes literally seconds to check a bike out (check in is as easy as park-it-and-walk-away). I could see how an annual passholder would be walking down the street, see a kiosk, and, on a whim, check out a bike to get 6 blocks down the street faster. As a bonus, there are digital maps to show you your location that allow you to zoom out to other station locations, which (as a super-double-bonus) serve as wayfinding tools for all tourists who happen by, not just Citi Bike users.

You can’t have a helmet law. Everything above about the need for the system to be easy, fuss-free, and comfortable is tossed by the wayside when you add helmets. Citi Bike is successful because it accommodates street clothes and on-a-whim decision making. Aside from the (not insignificant) yuck-factor, helmets significantly increase the hassle factor, and change the math on that walk-for-15/ ride-for-5/ wait-for-bus math. The kludged Vancouver solution (ugly, uncomfortable, dirty helmets that are likely more of a choking hazard than actual brain protector) stands in contrast to everything that makes Citi Bike work.


The most significant stat about Citi Bike is that they have, since summer of 2013, had more than 25 million rides, with no fatalities and no major injuries. Manhattan and Brooklyn are not famous for their excellent roads or courteous drivers – the roads are crowded, potholed, and at times chaotic, and Citi Bike users are (reportedly) every bit as chaotic as other users. Many are novice riders, and very few wear helmets. Bikeshare is safer than driving, and Manhattan, it is safer than walking. The statistics are the same for bikeshare systems across North America. Part of this is intrinsic to the bikes: upright, slow, stable, comfortable, and visible. Part of it is the demonstrated phenomenon that the best way to make cycling safe is to put more bikes on the road – areas with bikeshare systems have been found to be safer for those cyclists not using bikeshare systems. Helmets Laws are not only a deterrent to use, they are demonstrably unnecessary for the inherent risk.

So I wish the best for Mobi. I’m not sure there is a sufficiently saturated market outside of downtown and the Commercial-to-Kitsilano corridor to provide the effective station saturation you need to make the system work, but within that area all of the pieces for success are in place. However, until we grow up and have a rational re-evaluation of the province’s silly anti-cyclist helmet law, I am afraid the system will suffer from lack of appeal. And that would be a shame.


I haven’t talked too much about BridgeNet here, the City of New Westminster’s fibre optic utility initiative. It is one of those things in the City that I am less involved in, as I am not on the Economic Development or Intelligent City committees, though it is an idea of which I am supportive.

There was a recent discussion in a community Facebook thread that breezed past traffic, talked about the current long-term lending plan, and various taxes and spending issues, but some good questions were raised about why and how the City is investing in fiber optic infrastructure. So instead of lengthening that already lengthy thread, I thought I would answer the questions here (and link back, of course). The questions are thus:

I am curious however why NW has ‘invested’ $9M of taxpayers money in a fibre optic network to compete with Canada’s four private sector service providers Bell, Telus, Rogers and Shaw?

The simple answer is that access to higher speed internet connections is something residents and businesses want, and is part of both the City’s Intelligent City initiative, and a part of our Economic Development Plan. There is a new generation of business, a new type of worker, where an internet connection is as important to their success as access to truck routes are to some more traditional industries. These types of value-added high-paying jobs are an important part of developing a City where people can work, live, shop and play in the same community. And the Big 4 Telcos are not bringing 1Gb service to New West any time soon.

Some are under the mistaken impression that the City is starting a Telecommunications company (“Telco”) to compete with the Big 4, but that isn’t the plan. If I can stretch the analogy of this being the trucking industry of the next century, it might cast a little light on what we are actually doing.

In most of Canada, consumers hoping to connect to the internet have to choose from one of the Big 4 Telcos. This is because those companies have had the financial wherewithal to build a full network, mostly off the infrastructure backbone of the telephone companies that spanned the country in the first half of the last century. In the data-as-cargo analogy, these companies are like the large railways. There are few of them, because they had to pay to install the infrastructure that they use (with significant legislative and material support from supportive governments, interested in “opening up the markets”) and as a result, they have a pretty solid grip on the competition within the market. They are, effectively, an oligopoly.

This doesn’t mean they completely lack competition. Trucking companies also move goods, and what they lack in might and capacity, they make up for in a built-in efficiency: they don’t need to build the roads or bridges they operate on. That infrastructure is built as a commons, and everyone can use them. Local, regional, and provincial governments build roads using your taxes, but they don’t run trucking companies. They can, however, choose where they build roads, and how they provide access – something they really can’t do with railways.

So it is with a dark fibre utility. The City is, essentially, building the roads (“fibre”) so that any trucking company (“ISP”) can come in and compete with the railways (“Big 4 Telcos”). There are many small ISPs who can and are willing to offer boutique and discount services in New West, but cannot build the trunk infrastructure needed to get into the business. Meanwhile, the Big 4 are concentrating their infrastructure upgrades in the biggest markets like downtown Vancouver and working to outcompete each other where the money is easy.

Far from competing with the Big 4, the City is building a fibre network that will open up competition, such that more companies can challenge the limited offerings provided by the Oligopoly, promising businesses and residents along the network much faster internet service, and more affordable and flexible service plans. We are not offering those services, but we are charging tolls to the companies that will offer them through the fibres we install. Those tolls will (for the first decade or so) pay for the cost of the infrastructure, and after that it will provide a revenue source that a future Council can use to offset taxes, much as the Electrical Utility currently does.

I guess New West has decided that running it’s own Crown Corps is a great way to ‘increase revenue’, a phrase I’ve heard repeated on several occasions at City Hall.

Yes, providing services that people want is a good way to increase revenue in the City, and it provides an opportunity to offset your taxes. Especially when a City leverages opportunities that come with operating roads and utilities, and can use its solid financial position and favorable Municipal Finance Authority rates, the City can provide things that people want for less money. Sort of the thing people who ask Cities to “operate more like a business” would suggest we do.

Governments are not for-profit businesses. I can write an entire blog post about how Governments and businesses are fundamentally different, but that would be a long digression at this point. Suffice to say, providing a utility service that improves the competitiveness of our business community, is attractive to residents and people who work at home, and doing it in a way that will first pay for its own infrastructure, then return value to future taxpayers, seems like a pretty good governance decision.

This $9M in this optional financing program also intrigues me seeing as, based on walking around town, this network at least appears to be mostly installed. How did we pay for it in the first place?

The network is not mostly installed. A couple of trunk lines are in the ground to allow communication between City facilities so our internal corporate network can run better. Those were paid for by taxpayers, like the rest of the City’s computer network system.

