Ask Pat: 4Qs on EVs

JP asks—

I’ve got questions about electric vehicle infrastructure. I read this morning that 3/5 BC residents intend for their next vehicle to be an EV. This along with the current target from the federal government to phase out new non-electric vehicle sales by 2035, has me worried that our city isn’t prepared for what I anticipate will be an imminent influx of demand for electric vehicle infrastructure. I also want to note that if I were to own an electric vehicle, driving to a charging space, leaving it there for a couple hours, then going and moving it once it’s charged, just doesn’t meet my expectations of reasonable infrastructure. So I have a few questions.
1. Are all new residential builds being required to have electric charging available for their parking spaces? If not yet, what steps are being taken to move in this direction?
2. If a rental building or condo tower does not have sufficient energy coming to their property to support adding EV charging to their parking spaces, what incentives are available to upgrade this infrastructure? Are there things the city can do to help move things in this direction?
3. What is the city’s strategy for electrifying their fleet of vehicles?
4. What percentage of new parking spaces being built by the city (ie at the təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic centre) are being equipped with EV charging?

That’s a lot of questions, and I held off on answering them for a bit because I knew the City’s eMobility Strategy was coming to Council, and I didn’t want to jinx any parts of it before adoption by getting ahead of it here. But this question now gives me a good chance to talk about that strategy, which I only mentioned in my Council report last week when we adopted it. That strategy answers some of your questions, but not all of them, so let’s go through these by number:

1: Yes. In 2019, New Westminster made it a requirement that all new residential buildings be ‘EV Ready’. This means every parking stall includes an energized outlet that can accommodate a Level 2 EV charger. There is no requirement to install the charger, as we fully expect the technology at the end of the wire will continue to evolve, both in the types of chargers and the energy management systems attached to them, but having a hot wire in place for every parking spot removes a big barrier to home charging for multi-unit residential buildings.

2: Yeah, this is a challenge. Something like 60% of New West residents live in existing multi-family buildings where charging infrastructure is limited or non-existent. To meet our 2035 goals for EV use, the vast majority of these will need to be EV ready. The eMobility strategy includes the exploration of financial incentives to “top up” those already available from the Provincial Government and Federal Government to facilitate retrofitting charging infrastructure into existing buildings. There may be some Community Charter issues with direct subsidies from a City to do this, but we also have a role in facilitation and setting up more streamlined permitting and inspection processes. This is a work in progress, with relatively high priority.

3: As fast as possible/practical is the strategy. It is laid out in some detail in our Corporate Energy & Emissions Reduction Strategy (“CEERS”). Vehicle emission represent about 40% of current GHG emissions from City operations, (“Corporate Emissions”) and the CEERS has us reducing these by 30% by 2030. The City has various fleets, and there are two things setting the pace of our transition: the availability of zero emission alternatives on the market, and the ability to support the EV fleet with charging infrastructure. We want to optimize the latter so we are ready for the former, if that makes sense.

Light vehicles are relatively easy and we are generally replacing vehicles as they age out of the fleet with electric alternatives. Larger vehicles are, for the most part, just not available. Electric regular-duty pickups are achingly slow getting to the market, and larger vehicles like dump trucks and trucks that can push a snow plow still seem very far away. In the meantime, we have strategically replaced a few parks and engineering service vehicles with smaller specialty electric ones, and are already ahead of the curve on “fuel switching” such as displacing diesel with propane where appropriate, which can reduce emissions by something like 30%. The transition in police vehicles in also a challenge in North America for reasons that are unclear to me, so the shift in the short term is to flex-fuel and hybrid options. Electric firetrucks are a very exotic item right now. So we are shifting when we can, but we are honestly waiting for the technology to catch up in a lot of sectors.

The CEERS also includes some significant trip reduction policies for staff, and as technology allows, we are shifting a bunch of non-vehicle equipment from hydrocarbon-burning to electric.

4: I don’t think that has been decided yet. Indeed, the future market for charging in public facilities like this is a topic of some debate. With the hopefully-rapid deployment of residential charging, the introduction of similar workplace charging requirements, and the ongoing improvement in battery technology and reduction in range anxiety, there remains a question of what role widely-distributed public charging will have in the decades ahead. There will likely always be a place for some public level-2 type charging, and perhaps a greater need for Level 3 rapid-charge facilities for a user group that puts a tonne of mileage on vehicles, but 100% charging at every public parking space is probably not a useful way to invest limited infrastructure money, and will do nothing to fuel the transition to EVs. So a building like təməsew̓txʷ will have some EV charging stations, but I do not know the type or how they will be allocated.


That all said, the transition away from internal combustion cars will not only include swapping them out for EVs. If we are going to meet the Climate Action goals of the city, of the province, and the country, we need to re-think urban mobility. The future of transportation is not just electric, it is shared (more electric Public Transit!) and it is distributed (more Micromobility!). So the eMobility Strategy also talks about how we are going to make the use of emergent transportation technology work better in New West. This means assuring we have the right kind of road and curbside infrastructure to make micromobility safe, and it means advocating to senior governments to change our archaic Motor Vehicle Act and other legislation to make active transportation safe and comfortable for all.

