Ask Pat: flood plans

BillB asks—

If my reading of the City of New West website is correct, the Floodplain Management Strategy – Feasibility Plan is 10 years old. It also says that the City prepares for the possibility of flooding on “an annual basis”. In the light of recent floods in the area, and climate change at large, should New Westminster be doing more to prepare and prevent the likelihood of flooding?

The short answer is probably yes, in that recent events from the Heat Dome to the Fraser Valley flooding has demonstrated that there are gaps in local and regional emergency response schemes, and it might be worth a pretty comprehensive review. But I’m going to put that larger “emergency management” part aside here, because you asked specifically about flooding. I think we are in pretty good shape for the *likely* flood scenarios in the near future, but it gets murkier the further out we look.

As a caveat, I’m a geologist and physical geographer by academic training, but I am not an engineer. That means I know a little too much about the physical causes and mechanics of flooding (I can wax eloquently about Reynolds Number or identifying back-basin deposits in the rock record) but not quite enough about the engineering practice of managing floods. So nothing below here should be thought of as engineering advice or advanced engineering knowledge. You gotta pay somebody with a P.Eng. for that.

The Floodplain Management Strategy really addresses one type of flood risk we have in the City, that of freshet flooding of the Fraser River. We have another couple of risks not directly addressed by that strategy: seasonal or flash flooding on the Brunette River, and localized intense storm events like recently occurred causing minor localized flooding on Quayside Drive, which I would call “upland” floods, because they are not caused by the river rising so much as water not getting to the river fast enough. They all need different approaches, and the risk factor of each will be impacted differently by Climate Change.

As far as the Fraser River flood, this is the area I think we are most prepared for in the medium-term. The oft-mentioned survey of dike conditions report from a few years ago, circulated more widely during the current Fraser River flooding episode, makes New West look pretty good, comparatively. The Crest Elevation and Dike Assessment ratings are generally fair to good, comparable to Richmond and very far ahead of most other municipalities along the river. There has been a lot of work done since that 2005 report to improve both the dike (mostly along with new adjacent developments) and the ability to pump water out and over the dike during intense rain or if there is some local wave wash overtopping during a Freshet flood event. Just in the last couple of years, we have spent millions on upgrading the Wood Street and Boundary Road pump stations to bring them up to modern capacity need and seismic standards.

That said, from a geography sense, Fraser River freshet floods are not likely our biggest concern on this lower part of the river. Here, the water height varies more by tide and storm surge cycle than by freshet cycle. The concern to plan around is not a single spring freshet that is larger than others (like the 1894 or 1948 floods), but a significant low-pressure storm coming though during a king tide around the time of higher-than-average freshet. It is perhaps macabre to think about it, but am 1894-style freshet will likely cause dyke breaches from Hope to Langley, and this extra water storage capacity on farm land and in those more vulnerable communities may serve to reduce the danger further downriver like Queensborough and Richmond. Dike planning needs to be holistic and address the entire estuary, and that is the most common call for every community along the Fraser. There is even a model in place, we just need to fund it.

The Brunette River is a bit more complicated. It has a different freshet than the Fraser River and it is more prone to intense local storms, but the lower reaches are also impacted by flood stage in the Fraser. There are very few homes impacted by a Brunette River flood, but the Braid Industrial Area may definitely be affected, and there are areas of it not protected by any meaningful dike. This is an area where the City puts a lot of emphasis on tiger dams and sandbags if floods are predicted, but the complexity of the jurisdictions here (rail lines are federally regulated, cannot really be “raised” and rail beds are pretty permeable to water; a large part of the waterfront belongs to the Port of Vancouver, so we couldn’t dike it if we wanted to) meaning proactive measures are much harder to coordinate.

Upland floods from intense storms are much harder to predict, and the engineering solutions are daunting. There is only so much underground storm sewer pipe capacity, and though we are currently investing a lot of money in new storm sewer infrastructure, there is always a cost/benefit math around adequate capacity for very low-recurrence events. We are also investing more on “green infrastructure” such as groundwater infiltration, permeable surface treatments and trees, in hopes we can locally capture more of the storm water and reduce the “peak” of the most intense storm flows. But none of this fits in the Floodplain Strategy.