Perhaps what you are looking at (?) is the conduit we have installed – the plastic tubes that fibre can be fed through. The City was forward-thinking enough to install conduit while road and utility works have happened over recent years. Conduit is cheap, and it is easy to drop it in the trench while you are doing other works before the asphalt goes down. The Ministry of Transportation does similar things when they build major road projects, like the SFPR. Stick the conduit in, because you never know how you are going to use it in the future. in fact, BridgeNet will use MoT conduit for part of it’s system, a service BridgeNet will pay MoT for.

What we have not yet done (but are working on right now) is put fibre into those conduits, nor have we built the infrastructure at the junctions and end of the lines that would allow that fibre to light up. That stuff costs money, and we are investing in it now. We will also be investing in last-metre connections as customers sign up to access the services that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be providing. That stuff costs money, and rather that use property tax money or dipping into reserves, it makes sense to borrow the money at the low rates the Municipal Finance Authority makes available to us, and to pay back those loans with the income earned from the operation of the Fibre Utility. Utility customers – the users of the infrastructure – will be paying this infrastructure loan back, not taxpayers.

BridgeNet is a pretty exciting initiative, and one that is about the future of the City. There was a great open house last month where industry leaders came to the Anvil Centre to talk about the potential that high-speed internet provides to Cities, to businesses, to institutions like Douglas College and our Schools, and to residents. We had four ISPs there, demonstrating the types of services they want to deliver, be it discount home 1Gb service or specific boutique offerings for office centres. There were hundreds of residents and businesses there, excited to look at the map, and all asking the same question: When will this service be coming to my street? The answer can be found at the BridgeNet Website, and the map you can find here.

Vacancy Tax

Homes in the lower mainland are getting to be too expensive for people working in the lower mainland to afford. There are few who would argue this point. It was all fun when we watched the $1Million line march eastward across the City of Vancouver, then the $2Million line, but now single family homes in New Westminster are regularly selling over $1Million, we cannot bring on alternate housing types (townhouses, row homes, cluster homes) fast enough, and high-rise condos are selling out before the ground is broken.

It is a classic market run, and people are both afraid to get in and afraid to miss the boat. This is a situation ripe for unscrupulous profiteers inside and outside of the semi-regulated Real Estate industry to start the raking in cash. However, those skimming value from an opportunity cannot be blamed for the problems that created that opportunity. Free enterprise, folks.

As with any long-emerging crisis, there is rampant speculation by people ready to pin the problem on their pet bugaboo, though few deny the complexity. I get weekly e-mails from racists telling me it is an immigration failure. People speculate (on thin data) about the number of vacant homes being held for investment. Efforts to bring more stock on line run up against “character of the neighborhood” arguments in Kerrisdale, on Commerical Drive, in Queens Park. Following on 20 years of dropping rates following the peak of the 70’s recessions, we have now had more than a decade of bargain-basement mortgages, making the borrowing of money to buy a house (or houses) the only sure investment for a generation. We have in-migration (foreign and domestic) pushing for more supply, limited physical area for growth, and a complete failure to fund regional transportation infrastructure that would improve the accessibility of regional housing options. Disruptive technologies and economic drivers (AirBnB, remote work, etc.) are pushing against zoning, taxation, regulation, and any attempt to manage a shrinking supply. Equally disruptive is the generational change caused by baby boomers cashing out “wealth” accumulated during an unprecedented post-war economic growth cycle while voting to strip apart the social contract that made it possible before it can be passed forward to the next generation. At the same time, real wages have been stagnant, failing to even keep up with a decade of record-low CPI increases (“it’s not a depression, and it’s not a recession. It’s an unprecedented kind of breakdown: a divergence, regression, implosion”). On top of this, the federal government, then the provincial government, got completely out of the affordable housing business, leaving local governments and a patchwork of social service agencies attempting to fill the gap with none of the resources to do the job.

It’s a mess (as was that last paragraph!) and it would be ridiculous to claim that any one of those alleged causes is the only cause. But a ridiculous reactions to unsupported claims is the current BC governance style, so here we go.

The BC Government has managed, for years now, to avoid addressing the root causes above in any meaningful way. To be fair, not all of the issues leading us to this place are provincial jurisdiction, but developing strategies to keep housing in our communities available and affordable is 100% provincial responsibility, thanks to the Constitution Act of 1980. However, the story has now become enough of a front-page annoyance that the Premier has decided it necessary to be seen to be doing something.

In the most knee-jerk reaction possible, they have called an emergency session of the Legislature to change the Vancouver Charter to allow the City of Vancouver to charge a tax on vacant homes. This is, in their defense, one of the short-term measures speculated upon by the Mayor of Vancouver, but no-one can seriously believe this is a going to solve the housing problem, nor is it clear how this spit into the ocean warrants an emergency summer sitting.

Not surprisingly, Mayors from across the region are perplexed about how this approach (which will only impact the City of Vancouver proper, as they exist under separate legislation than every other City in the province) will help or harm the situation in their housing markets, and the pressures they are feeling now that the problem has clearly become a regional one. But that is not the only problem they (correctly) point out.

The venn diagram that connects “vacant properties” with “non-resident” owners, “investment” owners and “foreign” owners is a muddy one – which makes applying a punitive tax to any one group a complex problem for the province or a City. Of course, we have no idea if the proposed approach will actually have any effect on the real issue at the core of this, which is (do I have to remind you?): homes are becoming uncomfortably expensive relative to wages. Realistically, we can be pretty confident it will not be a solution, but will cause repercussions across the region we cannot predict.

We don’t know what legislation will be introduced next week, but we know there is little chance that emergency legislation passed in a brief summer session will provide the complex suite of governance tools required to address the multiple causes of this emergent situation – one that has been growing for several years. This shameless pandering to headlines, this feigned effort to look like they are “doing something” after years of providing no discussion of real solutions, this duplicitous offer to allow a local government to tax their way to a solution while remaining somehow above it all (and at the same time blaming local government taxation for worsening the problem!) should be resisted as a point of principle, and called out for the bullshit cynical lack of governance that it is.

The Opposition and every Mayor in the region should resist this short-hand legislation to change the Vancouver Charter, and prevent it from being expanded to the rest of the province. Speculative and punitive tax measures should only be applied as part of a comprehensive plan to address the actual governance problem, not the headline problem.

Ask Pat: 8th Street

Pedestrian asks—

What is the future of 8th Street? Reading through the Master Transportation Plan I believe that I’ve spotted some inconsistencies. For example, on page 90 8th St is noted as a Great Street and that with a consistent 30 metre right of way it could become four lanes from Downtown to the Burnaby border. There is also discussion of potential bus priority access. However I don’t see any other reference in the MTP to 8th Street being a Great Street. Further, 8th St is classified as a Local Collector. According to page 136 Local Collectors should only be two lanes.