There are a lot of opportunities for a local government to make long-term investments here, and we need our upcoming Community Energy and Emissions Plan to dovetail with this eMobility Strategy. This is also why the City has set up a Climate Action Reserve Fund to help us efficiently manage the various funding sources available to us (such as the new provincial Climate Action Program and assure we are investing in the infrastructure that gets us the best bang for our emissions-reduction buck.

This is an area where there is a lot happening right now, and during the Decade of Climate Action, municipalities are at the forefront, and are redefining their core functions. Not only because local governments (with less than 10% of the tax revenue of senior governments) are responsible though our infrastructure and local policies for more than 50% of all emissions, but because we know the infrastructure we invest in now will save us money and emissions in the decades ahead.

Ask Pat: Renovation advice?

Darth asks—

If I wanted to add a second floor to my house where there is currently only an attic, what bylaws/restrictions/regulations/etc do I need to know about? Where is that information available?

This is one of those questions you probably shouldn’t ask a City Councillor, as there are better people to ask. Our work is to provide executive oversight of the City as a Corporation, and to set governance policy for the City as a Municipality. We approve changes to the Zoning Bylaw and make sure there is enough money to hire building inspectors, but the operational side of these things are managed by our professional staff. Though we interact with that every day, we are not (by sheer volume of the diverse things a City does) technical experts in every aspect of the City’s operations. But with that caveat, I’ll take a dive, because you asked.

The first thing you want to do is look up whatever info the City has on your house, and you might be surprised how much of it is publicly available on the City’s website. For example, you can go to the Property Information Inquiry page here:…enter your address and get a quick report on your house. It looks a little like this (note some redacted stuff because for some reason, it is de rigueur for folks to redact publicly available information like this to make it look like we are protecting our privacy):

From this you can learn some things, like your zoning designation (in this case, RS-1), your lot size (489 sq m), your floor space (220 sq m) and subsequently, your FSR (0.45). You can also determine whether that basement suite you have is legally registered (in this case it is, but it is not listed as a secondary living unit, meaning it is not being rented out), if that old shed out back is considered a “building” by the City (in this case, there is no secondary building on the site), or if there is specific Heritage Protection on your house (in this case, no).

You can also go to the City’s on-line Interactive Map called CityViews to do much the same by selecting “Run a report” on any property you select:

And you get some more info about the development of the property, including old building or development permits that may apply:

This is all interesting stuff, but how do you apply it? The thing for you to zoom into is your zoning entitlement. In other words, what does the zoning for your property say you are allowed to build as it currently stands, and how does that compare to what you have now? It really doesn’t matter if you are planning to renovate your existing house or build a new one, if you keep your plans within the zoning entitlement, your life is much easier.

In the case of the above house, the zoning is RS-1. To know what that means, you look at the zoning Bylaw which is available here. The RS-1 zoning Bylaw describes what you can do and build, but it is 7 pages long, and a bit complicated to read for someone new to this. For example, it is called Single Detached Residential, but you are typically allowed to have up to three living units on an RS-1 zoned property – A main house with a legal secondary suite and a laneway/carriage house – as long as they meet various size and design criteria.

One big criteria is FSR – the ratio of living space over the size of your lot. In the example above, the house has 220 sq m of living space on a 489 sq m lot, so 220/489 = FSR 0.45.  In RS-1 zones you are allowed an FSR of 0.5. Except you can increase this if you build a more energy efficient building (up to 0.55 for Passive House standard). This is assuming you can do so and meet the other criteria in zoning, like a maximum height (25 feet), minimum yard setbacks (distances between the building and the lot lines) and not exceed the maximum site coverage (35%). These numbers are all different for every zoning type, not all SFD in New West are RS-1.

So if you want to convert an attic to a living space, and if this attic space is not currently counted in your living floor space, turning it into living space may increase your FSR. If you already have 0.5 FSR, this may not be within your zoning entitlement. That is not to say you cannot do it – variances are requested and granted all of the time, and they are based on an assessment of the “reasonableness” of the variance. Yep, that sounds subjective, but it does relate to a bunch of policy the City already has in place, and you really need to sit down with a planner at the front desk at City Hall to find out what your options are. You can even set up an appointment to ask a planner this stuff. Don’t tell them I sent you, and as a tip, don’t say “Councillor Johnstone told me I can…”, because that is not something they want to hear. They don’t work for me, they work for the City, and are guided by policy and bylaws created by Council, not the whims of single council members.

All I’ve talked about up to here is zoning. There is also a bunch of Building Code stuff you may have to deal with, from assuring safe fire egress to assuring your site is prepped for sewer separation if your renovation exceeds a certain value. I can’t even get into that, except to say that the BC Building Code is enforced by the City, but not written by it. If it looks like staff are putting barriers in place to you getting the job done, they are more likely just pointing out the barriers that exist so you don’t trip over them. Neither you, your mortgage holder, your insurance company, or your neighbours wants you to be building something outside of building code.

If I was to give quick advice, it would be to hire a local Architect or Designer to guide you through this if the first chat with City Staff makes it look like your plan is viable. And architect’s job is to translate what you want (more square footage? a third bedroom? a brighter space?) into a set of plans that are compliant with the building code and the City’s zoning bylaws, or to help guide you through the process of seeking variances from either of those if needed or appropriate. They don’t just draw pretty pictures of buildings, they design functional and legally-conforming spaces, work with engineers and contractors to make sure they get built right, and act as liaison to the City to help interpret a pretty complicated set of zoning and building codes. They are worth the money for a project like this, and their advice is way more useful than that of a random City Councilor and his blog.