Where the report you read talks about “annual basis” planning, that means every year (starting in the late winter) we get regular updates on snowpack and predicted melt rate across the Fraser River basin. That is modelled into predicted flows in the month ahead, and we prepare flood response based on those numbers. If the freshet forecasts start to look floody, we start procuring and organizing response materials (tiger dams, sandbags, sand, pumps, etc.) well ahead of time. In my perhaps hazy recollection of 7 years on Council, we have gone so far as to deploy sandbags in the Brunette River area once, and had no river-sourced flooding. So the “annual basis” is around temporarily protecting low-lying areas and prepping for a flood if it is likely to occur, and in no way replaces the medium-and longer term dike upgrades, pump capacity, and storm sewer investments we need to do.

Now, about Climate Change. In general, engineering practice now accounts for it, in as good as they can. Though that means different things for each of the different risks. Add to this a major challenge of estimating or modelling the various impacts Climate Change will have on everything from local storm intensity to snowpacks in Cariboo.

The current models suggest intense rainfall events and rain-on-snow events will become more frequent in our part of the world with climate disruption, both likely to increase the frequency and possible intensity of upland floods and Brunette floods. I guess the upside is that these are likely to be more localized with limited damage (which doesn’t make you feel any better if it is your home or business that is local damaged).

Research from a few years ago (and I honestly have been not keeping up, so this may have changed) suggests that peak freshet flows in the Fraser may actually be lower on average, even as annual average flow goes up a bit over the next 75 years. So floods that meet our design levels may actually become less frequent.

The problem is, we are in the tidal range of the river, and sea level rise will most certainly impact New Westminster. The current Provincial Guidelines are to design dikes for a 50cm increase in sea level, putting dike standards where we previously expected sea level change to get by 2050. More recent research (for example, by the Research Council) suggests we will be past there by 2050. The detail of raising dikes an extra 50 cm is actually not a small one, but at least New West is not alone in this. Which is why many communities (including New West) are calling for a return to basin-wide flood and landuse planning along the shores of the Fraser River Estuary in a FREMP-like model as I linked to above.

The elephant in the room is the worst case scenario, and this is a global concern, not a New Westminster one. If we have 50cm of sea level rise by 2050, we can and are planning for that. Some of that adaptation will be expensive, but we can see how to get there. By 2050, we should have an idea of how to address 1m sea level rise anticipated for 2100, though that will bring new engineering challenges, and perhaps some uncomfortable discussion about triage: what lands we protect, what lands we abandon. However, worst case scenarios for sea level rise past 2100 are dire, and frankly very difficult to plan around. The planet with 3m of sea level rise is a very, very different planet. Most major cities are at least partially inundated, most currently ports are no longer functional. The global economy is not the one we have today. From an engineering perspective, this is not something we can plan for, and the people planning today will not be the ones planning for that eventuality.

This is why we still, while facing inevitable climate change, need to work to reduce the scale and impact of climate disruption. The battle against Climate Change is not over because it is now inevitable, the race is now afoot. Every tonne of carbon we keep out of the atmosphere today is a reduction in inundation we will see post 2100. So in that sense, our long-term flood management plan is probably best seen here.

Ask Pat: The River’s Edge

I said I was going to spend some of the holidays clearing the Ask Pat Queue. Here we go with the first one from a drummer of some note:

Heflip asks—

The development on front street along the river’s edge…the underground portion being well below water level…is this a smart idea? Some engineer somewhere thinks so I suppose. I guess we’ll find out if it sinks or not.

I assume you are talking about the Pier West project currently under construction at the foot of Begbie Street. Indeed, the history of the site, going from 5 towers to three to two, from over 1,000 units to under 700, from an elevated parking pedestal to below-grade parking, and the attendant public benefits is outlined in this previous blog post from around the time the current iteration was approved.

