Ask Pat: Ferry & Fixed Link

John asked—

Hi, Pat. I have read everything on your blog over the years, and support all of your ideas for a more equitable/human distribution of public spaces. Now that the pandemic has shown how fragile the Q2Q link is, I must ask if the idea of a fixed pedestrian bridge has been re-opened. I know that there were legal concerns regarding use of the existing rail link as an affordable solution, but, is it just possible that there may be a change of heart in that direction?

It’s not really a change in heart, because it wasn’t heart that prevented the bridge from being built.

I agree that the COVID situation caused us reflect over what the QtoQ ferry is meant to be, and how we value its operation. This conversation was a frequent one during the use restrictions, and is an ongoing source of angst in the Queensborough community. Recently, I was part of a Queensborough Residents association meeting with MP Julian, MLA Singh and School Board Chair Dhaliwal where this discussion came up again, and I thought to myself “Self, you have that Ask Pat just sitting there, you ever going to write an answer?”
Sorry it took so long.

The story of the fixed pedestrian bridge has not changed much since I wrote this long explanation of the pitfalls of the project, and the same problems remain. There is still some unspent DAC funding (although the Casino being closed for two years may impact that), but nowhere near enough to build the project. The engineering challenge of building it high enough for the Port Authority to permit it, yet keeping it accessible (i.e. less than 5% grades) remain problematic. The use of a swing or bascule bridge significantly increases build and operational cost (including, most likely, full time staffing).

The issues with using the existing train bridge are not just legal. Naturally, the Houston-based owner of the railway is reluctant to take on the liability of having a large piece of pedestrian infrastructure they don’t own attached to their bridge, but that could be overcome with insurance and agreements. There is a question of how to attach a pedestrian sidewalk to a 105-year-old bridge, but I think engineers could come up with something that works. The real problem is that the existing train bridge, with only a few metres of clearance over the river, has a default setting of “open” for boats to pass through, and only “closed” when a train passes, which is on the order of once a day. This would not work for a pedestrian link, for obvious reasons. The Port will not permit the change of operation of the bridge to default “closed” (permitting pedestrian crossings) with limited “openings” when a boat passes, for a number of reasons, including the increased collision risk on the river.

A pedestrian bridge can’t work like the existing train bridge – it must be much higher above the river, unless the Port and Marine Carriers can be convinced to change their regulatory requirements. There is nothing in it for the federally-regulated Port or Marine Carriers to agree to this. Our problems are not their problems, and they have authority.

That said, this still needs to be our medium- or long-term vision. Increasingly, our communities (not just New West, but every community on the River and marine coast) is seeing the waterfront as a place for people, not just a place for industrial activity. And as I have lamented in the past, too much of this prime riverfront industrial land us being used for industrial activities that in no way connect to the river. So building a fixed crossing is going to take more than money and vision, it is going to take partnerships across the region to help pay for it, and to shift the mindset about the River as a transportation challenge.

So, in the meantime we have the QtoQ Ferry.

Which brought us to the conversation through COVID times about how far the City was willing to go to support this service. The early response was to suspend the service for two reasons. Much like the Library, we did not know if we could operate safely and within unclear provincial health restrictions. And much like the Canada Games Pool, we simply couldn’t justify spending money on running it with the very low number of people who were going to show up to use it, as other transportation modes (transit and cars) shut down suddenly. Eventually, the health restriction issues were worked out (with protocols and reduced capacity), but the ridership was slow to come back, which led to, what I think, was a really healthy discussion at Council.

The essence of the discussion was (to me, at least, I shouldn’t talk for all of Council) whether the QtoQ was a vital transportation link or a nice to have community amenity. In my mind, if it was the latter, then I was not interested in us funding it at a time when our finances were so uncertain and the priorities were piling up in COVID response. However, as I was convinced we needed to see it as the former, it only became a discussion of how much we can afford to fund. A few adjustments of schedule were made, as people’s commuting patterns were shifted by the pandemic, and the service that worked best before was probably not the service we needed after.

The QtoQ is never going to pay for itself in its current format. The small ($2) fee to ride it does recover some money, but much like the Canada Games Pool or the Queens Park Arena (or Public Transit, for a regional comparator), the QtoQ is a community benefit we have decided to invest in, and we spend some of your property taxes running it.

If you value it, the second best thing you can do is let Council know. The best thing you can do is take the Ferry as often as you can and put your $2 down to show this transportation link is valuable. Demonstrating to partners (TransLink, Metro Vancouver, Port of Vancouver, senior Governments) that a link here is valued by the residents and helps with regional active transport network is the best way to build on the service to make it more financially secure, and to demonstrate that the fixed link deserves to be built.

ASK PAT: bikes, etc.

Alvin asked—

We were looking to get clarity on the bylaw for riding bikes on trails specifically glen brook Ravine. My 5 year old son (regular bike) and I were attempting to ride down as we have for years down Glenbrook Ravine and we were accosted by a woman who flipped out at my pedal assisted bike. It is an ebike but We are riding safely, going down hill and the power wasn’t even on. We were riding walking speed, literally 5km or slower. I understand the bylaw is riding max 20km or slower.

I was unable to find any info on the acceptability of riding bikes in general on trails. If not I will avoid this in the future but I always see people riding here that it never crossed my mind that it could be illegal. Just wanted guidance on the bylaw as I want to follow the proper rules.

Shane asks—

Bit of an odd question, but as the owner of sole Velomobile in NW. I’m always curious to what people think of it. When I first got it, I showed up to the Hyack Parade with Cap’s Sapperton to show it off. Even today I often over hear people arguing if its a bicycle or a car. Has there been lots of chatter in city hall about my different type of vehicle for commuting? I had heard horror stories from other Velo owners about cops stopping them, but so far ours have been great.

For those who haven’t chased me down, its a tricycle with a fiberglass body for aerodynamics and weather protection. Weighing about 90 lbs, my long-bike is much heavier.

These two questions both bounce around the same theme, which is bicycles as regulated vehicles. I’m seen as a bit of the “bike guy” on Council, though I’m not the only one who rides a bike regularly, and one even has one of them fancy new e-scooters (you won’t believe which one, but we’ll get to those later). I do feel the need to caveat everything below by saying: I’m not a lawyer or legal professional, I’m just a lowly geologist trying to understand these regulations as best I can You should NOT take this as any kind of definitive legal advice or get in to an argument with a police officer or, Gord forbid, a judge, based on what I wrote here. You’ve been warned.

I have several versions of the same rant in the archives in this blog that touch on how poorly governments at all levels are doing at adapting to the new reality of how people get around in urban areas, on the roads, trails and parks, so this looks like a good opportunity to unpack that a bit.

For the most part, bicycle use on roads is regulated by the provincial Motor Vehicle Act. The MVA applies on most roads in cities, and though local governments can create Bylaws regulating cycle use, we are generally able to add regulations to the MVA, not supersede or reduce the MVA regulations. Bylaws also tend to regulate things like trails and sidewalks more than roads. For example, the Motor Vehicle Act makes it mandatory to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle on a roadway, but if there is a pathway through a park in the City, it is up to the City to make a Bylaw to require helmets there.