Ask Pat: The Market

I got to set up the Ask Pat booth again! After a pandemically-induced 2 year hiatus, I pulled the dusty booth out of the basement, fixed a few nails that had worked their way proud by unknown forces of time, and gave it a bit of a wash down. The best thing about the booth being that it folds right up and straps to a dolly for instant portability, so I put on my questionable hat and wandered down to the New West Farmers Market to set up camp between the music booth and a craft beer stand.

I had many questions, so many that I missed most in my note-taking, but here is the speed-dating version of Ask Pat based on the notes I was able to make. If you want the longer answers, drop by the booth next time it pops up:

Dog Park at Simcoe is noisy: Hey, check out the People Parks and Pups strategy the City just completed, and provide feedback to parks on that!

Pickle Ball Courts aren’t regulation: I had no idea! Interesting to learn about the (subtle to non-players) differences in court dimensions. Good input for planning new multi-sport courts in Hume and the gymnasiums in təməsew̓txʷ.

Permit times are too long for small renos: Yep, I hear you. We are a little short-staffed in planning right now, and because every City in the Lower Mainland is in the same boat, we are all challenged filling those gaps, but we are working on it.

No SPARC parking on Market days: Already talked to the Market Manager and put her in touch with our Transportation folks about this.

My not-for-Profit could use a small grant for meeting space That should be easy, our next Community Grants application window opens next month.

Why is Agnes now one way?: Community was asked if one-way or stripping parking from one side was preferred with width constraint relating to new mobility lanes, and parking preservation was preferred in that stretch. Also, one-way reduces through-traffic bridge queue jumpers during critical school safety times.

What parks can we drink in? Pretty much any park that has a public bathroom in it, full guide here. And yeah, there were no problems with the pilot, so we are going to keep doing this.

Pineapple on Pizza? Why not?

How are we going to build 2,000 units of non-market housing in 10 years? This is the number our Housing Needs Report says we are short of current need. Alas, I also don’t think it is a number we can get built without some order-of-magnitude shift in how senior governments fund housing. As a City, we are approving every unit of affordable housing the City can get funded, have fast-tracked approval on affordable projects with senior gov’t funding, and have a new inclusionary housing policy to bring affordable units to new market projects, but 200 non-market units per year every year is a tall order.

When will 22nd Street Station area get redeveloped? Not soon. The City is getting into a “Master Planning” process to draw a comprehensive vision, and this alone may take two years. If all goes well, then maybe some developers will look at what was scoped out and decide they want to try to make it work. They would then need to buy land and design and build, project-by-project. So I would suppose we are still years away from significant changes.

Why is there no bathroom in Tipperary Park? We looked at this, and when the costs were worked out, it fell off the priority list for park upgrades. That said, public bathrooms are a pressing topic right now, but at upward toward $1Million each for capital cost (maybe half that if we take a modular approach) and likely $200K each in annual operating cost, we need to fit it in the budget priorities. That conversation is ongoing, though.

How can you justify the preservation of Colonial houses in the era of Reconciliation and an ongoing Housing Crisis? Owch. There are three overlapping questions there, but the overlap shows how we need to think deeper about systems in our planning and our response to issues. This was actually a great question, and lead to a great conversation, where I think we both walked away thinking a little differently. Yowza.

And finally, Thank you Leslie (sp?) for asking these two surprising questions:

What are you most proud of in your work on Council? My reflex answer was our housing policies – from preventing Renovictions to the amount of Purpose Built Rental we are getting built. But walking home from the market, I realized I should have said trees. The thousands of trees we are planting today will make this a much better City in the decades ahead, long after my time on Council (or on Earth) is over.

What is your biggest disappointment? The Heat Dome. We still have not, as a community, come to a reckoning with what that event meant, and what it means for our future. We were not ready (as a city, a region, or a province) for that event, and people died. Many more were traumatized, including first responders trying to deal with the failures in response. There is a lot going on locally and provincially to be more ready for a repeat of that event, but it really shook a lot of what we assumed we knew about climate disruption and about community preparedness.

So on that somber note, I want to thank the scores of people who came by and asked questions, and the wonderful Dani Black for the musical accompaniment to my day in the Market!

Ask Pat: Legal advice?

DM asked—

I got a bylaw offence notice on my car today. is it true that if it is just a notice, that I don’t have to pay it? I only HAVE to pay if its a violation ticket? and, if I do not pay it, will it affect my credit, or insurance premiums?

Sorry, Man. I cannot emphasize enough that you should NOT take legal advice from a City Councilor’s blog. But if you got a ticket on your car, my best advice is to pay it or challenge it; both options are available to you. The form prescribed by provincial law starts with “Notice of Bylaw Infraction”, but that isn’t just a warning, it is a ticket notifying you that you got busted, and you need to deal with it.

It is worth while mentioning that there are different types of tickets. I’ll put aside the Motor Vehicle Act ticketing (your typical speeding, distracted driving or failing to yield thing) which is a purview of the Province, and for which the City has very little role. We don’t even get the money for the fines collected, but those are mixed in with Provincial Revenue (some of which is re-directed back to Local Governments, but now I’m already down a rabbit hole.)