But you asked about engineering and water.

Yes, engineers think it is a fine idea, if a bit complicated and expensive. I am not an engineer, or even an engineering geologist, but I know just enough to recognize the engineering of this site probably looks more challenging than it is. The building is not built on soft riverside sediments, but is within them, and rests on a series of piles driven into well compacted glacial sediments and pre-glacial rocks (probably Huntington Formation?) that are not as far down here as people might think. Around the Lower Mainland and the world, there are many buildings on piles in much similar or more challenging conditions. Just in the photo above, there is the Alex Fraser Bridge, every tower on the New Westminster Quayside, and the dynamic loads of those container cranes at silos at the port.  The engineering of doing this work is really, really well understood by people who do that work, and seismic standards for this type of construction are remarkable. The buildings will almost certainly not “sink” any more than any other building built in the 21st century in the Lower Mainland.

Secant piles that will keep the underground garage and the river from interacting. Those numbers are “feet to the bottom”. They go a long way down.

The portion that is below grade is the parking structure, both for the building occupants and public parking for the adjacent park and commercial areas. By pushing the parking below grade, we were able to negotiate more than 2 acres of public park and waterfront boardwalk space, which will be a huge shift in how the Pier Park operates. The City will finally have a realized riverfront plan.

Parking “below the river” is an interesting visual, but again, not as challenging as non-engineers may presume, and not that unusual. Many of the buildings in the Quayside on New West have parking garages that are below the top of the river, especially during flood stage. The Secant Pile wall you can see on the site is a well-established construction technique that is very well understood by generations of engineers by now. The location of this structure is perhaps dramatic, but most large buildings with significant underground garage structures are in a similar situation, in that the lower levels of the garage are below the groundwater table, and are surrounded by water-saturated soils that would love to flow into the garage. Some manage this by actively pumping away the groundwater. But more commonly now, they just build the garage as a “bathtub” that is effectively waterproof, with a few sumps and pumps to address any minor leakage or seepage.

The building is also built to the currently required flood level, including anticipated sea level rise effects related to climate change during the life cycle of the building. But that gets us talking about floods and sea level rise, and I have another Ask Pat in the queue about that, so stay tuned.

Ask Pat: Zoning shops

Ject asks—

How do zoning and bylaws work in New West? It seems to me that allowing for small retail spaces in neighbourhoods like the ones surrounding Agnes and Carnarvon @ Elliot, for example, would be of great benefit to the community: More walking distance shops and such (I’m thinking coffeeshops, produce stands, maybe a convenience store) would make this area more walkable, livable and agreeable to its inhabitants. I have seen some small stores close to brow of the hill, and I know that there are stores on sixth, but why not more centric?

To answer your first question: it works like zoning everywhere else in BC (except Vancouver), because although the powers local government have under zoning are very broad, they are set out in Provincial legislation. And as in many other things, when it comes to zoning power, the Local Government Act giveth, but the Community Charter taketh away.

There is a lot of talk in urbanist and activist circles about zoning, some even suggesting that it is more trouble than it is worth. There is no doubt the history of zoning is problematic (racist and classist zoning was more the norm than the anomaly for North America for much of the twentieth century), and it is currently a cause of (or at least a functional part of) a lot of inequity in communities. However most don’t really understand what it is as a tool in modern local government.

Many armchair planners have a perhaps SimCity-derived thought that zoning is designed to keep noisy, polluting, industries and busy, crowded commercial areas separate from comparatively pastoral and quiet residential areas, so people are healthy and can sleep at night. But in BC, that type of high level distribution of land use is more achieved by an Official Community Plan (OCP). Zoning is a finer-grained distribution of land uses within those bigger categories. It also speaks more to the size, shape, and form of development within neighborhoods, and it also manages more specific land uses and how different land uses are mixed together within the same area. A neighbourhood might be designated Residential in the OCP, but zoning may allow “four floors and a corner store” types of buildings, or even stand-alone buildings that don’t necessarily “fit” the strict OCP designation for the entire neighbourhood, like a stand-alone cafe in an otherwise residential neighbourhood.Map of the OCP designations for the eastern part of Downtown from the City’s on-line map.