Can you provide more information that would correct these inconsistencies? What does bus priority access mean anyhow?

For what it is worth my personal perspective is that the current width of 8th St creates an artificial barrier in the Brow of the Hill neighbourhood. Further, the absence of a boulevard on the East side of the street and no street trees make for a lacklustre pedestrian environment. I’d hate for the street to be widened, making the problem even worse. With Fraser River Middle School opening up this fall, and developments at 4th Ave wrapping up around the same time, now is the perfect time to clarify direction.

In the short term: not much. There is no capital plan or budget right now allocated to changing the streetscape of 8th Street. There will be a few crossing improvements (Dublin, 7th Ave) and some local improvements as development occurs (like in front of Fraser River Middle School), and these will be informed by the long term vision provided by the Master Transportation Plan.

There is a typo on the MTP that may be causing some confusion. The reference to 8th Street being a “Great Street” on page 90 is wrong, as the Great Streets map on Page 108 and the entirety of Section 4.4 make no reference to it. This makes sense, as aside from a few short stretches, there is little retail on 8th Street, and there is little chance of it becoming a primarily commercial corridor like 6th Street or the other identified “Great Streets”.

As you point out, 8th St. has some other characteristics that don’t necessarily match the designated use. In the MTP it is designated as a City Collector road, but it has many of the characteristics of an Arterial, although the street varies in use along its length. The disconnect between how the road is designated, how it is designed, and how it works, is shown on the following table (all info from the MTP):8thtable

So outside of the MTP, recognizing there are no immediate capital plans changing the road, and to your point of it not being a very friendly road (dare I say “pre-Stroad”?) right now, what can we envision for the future of 8th St.?

Google Street View, no permission sought.

The portion below Royal is exceptionally wide (more than 20m curb-to-curb in some spots), and is predominantly a pedestrian space, despite various attempts to corral and displace pedestrians to “get traffic moving”. This is the only part of 8th that has traffic volumes within the “City Collector” ideal – less than 8,000 vehicles per day. Everything about this tells me we should be reducing the driving width of this street, and improve the pedestrian realm. The massive daily flow of students between the New Westminster Station and Douglas College shouldn’t be crowded on a narrow sidewalk while waiting for pedestrian lights to change. The City should not have built the Anvil Centre (or allowed Plaza88 to be built) in such a way that parking garage entrances and loading bays disgorge into what should be a pedestrian-first place, but that ship has now sailed. This doesn’t mean we can’t think about re-allocating underused road space and shifting priorities to active users.

more Google Street View, not sure how legal this is.

The portion between Royal and 6th Ave is essentially residential, although traffic counts here are higher. It operates as a true “collector” in the sense that the adjacent local roads dump traffic onto 8th as the route to the regional road system (be that Royal Ave, Canada Way, or wherever). The 15-m curb-to-curb width is still pretty wide for a two-lane road, and parking is both free and plentiful. A few curb extensions at important intersections (3rd Ave, 5th Ave) help improve pedestrian safety, but the open road feel definitely encourages travel speed greater than the regulated 50km/h, which combined with expansive asphalt and a general lack of trees, adds to the “barrier” feel you mention. There are some planned improvements around the new Middle School, but I doubt there would be any desire or political will to expand this road to 4 travelling lanes. The traffic doesn’t warrant it, and the impact on the livability of the community would be profound.

but hey, Google just took these photos without asking permission…

The portion between 6th and 10th is harder to peg. The lanes are a bit chaotic, parking intermittent, and at more than 20,000 vehicles per day, the traffic is pushing the upper limits of what an Arterial should be handling. This is one of the main connections from the Brow and Uptown to the regional road network (Canada Way), so I guess it isn’t surprising that the end of all the collectors is a logjam. At the same time, it has a High School, one of our most frequented parks, some high-density residential areas, and our largest commercial centre. It is crossed by two Greenways and is frequented by a large number of seniors. It is a mess, and likely the most Stroad-like road we have in New West, but solutions here are difficult to find. There will be re-writing of the interface with NWSS when the new school is built, but I don’t see much other relief any time soon, mostly due to vehicle load.

Finally, Bus Priority Lanes are just that: lanes where B-line type buses can have priority over traffic uses, although not specifically bus-only lanes, as they may share space with right-turning cars or general traffic in some locations. They come in several flavours, but are not common in urban areas of the Lower Mainland. Highway 99 has them approaching the tunnel, and East Hastings through Burnaby has a version of this. They might be considered in the future for 8th if traffic loads increase to the point where congestion seriously impacts bus operations, but I do not think we would consider installing more asphalt to make them happen.

ASK PAT: Car allowance

Mark asks—

Hi Pat

A question regarding the recent council compensation recommendations, specifically the car allowance. Given the city and council’s vocal support for increased transit spending, reducing traffic in the city and it’s occasional touting of how great the city is in terms of transportation mode share, why would council (well, you at least since we’re on ask Pat) support a flat payment for automotive use?

Given their advocacy on the matter, council members should be leading by example on this. The city has excellent skytrain and decent bus service, and is well connected regionally. Why not give councilors transit passes to cover their travel?

Of course not all commitments can be met by transit, and yes councilors should be free to expense appropriate mileage (or taxis, rentals, car shares, etc) related to their duties. But simply giving councilors money for their automotive expenses runs counter to what the city and council is pushing for.

Appreciate your thoughts and the time to reply, and thanks for keeping up the blog.

Yep, I agree with you. The “car allowance” is a stupid idea for a City of 15 square kilometres, with the densest transit coverage and highest alternative mode share of any community outside of downtown Vancouver, and a Master Transportation Plan that takes priority away from the private automobile as the primary form of transportation. We have a Mayor who walks to work, one Councillor who never drives and a couple others (including me) who make it a point not to use a car to get around within town. A “car allowance” makes no sense.

Of course, it isn’t a “car allowance”, or even the HR-preferred vernacular “vehicle allowance”. It is a “transportation allowance”, as we can use it on any mode we like. We can top up a Compass Card, hire a taxi, gas up our car, get a Modo membership, or buy replacement tires for my bike.

Of course, it isn’t even a “transportation allowance”. It is $100 we get to spend on whatever we want. We are not required to provide receipts or justification, so this is little more than a taxable top-up of our salary. As a Councillor, I will get $1,200 more per year above the “base salary”, and whether that adequately compensates me for the transportation cost related to my job is kind of secondary (which makes it different than our other expense allowances, because they are actually backed up by policy guidance and we need to provide receipts and get them passed by HR, just like any expenses you might accrue in your regular job).