Then there is the Bylaw Enforcement Ticketing Regulations that are under Section 264-270 of the Community CharterThis is something that Municipal Bylaw officers can and do enforce through issuing a ticket. The applicable regulation says any peace officer (RCMP, Local Police, Bylaw officers, even building inspectors) can enforce these Bylaws, and the ticket can’t be more than $1,000. If you want to appeal the ticket, you have 14 days to let the City know, and the City refers it to the Provincial Court so you can have your day in court in front of a judge to appeal.

The City also has access to the Local Government Bylaw Notice Enforcement Act which limits fines to $500, and doesn’t bother the courts. Instead, this process relies on an independent adjudicator in the event you want to dispute the ticket. If you don’t pay this fine, the City can still issue a certificate to the Provincial Court to recover the money. If you refuse to pay after a Provincial Court Judge orders you to do so, you are getting into bad situation.

So, just to touch back to your first question, here is what Section 262 of the Community Charter says can happen if you don’t pay your fine:

So (*still*not*legal*advice*) I would suggest that ignoring the ticket and hoping it goes away is a really bad idea.

Ask Pat: E-bike share

neil asks—

Why doesn’t New West have e-bike share when North Van has had it so long? We’re both walkable hilly waterfront small cities in Metro Van, and frankly we’re better than them at urbanism in many other ways, but they totally left us in the dust on this one.

I would preface my response by saying North Van hasn’t had it that long, in the sense of how municipalities work. I’d also suggest, credit where it’s due, North Van City is one of the few municipalities in the region doing “urbanism” as well as (or better than?) New West, but with those points as a preamble, let’s dig into e-bike share.

The North Shore program rolled out about 9 months ago after at least two years of stop-and-start attempts by North Van City to get it going. Something like 200 dockless e-bikes operated by Lime are distributed around the three participating municipalities (West Van, North Van City and North Van District). Although still officially a “pilot” program, the preliminary reports from the District and City have been, as best I can tell, really positive after a few bumps got ironed out. The same company is now starting a roll-out of another “pilot” e-bike and e-scooter share program in Richmond, which looks more like a hybrid-docked system, in that the devices need to be returned to geo-fenced parking areas in the City.

The important part to recognize from both these systems, and to differentiate them from the City of Vancouver’s fully-docked Mobi bike share, is that these are being run by a private company (Lime). Though they need to come to an agreement with the local municipality over regulatory concerns and typically license public spaces to support their operations, there is no municipal money spent operating the system. In that sense, much like EVO car share, Lime decides where the market exists to support their business plan best.

As much as 4 years ago, New West started to look into these programs. I can’t talk too much about the negotiations until we launch a formal procurement process, or an agreement is far enough along that we need to commit some money or change a Bylaw, then it becomes public. Still, no surprise to anyone that New West has been working on attracting an e-bike share program. I don’t have anything to announce about where these negotiations may be, but I hope we have a program soon. Maybe reach out to your favourite e-bike share provider and tell then New West is a great place for them to set up shop. Also, with no harm to the participants, I can share these pictures to show we have been “working” on this file for a while:

To the bigger point you raise, I think we are an ideal jurisdiction for e-bike sharing. With higher population density, massive transit ridership, and significant hills, e-bikes really expand on zero-carbon mobility in the community. With four of our five Skytrain stations arrayed along the bottom of a big hill upon which many people live, and the fifth a short bridge crossing from the Q’boro shopping and residential neighbourhoods, you would think e-bike would be a valuable last-kilometer link to rapid transit. A semi-dockless system with recharging available at the destination stations may be an excellent model for a New West solution.

You will also be happy to know an e-bike share program is also a large part of the City’s Electric Mobility Strategy, because throwing a bunch of bikes out there is a positive idea, but recognizing how we can successfully support their integration into our transportation planning and their safe use in the community is a bigger challenge. We recently went through a phase of Public and Stakeholder Consultation on the draft strategy, and you can read oodles of details here. Yes, this is work that got slowed as we re-directed engineering and planning staff to COVID response (New West is still a small City with limited resources!) but it has been picked back up now, as we recognize the important role e-mobility has in supporting our 7 bold Steps for climate action. A shared e-bike project is a top priority in that plan, one I 100% support, and one I hope for the stars to align on soon.

Ask Pat: 1.5m

Liz asked—

What is the distance required from a residential driveway to a parked vehicle?

This is an easy one!

The City’s Street and Traffic Bylaw has an entire section about Parking – Section 4. There are 22 subsections and a couple of hundred clauses, but this is the part I think you are looking for:

So, I’m no lawyer, but I read from this that you cannot park within 1.5m of the edge of a driveway (Section 4.8.8). Even if you are more than 1.5m, though, you can’t park in a way that is “obstructing free movement” in and out of that driveway (see 4.8.5), or within 5m of a hydrant (4.8.2.) etc. etc. Oh, and there may also be a sign indicating a larger buffer for some reason (4.8.15), and you should be aware you can’t obstruct pedestrians (4.9.5). Actually, the Bylaw has a lot of bits saying where you can’t park. So this is not legal advice. Caveat Lector.