It’s important to note that zoning doesn’t necessarily drive changes in use, it is usually the other way around. If a specific use is allowed in a zone, it doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will actually come along and do that use, or build a new building for that use. Council rarely re-zones or changes the allowable uses on a zoned piece of land unless a landowner requests it by making a rezoning application – they want to change the use and ask the City for permission.

Map of zoning designations in the eastern part of Downtown from the City’s on-line map.

The thing about zoning is that zoning changes for any lot need to be approved by Council, and (this is the big part) Council can say “no” to a change for pretty much any reason they want. Most powers of Councils are limited by legislation or common law, and we are expected to act reasonably. In administering building permits (as a random example), we cannot capriciously withhold a permit if you want to build something – as long as what you are building meets the zoning and the building code, no bylaws are violated, and you pay your fees. We can’t just say “no” without providing a reasoning for why, and can get dragged into court if we act arbitrarily in refusing you a permit for, say, a bathroom renovation. But if you ask us to change your zoning, we have almost unlimited power to say “no” and you are unlikely to have any recourse.

As a result, a City can ask for pretty much anything in exchange for zoning – Development Cost Charges to pay for sewer, water, and transportation upgrades, so-called “Voluntary” Amenity Charges to pay for other things in the City, we sometimes ask for a strip of land to be dedicated to the City for a boulevard, or sidewalk replacement or other upgrades to adjacent City lands. We can ask the developer looking to re-zone that they build space in their proposed building for Daycare use or Affordable Housing or that they build more (or less) parking, or that they paint their building a different shade of blue. Every rezoning is a negotiation.

Now, this of course is a power a wise Council will not want to abuse. Besides making ourselves unpopular and getting voted out, making rezoning too onerous will cause landowners to scoff at the demands, and no-one will invest in developing your City, which might mean you will not achieve the goals of your OCP. On top of this, the community may lose out on those amenity benefits that could be negotiated. Of course, a Council could cynically use this piling on of demands as a great way to prevent new housing from being built while not appearing like you are opposed to new housing. “This development just didn’t quite do enough to address (pick a concern)” is a great stall tactic that effectively shuts down development as easily as saying no, with predictable results. But as a practicality, most Councils want to make sure the community gets “its share” of the value that the developer receives when a property is rezoned. It’s a balance, and no-one does it perfect.

The point is, if we abolished zoning, we would need to replace it with another tool that provided the community an ability to leverage a fair share of the land lift (the increase in property value that comes with zoning changes in a land-constrained region such as ours) in order to pay for the externalized cost if development and community growth. Right now, it is the best tool we have for that because it is the only tool that gives Local Government negotiating power.

But you were asking about zoning for small retail. This has been a topic of *much* discussion over my 7 years on Council, going back to the last big OCP update. Part of livable, walkable, dense urban communities like Downtown New West is being able to walk to some basic services. I feel fortunate that I live in a part of the Brow of the Hill where I am a <10 minute walk from most services, and as such can do most of my shopping by waking or riding my bike. But there are areas of New West with a paucity of services within such a short distance, like the west part of the West End, parts of Upper Sapperton, or Port Royal in Queensborough. There are also some areas like the east aside of Downtown (as you note) are surprisingly far from some services, and probably don’t achieve the walkscore we would like to see for such a dense community.

Expanding on your example of the east part of Downtown, most of that area (other than Columbia Street, which is commercial) is zoned for low-rise multi-family residential, with a note in the zoning that higher density may be permitted if enough amenity is provided. Any retail coming to this area would need a rezoning. Would Council approve such a rezoning? I don’t know, but I doubt we are going to be asked to any time soon.