“Cycles” are defined in Section 119 of the MVA as “a device having any number of wheels that is propelled by human power and on which a person may ride and includes a motor assisted cycle, but does not include a human-powered wheelchair, skate board, roller skates, in-line roller skates or regulated motorized personal mobility device.” Put all those qualifiers aside for a few paragraphs, and the simplest interpretation is that a human-powered pedal device that has a recumbent seat and a plastic shell that covers the rider like Shane’s Velomobile is clearly a “cycle”, and regulated as such.

You have probably heard some version of “bicycle riders have the same rights and responsibilities as cars” under the MVA, or “bicycles are vehicles under the law”. Both of these are wrong, perhaps already surmised by the fact that no-one in BC is required by law to wear a helmet while driving a car (though automobiles are the #1 cause of traumatic head injuries… ugh, I am trying to avoid digressions like that…). More precisely, Section 183 of the MVA starts with “In addition to the duties imposed by this section, a person operating a cycle on a highway has the same rights and duties as a driver of a vehicle” then lists in a few dozen clauses and sub-clauses the many duties people on cycles have above and beyond that of drivers, like requiring you keep a hand on the handlebars, have a light at night, etc.

The MVA also has regulations around what is defined as a “motor assisted cycle”, that being a device to which pedals or hand cranks are attached that will allow for the cycle to be propelled by human power, to which is attached a motor of a prescribed type that has an output not exceeding the prescribed output. The MVA basically says you need to be 16 years or older to use one on the road, but other than that, its a cycle. “Prescribed” in this definition mean there is somewhere else in regulation that puts limits on the device, so if you have a e-bike, you need to worry about the Motor Assisted Cycle Regulation.

That regulation says any e-bike in BC must be electric (not gas), is limited to 500watts power and 32km/h speed. It also requires that the electric motor not be active unless the person is also pedaling – it cannot be “engine only”. This is probably surprising to anyone who has watched the recent ubiquity of electric motorcycles on bike paths. They are illegal on the road, but not illegal on many bike paths unless the Municipality has a specific Bylaw preventing them, because of that whole part above about the overlap between MVA and City Bylaws.

This may leave you asking, what about electric kick-scooters, electric skateboards, or those one-wheel electric TRON-thingies you see whipping around town? There are some references in the MVA to “skates, skate boards, sleighs”, but only to say they aren’t cycles (so their users do not have the rights or responsibilities of cyclists), and that Local Governments can regulate them as they see fit, but there does not appear to be a strict prohibition of them either. However, there is another category of device called “regulated motorized personal mobility devices”, and this is where most rational people stop trying to understand the law, because section 210(3.2) of the MVA says “the Lieutenant Governor in Council may make regulations in respect of regulated motorized personal mobility devices,” then goes on to list the kinds of things the LG could regulate, if they so felt like doing so, but leaves you to hunt for said regulations. Aside from something called the “Electric Kick Scooter Pilot Project Regulation”, I cannot find any provincial regulation that exists to manage these devices. Please review the “I’m not a Lawyer” part above.

So this brings us to Municipal Bylaws. In New Westminster, we have the Street and Traffic Bylaw, which regulates our roads and trails and sidewalks above and beyond the Motor Vehicle Act. In it, cycles are defined pretty much like in the MVA:

As an aside, I love this restriction:

Anyhow, the City’s Bylaw regulates cycling about the same as the MVA, which in effect means on City streets regulated by the MVA, the MVA limits apply, and on bike paths and trails in the City, the Bylaw applies the same restrictions as the MVA. The Bylaw further restricts skateboards and skis and scooters and the lot:

The way I read this, you cannot do any of the above on a Street, but you can on trails, most sidewalks, and multi-use paths as long as you follow traffic rules and exercise appropriate care and attention. Nothing on here says anything about motorized devices, (which is probably a gap we should be concerned about). Here is the list of Sidewalks where you are NOT allowed to cycle or skate:

Notably, nowhere in this Bylaw are speed limits imposed. Our Parks Regulation limits the speed of all Motor Vehicles (as defined by the Motor Vehicle Act – so not cycles, not scooters, etc.) to 20km/h, but that is really directed to regulating the limited roads and parking lots in our parks, not trials like in Glenbrook Ravine, where there shouldn’t be any vehicles at all.

So to answer Alvin’s question, unless there is a sign that says “no cycling”, you and your son are good to go. Though there is no strict speed limit I can find, I think reasonable and safe operation on a multi-use path like in Glenbrook Ravine would be something in the 20km/h range, and closer to 10km/h when near pedestrians. However, everyone has their own comfort level when it comes to interacting between bikes and pedestrians, so the best rule to keep in mind is to give other people lots of room, go a little slower than you think you probably should, and don’t be a jerk, even if they are a jerk to you. But it is hard to write that into a Bylaw, like “No Stunting”.

Ask Pat: Vacant Land Tax

Boy, its been a while since I did one of these, and there are a few in the queue. Sorry, folks, I really mean to be more timely with these, but to paraphrase Pascal, I don’t have enough time to write shorter notes. No Council meeting this week, so maybe I’ll try to knock a couple off. This was a fun one:

T J asks—

Has anyone proposed some kind of empty lot tax to encourage developers or property holders to activate the properties into some kind of use? Prime example corner of 5th Ave & 12th St but many others throughout downtown we noticed over a weekend walk.

Yes, people have proposed it, but it currently isn’t legal.

Municipalities in BC are pretty limited in how they can apply property taxes. For the most part, we are permitted to create tax rates for each of the 8 property classes assessed by the BC Assessment Authority (Residential, Industrial, Commercial, Farm, etc.), and all properties that fall within a class are assessed the same rate. That means Condos, rental apartments, townhouses and houses pay the same mill rate because they all fall under Residential Class, and big box multinational retailers pay the same mill rate as your favourite mom & pop haberdashery. Local Governments aren’t permitted to pick and choose preferential tax rates within those categories to, say, favour Mom & Pop over the Waltons, or favour Rentals over Condos, or favour improved lands over vacant lands.

Since the tax you pay is based on the assessed value, owners actually pay less tax on vacant land than on “improved” land, because the assessed value of the land is a combination of the value of the land and the value of the buildings upon it. Playing around in the BC assessment website, you can see sometimes the building is worth as much as the land, in some cases the building value is close enough to zero that tax essentially only relates to bare land value. Therefore, investing in land improvement on vacant or derelict properties increases the assessed value, and increases property taxes. In a sense, the current property tax system incentivizes keeping an investment property unimproved.

Best I can tell, the Provincial Speculation and Vacancy Tax does not apply to vacant or derelict properties – but don’t take that as legal advice (this is a blog post, not official communications from a tax professional), though the BC gov’t website is a little vague on this specific point. Maybe you will have more luck than me getting clarity from the legalese.