This issue arises from the once-every-term review of Council remuneration, which is always a sticky point. I don’t want to get into a long discussion about how much elected officials should get paid here, because that is pretty philosophical topic with wide differences of opinion, and wasn’t your question. However, it is apropos to discuss what a good governance model is to determine how much elected officials get paid. The decision we made this spring was, in my look at it, more about approving the process than the numbers.

When it comes to local government in BC, it is up to the Mayor/Councillors to determine their own pay. This is a direct conflict-of-interest that is not only permitted under the provincial law regulating local governments, but required by it! In that context, good governance requires that Mayor and Council don’t make a capricious decision and write their own cheques, but that they permit the professional staff in their HR and Finance departments to determine an appropriate process to determine appropriate compensation. The best we (and by “we”, I mean citizens and elected types) can hope for is that the process is transparent and defensible. Where both transparency and defensibility break down is when one or more elected official tries to supersede or run around that process, be it for personal or political reasons.

The process we have in New West is that every 4 years, HR staff compare the wages and benefits of elected officials in New West to those in comparable cities – a collection of other Lower Mainland municipalities, excepting the biggest (Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond) and the smallest (Bowen Island, Anmore, Belcarra) and do regression analysis on several statistics (population, budget, size of Council), with the guidance being to keep our Council firmly in the middle. Between those every-4-year adjustments, annual increases are indexed to CPI. You may suggest a better system, but HR has explained their rationale through reports, find it defensible and transparent. The process made sense to me, in that I could understand the rationale, could follow the numbers and do the math, and it made sense, so I supported it.

As for the “vehicle allowance”? I don’t like it, think it is a bad idea for all the reasons you state. However, respecting the process that provides good governance makes it hard to pick and choose the results of that process. HR and our external consultants determined what constitutes fair compensation based on a policy guideline that was, essentially: do what other similar Cities do. Apparently “car/travel/transportation allowance” is now part of that. We could have rolled it into the regular wage and compared across the municipalities and come up with a wage number that is $1,200 higher per year, but HR determined that making it a taxable expense makes more sense from an HR perspective.

I’m not sure raising a stink and pulling apart that process is the appropriate way to manage my discomfort about the symbolism of a “Car Allowance” in 2016 in New Westminster. How do I do it without calling into question the process – one that I have essentially been at arms-length from to reduce the conflict of interest created by the legislative structure – and not opening the door for a very political discussion with everyone making whatever adjustment suits their specific desires, political position, or special idea? I would argue of all the decisions we make as a Council, this is one where our personal politics need to be ignored, and the decision made (effectively) by staff.

So I don’t really have an answer to the “Car Allowance” question (at least not one I could come up with and propose in a reasonable timeline), but it is clear my personal political opinion is that it is a bad idea. This is something I am thinking about as I think our entire organization at City Hall needs to do a better job walking the walk when it comes to Transportation Demand Management. We are asking residents and businesses in the City to adapt to a more sustainable transportation system, but are slow to adopt progressive change as a corporate entity. Obviously, that argument is easier to make if us elected officials take a position of leadership. I’ve put this issue on my To Do list, and hope to have a better answer for you prior to the next time we go through this exercise.

Council – July 4, 2016

July 4th was our last regularly-scheduled Council Meeting of the summer, so we had a pretty lengthy agenda.

We started with a couple of Provincial awards recently won by our Parks and Rec Department, and another won by our Planning Department. I’m super proud of the work our staff is doing, and am happy to see them get some kudos.

Before the full load of announcements, we moved the following items on consent:

Moriguchi Delegation Proposal
Our Japanese Sister City is having a special anniversary in the Fall, and have invited members of our Council to attend as visiting dignitaries. I don’t see good ROI for the City from our Council going on these international trips, but as long as Council members are happy to pay their own travel costs, I see no reason why people shouldn’t go if they want.

2016 School District By-Election – Report of Election Result
Something like 4% of you bothered to take part in the School Board By-Election last month, as Mary Ann Mortensen mysteriously resigned from the board a year and a half into her term. Part of the process is for City staff to officially report out to us on it, because under the Elections Act, the City runs the election and sends the bill to the School District.

Mary Lalji deserves congratulations for eking out a 60-vote win over Dee Beattie.

I got to sit next to Lalji at the NWSS Graduation Ceremony last week, which was my first chance to chat with her. Apparently her first Committee and Board meetings were both epic long ones, so she has been thrown into the deep end right off. I suspect it is tough to join as a rookie mid-term and try to get caught up, but she seemed excited about the opportunity, and her heart is clearly in the right place, so I’m confident she will be a great Trustee.

809 Fourth Avenue: Heritage Alteration Permit
This ongoing project at 8th Street and Fourth Ave has taken a pretty innovative approach to protecting some heritage homes, and has raised some interesting discussion on social media.

The developer bought several lots, has lifted the three heritage homes that face 8th Street, and moved them around to facilitate the building of a multi-level underground parking garage. The garage will support the building of a mid-rise condo complex behind the houses (adjacent to the larger high-rise next door), and the three heritage homes will be restored and converted to strata-ownership duplexes.

This application is simply to alter the already existing and approved Heritage Restoration Plan in order to allow the preservation of all of the original windows, which in turn requires a shifting of the interior layouts of the three preserved houses. Council moved to approve this change.

188 Wood Street: Heritage Alteration Permit
This is another project where a heritage home was preserved as part of a higher-density development in Queensborough. Again, work on the restoration has required a change in approach to some of the siding materials, which is not strictly in compliance with the Heritage Restoration Plan that formed the basis of the agreement. Council moved to approve the alteration of the restoration plan to accommodate the change in siding materials deemed necessary by the restoration expert working on the house.

332 Eleventh Street: Demolition Application for a Pre-1900 House
As will become standard with our new policy (see below), any pre-1900 house where the owner has applied for Demolition will have that application reviewed by Council and the Heritage Conservation Commission. In the case of this 1892 house in the Brow of the Hill, there appears to be little of heritage value that can be conserved. Council moved the staff recommendation to proceed with issuing a demolition permit.

320 Fifth Avenue: Demolition Application for a Pre-1900 House
Same, but somewhat different. The Heritage Commission and Staff have recommended that Council move to protect this 1900 home in Queens Park for 60 days, providing time for staff to work with the owner on possible heritage conservation strategies. Council moved to support that recommendation.