There is an ongoing discussion locally and regionally about retail space. I have heard owners of commercial property argue there is too much, and if Cities require retail space as part of new mixed-use developments, they will remain empty, especially as the traditional retail environment has been Amazoned into a state of… shall we call it uncertainty? Others suggest high lease rates and somewhat onerous triple-net lease terms are a result of there being too few spaces available and commercial owners holding all the cards. There is also a universe where both of these are true at the same time, and location and neighbourhood characteristics determine where your street or block fall on that spectrum.

Developers definitely would rather build residential, given the option, because they know the demand is there. Build residential, and it will sell for a pretty easily predicted price per square foot. Commercial space is not as certain. Building a residential property is also more predictable in how you fit it out. Every home needs a toilet and sink in every bathroom, countertops and appliances, wired and plumbed for in suite laundry and known kitchen appliances. But a commercial space is largely unknown. To use your examples, a coffee shop, a produce stand, a convenience store all need very different layouts, plumbing, electrical loads, even locations of doors. So commercial space built on speculation is built as an empty shell, creating uncertain costs for anyone who hopes to lease them and fit them out. I can point you to several places in the city where retail-at grade is still an empty shell years after the residential building it sits on is occupied.

So when the City talked about updating the OCP for the middle part of Sixth Street (between Royal and 4th), the question was raised about whether requiring retail at grade was worthwhile. Perhaps having more residential spaces built will provide better support to the existing retail spaces on Sixth, and zoning for retail grade is making it uneconomic to develop. The same conversation ensued along the Twelfth Street retail strip. Is more retail space needed? If we force developers to build retail at grade, will it be occupied? More importantly, will it make it so hard for a developer to make any money developing the area that nothing gets built, and then the existing retailers don’t have nearby customers. The answer is not simple, and opinions vary.

Where we do see new community-serving retail is in major development projects. Plaza 88 is an obvious example. I think if we were planning Victoria Hill now (instead of 15-20 years ago when the vision for the community was being hammered out), we would include more commercial spaces, and perhaps a few larger retail spaces, though no-one is going to open a major grocery there (with a Safeway and a Save-on each just a little over a km away). That said, the few spaces that are there have taken a significant amount of time finding their purpose. Was that because there are more spaces than needed, or because there are two few to create a real “hub”? The long-proposed “Eastern Node” development area in Queensborough would finally bring some community-serving retail to Port Royal, which is now an established medium-density residential neighbourhood with nary a place to buy an apple. In hindsight, the long wait for this commercial node is really disappointing for the City, and for the residents of that neighbourhood. Hopefully these lessons are being learned and Sapperton Green looks to not only bring more commercial square footage, but is phased to bring it earlier in the neighbourhood development.

So, back again to eastern downtown. To my knowledge, there is only one development in the works in that neighbourhood, and it came to Council as a preliminary application as a mixed use residential, affordable housing and childcare – but no commercial space. For a new commercial space to be built in that neighbourhood, someone would have to come to the City with a plan, and go through a rezoning to make it happen. I cannot predict if Council would support this plan or not, but for the reasons I outlined above, that is just not where the market is for development now, or really where the market is for retail. Neighbourhood convenience stores you do see around mostly have one thing in common – they have been there for a long time and are very low-cost operations. Starting a new one would probably be a financial risk with little chance of recovery. I suspect if you could make money doing it, people would be doing it. So, alas, I wouldn’t hold my breath for any new commercial or retail being built in that area (other than along Columbia) any time soon.

ASK PAT: Omnibus edition

I want to clear some Ask Pats off the queue, some that have been there for  a while, but I don’t really have detailed answers to, but are just sitting there in draft form filling me with the angst of failed promise, so here we go:

JC asked—

Hi Pat I read your great article on the “cycle” route on the Perimeter Highway and you were bang on. Do you know that there still is so much garbage in the “bike lane” that it is almost impossible to ride and I was so scared as a seasoned cyclist from the speed of the trucks (at least 110 kms ) that my life could have been taken early. Nothing has been done obviously since your article. Who would I call in regards to this extremely dangerous “cycling” route?

I don’t know.

The Ministry of Transportation? Nope, they privatized off all of the road maintenance in a neoliberal flourish a couple of decades ago.