Ask Pat: Transport 2050 & New West

jectoons asks—

With the new Transport 2050 plan out and the goal of lowering speed limits in urban areas to 30km/h, what is the expected timeline for those changes to take effect in major New West arteries? (Royal, for example).
Also, regarding the 850 km of protected bike lanes, is there an estimation of how much of that will be devoted to our city? Is there a timeline and map in the works? The official plan for the city reimagines Columbia street beautifully, but I wonder when will we actually see those changes applied. (Not a complaint, I know it takes time for these things to be approved and worked on). Thanks for all you do, Pat.

Indeed TransLink has adopted a new long-range plan that creates inspiration for the region’s transportation in the decade ahead. And there is a lot in there:

The theme is “access for everyone”, and there are laudable goals:

And there are 350 pages of this. If I can get my minor complaints out of the way, it leans a bit too much into unproven tech solutions and benefits of unlikely automated vehicle adoption. My slightly bigger complaint is that it leans much more on other orders of government doing their bit to see the plan succeed, with not enough emphasis about what TransLink can do and should do with the power it holds. But I want to get those gripes out of the way, because it is overall a good and forward-looking plan that draws a positive vision for regional mobility. So I encourage you to thumb through it, because here I’m going to only talk about your questions.

The proposal for reducing urban speed limits is outlined under a section where the plan looks toward a Vision Zero approach to reducing fatalities and deaths in our transportation system. The plan calls for:There is a good defense for going in this direction in the plan, and to Active Transportation advocates, there is nothing surprising there. 30km/h saves lives, and makes shared spaces on our City streets much more comfortable for all users. It also allows us to start re-thinking how we design our streets. I talked a bit about that back here when it came up in Council, and New Westminster is one of a group of Municipalities advocating for the Provincial Government to make the change to 30km/h default speed for neighbourhood streets. We have also started to transition roads in select areas around town to 30km/h, and there are promising signs the Province is looking to make it easier for Municipalities to do this.

Which all raises the point that TransLink can advocate for this, but has no power to legislate speed limits. It will be up to the Provincial Government to loosen up the regulatory control on speed limits in the Motor Vehicle Act, and individual Local Governments to adopt these new relaxations.

That doesn’t mean that TransLink adopting this as a policy direction is meaningless, though, as one limit on Local Governments more widely adopting reduced limits is the Major Road Network. These are roads across the Lower Mainland that are shared jurisdiction between Local Governments and TransLink. In practice, that means TransLink gives local governments some maintenance money for them in exchange for some regulatory control over them. If we want to add a new intersection with traffic lights or add a left-turn bay or reduce lane widths or speed limits, we need approval from TransLink to make those changes. The Major Road Network includes the blue lines on this map:

So, if we want to make (your example, not mine) Royal Ave 30km/h, we would need permission from TransLink, and if 30km/h meets their strategy goals, that should make it easier to get that permission. But to be honest, I don’t think Royal will be a priority for that change. At this point, the push for 30km/h is concentrating on neighbourhood roads, collectors, greenways, and pedestrian-dense commercial streets – a work in progress that will advance greatly in the next year or two I hope. The regional arteries like this are not likely to see any change until we actually adopt a Vision Zero strategy, instead of just talking about as something we aspire towards. More on that later.

On the 850km of bike lanes, there is a map in the TransLink plan:

…and my back-of-envelope calculation of this puts it at about 24km of New Westminster, mostly the existing Central Valley Greenway, Crosstown Greenway, and BC Parkway, but with some notable “gaps” in the existing system patched. There is no timeline (except “2050”), and there is no established budget for any of it. But it is an aspirational target, and with senior governments getting into the funding-active-transportation game and municipalities ramping up their work, it is good to have a regional framework to hang our efforts on.

If you are looking at what New West is going to look like in coming years, I put forward a motion passed unanimously by Council in October to start the work on planning a AAA network in New West, which I wrote about here. Staff and the Sustainable Transportation Task Force are engaged in doing the preliminary work of designing what that local network should ideally look like – because the sketches in my blog are just sketches on a blog, and designing these routes requires more thorough analysis by actual experts. You should expect the City to be coming out to the public with some consultation on this in the months ahead. I would suggest the TransLink network will be a major part of our core network, but not all of it. Like speed limits, it’s good to know they are on side.

As for Columbia Street, There are some fresh ideas for the area around New West station and a few key traffic management and public realm improvements on paper, but I can’t tell you the timeline for those. There is some money in the 2022 Capital Plan for some works at the foot of Eighth to improve the pedestrian realm, but the rest will compete on the priority list with improvements in other area. Our capital plan is aggressive, because there is a lot going on.

Finally, I don’t want to get back to complaining, so I’ll try to frame this as an observation triggered by my re-reading the Transport 2050 Plan in preparing this post, because this isn’t a TransLink problem so much as a North America problem. We are much better at talking about Vision Zero than we are at actually understanding it. You can read more about it here, but I am afraid we are starting to use it as a slogan, when it needs to be a change in mindset.

As an example, the Translink plan is to reduce traffic-related fatalities by 5% a year and to zero by 2050. Currently, about 100 people die in traffic fatalities in the region every year, and 40 of those are vulnerable road users (pedestrians, cyclists, or people just standing in a bus stop when a car plows them down). The cynical part of me sees this as planning for 95 deaths next year, and planning for 60 deaths in 2030, etc. This looks particularly unambitious (and slightly macabre), and unambitious considering there are true Vision Zero jurisdictions about the size of Greater Vancouver that have *zero* Pedestrian deaths in the typical year. Yes, they exist.