Heritage Control Period Administrative Policy
Back on June 15, Council adopted the Heritage Control Period Bylaw for Queens Park. Although referred to as a “moratorium on demolition” by some, it is far from that. Instead, it is a new, and temporary, policy change that allows Council and the Heritage Commission closer oversight over demolitions and alterations that may seriously erode the heritage of the neighbourhood.

This report outlines the policy we will be using to manage that oversight. It’s worth a read if you are curious about the limits of powers that local governments have when it comes to protecting heritage.

258 Nelson’s Court: Development Permit Application for Third Residential Tower
Here is the preliminary report of the third residential tower at the Brewery District, There is a bunch of Public Consultation to come, so I’ll hold off my comments for now, except to say it seems to fit the Community Plan as recently amended.

Brewery District Master Development Permit: Update to Master Parking Plan
This has been discussed in earlier phases of the Brewery District development, as the developer works to manage the combined residential and commercial needs of the growing complex. There has been a desire on the part of the developer to increase the parking, and to shift parking access from Nelson Court to Keary Street. I am still of the opinion that this is better than the original access plan, but that Keary needs a better connection to Brunette, because Brewery District commercial traffic and RCH post-expansion traffic cannot be accommodated on East Columbia without seriously eroding the livability of Columbia as a street where we want people to be able to walk, shop, eat, and play. It would also exacerbate the neighborhood impacts in upper Sapperton.

Bring on the Sapperton Traffic Study!

Child Care in Queensborough: Proposed Action Plan
There is a profound lack of childcare available in Queensborough, even as family-friendly housing becomes the norm for that part of New West. Staff has a few ideas and strategies to bring more childcare on-line, as they fear the problem is becoming “critical”. This is becoming a strategic priority for the City, as the need speaks to so many of the City’s other policies around sustainability, and becoming more family-friendly and child-friendly as we develop, and “the market” doesn’t seem to be filling the need.

900 Carnarvon Street – Exemptions for Requirements of Flood Plain Bylaw
Some details around how the ground-level commercial development and the underground parking of the 4th tower at Plaza88 don’t comply with the strict language of the Flood Plain Bylaw. There are perfectly reasonable engineering solutions to manage these non-compliances, but specific exemptions are required to allow those engineering solutions to be used.

Structural Considerations for Food Trucks on the Parkade
Food trucks are now allowed to operate in various places in the City, and it seemed to some on Council (me included) that the 4th Street overpass area of the Parkade was a natural place for them to set up. Visible, lots of foot traffic, not blocking access to any business, ample parking, etc.

Staff have now provided us a bit of an engineering assessment, outlining the potential challenges with this plan. Apparently, the Parkade is not built to accommodate the types of total and point loads that many Food Trucks apply. (who knew those things were so heavy?). Accommodating lighter trucks on some occasions might work out, but it is looking like more hassle than it would be worth for any operators.

In short: great idea, not exactly practical.

Qayqayt Transportation Safety – Update
I blogged a little bit ago about increased concerns at the Third Street crosswalk across Royal Ave, and concerns that have been raised regarding the safety of students headed to and from Qayqayt School.

This report outlines some of the engineering improvements our Staff are proposing to make the intersection easier to navigate and safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Again, I am happy to see us taking some serious action and putting our limited transportation resources into the priorities set out in our Master Transportation Plan. Our staff deserve kudos for some good creative work here!

Access Ability Advisory Committee Request: City Council Support of the Barrier Free BC Motion
I’m the Chair of the AAAC, and that group received a presentation from Barrier Free BC, an organization lobbying the Provincial government to pass a British Columbians with Disabilities Act. In a similar model to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the desire is to make accommodation of those with disabilities a legal requirement for all public spaces and businesses.

The AAAC like the idea, and recommended support to Council, but staff has asked to be given a bit of time to assess the implications for City operations. Such a piece of legislation would be far-reaching, and would impact not just transportation, but how we design buildings, our public facilities, and almost everything the City touches. If we call on the Provincial government to do this, we need also to call on them to Partner with local governments to fund the necessary infrastructure changes. For some reason, I don’t think that is something the Provincial Government is quick to sign up for.

This issue is coming to the UBCM conference in September, and it will good for our Council to have a high-level report from Staff prior to that to have a fuller understanding about what the motion means from a City budget and operations viewpoint. As much as I support the intentions, responsible governance requires we need to do a little due diligence here.

Pre-1900 Heritage House Policy
Aside from the heritage protection period (and eventual Heritage Designation Area?) approach being used in Queens Park, the City is continuing to explore ways to preserve important heritage assets in the rest of the City. For all the talk of the importance of heritage to New West, very little legislation exists for us to protect those assets when they are private properties. This issue is important to address now so we can include these approaches as part of our larger OCP update, and the increased pressure caused by the current housing price blip bubble crisis trend.

This table shows the status of all pre-1900 houses in New Westminster.

With the ongoing Queens Park heritage protection work, all 100 of the houses there have at least some level of protection for the next year. All but 19 of the 145 outside of Queens Park have no protection at all, and not having limitless resources in the City, this is a logical place for us to concentrate our efforts in the next little while.

Placing all of the homes on the Heritage Register will identify their value, but will not actually do anything to protect them. While it would eat up a considerable amount of staff resources (each home would need an separate evaluation of their heritage value and character-defining elements, a potentially lengthy process), the Register has not regulatory protection attached to it.

Instead, staff are going to develop a policy through which pre-1900 homes are required to come through a Heritage Review and Council prior to demolition or heritage-impacting alteration, in a similar process to how the temporary neighborhood-wide protection policy in Queens Park operates.

We had a couple of public delegations that related to issues coming up later in the agenda, but one item that we moved from Delegation:

NWEP Community Garden
The New Westminster Environmental Partners are the latest of several groups who have raised the idea of turning a portion of the front lawn of City Hall into a Community Garden.

The City has a couple of small community gardens, but every garden plot that is opened very soon is gobbled up and a waiting list is established. As New West continues to develop, areas like Downtown and the Brow of the Hill are seeing denser development, with few opportunities for people to have a little garden plot. The lawn at City Hall is expansive, and there is a natural area near the intersection of 4th Street that would be great for some community garden plots.

There are lots of details to work out: installing Community Gardens is not free, and there will be a need for some infrastructure investment (water supply, possibly storage, waste management), and the New Westminster Community Gardens Society or a similar organization will have to be brought in to establish how the plots will be used and allocated. So this is not a “done deal”, but Council did show strong support for the idea, so if all the stars align, we may have plots as early as next year.

After Delegations, we discussed the following items that were Removed from Consent

Branding for New Westminster Waterfront Vision – “The Riverfront”
I don’t call out my Council colleagues too often when I disagree with them, but I am still of the opinion this was a silly decision made poorly.

