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.

Ask Pat: Bike Storage

ASP asks—

Hi Pat – Looking forward to the AAA bike network coming to NW in the next 5 years. I’m looking into an e-cargo bike for our family but my biggest blocker is bike storage. I live in a building over 50 years old that does not have secure bike storage (but I have 2 parking spots that I don’t use since we don’t have a vehicle…). Wondering if there’s anything that the city of New West can do to incent existing stratas to invest in better secure bike parking? Or allow owners to convert their parking stall into secure bike parking without having to get approvals? On a related note I also wanted to see if there were any plans to convert on street car parking spaces to secured bike parking/storage? Even if this was a paid service that would be something hugely beneficial to us.

Oh, boy, you got me writing about bicycles. Better put on a pot of tea.

If we can get Council to commit to completing the AAA network, End of Trip facilities (EOT) are clearly the next big infrastructure challenge when it comes to supporting active transportation. With the shifts in the types of devices people are using, it is clear that even the best plans of a few years ago are not going to be sufficient if we really want a wider mode shift in the community. So let’s go through a few of the new challenges, and how a Local Government can help solve them.

Bike theft is currently a huge problem regionally, in a way that car theft was 20 years ago. I seriously doubt that our Motordom-entrenched law enforcement and insurance agencies are going to get as proactive in battling bike theft, so the arms race of tougher locks and more secure storage options are really our only option.

Bike storage at home is another area where multi-family needs a different approach than the single family detached home. Bike rooms in the traditional sense are a basement room with a few racks, mostly filled with dust-accumulating Canadian Tire specials with two flat tires, hard to access, not particularly secure, and really inconvenient to use. Meanwhile, apartments are not built large enough to store a couple of bikes, and random Strata or Rental rules inexplicably restrict bicycles in hallways and elevators.

As with many other structural changes in housing, we can do more about new housing than the existing housing stock, so the City is able to create new standards for Bike Storage rooms, like New West did a few months ago. The City is currently making a suite of changes to the Zoning Bylaw to make sure our Zoning requirements align with our transportation goals. We can do this through zoning because of the exceptional powers zoning gives local governments, and that includes adding “red tape” like this. Here is the plan for the current changes (from the October 18 Council report):

In November, we adopted the Stage 2 Bylaw changes that make bike parking locations as convenient as possible for users, improve security given cost of e-bikes and other non-conventional bikes, ensure oversized (e.g., cargo) bike sizes are better accommodated in new housing.

Of course, that does nothing for the existing building stock, and the City has really limited powers here. Bike rooms in the traditional sense don’t work- not big enough, not secure enough. Getting a strata or rental company to invest in making them function better is a really, really hard. Stratas have a lot of power, provided by the Province, to set their own Bylaws. It is difficult for a City to enforce in that space, and I honestly don’t know if the City could force a Strata to provide better accommodation to cycle storage, you need to take that up with your Strata Council. Though the City has recently had some success using our business regulation powers to change how rental property owners operate (to prevent unnecessary renoviction), It was a challenge, and I’m not sure the City is going to push that leverage to regulate bike storage rooms.

Storage in underground parking also presents security challenges, and similarly runs up against Strata or rental bylaws. I have even heard (anecdotally) of the Fire Department recommending against storage of stuff in general (and cycles as a subset of “stuff”) in underground parking garages during fire inspections, though it would be difficult to argue that the most flammable bicycle (I’m looking at you, Vitus Carbone) presents less of a fire risk than the most modest automobile fuel tank. However, if we put aside how to get there, I think the most affordable and secure solution for most of the exiting building stock is secure bike lockers in existing underground parking garages.

As far as incentives? The City is pretty limited by the Community Charter as far as giving financial or tax incentives to individual Stratas or rental companies that would encourage them to provide better storage solutions, but perhaps the best we can do is get out of their way if they want to take this path, such as allowing them to reduce the amount of parking they have on site if they convert that space to cycle storage options. Though I would argue incentives to Stratas willing to invest in secure cycle parking is a better idea and more equitable than investing in incentives for individual bicycles like some communities are piloting.

Creating better public short-term storage solutions is also something the City can do. Some of our Parklets have attached cycling parking, and that is definitely something we can do more of as we work on Bold Steps 2 and 7 in our Climate Action Plan. I’d also love to see more the bike locker type storage that TransLink has been doing for years, where the security of storage problem is fixed, even if their lockers don’t really work for your cargo bike types.