This is not on TransLink to fix – it will take coordination between all levels of government, a pretty fundamental shift in the Motor Vehicle Act, a shift in how we enforce traffic safety, a new approach to managing investigation of traffic deaths to better understand the causes, and re-engineering parts of our transportation system based on those results. But it is that coordinated effort that defines a Vision Zero approach. The vision is for zero deaths right away, not 30 years from now. 30km/h is part of it. Safe AAA bike networks are part of it. But unless we lose the attitude that people dying from car “accidents” is an unavoidable part of our society, they are going to continue to die at increasing rates. I want us to do better, and I’m afraid the provincial government’s emphasis on reducing the cost of driving is working against this.

Ask Pat: Sticks & Carrots

Allen asks—

What do you think of the news that B.C. prepares to remove some housing approval powers from local governments? There are no denying that getting permits from a city is slow and difficult. I’m not sure whether take powers away from local government is good or bad, but in your opinion, how New Westminster can do better on issuing new permits?

I have been thinking a lot about it, but I don’t yet have any answers. This is mostly because Minister Eby has been rather vague about what types of changes he is looking to implement, and the target needs to be well understood to avoid unintended effects. I’ll try to unpack what doesn’t fit in the headlines.

First, I need to note my comments are from the point of view of a member of a City Councils that is meeting our regionally-agreed-upon commitments to building new housing. We have leadership and staff that have weathered the challenges of meeting our Regional Growth Strategy obligations in approving new Purpose Built Rental, market housing, and family friendly housing, while we are finally cracking the nut on new “missing middle”. We have not just approved new non-market affordable housing, but have made City lands available and fast-tracked approvals to assure that when funding arrives for non-market housing, we are inviting it in, and we have made clear we want more funded in our own back yard. We did this without massive expansion into greenfield (because as a 150+ year old City, we don’t have much greenfield) and without massive displacement of vulnerable residents from the older, most affordable housing in the City.

That is not to say New Westminster doesn’t have more work to do, or that the crises are over, only to note that the work we have done in the last decade is region-leading (if the City of North Van will share the podium). This work has not been without push-back from some of the community. Every day we hear as much from people telling us we are going too far, too fast, as we do from people asking us what we are doing to address housing. Have you looked at Facebook recently?

At the same time, we are a City of just under 80,000 people in a region headed towards 3 Million. With only 3% of the region’s population, less than 3% of its tax revenue,  and much less than 1% of its land area, New Westminster is not going to fix the regional housing crisis.  The region is thousands of units a year short of approving what is needed to start to stabilize the market, and are thousands of non-market units short of what we need to provide stability to the most vulnerable populations. So when facing push back or predatory delay, I can see why the Minister responsible for Housing is getting hot under the collar, and is ready to start swinging a big stick to get municipalities to do their job.

Without the benefit of more detail about what that stick looks like, I am concerned that the perception being created (as it may not be what he intends, only the way he is being interpreted in the media) is that of threats, and I can only hope from the New West perspective that Minister Eby will find carrots to compliment that stick.

People in New West know what we need to help the new housing find broader public support in the community; we know what those carrots are. Clear financing for new school locations; support for transit and funding for active transportation to reduce the traffic loads new growth would bring without those investments; prioritizing existing infrastructure funds supporting everything from sewer upgrades to library expansions to new park space, so communities meeting their regional commitments have the upper hand in grant applications. And, yeah, legislative tools to give well-meaning Municipal Councils and staff the flexibility to approve good projects faster.

How can we do better on issuing new permits? The question is really wide-reaching, so the best answer is equally far-reaching. If the conceit of your question is that New West is not building fast enough (and I’m not convinced your entire community agrees with you there) then there is work we can do to accelerate the process. I have had long conversations with architects designing new apartment buildings to homeowners doing relatively small infill projects, and there is no doubt they feel there are approval steps or consultation standards that are not obvious in why they are needed. Developers will tell you this extra time costs them money and pushes up prices, but accelerating the process may cost the City money (as we would need more staff), or compromise important policy goals, so there is clearly a balance to be found. I think the best shorter-term improvement is in creating more certainty about the time for approvals. But again, Development is complex, and we have a culture of public engagement in New West that is difficult to rush.

The one assumption to put aside, however, is that the Province can meaningfully force an acceleration of these processes. Unless the province removes from Municipalities the one ultimate authority they hold – zoning – it will be wielded by different Municipalities to achieve the policy and political goals of the community. And, alas, constructive delay of change is a policy goal of some local governments. As a Lawyer, Minister Eby certainly understands that removing zoning power opens a Pandora’s Box of problems, because zoning authority is interwoven with local government and provincial government regulations. A single example I am professionally very familiar with: without local government zoning control, the entire provincial contaminated sites identification and management system will have to be redesigned. There are scores of other Provincial and Municipal regulatory systems that are similarly buttressed by zoning. Unpacking that would be a very difficult process.