I cannot emphasize enough: this has nothing to do with the Tin Soldier itself, nor is it another trip down the “Old vs. New” New West trope that has enlivened wedge-drivers for decades. Instead, this (for me) is about how the branding proposed was good, and scotch-taping the Tin Soldier on doesn’t add, but takes away by confusing and cluttering the clean look of the brand.

However, much like my expressed opinions on Public Art, Council sometimes needs to sit back and understand that *not all decisions need executive input*. We hire professionals for a reason, and in this case we paid professionals to do a professional job. When dealing with subjective matters of aesthetic and design and their use in marketing, we may need to admit that we have limitations (none of us mentioned our graphic design skills in our election campaigns) and should have a process that separates our subjectivity from the decision making. In this case, we did the opposite, and voted *against* the recommendation of both the professionals we paid to give us their professional opinions, and our own professional staff for no other reason that “we like it better”. We wouldn’t do that with an engineering recommendation of what size of pipe to use, we wouldn’t do that with the Fire Department when they recommend what type of oxygen mask to purchase, why is the work of design or art professionals not treated with similar respect? (I’ll be the first to admit – on sustainable transportation issues, I’ll push the envelope this way myself!)

The suggestion made after this decision that Council needs to get *more* involved in branding exercises like this is something I cannot disagree with more.
It was totally a coincidence that friend the day before sent me a link to this Ted Talk on Flags, and why City Flags so commonly suffer from bad design. The money quote: “Good design and Democracy don’t go together”. You can’t design by committee, or you get terrible results like a lurky guy hanging out on the edge of the bushes marring an otherwise good design.

Really, in the end the branding works, and in the great scheme of things, this is not something to get my knickers in a knot over. However, I think it is the pathway to the decision that irks me more than end result. Klaatu Barada Nikto.

Request for Funding to Host the Live Streaming of the Tragically Hip Concert
This is a great idea that mostly arose from social media chatter. Of course, the entire idea that the last Tragically Hip concert should must be broadcast by our National Broadcaster was something that grew from social media chatter. It points to this being a cultural touchstone moment.

There was some local talk of finding inside broadcasters when someone noticed that the StrEAT Food Festival was happening at that time in New West, and ideas collide!

The cost of the big screen is more than I anticipated, which is why I hope we can bring in a couple of corporate sponsors to share the load, but this could make for a spectacular day on Columbia Street, and ramp up the regional exposure of the Downtown BIA’s biggest annual event. The fact that even the suggestion that we might do this has already resulted n front-page news in some regional media is a sign that this is something beyond New West.

It isn’t a slam dunk, though. Whether we can actually broadcast this event to the public and how those broadcasting rights will be managed, is a detail yet to be worked out. There is no plan to charge for viewing, so the rights discussion might be easier, unless there was already a plan for others to make money charging for outside broadcasts. There are still unknowns here, but I hope we can pull it off.

I also hope it is an opportunity for the City and the BIA to work with the Cancer Society, the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada, or another appropriate charity to help promote the event, and hopefully attract donations.

Keep your fingers crossed, and hopefully on August 20th the second best place to be in Canada (after Kingston!) will be downtown New West.

801 Columbia Street: DP for Three Story Commercial Building
This property at the corner of 8th Street and Columbia, previously referred to as the Kyoto Block, was sold by the City some time in 2014. Way back in 2011, I wrote this post about the Kyoto block, and still feel much the same way about it. We now have much less control over its fate, however I think it is still important that any building put on this spot be an amenity to the pedestrian realm, and create a useful and welcoming connection between Columbia Street and the concourse level at the Shops and Westminster Station.

I am as big a fan of craft beer as I am of the Tragically Hip, so I am excited that a solid regional brand like CRAFT is looking to set up shop in our downtown, but I hope the building can connect the Shops and Columbia street, not separate them!

Downtown Uptown Connector (DUC) Shuttle
This report was preceded by a Public Delegation from the River Market, who have been the brains, money, and motivation behind the DUC for the last 9 months.

The DUC fills what has often been considered a gap in our local transportation picture –a frequent and cheap connection between Downtown and Uptown. Notably, a connection that spans a significant hill. The River Market partnered with a couple of local businesses to try a pilot project connecting the waterfront market with a couple of uptown destinations with a free shuttle bus having a predictable schedule.

They have paid for the pilot project, and are starting to see some success, but the pilot period is coming to an end, and the River Market has approached the City to ask us to contribute (along with a couple of other partners, notably including the Downtown BIA), to help fund an extension of the Pilot at least through to Labour Day, so that we can make a more informed choice about whether this is a service that the community wants to continue to support. Seeing as Policy 3B in our Master Transportation Plan is “Continue to explore an affordable shuttle service that would provide residents and visitors with improved transit service between Downtown and Uptown”, I think contributing to this pilot is an affordable way for us to meet that goal.

Fraser River Middle School – Active Transportation Update
City staff, School District staff, and some active transportation organizations in the region have been working together to prepare for the opening of Fraser River Middle School.

By the very nature of its grade offerings, a Middle School should be encouraging active transportation. Students that walk or ride their bikes to school do better at school, have fewer behavior problems, concentrate better, and are healthier. It is the City’s job to make sure they have Safe Routes to School, and we are working to get as much in place as possible before Fraser River opens in September.

Tree Protection and Regulation Bylaw Status Update
The numbers are starting to roll in on the Tree Bylaw – and a lot of trees have been protected. We have also recovered quite a bit of money for trees lost to the community, with that money earmarked for planting and maintaining replacement trees on City lands.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few hiccups with the implementation of the new Bylaw. I (along with other Councilors, I’m sure) have heard from a few residents about specific quirks (why protect an invasive holly tree? When does a potentially damaging tree become a hazardous tree? Why does a homeowner have to give the City a $10,000 deposit, when you can always fine me if I don’t follow the rules and take it off my taxes?).

I had hoped that we could have a workshop with Council this spring to talk about some of these implementation concerns, but it looks like it is going to have to wait until the Fall.

Finally, we moved on to the Bylaws portion of the evening’s festivities.

Housing Agreement (Brewery District) Bylaw No. 7838, 2016
Zoning Amendment (Brewery District) Bylaw No. 7841, 2016

The housing agreements and zoning amendments for the second residential building at the Brewery District are adopted. This is now the law of the land, as the Sappers would have liked.

Downtown Development Agreement (900 Carnarvon) Bylaw
The Bylaw that formalized the interface between City infrastructure and the 4th tower at Plaza88 is now adopted. Adjust your behavior accordingly.