Interestingly, the City of Vancouver’s Empty Homes Tax does apply to vacant properties that are designated for residential use. Vancouver was given that ability through an amendment to the Vancouver Charter, so it is not applicable to municipalities regulated by the Community Charter like New West, and the province doesn’t seem interested in expanding it to other cities (see below). Regardless, as this tax is designed to incent owners to bring vacant residential property in to use, it would also not work to encourage the activation of the commercial properties like you mention in Downtown New West.

But your question was whether anyone has proposed this? The way Local Government leaders would propose this is to send a resolution to the UBCM meeting asking the Provincial government to change the legislation to make it possible. If the majority of Local Gov’t elected types at the UBCM convention vote to endorse this resolution, it becomes an endorsed resolution – an “official ask” of government. My quick review of just some recent UBCM resolution sessions turns up resolutions in 2016 (“B3- Vacant Land Taxation”), 2017 (”B91 Tax on Vacant & Derelict Residential Properties”), 2018 (“A3 Modify Speculation Tax: Local Government Vacancy Levy”), and 2019 ( “B19 Extension of Vacancy Taxation Authority to Local Governments”) all asking for some form of taxation power for vacant land, all endorsed by the membership of the UBCM.

Every year, the Provincial government responds to these resolutions, usually with some form of “we’ll think about it”. This excerpt is from their response to the 2019 resolution:

So, yeah, don’t hold your breath.

That said, as the Provincial Government notes, Local Governments do have some ability to fine derelict or unsightly property owners, though it is a somewhat onerous and staff-time-consuming process to demonstrate nuisance, and the Bylaw does not extend to our ability to say one must build a building on a lot. You are entitled to own an empty grass field or an empty gravel parking lot, as long as it doesn’t constitute a nuisance. Any attempt to use this Bylaw authority as a de facto tax would surely not survive a court challenge.

New Westminster does have one special power, though, and it is found in a unique piece of Provincial Legislation called the New Westminster Redevelopment Act, 1989. I would call your attention to Section 3 of the Act, as it is a bit of a Mjolnir-like piece of legislation. But that is probably best saved for a follow-up blog post as we talk about the current situation in Downtown New Westminster.

Ask Pat: Biz in the City

Brian asks—

How much of New Westminster tax revenue is generated from business vs. residential? How does it compare to other municipalities? Is this a key driving metric to ensuring sustainable tax revenue for the city? What does the city of New Westminster due to attract new business to bolster higher tax revenue from new business? Is there anything else residents should know about how the city works with it’s businesses?

I’ve written a little bit in the past about the proportion of property tax that is collected from business/industrial properties compared to residential. I tried to compare here in this blog post a few years ago, and since then the numbers have changed a little bit, but the overall theme hasn’t.

The simple answer to your first question is 38% of Property taxes are from Commercial/Industrial land and 62% from Residential land. At least this was the split in 2020, according to the statistics collected by the province and reported out annually in a table they call Schedule 707 that you can look at here.

Property taxes are based on assessed values, and more than 99% of our taxes are collected from lands under the four main property classes. Residential properties pay the lowest rate, and the other three classes pay a higher multiple of that rate. In 2020 the multipliers were 3.43x for most Business properties, 4.19x for Light Industrial, and 8.76x for Heavy Industrial. That said, most of our land is residential, so to pull numbers out of Schedule 707, here are where New West property taxes came from in 2020:

In that last blog post where I talked about this, I compared New West to other municipalities in the Lower Mainland and found our business/residential breakdown was slightly less “business friendly” than the average across the region, in that we drew 32% of taxes from the 13% of assessed land value that was zoned commercial (not including industrial), which is slightly more than the average. I showed this by plotting all Cities and showing that New West fits a little below the black “best fit” line that represents the average:

If you want more details about how we compare, Schedule 707 shows this data for every City in BC, but there are some fundamental differences between the property tax structure in the Lower Mainland when compared to the rest of the province (e.g. the great TransLink-Hospital tradeoff, resort municipalities that have different structures, and “company towns” like Kitimat that have no residential property tax at all) so approach direct comparisons with caution!


The simplest answer to your second question is probably “partly”, but as always it is more complicated than this. The way the City sets tax rates is to determine what it will cost to offer the services and infrastructure that we want to deliver in the following year (and within the next 5-year plan). Then we have some debate about what things we can do without for now vs. what things we set as priority, and that discussion occurs within the framework of the overall property tax impact. Mostly, those conversations sound like “If we decide to do X in 2021, it will mean an additional 0.04% tax increase”. If we did everything we wanted to do in fiscal 2021 that our budget discussion considered at the beginning, the tax increase would have been almost 11%; if we had kept the tax increase to 0%, we would have had to cut programs and lay off staff. So we look at programs, and negotiate between us (and with staff) about what we can do, and what the tax impact is. In 2021, that haggling got us to 4.9%. And yes, those discussion are all done in open Council meetings and open workshops. In New West, we simply don’t do budgeting behind closed doors.

However, that 4.9% does not mean everyone’s taxes go up 4.9%. As I outlined in this post, it means the City collects 4.9% more property tax money than the previous year, and because your taxes are based on your assessment, the amount of increase you see depends on how your assessment changes relative to the city-wide average. This also applies to business, as some years residential assessments go up more than business assessments, and other years the opposite. The proportion of the 4.9% increase businesses feel depends a bit on that. Except that one of the things the City’s finance department does when it gets the new assessment data, after it has set the overall increase, is to try to adjust the multiplier (see that table above) so that the business/residential proportionate tax contribution stays around 38/62.

Every year, Council could adjust that 38/62 proportion by simply asking Finance to make that adjustment differently, effectively asking Finance to adjust the multiplier so businesses take a bit more of the load, or a bit less. Of course, we would then be deciding whether we irritate business property owners or residential property owners, because reducing business taxes through this process means increasing residential taxes. As a result, that proportion has not changed much over the last 15 years:

Again, this table is Schedule 707 data, and it shows that in 2005, Residential properties represented 87% of total land value, and paid 59% of total taxes. In 2020, those numbers were 86% and 62%, and it has only wavered a percent or so back and forth over those decades (and several different Councils).


Question 3 could have a very long answer. The City has an Economic Development group, and staff who do that work. You can see their website here. Obviously, the last year or so, a lot of effort has been put into assuring the City is providing supports to keep impacted businesses operating during the pandemic, which includes keeping business informed about the Public Health Office orders and complaints or concerns in the City related to the business sector. However, “bolstering new tax revenue” is not really the lens through which this work is done. At least in my time on Council, the focus has been on seeing business as a functional part of the community, and an amenity that supports the functioning of a dynamic urban area. In synch with the City’s other major strategies (like those on housing and transportation) a strong business sector reduces the need for residents to travel long distances for their needs or their work.

So, in that sense, asking what the City is doing to support business is like asking what is the City doing to support housing, or recreation, or engineering. There is too much going on across that department to summarize in a blog post. However, the ED group has a Strategic Plan, and have an on-line dashboard tracking their Indicators to help them and the community understand if they are meeting their objectives. If there is more to know, it is probably in there.