That is not to say the Province is powerless, far from it. I think that Minister Eby will need to be surgical and strategic about the sticks he wields, though I would not begrudge him wielding it to get our region back on track to addressing our overlapping housing crises. I only hope he also brings those carrots, because local governments need community support to do good work, and long-term benefits of meeting our regional commitments to housing are becoming a harder sell to the comfortably housed who vote.

Ask Pat: War on Gas?

Happy Family Day Weekend. It gave be a chance to catch some breathe and look at my Ask Pat queue. The first one I found is pretty long, so I edited it back a bit and will break it into three parts:

FossilFool asks—

Hi Pat, I’ve been inspired and challenged lately by the book, A Good War, by Seth Klein, about how we can look to how Canada responded to WWII as an example of how we could mobilize the country to respond to the climate emergency like an actual emergency.

Not a question yet, but let me interject to say: Me too! I have not only read it, I have marked up, flagged, and taken extensive notes about it:

I did this because I had the challenging job of interviewing Klein as part of the 2021 Lower Mainland LGA conference. The book is incredibly well researched, and so full of both historical facts and compelling ideas that engaging the author in a conversation about it is a bit intimidating to a lowly Earth Scientist. But it definitely tells a different story that we usually read about WW2. Not of the soldiers that put on uniforms, but of the leaders in government and in industry that saw an existential threat and – in less than a year –  completely restructured the Canadian economy to address that threat. Perhaps as amazing (and I’d suggest a better comparable to the Climate Emergency as we come out of a global pandemic) how once the threat was abated, the country immediately and completely restructured its economy once again to stop making so many weapons, and to instead assure people had education, jobs, homes and pensions in the post-year period.

The historical record is amazing, and Klein does a good job drawing parallels (and addressing contrasts) to the current existential threat, and does not leave the question of why we are unable to respond as we did then unexplored. Perhaps surprisingly non-partisan and clear on the positive role capitalism can play in driving change (though he spares little empathy for neo-Liberalism), he nonetheless makes a clear case that it is only bold leadership that is missing. It’s a good read, and a good message.


It seems clear that we need to get off of fossil fuels FAST to really make any significant impact in slowing/limiting climate change. The City of Vancouver has some ambitious goals to get homes to switch entirely away from natural gas, and I’m wondering if other municipalities like New West will soon follow?

Some municipalities like New West are signaling that goal (see Bold Step 3: Carbon Free Homes and Buildings), but Vancouver is in a unique situation, which is why this is an area they are able to take real leadership. Because of their unique enabling legislation, the Vancouver Charter, that City has the ability to regulate its own building code. That means they have the authority to say “we will not permit gas appliances in new builds”. New West and other Municipalities do not have that power. We would need the province to grant us this ability.

Lacking this stick, we still have access to some carrots. This means local government programs to coordinate or add to senior government and industry incentives to switch to electricity. We can also use the greater flexibility in the Step Code to incent change to carbon-free energy. The Step Code is a provincial energy efficiency standard applied to new buildings. Local Governments have the authority to choose which “step” new buildings have to meet, each higher step meaning higher efficiency of the building, but also meaning higher building cost and possibly other compromises in the design of the building. A creative use of the Step Code would allow builders to build a less efficient building (therefore saving money) if they choose only non-carbon appliances for the building. The resultant building may use a bit more energy over its lifetime, but with New West’s electricity effectively zero-carbon, this might be a good bridge to accelerate the transition off fossil gas. This is the path New West is following, starting with “Part 3” buildings, and (knock on wood) coming to other building types soon:


I checked out the EnergySave New West page and can see that there are a bunch of rebates being offered for energy efficiency upgrades, but I was surprised to see that many of them are actually incentivizing changes that still rely on natural gas. If we need to get off of burning fossil fuels period to address climate change, why are we still talking about energy efficiency upgrades that don’t actually achieve that? I’d love to get your thoughts on this. Thanks for your time and for your great blog!

Yes, there are still incentives for people who want to get more efficient gas appliances such as modern furnaces and instant-water heaters to replace hot water tanks. Energy Save New West points people at incentives offered by the City and those offered by the Province, BC Hydro, and Fortis. Though the City does not specifically incentivize gas appliances, we do point people to incentives that exist to encourage them to install more efficient gas appliances.

The debate about whether “more efficient fossil gas appliance” is an appropriate idea right now in light of the climate emergency is definitely a live debate. I know where Seth Klein would fall on this, and I might lean that direction myself. But there are specific and financial barriers to some people going full electric right now, and the gap is not filled by available incentives. For someone with a gas instant water heater and gas stove, switching to electric may require significant upgrades to the electrical system in the house to accommodate the high amperage demands of those appliance types, and a new line and transformer connection for the house at a cost much higher than the appliances themselves. Providing incentive to reduce overall gas use still pays GHD reduction dividends, but I hear you about the incrementalism.

We need to get off fossil gas, and I’m afraid programs like 30by30 are at best stop-gaps until we get to that point, at worst speedbumps slowing that transition. Through my work as the Chair of the Community Energy Association, I have seen first hand how Fortis (who is one of our members) has tried to define and redefine what its role is in this seemingly inevitable transition. They are indeed pushing the envelope on the efficiency of gas for buildings, including a pretty remarkable Deep Energy Retrofit program with serious resources behind it. But I sense a more fundamental shift in their business model is going to be needed if they want to prosper through this time.