Finally, bike share solves part of this problem. The North Shore communities got ahead of us on this pilot program, but we are watching closely how it works out. E-bike share reduces the need for people to invest in expensive and hard-to-secure vehicles, and allows them to instead spend a few dollars a trip on the most common type of e-bike trip – a kilometer or two to a relatively nearby rapid transit or shopping destination. New West is uniquely located along a heavily used transit line, with hills separating much of our community from it, and a high enough multi-family housing density to make a program like this work.

But all of this also relies on us getting that AAA network built so more people feel safe using these devices. This needs to be baked into our 5-year financial plan, similar to how Victoria got their network build over the last few years. Shifting how we move around to meet our livability and climate goals will rely on both of these.

Ask Pat: Street trees

AM asked—

Curious to know where the city is at with it’s tree planting roll out for street trees. Sapperton residents would appreciate and benefit from some shade. I live on Simpson and have been asking for street trees for 5 years. Many thanks

Short answer: As far as I can tell, New Westminster is on pace, or slightly ahead of pace, on the tree planning strategy approved in 2020, and the good news is that Simpson Street is a high-priority street for planting, so you should hopefully see new street trees in the next year or so.

The City is planting a lot of trees. This followed on a few years of working on an Urban Forest Management Strategy that is one of the things I am most proud of during my time on Council. After decades of a slowly eroding tree canopy, the City committed in 2016 to turning that tide, and going from 18% forest cover (measured in 2014) to 27% cover by 2035.

A 9% increase in tree cover might not sound like a lot, but it would require an additional 8,500 trees planted on public lands and 3,300 trees planted on private lands. That means more than 800 new trees a year, not including the trees we needed to replace any lost through development and natural tree death. There are four strategies to get there: A proactive Tree Bylaw to protect as best we can healthy mature trees on private property; incentivizing private tree plantings through tree sales and promotion; investing in urban reforestation where opportunities arise such as parklands; and committing to an aggressive Street Tree planting program. The last two of these are supported by our 2020-2030 Tree Planting Master Plan.

That plan is a great read, and I like how staff prioritized different parts of the City for faster planting. Recognizing that tree cover is inequitably distributed round the City, and that it would be better if we more evenly distributed that social, health, and economic benefits of tree canopy cover, staff used a GIS system to map out a few measures. Along with measuring areas with less trees, they also prioritize multi-family neighbourhoods to put more people near trees, neighbourhoods with more seniors, and areas more susceptible to Urban Heat Island effect. Overlaying those layers, and higher vs. low priority areas stand out:

It is also worth noting, this isn’t just about going out with a back hoe, digging a hole, and plopping a sapling in the hole. Trees need some significant support to prosper in urban areas, especially in the first few years. With asphalt and concrete everywhere, there is not enough healthy water-and-nutrient-providing soil around a tree in many areas, so a soil cell needs to be constructed to give the roots a chance to establish. Trees are sensitive to drought and frost and wind until they get established, so they need watering, they need pruning, and other care in the first few years. If we lose 10% of the new plantings every year, we are doing pretty well. They also need to be planted mindfully so they don’t tear up the sidewalk next to them, or mess up the sewer lines under them. And with climate change, we need to be cognizant of the species planted and the diseases and pets that are endemic. For our tree strategy to be successful, we needed staff dedicated to this work.

Fortunately, we are getting grants both large and small to help us with this work, and are committed though our Climate Action Strategy to continue to fund this work. It also helps that we have both staff and a Council who recognize that planting a tree today is an investment worth making so we have a better community 20 years down the road.

As for that block of Simpson Street between Columbia and Richmond: there is an identified paucity of street trees there, which means you will be getting those street trees sooner than some of the rest of Sapperton. It’s that red block in the picture above. Of course the overhead power lines are on the north side of the road. That means more diminutive trees on the north side but the south side should be able to host full-sized trees, and provide a lot of shade across the street. I’m assuming (but don’t know for sure) that there are no utility conflicts under the boulevard that would limit root fecundity. And it looks like the City is planning hop hornbeams and Chitalpas. So spring flowers to boot!