Ask Pat: 22nd Street

GM asks—

Hi Pat, found you website and it is a hidden gem! So many great content. My name is Gilbert and I’m about to move New Westminster from Coquitlam. I’m about to purchase a house near 22nd Skytrain. I heard about the 22nd master plan and thought it could be good opportunity for me to enjoy the commute while ride along the development with the city. Do you have any insight on that area? Looks like the city suspend the OCP due to pandemic. Thanks in advance!

Right off the bat, I need to say: Ask Pats are bad places to ask for real estate advice. Besides me just being really slow to respond (sorry!), these are my blogged thoughts, not official City communications. Any speculations I may make need to be recognized as just that, and not something to base important decision-making upon. If you bought a house in New West, great! If you are selling one in New West, hope things go well. But for the love of all that is Hyack, don’t use this website to inform either of those decisions!

The area around 22nd Street Station is known as Connaught Heights, and is an interesting neighbourhood. It is the “last piece” of New Westminster, in that it was not even an official part of the Municipality until 1968, which is why it is slightly out-of-phase with the rest of the West End. One way this has manifest is the lack of sidewalks. Before the local economy went (to use the technical term) into the crapper around 1970, the City generally built sidewalks on all its streets. The 1970s downturn meant investments like this slowed down, and by the time it recovered we were into the modern “get new builders, not taxpayers, to pay for new infrastructure” phase of civic planning. With so little new building in Connaught Heights, it mostly didn’t get done. (The City has started a program to build sidewalks in Connaught Heights as part of the new Master Transportation Plan, supported by TransLink and starting with a new one up 21st Street).

There is other strange legacy stuff in Connaught. The BC Hydro right-of-way where a major over-ground utility line crosses sort of diagonally thought the neighbourhood leaving a somewhat fallow “green space” that some residents use for recreation. The re-alignments of the Queensborough Bridge landings, the swath the SkyTrain runs though, the cut of Southridge Drive and the weird connections to “old Marine Drive” make Connaught a bit of a stand-alone island of a neighbourhood from a transportation sense. This was made more so by varying ideas about traffic calming introduced over the years.

Whatever the cause, the neighbourhood hasn’t really changed in form since the Skytrain station was installed in 1985. It is still mostly single family detached homes, with one low-rise apartment building, a big church and a little school. It’s worth noting homes are still being replaced on a fairly regular basis, but always with larger lot-maximizing houses. This is not resulting in “growth” in the traditional sense, as the Connaught neighbourhood has essentially the same population it had 20 years ago (in the most recent census in 2016, Connaught was the only neighbourhood in New Westminster to shrink in population).

This is relatively rare for neighbourhoods with SkyTrain stations in the middle of them, and at odds with the regional emphasis of Transit Oriented Development. There are a few other stations with single family homes across the street 35 years after station opening, but with the possible exception of 29th Avenue in Vancouver, no transit hub has been as persistently low-density as 22nd Street.

Why? Someone smarter than me wrote a theses on the topic. It is especially interesting to read Chapter 6 of that thesis where a bunch of reasons why are discussed. Turns out the reasons are myriad, including City plans that didn’t encourage change, the difficulty of assembling single family lots, and a general sense that the community would resist significant change:

Sign on the lawn of a house about 20 feet from the main entrance to 22nd Street station.

In the Current Official Community Plan, most of Connaught Heights is listed as a “Comprehensive Development District” whose land use purpose is described as:

In a way, this makes it similar to the Brewery District or the Sapperton Green area. The vision would be to create a single “Master Plan” for the area so that new housing, utilities, amenities, and transportation can all be planned together. There is a map in the OCP that gives some preliminary vision of the neighbourhood, with mixed use centered on 7th avenue, with the RH and MH being high density (towers), RM being middle density (likely 6-storey) and RT being ground-oriented townhouse style:

However I need to emphasize this is a very preliminary guideline, and through the Master Planning process, a more refined land use plan would be developed, taking into account transportation, amenities, interaction with the SkyTrain and adjacent road network, protection of green spaces, etc. etc. It may end up very different than this map, or even different than what pops out of the Master Planning, as priorities and economics change over the life of a long-term project like this. The initial plans for the Brewery District did not anticipate the shift to Purpose Built Rental that the community has seen, for example, and we have still to work out some details of the last building on that site.

The difference between this and the Brewery District or Sapperton Green is that the latter are owned by a single company, so the work to create this “Master Plan” could fall on them, with guidance from the City and engagement with the community. 22nd Street is still single family homes with separate owners, so if a Master Plan is to be developed, it will fall on the City to do that work. The OCP outlines a plan to start that work:

As you suggest, that planning work has been kicked down the road a bit. Partly because of limited staff resources, and Council’s decision to emphasize different work like supporting affordable housing, rental protection regulations, and supporting development review for projects already in the application process. This was more recently punted further down the road when we had to re-prioritize work in light of COVID and some other emergent policy development areas.

So, the area will change, lawn signs notwithstanding, but I really don’t know what the timeline is. Either the City will develop a Master Plan and the development community will respond by assembling lands to bring it to fruition, or the development community will find some unlocked value in the area and force the matter by assembling ahead of time and drive the Master Planning. However, a lot of pieces have yet to fall into place, and as we see the slow pace of development in Sapperton Green or perhaps a more similar parallel the “Eastern Node” in Queensborough, this type of change can take a long time.

Ask Pat: Micromobility

Peter asks—

Traffic is always a contentious topic, I always appreciate your views (agreed or not). Curious of your thoughts on the growing micromobility options (electric bike/scooters, etc) and how they may affect our current traffic situation as it grows (as projected)? My industry organization had a recent article about it with some concerns over insurance/registration and before that I hadn’t even thought about it. Here’s the link (page 20-21) 

This is a can of worms. I’ve written around the central issue here a few times, but thanks for framing it with the ARA article, because it shows that it isn’t just “bike guys” and pedestrian safety advocates like me who are thinking about it. Unfortunately, I have yet to see any proof that any government is really thinking about it with any seriousness. And that’s a problem.

There is a revolution happening in personal transportation, and I do not think that is hyperbole. Advancements in technology borrowed from smart phones (inertial sensors, compact computing power) and electric vehicles (battery and power management tech) are delivering what was probably initially envisioned by the inventors of the Segway as a re-thinking of personal transportation. They promised it 20 years ago, but it is here now faster than government appears to have expected.

There are powered skateboards, balancing mono-wheels, scooters, and bicycles of varying shape and utility. They are getting cheaper and easier to access every day, and in the rush to “disrupt” traditional market systems, they are being introduced not just as consumer products, but as shared mobility devices you can use by the minute or mile and leave behind. They are breaking down the barriers between automobiles, bicycles, and pedestrians.

That could be a really good thing.

E-bikes have opened up cycling to a whole cohort of people who may not have been able to use a bicycle for transportation, my Mom and my Mother-in-Law included. Both have reached a stage in life where cycling is still accessible until hills get in the way. Their e-bikes have kept them active and out of their cars for some trips, especially as both live where public transit simply does not exist.