That said, I have also noted how BC Hydro has adopted a bit of a cheeky attitude when discussing the need to transition from gas to electricity:

As we have all learned by now, by the time any public debate gets to the TwitterSnark stage, the solutions will soon be in hand. Right?

Ask Pat: Electric Update

Alvin asked—

Not sure if this has been asked before but I was wondering Why New West has municipal/private electric vs Bc Hydro like our surrounding cities? Speaking with friends from other municipality, it seems New West has a higher cost per household? What are the pros and cons of having New West Electric? Thank you!

Yes, this has been asked before, and I answered here, so I suggest you click over there and read that first, because I’m not writing it all again. But that was more than 5 years ago, and the numbers have changed as has some of the governing philosophy. I’m on the Electrical Commission now (though, I hasten to remind folks, I don’t speak here for the City, or for the Electrical Commission; these are my own thoughts, not official communications!), and know a bit more about these things, so maybe a bit of an update to that post is in order.

New Westminster has had its own electrical utility since 1891, when a wood-fired steam turbine started spinning dynamos to provide street lighting in the City. Notably, a group of concerned citizens challenged the City’s legal authority to do this, and went all the way to the Legislature to complain about this extravagant spending (along with the ferry service to Surrey, the public library, an the waterworks), but the New Westminster Light Department prevailed, and 130 years later here we are.

What hasn’t changed: the New West Electrical Utility (NWE) buys electricity at wholesale and sells at retail. The difference between the two is mostly used to operate and invest in the utility, with leftover “profit” that is put into City coffers to add to operations of the rest of the City and offset some property taxes. In the 2020 Budget Reporting (the most recent available online, alas), you can see NWE made about $51M in sales, had about $39M in operational costs (mostly buying wholesale power), and invested about $7M into Capital upgrades (like that new substation in Queensborough), meaning about $5M was put into City operations. That’s $5M less property tax the City had to collect to provide services, or about $160 per household.

What has changed since that 2016 piece I wrote are the electrical rates offered by BC Hydro and NWE. BC Hydro rates are set by some confusing combination of the utility figuring out how exactly much money it needs, the provincial government telling them they can’t have that much, and the BC Utility Commission picking a number based on those two factors. As such, electrical rates have been unpredictable in the last few years, increases being promised, then being reduced, making longer-term financial planning difficult. The NWE process is the Electrical Commission determining how much they need to operate, and Council generally passing a Bylaw to support that (though Council have the power to not approve rate increases). In recent years, the Commission and Council have been more comfortable decoupling a bit from BC Hydro rates as a standard comparison to a model where they assure the capital needs of the Utility are secure for the future (see big substation build in Queensborough) and that rate increases remain more stable as opposed to big increases one year and smaller increases the next. With the BC Government getting support from the BCUC to reduce scheduled rate increases, BC Hydro is in a situation where rate increases are being deferred into the future.

The upshot of that is that NWE rates are currently going up slightly faster than BC Hydro Rates, though we fully expect BC Hydro will need to catch up to us in the near future. This was demonstrated with the following graph in our recent Council budget deliberations:

I note that 2023-2025 rates, both BC Hydro and NWE, are speculative right now, and BC Hydro will face the need to pay for some significant infrastructure soon, so it is generally thought BC Hydro will catch up to NWE within the current 5-year plan. In the meantime, we have some capital expenses that cannot wait (did I mention that big substation in Queensborough?) and will be able to re-evaluate comparative rate increases on a year-by-year basis.

The upshot of all this is that rates for NWE have gone up a bit compared to BC Hydro. I drew a comparison chart back in 2016, and did my best to recreate it using the proposed 2021 rates: 

The shape of the chart has not changed, but the gap has increased a bit. That means for the “average” household in New West (assuming their energy consumption is the same as the average for BC) pays about 14% more for their electricity every month than the BC average. This gap gets lower the more energy a household uses, in that BC Hydro’s scaled rates “catch up” to NWE rates. The difference, again for the “average” household is about $160 a year, which almost exactly offsets the “average” property tax savings per household. Rate differences for households more than a standard deviation from “average” – who use much more or much less than average monthly electricity – are are probably pretty small. All “averages” are in quotes here, because I don’t want to get into the discussion of means and medians, or the differences between a $500,000 condo and a $2,000,000 house when it comes to property tax burden and electrical consumption, but it is fair to say the structure we have now slightly benefits larger households, but perhaps incentivizes electrical conservation.

Even if the rate gap is such that there is no longer a financial advantage to having our own utility, there are arguments for the utility aside from financial. By owning poles and rights of way, the City can leverage that for its own purposes, from BridgeNet to negotiating with Telecoms for pole space. By selling electricity to transportation providers, we have access to Low Carbon Fuel Credits to fund climate action. The structure of the Utility may lend itself to a more efficient operation of a District Energy Utility. Because of NWE, we have ability to manage our own Net Metering, allowing people to co-generate and easily sell their rooftop power to the grid, and even allowed us to create two successful and operational Solar Gardens for those without sufficient roof space. There are also opportunities for NWE to lead, as the community and the province shift to electrification to meet our Climate Action goals, such as piloting Street Light EV charging or rolling out Heat Pump incentive programs to get homes off of fossil gas. We also have one of the most reliable grids in the province, with faster response to power outages, and fewer and shorter outages than in most places in the Province.