Mobile Food Vending Licence Bylaw No. 7850, 2016
Bylaw Notice Enforcement Amendment Bylaw No. 7851, 2016
Development Services Fees Amendment Bylaw No. 7852, 2016

The set of Bylaws that regulate how Food Trucks operate in the City were, after more than a year of comprehensive and multi-faceted public consultation, adopted by Council. Free range barbequed quinoa tofu sundaes for all!

And after that, I hope you all enjoy a summer of fun in New West. Attend a festival, enjoy a Park, and be good to a neighbor. A community is what you make it.

On consulting the community

No, my report for this week’s council meeting is not done. Almost. I need to dot a few “t”s and cross a few “i”s, as it is a long report full of difficult spelling, and Le Tour is on TV. The delay is now extended because I have to spend a bit of time retorting a silly letter to the newspaper.

A relatively well-known local politician wrote to complain that the City’s new Food Truck Bylaw was approved, apparently without his knowledge.

Several parts of this letter were, frankly, baffling. To sum up:

“Why would our city council approve legislation without prior discussion with residents and businesses affected by this bylaw?

It was a year ago when the City first permitted a temporary pilot project to evaluate how Food Trucks may or may not fit in our local context. After a launch of the pilot proved promising, Council asked staff to start public consultations to inform a permitting process and bylaw structure in case the pilot was successful. Both of these stories were well reported by the very newspaper where this incensed letter to the editor was published. As was this update six months later, once the pilot was completed along with the first round of public consultation, and Council had an opportunity to comment on some of the potential policy framework.

In between these reports, the City launched an on-line survey with more than 450 respondents, including both businesses and residents, and received feedback on what types of restrictions or controls might be appropriate. The survey was advertised at the Pilot Food truck location, in that same familiar newspaper, and posters at City facilities. A City webpage dedicated to the consultation was set up, including a comprehensive FAQ section. The results were put together into a draft set of policies, that were then taken back to the public for another survey, stakeholder meetings and an Open House.

The City mailed out special invitations to the Chamber of Commerce, both BIAs, and the two other neighbourhood business associations,asking that the information be circulated to their members and inviting feedback. A special survey was set up specifically to target brick-and-mortar business owners, and circulated through their associations, and of course advertised in the newspaper, on-line, and through social media. Just to be sure, the City mailed out 2,043 postcards – one to every business address in the City – to seek their input. We even had a stakeholder group of business owners, representing each of the business areas of the City, sit down together for workshops to go through concerns and provide more guidance to the policy documents.

Further, staff evaluated best practices from other communities, in the Lower Mainland and further afield, to determine what has worked and what hasn’t for different jurisdictions, and to identify pitfalls that may arise that were not caught by the Pilot program. They talked to other Cities, and to food service companies, and used that input to develop detailed policy documents.

Staff then held a heavily-advertised Community Open House, even providing a couple of food trucks at the Anvil Centre location to give people a first-hand look at what the program would offer. The City partnered with journalism students from Langara and Douglas Colleges to create media pieces and social media buzz to attract people to take part in the Open house and the larger consultation process.

Through this entire process, staff kept Council (and the public) informed through public reports on July 13, 2015 (where the Pilot program was described), January 11, 2016 (where the first survey and consultation reports were outlined), April 18, 2016, (where the second phase of consultation and open house were reported out), and May 30, 2016, where the Draft Bylaw was given two readings, and the Public Hearing was formally announced for one month hence. (I won’t mention the Reports to the Land Use and Planning Committee on September 14 and December 7, 2015, because although they are publically posted and open to the public, few bother to attend. Further, they only recommend to Council, they don’t make decisions).

Now, go back up and read that quote. Any reasonable person would have to conclude we had “prior discussion with residents and businesses”. But there’s more:

“I believe that this decision is dictatorial and totally opposed to open governance and transparency. When a zoning bylaw change is to be considered, all property owners within a specific distance of the project property need to be informed of the pending bylaw changes and when the matter will be brought before council.

“As well, anyone who feels that they are impacted by the change is allowed to express their opinions before council prior to a vote on the bylaw change.

“I believe that this new bylaw did not receive the same consideration and therefore should be struck down until it is brought before all those taxpayers who are directly affected by its passage.”

Actually, after the year of public consultation listed above, this Bylaw went to Public Hearing, much the same process as any rezoning would. It isn’t actually a rezoning, and that level review was probably not strictly required by legislation, but the City did it anyway, because the City is demonstrably committed to open governance and transparency.

I am proud of the high standard we set for consultation in New West, but at some point we need to stop talking and start acting on the results of that consultation. If in 6 months this idea proves to not work out, if our business community tells us that some parts of the new policy just don’t work, Council is free to adapt or rescind the Bylaw and go back to the original restrictions. Some people fear innovation, but I think we need to take a few well-considered chances to continue to improve the activity of our streets, which is a great way to support our business community. We can’t be held back by uninformed cynicism.

“The people of our community should determine where in the community we would prefer to locate the operation of food trucks, not city staff, many of whom do not live in our community”

I need to reiterate: This was a process first driven by the elected City Council (we directed staff to put together a consultation process, then to draft a Bylaw that would allow Food Trucks to operate), then modified after repeated consultations with the residents and businesses of the City. There was a Pilot Project, supported by a business in the City. There was a planning session where businesses in the City were invited to provide input into what elements of a Bylaw ere needed, and where appropriate locations for food Trucks would be. We had a Public Hearing where all of two people came to talk to the Bylaw, both residents and business owners, and both spoke in favour of Food Trucks. We received no negative feedback in that Public Hearing, which tells me City Staff did a pretty great job covering their bases.

Our staff busted their asses to put together a Bylaw package that satisfied Council’s desire to support Food Trucks in our Commercial areas, and addressed concerns and ideas raised by the residents and businesses in this City over more than a year of consultation. At no step was this a staff-driven process. The letter writer’s inappropriate an uninformed attempt to belittle or dismiss the work they did, and his implication that they were indifferent to community feedback, is disconnected from reality.

On a positive note, this provides me one more opportunity to link to this remarkably apropos opinion piece by Stephen Quinn, which is a much better retort to this letter than I could ever pen.

Morals & Panics

Back in the middle of June, we had a lengthy discussion at Council about a couple of related topics: Naloxone and ambulances. It was an enlightening, frightening, and frustrating discussion; one that has humbled me as a person trying to understand issues enough to make intelligent and defensible decisions on issues that are literally life and death.

The two issues should really be dealt with separately, but are intertwined, so I will try to give some background and create the context for the discussions yet to come.