There are other people for whom electric mobility aids have extended their neighbourhoods and independence, by extending the distance they can comfortably travel without Transit or a car COVID has only  made these personal mobility options more attractive. When you think of these devices from the lens of not replacing a car trip, but instead expanding your walkshed, you can envision how impactful these devices can be on our neighbourhoods and business districts. Taking a bunch of cars off the road and reducing the need for parking, traffic management, and other negative externalities of automobile reliance is really just the bonus.

The other side of the coin are the inherent problems that come from that old regulatory trichotomy of automobile–cycle –pedestrian. Those aren’t just social categories, they are codified in law. The Motor Vehicle Act and local Bylaws are structured to define transportation by these categories. Pedestrians are walkers and people using mobility aids because of a disability; automobiles are everything that has an engine and a license plate; cycles are big-wheeled human-powered devices people sit astride. Most legislation is designed to safely separate automobiles and pedestrians, with cycles somewhere in between in an already-fuzzy area. There is a category of “motor assisted cycles” in the BC Motor Vehicle Act, and many e-bikes currently available fit within the strict definition therein, but even that rule is an ineffective and oft-criticized bit of the MVA.

Last time the city updated the Streets and Traffic Bylaw a couple of years ago, I noticed the blanket prohibition of all skates, blades, and boards on City streets – a bylaw probably never enforced except to occasionally hassle skateboarders. I pushed back and asked that the bylaw be changed to put these devices into a similar category as cycles so people can use them as long as they are not endangering others – a bylaw probably never enforced except to occasionally hassle skateboarders. But even then, the surge in micromobility devices was not something we were thinking about.

How are they going to affect traffic? They won’t. I can go down the long path here of writing up Induced Demand and The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion, and a pair of paradoxes called Jevons and Braess’, but I’ll sum up all that potential background reading by saying we will always have the traffic congestion we are happy to tolerate: no more, no less. Nothing will fix that short of societal collapse.

What these new micromobility devices can do is give people different options so those with a lower tolerance for congestion can avoid being the traffic those with a higher tolerance are stuck behind. In that sense, they don’t need to reduce traffic congestion in order to make our communities more livable, easier to get around in, and more accessible for more people.

The insurance/liability concerns always arise when alternate road users are viewed through and auto-centric lens, but it is not a real concern. People operating powerful, heavy, fast-moving machinery in shared public spaces are required to purchase liability insurance for that use, because of the significant risk those devices cause to other users of that public space. Pedestrians are not required to have this insurance, but they still have liability for damage they may cause to others sharing those spaces. If I am inattentively running down the sidewalk and knock a person to the ground causing injury, I am liable for that injury and can expect to be dragged into court if we cannot come to some agreement about compensation. Like most, I carry homeowners insurance that includes third party liability for incidents like this (assuming I am not intentionally breaking the law). It costs almost nothing for the insurer to add this to my home insurance because the risk is so low. Cyclists and skateboarders are (mostly) covered in exactly the same way.

The problem with the raft of new mobility devices is that they sit in a grey area of the law, and though their users are likely covered by personal liability insurance, it’s hard to determine if they are breaking the law when using an electric scooter or hoverboard on a sidewalk, city street, or bike lane. If there is no legal space for them, is their use even legal? Ask a lawyer.

Formally recognizing these various devises as legitimate users of our transportation space also gives us the opportunity to design that space to work for them. How we design will have a bigger effect than how we regulate when it comes to preventing people using mobility devices from getting injured, and from injuring other people. I suspect most of this work will be in assuring new bike lane designs can also accommodate common devices that move at a similar speed with a similar mass as cyclists.

I summary, I suppose you can throw this on the pile of issues that are raised whenever we talk about changing the 1950’s-era Motor Vehicle Act and replacing it with a Road Safety Act. Our current Motordom-derived model of how we regulate our transportation space needs a re-think, because the revolution in technology is happening fast, and we are simply unable to manage it through the existing paradigm. This is also why I am a firm believer we will not see Level 5 Automated Vehicles any time soon: the technology may get there, but the regulatory environment will take much, much longer. But that’s a whole other rant.

Ask Pat: Wards

KJ Asks: Hey Pat, why don’t we have wards in New Westminster? Is that the only way we can get a Councillor from Queensborough?

Your timing is a little off. The discussion of a ward system usually come up some time during municipal elections. It is often raised by a neighbourhood group that feels it gets less benefit from City Council largess than it deserves (so, pretty much every neighbourhood), with the suspicion that a ward system would help.

In many jurisdictions in Canada, municipal councilors are not elected “at large” to represent the entire City like in New West, but are elected to represent a single neighbourhood or group of neighbourhoods called “wards”. Instead of voting for your favourite six from across the city, you vote for one from your neighbourhood only. For some reason, this is not common in British Columbia, and excepting Lake County (which has 4 wards and two “at large” councilors, to the chagrin of some, there are none in BC. Surrey is looking at it, though.

Section 53 of the Local Government Act makes it possible for a City to pass a bylaw to switch from the default “at large” system to a “neighbourhood constituency” system, with no specific requirement for a referendum to make the switch, though the Provincial Government does need to sign off on the change. Running a ward-based election is a little more complicated (efforts need to be taken to make sure voters are voting in the right neighbourhood) and potentially a little more expensive, but there is no technical reason I can find why a City couldn’t do it.

There have been some suggestions made about why cities shouldn’t do it. Mostly, it is argued that the ward system actually reduces the diversity of representation and provides more power to established political systems/parties. Those are balanced perhaps by arguments that local neighbourhoods may have more direct representation, or at least the majority of the people in that neighbourhood do. I guess there has been enough written about this by others that I’ll leave it to you to decide which system is better, and that is not the question you asked.

What I’m more interested in is what wards might look like in New West if we went that way. In theory, we would try to have balanced population in each ward and do our best to keep traditional neighbourhoods whole. Having 6 council positions and 71,000 residents in the last Census, that would mean about 11,830 residents per ward. The problem is, we have 6 Council positions and something between 10 and 15 neighbourhoods, depending on how you choose to chop them up. Even the City’s OCP, there are two “neighbourhood maps”, neither of which align with the current list of Residents Associations. So there is definitely some ambiguity going in:

So I decided to have some fun with the 2016 Census data, which breaks the City into something like 92 census tracts. The tool census mapper by Jens von Bergmann makes it easy to look up various census data at different scales, so I relied on that data. I used to be a GIS guy, but don’t really have GIS tools at home to do this eloquently, so I took the data from census mapper and did a little traditional pen and paper work (I knew I would finally use that Geography degree!) and simple drawing software to sketch out what wards (if New West had them) might look like.