Maybe Mainroad Lower Mainland Contractors? Nope, as it seems they cover all Provincial Highways in the Lower Mainland, except the North Fraser Perimeter Road.

Try Fraser Transportation Group / Mainland Fraser Maintenance LP, who is contracted to “the Concessionaire, Fraser Transportation Group Partnership led by ACS Infrastructure Canada Inc.”, whatever that means, but I assure you is a completely different company, I think. They have a useful phone number: 604-271-0337. Let me know how that works out.

By the way, driving on the SFPR from the ferry last week, I saw two separate, unrelated, vehicles broken down and parked in the “cycling lane”. Long enough for some safety-conscious crew to go out and put traffic cones around them so passing vehicles that may cheat into the “cycling lane” don’t accidently bump into them at 110km/h. Safety first.


Chip asks—

I’m 54, living in a 45 an up condo. I am the owner. My common law who I’ve just gotten back together with is 41. It says s if a spouse is younger the age restriction does not apply. Does this mean common law as well?

I still get occasional questions like this about age-restricted condos, because I wrote this piece several years ago. I honestly don’t know much about them that isn’t in that piece, or even if everything I wrote back then is still applicable. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that Local Governments have no control over them. So best ask the Strata, or someone in whatever Ministry of the Provincial government regulates them.


Tim asks—

Pat, I have a very nice car that I only use in the summer and drive on weekends. It is parked on the street in front of my girlfriend’s house. My question is: Can I put a car cover on it to protect it from the wear and tear of summer UV, dust, and rain or will I be ticketed?

Congratulations. I have a 1996 Honda Civic. Hatchback. But enough bragging, to your question: I don’t think there is a specific law against it, and I can’t find anything in the Street and Traffic Bylaw. If you are allowed to store your car there (i.e. you are parked as legally entitled), then I don’t suppose there is any reason you can’t cover your car. I suspect you want to have your parking pass or license plate visible to prove you are legally entitled to park there, as I don’t think bylaw enforcement staff should have to dig around under a cover to do their job, but you know, I’m not a lawyer, police officer or even trained in Bylaw enforcement. So as you review this paragraph and see the number of weasel words and claims of no authority I make, you might want to note that and recognize if you take this response in front of a judge and try to use it to plead you were given permission from a City Councillor and the ticket you got therefore doesn’t apply, I’m totally throwing you under the bus. Good luck!


Ross asks—

It’s great that the City has EV charging on the street lamps! But what’s less great is when ICE drivers block access to the chargers.

The charger on 3rd at 6th is blocked by ICE drivers more often than not. I get my hair cut at the barber shop in that building, and I’m only able to get my EV plugged in about a third (or fewer!) of the time. ICE drivers like to park in those spots because they’re still free parking, whereas the street parking on 6th has parking meters. What would it take to get the city to install parking meters on 3rd along that first block where the EV chargers are? It would disincentivize ICE drivers from blocking the chargers just to avoid paying for parking, and would increase the availability of the chargers for EV drivers without restricting the spots to be EV-only, and might make the city a few extra coins too.

It seems to work like that on Carnarvon at 6th, because I’ve *always* been able to get plugged in down there no problem. Can you help make this happen, Pat?

The City’s Streets and Traffic Bylaw says no-one can park at a public charging station for more than 2 hours at a time, but I know staff are working on an update of that Bylaw, and making it illegal to park an ICE at a charging spot was on the list of changes being discussed. This is probably better than parking meters, because we are already charging a nominal fee for charging, and I think two separate charges for the same spot would be confusing for folks. Interesting to think that we should probably expand it a bit from and ICE restriction to a “only park here when paying for charging” restriction. I can’t guarantee anything (I’m only one of 7 votes on Council) but I’m all for it.


Anyway, if you have a question about the City of New Westminster or City Council, be sure to hit that red button up top and send me an Ask Pat. It sometimes takes me a while, but I do try to answer. In the meantime, enjoy the first Federal election of the peri-Apocalyptic age, and try to avoid breathing the air.

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.