The province is in the middle of a public health emergency; so sayeth the Provincial Health Officer. Overdoses and overdose deaths have skyrocketed in the last few months, a direct result of a flooding of the illegal drug trade with powerful synthetic opioids, notably fentanyl. Provincially, overdose deaths are more than 2 per day, and some have projected up to 1,000 deaths in calendar year 2016. It is shocking, and something the community needs to react to.

Note: I am going to take a bit of a pass on what might be a lengthy lecture here on how we may have avoided much of the current Moral Panic approach caused by these shocking numbers if we had years ago started seriously investing in harm reduction, drug policy reform, and re-writing laws to make drug addiction a problem managed through a public health lens rather than a criminal justice one…

The Minister of Health has responded in part by issuing an unprecedented Ministerial Order giving firefighting first responders the legal authority to carry and administer Naloxone through intramuscular injection when they encounter a person suffering from an opioid overdose. I say unprecedented because it happened without full consultation of Health Authorities, with very little research backing the idea that this will be an effective public health measure, and without consulting with local governments for whom these firefighters work.

When this topic came to Council on June 13, we were provided with a comprehensive report by the Ambulance Paramedics of BC that outlines a number of concerns with this approach to managing what they agree is a significant public health issue. The report is 120 pages, and dense in spots, but here are my takeaway points from it (recognizing I am NOT a medical researcher, a paramedic, or a doctor, but am able to follow citations and assess the value of peer-reviewed research).

Naloxone is far from a “Miracle Drug”. This isn’t Uma taking a cardiac needle through the sternum in Pulp Fiction then getting a lift home. There are significant risks to both the patient and the first responder related to its administration.

Naloxone is effective at temporarily blocking the respiratory depression effects of opioid narcotics like Fentanyl, however does not reverse the effects of other street drugs like meth, ecstasy, cocaine or alcohol. It does not work on many now-commonly-abused prescription drugs. If the victim was mixing a narcotic like heroin with a stimulant like cocaine, the results of Naloxone can be dangerous and unpredictable. This brings into the picture risks to the first responder. Risks related to managing needles around high-risk persons with an unpredictable reaction to the intervention.

Naloxone has its role in harm reduction, but there is simple no data to support the suggestion that providing first responders trained in airway management with intramuscular Naloxone results in improved outcomes for overdose victim.

When a person is suffering from respiratory depression, and the person responding to that medical emergency is properly trained, “[it is] evident from the literature on the administration of Nalaxone [that] ensuring airway patency and adequate ventilation is far more important… than the pharmacological response”.

This is quite different than the “Take Home Naloxone” intervention, where people with opioid addictions are given a naloxone kit in the hopes that family, friends, or other bystanders in their presence can use as a first intervention in the event of overdose. There is a demonstrated benefit to this, because the intervention is performed by lay people (those not trained to use the more effective airway management approach) and there is likely some resistance to calling for professional help in a street drug situation due to fear of police involvement and arrest.

So Naloxone is an intervention that has proved to be sometimes effective for untrained bystander, when the alternative is doing nothing. However the evidence reviewed in this report seem pretty unequivocal to a lay person like me: the best result when a professional first responder meets a person with respiratory depression presumed to be caused by an opioid overdose is airway management, respiration, and getting the victim to a hospital as soon as possible so a doctor can properly assess and treat.

This brings us to the second part of the story, which causes me to ask, rhetorically, why the hell is the collapse of our local ambulance service not front page news? Does no-one actually care about this?

The tables in the report we received from staff are stunning:

tableTo translate, our firefighters have responded to essentially the same number of calls annually from 2012 to 2015, and are generally the first responders on site. However in those 4 short years, Ambulance response in more than 15 minutes went from less than 1% of calls to almost 16% of calls. In more than half of those calls (8.6% total) the firefighters and victim were waiting more than 30 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at the scene.

How is this acceptable in 2016 in a modern country, in a Province “leading the Country in Economic Growth”? We are a City with a major trauma hospital, less than 15 square kilometres, I can ride my bicycle from RCH to any other point in the City in under 30 minutes- but a significant number of times (280 in 2015 – almost once per day!) a person in need could not get an ambulance in that time. That is shameful.

The firefighters cannot leave and attend to other calls, the apparatus and crews are tied to the site until Ambulance arrives. They cannot do much more than basic first aid and ABC care, cannot provide pain relief, cannot transport the patient or start an IV. They try to make the patient comfortable as possible and they wait.

Firefighters live to serve, helping people in need is in their blood. So it is natural that they want to be trained and permitted to *do something useful* during these unacceptable waits. There is a desire by some to train to an Emergency Medical Responder (EMR) level, allowing them to do many of the pain management and initial care procedures that ambulance paramedics are meant to be doing. There is an argument that the City should pop for the extra training cost to get this care to our residents. However, there is another argument.

From the staff report:

Please note that should NWFRS increase our level of medical training for Firefighters it is possible that BCEHS may alter the Resource Allocation Plan for NWFRS to align with our new scope of practice. This could possibly lead to additional medical calls which could engage apparatus at the scene for longer periods of time. This puts the City at risk of reduced firefighting capability should a structure fire occur in the same time frame.

There is every reason to believe that the response from the BC Ambulance Service to the uptraining of our local First Responders will be to reduced ambulance resources locally, in order to redirect the precious resources to lesser-served areas. This means the trend towards longer waits will increase, and more of our crews will spend more time waiting for ambulances to arrive and transport patients to Emergency, with more of our apparatus tied up at Ambulance calls, instead of doing their job. More overtime, eventually increasing the need for local government to pour more resources into the system that is being effectively abandoned by the Health Authority whose responsibility this is.

I’m not afraid of the training costs, I want our first responders to be as trained as possible, I want them to do what they got into this business for – to save lives and reduce suffering. But I cannot accept that if we train them, it is likely that we will see a further reduction in Ambulance service for local residents because the BCAS will no longer prioritize our community.

Taking a “high moral ground” on this kind of downloading is a terrible position for a local government to be in. In a City like New Westminster, we gave up waiting for homelessness to be addressed effectively by Senior Governments and instead took measures – spent your property tax money – to provide supports that we would otherwise go without. Why not do the same here?

If anyone could tell me it would make the situation better (as our proactive approach to homelessness has), I might follow that train of thought. However, I see no evidence that improvement in ambulance response will result from EMR training for our first responders. To fix that situation we need a Provincial government interested in investing in ambulance services consummate with reliable service.

Unfortunately, as long as the local media and the citizens of New Westminster are silent about this erosion of an essential service, don’t expect the Province to step up any time soon.