Gerrymandering aside, my basic first task was to think of how to clump neighbourhoods. My first attempt was to start at each end (Queensborough and Sapperton) and draw a ward for each of them that expanded to get as close as possible to the magic 11,833 number within the existing census tracts (71,000 residents divided by 6). Clumping downtown and Quayside together made sense to me, and the rest I just tried to draw lines that split up the middle third by population without too many squiggles in lines and trying to keep traditional neighbourhoods intact. It was not easy. Here are my 6 wards with the 2016 population:

One of the surprising things to come out of this exercise was to see how populated the Brow of the Hill is, even compared to Downtown and the Quayside or Sapperton. Alternately, Queens Park would need to append all of Victoria Hill, Fraserview and a significant chunk of the Brow to meet the population threshold required to fill a Ward.

One thing people may not realize that Section 118 of the Community Charter says a City of New Westminster’s size should have 8 City Councilors. Apparently, when New West hit the 50,000 population threshold about 20 years ago, they had a plebiscite about adding to the size of government, and you can all guess how that went. But if we were to shift to a ward system, it may be a good time to review what a Council of 8 would look like so I did a bit of a map with wards of ~8,875 residents:

In some ways, this works a little better. Queensborough would have a case for its own ward, and clumping Fraserview/Victoria Hill with the east end of Downtown makes more sense to me than clumping it with Queens Park.

Of course, population is growing faster in some neighbourhoods (Queensborough and Downtown) faster than others (Connaught Heights actually shrunk in population between the last two censuses), so future shifts to a ward system would shift a little to reflect this. I also wonder how we would ever create a transparent and fair ward districting system, because if former-GIS-guy City Councillor doing it using Microsoft paint based on 5 year old Census data is not the perfect system, I’m not sure what is.

There is also the small problem of my being the second most popular Councillor in the Brow of the Hill.

As for the Queensborough question, I would make two points. First, there is nothing in the Local Government Act that says a representative of a ward needs to live in that ward, though it would surely be an advantage electorally. Even without a ward system, I would suggest for a person from Queensborough to get on Council, they would need to run. Going back through the last 4 elections, 46 (!) people have run for City Council in New West, some multiple times. Only one of those people (to the best of my memory – I stand to be corrected here) lived in Queensborough. That’s not good odds. Alternately, looking back at the last three elections for School Board Trustee, 32 candidates have run, only one person from Queensborough has run, and she won handily in her first attempt. So the odds are good?

Ask Pat: Making Home

ASP asks—

Hi Pat – What are your thoughts on Kennedy Stewart’s pilot project to build up to six housing units on lots zoned for single-family homes? Also, do you think something like this could work in New West?

I will avoid wading into City of Vancouver politics here, but if you buy me a beer (post pandemic) I might regale you with my strongly held opinions about the way this was handled from a political point of view. Today, I’ll instead try to answer the questions from a public policy side. I have not done the deepest dive into this (see all the caveat-form ass-covering below) but am basing my critique on the proposal as outlined here on the Mayor’s own website.

Skipping past the “pilot 100 lots first” part of it, the big idea was to pre-zone standard single-family lots in Vancouver to allow up to 4 living units in what I assume would be a fourplex or clustered townhome configuration. The new building would operate as a kind of Co-op ownership model where the price of three of the units were based on market prices (which would be, presumably, less than the Single Family Detached house it replaced) and the price of the fourth would be tied to some regional determination of middle-income affordability for initial sale, and for perpetuity through a Section 219 Covenant on title or other mechanism. In some larger lots, this could be expanded to 6 units (4 market, two moderate-income).

To assess this, I want to break it into two parts, while recognizing they are intrinsically linked: land use and affordability.

Land Use
There are about 40,000 Single Family Detached homes in Vancouver (data from here), out of a total of about 280,000 households, yet SFD is by far the most dominant land use by area. It is likely that most of these SFD have more than one dwelling unit in them, be that a basement suite and/or a laneway house, with varying levels of legality, but it still means less than a quarter of the living units cover a vast majority of the residential land in Vancouver.

I have sometimes pushed Gordon Price’s buttons on this, as he speaks frequently of the “Grand Bargain” inherent in the politics of urban planning in the Lower Mainland for the past couple of decades: we will allow bigger towers, mostly on SkyTrain lines, as long as you keep your hands off of the sacred and ill-defined Neighbourhood Character of our single family houses. I suggest that the “Cities in a Sea of Green” narrative of the Livable Region Strategy has boiled down to more localized “Towers in a Sea of Single Family Houses”. This unfortunately has far-reaching effects on housing variety and flexibility, the cost of providing things like utility and transportation services in a community, and the viability of our communities.

We have already accepted (tacitly at first, but now more formally) that basement suites and carriage homes are acceptable, and that they provide a valuable from of more affordable housing that the region would be hard-pressed to function without. With the overall shrinking of the size of families even compared to 20 years ago (never mind the Vancouver Special peak of the 1970s) the reality is that many of our Single Family Detached neighbourhoods are shrinking in population, even as the region’s population swells. Corner stores, community schools, recreation leagues cannot operate on a shrinking population base, especially if we continue to shift our mode of travel from the private automobile to more sustainable forms.

So putting four small families in well-designed compact homes of the 1,000 square foot scale on a single 4,000 square foot lot (FSR 1.0) with 50% lot coverage is, in my mind, a preferable form of land use than similarly-sized single family homes with a legal basement suite. Maybe not everywhere, as no one housing form solves all of our housing needs, but in huge swatches of that RS-1 zoning map, this change would make for better, stronger, more resilient, and equitable neighbourhoods.

Affordability:
When a random Vancouver-Special-having single family detached lot in East Vancouver has $1.7 Million in land value and $100K in improvement value, it is hard to see how “working class” affordability fits into this model. The mortgages required to buy a starter home like this costs something like $6,000 a month, which puts the annual mortgage cost perilously close to the median annual pre-tax income of Vancouver families (about $75,000). If we think of an East Van Vancouver Special as a luxury only 5% of the population can afford, then we perhaps have to talk about why we are allowing the vast majority of the residential land to be preserved for this use?

Of course, many of these houses provide for an increasingly inequitable form of serfdom where basement suites act both as “mortgage helpers” for the gentry, and limited-franchise housing for the peasantry. This proposal would, I think help in closing that gap by introducing a more equitable Co-op type model at the single-lot scale.

This relies on a few things that are uncertain, which is why I suspect the Mayor’s proposal was for study and piloting as opposed to wide-spread adoption. Making these projects economically viable so a median income family mortgage fits the market component housing would require them to be salable in the $700,000 range. This may mean pre-approved design (we could call it a “New Vancouver Special”) and perhaps even some training of the building community to find the most efficient way to build a Step Code compliant building of this scale and form.

I would also throw in a caveat that cities have become reliant on development to fund the infrastructure expansion to support population growth – and I’ll use the building of better sewers here as my example. Going from 35% to 50% lot coverage means we need to address things like storm run-off at a different scale. It also means sanitary sewers have to be upsized or we will need to shift building codes to reduce the volume of sewage generated. When a City permits the building of a high-rise or even low-rise apartment building, we can suck tens of thousands of dollars out of each unit in the form of DCCs and CACs to pay for this work. With thousands of individual small projects across the City (if we are going to treat these small projects like we currently do replacement single family homes), the balance between keeping those re-builds affordable and providing the necessary infrastructure backbone is even a bigger challenge. I suspect it can be done, but there are details to be worked out here. This needs work.

The other big caveat is the potential loss of a stock of low-income housing in the form of those legal and illegal basement suites in single family homes across the City. In theory, the one-subsidized-unit-per-lot part of this plan will offset that, but I want to see some numbers. The limited franchise of the renter in the illegal basement suite situation is still better than those people being unhoused in a rental market with persistent sub-1% rental vacancy. Though I resist the whattaboutism of expecting any single new housing policy to solve all housing problems, we do need to put the policy into the context of the multiple housing crises in our region. In practice, I suspect the uptake of this type of new housing would be slow to start, giving time to assure we are building appropriate supportive housing for anyone displaced – but this only adds to the urgency of building that type of housing instead of taking away from it.

Would it work in New West?
It would work differently, but I’m not sure it could work. And again I’m going to try to avoid the politics of it here (I have no idea if the community or Council would embrace this idea) and try to look at it as a policy.

Land values in New West are still quite different than in East Van. A standard lot in the West End of New West has an unimproved value of about $1M, and in Lower Sapperton closer to $800K (to pick two neighbourhoods of mostly-single-family homes where you could see something like this work). So off the bat you may think it would be easier to pull off here, especially as you consider our median family income is about the same as Vancouver’s. However, this also means knocking down an old house and building a new SFD on it (with a carriage house & basement suite, as we currently permit) can already provide three residential units at a buy-and-build price that is still in reach for a wider range of income levels, though still not the median income earner. You would have to compete with that option to convince a builder to invest in the build of a new four-plex or six-plex model.

This would make it more imperative that savings could be found and risk reduced through streamlined approval and standardization, which is complicated in New West. We have a rich diversity of “standard” lot sizes here: 130×50’ in Queensborough and the West End, 120×50’ in Connaught Heights and Glenbrooke North (unless you have a lane, then 100×50’ is typical). Sapperton is typically 45×112’ or 40×100’. Though Upper Sapperton may make the most sense, their lot dimensions and slopes may make it most difficult. We also have some aging infrastructure problems (such as ongoing sewer separation work) and some building-on-steep-hill problems that impact building costs and make standardization harder. Finally, I think having 10% of the population and revenues of the City of Vancouver makes it harder for New West as a City to do some of the planning and design work to make this the most viable option, and would still be a less attractive market than Vancouver for private industry to do that work. It is much harder and riskier for New West to be the bleeding edge on a program like this.

The Vancouver Special was developed in Vancouver (and adopted in some adjacent communities) because it was a governance and market response to needing a bunch of affordable-ownership housing during rapid growth. I like where this proposal went, because it applied that kind of thinking to our current housing situation. To answer your question in TL;DR form (after the fact!): I like the idea, I don’t know if it would work, but I wish Vancouver had given it a try.

As a final caveat, I want to say I am almost perfectly the wrong person to ask about this. I am not a builder, a professional planner or a land economist, but am an elected official expected to approve policy based on the best advice of these professions. That probably means I am speaking here from a Dunning-Kruger knowledge nadir. I would love to hear more experienced people talk about this model, and point out the complications I am too knowledgeably unaware of.

Ask Pat: Smoking fines

ThRe asks—

Hello Pat, Where can I get specific data about fines to smoking bylaw offenders in New Westminster? Thank you

Smoking Bylaws are a bit of a funny beast, because there are more than one enforcement bodies that stick their nose into where you can or cannot smoke. A few years ago, I did a bit of a dive into smoking bylaws around New Westminster Station and some of the “nuisance behaviours” at this primary entrance to the City. I learned that in some areas smoking was prohibited by the TransLink regulations and Transit Police were the enforcing authority, in others the City Bylaws applied, and Bylaw Officers were the relevant authority, and in other areas such as patios and buffer around the doors to restaurants Provincial Health Authority enforcement staff were the relevant agency, but could only apply fines to the proprietors who failed to stop smoking in the public plaza, not to the actual smokers, presumably putting the Mall Cops in charge of any kind of active enforcement. Knowing which side of a metal strip on the ground or how many metres you were from a doorway was important to know who is supposed to enforce the Bylaw in that particular spot. We also apparently cannot enforce smoking bylaws within strata buildings (such as on your residential balcony) as that is something that the provincial Strata Act manages.

Add to this that smoking enforcement is by its nature difficult as it is an ephemeral act, so with overlapping and gap-prone administrative boundaries I would assume actual fines are very, very rare.

The City’s smoking Bylaw is available online: Smoking Control Bylaw 6263, 1995 (last updated in September 2018) lays out the details of what we can enforce in the City. The actual fines for violating the Smoking Control Bylaw are found in the Bylaw Notice Enforcement Bylaw 7318, 2009 (last updated in August 2020), or the Municipal Ticket Information Bylaw 8077, 2019 (last updated in August 2020). And there is a difference.

“Bylaw Notice Enforcement” is a local administrative fine process, run completely by the City. We use this for a bunch of smaller offences (it is limited by Provincial Law to fines under $500) and would be familiar to anyone who has gotten a parking ticket. The adjudication process is run by the City, which is easier and cheaper than relying on provincial Courts. Your ultimate appeal measure would be to come to Council if you disputed it (or the Provincial Ombudsperson, I guess, if things went really bad). Here are the available Smoking fines under that process:

The “Municipal Ticket Information Bylaw” process relies on the Courts, and is more akin to a speeding ticket. You can, if you wish, go to court and appeal to a judge, and they are able to determine an appropriate fine given your situation, up to $1,000. The fun part here is that it turns out pretty much anyone with a badge has the legal authority to enforce it (though City Councillor is suspiciously absent from the list):

So those are the ways Smoking Bylaws may be enforced in the City. If you are more curious about how often or where this enforcement happens, and how many fines are actually collected, You are asking the wrong guy. I would first suggest you contact the City’s Bylaws Enforcement division and ask if they collect this data, and if they are free to share it.

The City is subject to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA), which is a funny two-part set of provincial regulations, one part giveth, one part taketh away. A good way to think of it is that the City must share public information under FOI unless they are strictly forbidden from sharing it under PPA. In practice, the City has to determine if there is Privacy Protection component to any information it shares,  which means staff need to comb through it and skim the privacy protection parts off. It is probably important to note that Council is completely separated from this process – except we are sometimes requested to provide information such as our correspondence. The City has professional staff who are well versed in FOIPPA who do those reviews, and under the act, the City is permitted to bill anyone asking for that information to cover the cost of that staff member’s time. It’s not a perfect system, but it is the system we have.

Ask Pat: Blogs

JL asked—

Are you aware of a blog similar to the one you run but focused on the city of Richmond?
I have grown to love New West in my 5 years here and am sad to leave. I really want to let you know how much I appreciate the time you take to write these entries on the council meetings and topics related to the City of New Westminster. They are very informative and make me feel more connected the city. Frankly, I think a monthly (bi-weekly?) email newsletter similar to your blog would be an asset to the city’s residents.

In short, no. I don’t know anyone in Richmond doing this. Actually, I don’t know very many City Councillors doing stuff like this, which makes me wonder why I am doing it, to be honest.

I love that there are a few Councillors more actively engaging the public in interesting ways. Nathan Pachal in Langley City has a more concise blog than mine covering what happens on his Council, Mathew Bond in North Vancouver District (@mrmathewbond) has been live-tweeting Public Hearings to enlightening effect. There are some real Local Government stars like Christine Boyle in Vancouver who blogs and uses other media to tell the stories of Council work and of her vision for bigger change, but I see nothing of the sort in Richmond. A few blogs that were very active in the months before election, and silent since, seems the trend. There are likely a few more active Facebook pages, but not much else.

In my experience (disclosure: I used to work in Richmond City Hall) Richmond is a strange place politically. Where else can a candidate can run for the Conservatives in opposition to oil & gas development in one race, be endorsed by an NDP candidate in another, then after a half dozen tries, be elected when running on a slate with a Green Candidate? With the public generally disengaged in local politics (aside from the Steveston neighbourhood preservation activists and a few very tight ethnic- and religious<-based cliques), and a pretty popular and non-controversial Mayor, it was really hard to know where the public was on issues. So, maybe once you get there, you can figure it out and report out to us?

That is kinda how this all started for me here. It was back in the heady days of the 2000s when everybody had a blog. I was blogging on other stuff around my environmental activism and loving my adopted community of New West. A brief period of time between when Letters to the Editor and Calling into Your Local AM Radio Station were replaced by Facebook comment threads and Podcasts, the blog was a medium where anyone with an opinion could start a conversation with people they had never met. I do cringe a bit in reading some of my early stuff, because I really didn’t know how the City worked (I sort of still don’t, but I’m getting better). The upside is I actually earned a great network of friends in New West though this thing.

I told the story here before, but my inspiration was actually Jordan Bateman. Before he became and anti-tax Reaganite crusader for Economic Freedom™, he was a tax-and-spend City Councillor like the rest of us. Even during his spendthrift Councillor days, he was still much further over to the right side of the political spectrum than I, but I did admire his blogging prowess. While serving on Langley Township Council he did something akin to what I am doing now, reporting out on the activities of Council. You didn’t have to agree with him politically to appreciate that he at least provided justification for his positions, which to me is the most honest way to approach this work.

Eventually, Jordan flew too close to the sun. One day he used his blog to publicly criticize his own BC Liberal Party (he worked for Rich Coleman) over their inconsistency on the HST issue, and within a few days was forced (chose?) to print a retraction and apology, one that was weirdly unclear about what he was apologizing for, other than making Finance Minister Colin Hansen look bad for pointing out that the Finance Minister looked bad. Shortly after that, Jordan’s blogging days (and apparent political ascendency in Langley) were over.

I have completely failed to take the obvious lesson from that. After a few years of blogging and becoming increasingly political in New West, I threw my hat into the ring for Council. At the time, a few people suggested the blog thing was going to be a political liability, but I swore I was going to keep doing it. I am perhaps naïve enough to think that in the local politics realm, people value honesty and transparency, and the risk of pissing people off who don’t agree with you on political points is by far offset by the trust-building of being open and honest.

I don’t know about all of the discourse that happened out there in the community during the last municipal election, but there was at least one candidate for Council who tried to leverage a few cherry-picked quotes out of my blog to campaign against me. Not having deleted any of my old posts, it was easy enough for me when challenged on what I said to point at the cherry picked posts and “here is where I am transparent, and here is where my opponent is being disingenuous”. It didn’t help that the opponent was himself a municipal affairs blogger who deleted all of his old blog posts before running – which somewhat undermined his claims about transparency and openness. Anyway, the upshot of that funny situation was that I got a lot of positive feedback from people I didn’t even know read my blog, and I’d bet a few voters were made aware of my blog via my opponent’s campaign and turned out to vote for me thanks to it.

However, we can still learn from Jordan’s Icarian moment to remember politics don’t happen within a bubble. Before being elected, I was pretty critical of the Harper Conservatives because I am an environmental scientist and saw the damage he and his policies were doing to environmental science and the environment (Damage Mr. Trudeau is, alas, reluctant and slow to undo). I also became critical of the Christy Clark BC Liberal party as she steered the ship in strangely Harperian directions. I admired the work that Jack Layton did, and have a tonne of respect for Peter Julian and Judy Darcy, and have written about this in my blog. I have even made clear my voting intent in previous provincial and federal elections. That has not, however, stopped me from being critical of the NDP at times (I still think they are 100% wrong and cynical on the topic of road pricing, for example). I have even provided firmly-worded suggestions to how they could do better when I feel like they deserve to hear it. The only evidence I ever got that they were listening is once when I was writing about the flaws in the Public Hearing process when applied to critically needed supportive housing, I get a note from (then Minister for Local Government) Selena Robinson letting me know she read it, she heard me, and was aware of the issue. I think some of the temporary changes made during COVID reflect these concerns, and I hope post-COVID we can keep some of these changes.

Anyway, I am aware that the comments my electoral opponent pulled out a few years ago that were not complimentary to the NDP or the swear words that Stephen Harper sometimes drew out of me are probably career limiting if I aspired towards senior government, so I’m not sure why anyone else elected to public service would do this, and in a way understand why so many City Councillor blogs go silent shortly after they are elected.

Problem is, I’m stuck now. After 6 years in office and 500+ blog posts (on top of the 450+ posts I wrote before getting elected) I can’t quit now. I got elected saying I was going to keep blogging about things in the City, and here I am, until the internet goes away or I get booted from office. To be honest it is getting to be a bit of a timesuck of questionable value, as unfortunately people simply don’t engage in blogs like they used to (see how few comments I get compared to the old days), and long Council Agendas, even when reduced down to 4,000-word blog posts, don’t fit the culture of Facebook (or, shudder, Reddit). So, it is good to hear someone reads them, and I’m not just shouting into the void.

This speaks to another problem that I don’t pretend my Blog can solve, and that is the trend towards lost accountability in local government. With the hollowing out of local newspaper newsrooms and the consolidation of news media, we have very little coverage of the day-to-day workings of City Hall. A single reporter in New West with a much wider beat than City Council cannot keep up with the wide range of issues we are dealing with. New West is actually lucky to still have that reporter – many Cities are going without. It is hard to keep track of what is happening locally, and blogs (or, it being 2020, Podcasts) are not the answer, especially when they are written by people like me who necessarily have a bias and do not have the training or professional responsibility to manage that bias like we expect (perhaps idealistically) from capital-J Journalism.

So good luck in Richmond. Support your local newspaper. Start a blog, or a podcast, or your own newsletter.  Let us know what’s happening over there. I worked there for 8 years, and was never able to figure it out.