Bold Steps 2021

Another great news story coming out of our Council meeting last week (and to contrast from my generally sour recent social media persona, because there is a lot to be frustrated by out there right now) was an update on the City’s Bold Steps Work Plan for 2021.

Like some other jurisdictions, the City of New Westminster declared a Climate Emergency. Like a sub-set of those jurisdictions, we are taking concrete actions in addressing that Climate Emergency, in practice and in policy. Far from being an empty declaration, it was immediately followed by Council asking staff to come up with an actionable plan and viable targets – 2050 targets to meet the IPCC goal that our Country agreed to, and more important 2030 targets that require immediate action to achieve.

I feel strongly those shorter term targets are important because they require us to act now, to put the necessary changes in to our work plans and budgets in 2021 if we hope to get there. It will be hard to hold me and my Council cohort accountable for a 2050 climate target missed (As a Mayor entering his 7th term, I’ll be untouchable!), but we will know if we are on track for 2030 in the next couple of years, and will know if our actions today will get us there.

We have talked quite a bit already about the 7 Bold Steps the City as put forward, but there is a nuance in how they exist within two overlapping magisteria (h/t Stephen J Gould) known as the Corporate Energy and Emissions Reduction Strategy (CEERS – what the City does with its own operations) and a Community Energy and Emissions Plan (CEEP – what the residents and businesses in town do). If we have 90% control over the former, we only have 10% control over the latter, and it is the much bigger nut to crack. That said, working with senior governments, we can create the right conditions for the entire community to adapt to a low-GHG economy.

The report we were provided outlines the many actions our Climate Action team and other City Departments will be undertaking in 2021. I’ll take the opportunity here to share some brief highlights from each of the 7 Bold Steps:

Carbon Free Corporation. Obviously, there are two big parts of this: our fleet and our buildings. We are replacing the CGP (our highest-emission building) and are shooting for a Zero Carbon standard for the replacement, while prioritization of retrofits and upgrades for the rest of the building stock is an ongoing project. The Green Fleet roadmap will allow us to shift to GHG-free vehicles as they become available, and assure we have the infrastructure to support them across our organization.

Car Light Community. The biggest part of this work will be shifting more spending to support Active Transportation (pedestrian safety improvements, transit support, and greenways), but it also means updating our development planning to assure we are building communities where active transportation is a viable option for more people.

Carbon Free Homes and Buildings. Two ways we can support lower-emission buildings in the City are through updating or accelerating our Step Code implementation to require that new buildings meet higher standards, and continuing to support the great work of Energy Save New West. (Did you know ESNW one of the longest running and most comprehensive community energy efficiency and GHG-reduction programs in Canada?) to help residents and businesses upgrade their own buildings and save money on energy. We are also supporting the Help Cities Lead campaign, asking the Provincial Government to give local government more tools to encourage and support a more efficient building stock.

Pollution Free Vehicles. Our biggest role here will be to support as best we can adoption of electric vehicles (e-cars, e-bikes, e-whatever comes next) by making sure we have adequate public charging, and support the installation of chargers in all new buildings.

Carbon-Free Energy. The inevitable shift from GHG-intensive energy sources to low-carbon electric power puts the city in a unique situation, with our own electrical utility. We need to update our electrical infrastructure to facilitate that, starting with our Advanced Metering Infrastructure project.

Robust Urban Forest. You may have noticed boulevard trees popping up across the Brow of the hill neighbourhood especially, we are going to keep moving ahead on that commitment, along with trying to find more opportunities to protect trees through development.

Quality Public Realm. This is one aspect of the Climate Action plan that includes adaptation to the climate change already inevitable even if we globally meet our 2050 goals. We will be doing climate risk mapping to inform that adaptation, along with other programs that may not seem like climate action (like improving road safety around schools) but is actually climate action (because it makes it more likely people won’t drive to school).

There is other work that spans all 7 Bold Steps, and indeed many of the things above overlap between steps. It is important that we have included these actions in our 5-year financial plan, which means our budget matches our priorities. But even more important, every department in the City has a role, and knows its role. The next 10 years are going to be transformational and require a culture change in how the City operates. Having everyone on board and padding the same direction is the only way we will succeed.

NWACC

We had a full agenda in Council last week, so we didn’t spend a lot of time going through the reports that arrived early in the meeting. There were two reports form staff that are pretty big deals for the City, so it is worth expanding a bit on them here. The first was a project update on the still-acronymically-named NWACC, but more commonly known as the Canada Games Pool replacement.

The big news, I guess, is that we have tendered the main construction works, which means we are really doing this thing. We put the tender process on hold a little less than a year ago as there was so much uncertainty in both municipal finances and the global economy during the unfolding of the pandemic. The regional construction market has adapted, and many projects are moving on across the region, and Council and our project team were confident that we could understand pricing and meet our objectives on budget, and at this point waiting further creates more uncertainty.

The report says we are within budget, though it’s not as simple as that it sounds. This is a big piece of infrastructure, and you can’t just go to Amazon and click on “new pool” and pop $106M on your credit card. The cost of construction materials is way up over the last two years since we began this procurement (lumber has almost doubled, steel up 50%), and trades are in major demand right now, which means some parts of the construction cost are also up. Our project team was able to “value engineer” some aspects of the project, which means going through design and assumptions and finding ways that less expensive techniques or materials can be creatively applied. We have also eaten a bit into our contingency budget that was included as part of the overall budget planning. So we are on budget, but pushing the top part of it, and need to be cognizant of that as the project moves along.

There are also parts of the project that we have not yet procured, like construction of the outdoor playscapes. Fortunately, there are aspects of those components that may still apply for senior government funding support, so we will continue to seek ICIP grants and funding support to reduce the overall finance load of the project.

The NWACC was designed over more than two years, and involved one of the most comprehensive public engagements the City has ever undertaken. There were a lot of ideas and desires for this facility, and it was a big challenge to prioritize and assemble a program that met most needs, fit on the footprint available, and was within the budget of a City of 80,000 people. I am really excited about the result.

The program includes a 50m pool with 8 full competition width lanes, two baffles and a partially mobile floor to provide greater flexibility of space for everything from competitive swimming to aquafit. There is also a second leisure pool that has shorter warm-up swim lanes to support competitions, and all of the leisure uses that people expect in a community pool. Having two pools also allows the cooler competition temperature in the big tank, which the leisure tank can be warmer and more comfortable for leisure users. There is also expanded hot tub and sauna options, greater accessibility to all tanks, much larger change room areas (with ample gender-neutral changing areas) and more deck space and storage areas.

The exercise space will be greater than the current CGP and Centennial Community Centre offer. Final details on equipment are to come, but the plan is for larger free weight space on the main deck floor (no more dropping barbells on wood floors!) and a large fitness equipment space overlooking to main pool. A dedicated spin class space, and rooms for dance, yoga, and other assorted uses. Add to this a full-sized multi-purpose gymnasium and a compact more versatile gymnasium space that opens to the outside. There will be a cafeteria, space for sports medicine practitioners, a significant childcare and childminding space, and multi-purpose rooms for community meeting and arts programming.

Perhaps informed by the Canada Games Pool experience, the new complex is going to emphasize natural light. The entire complex was designed to align better with the sun, there will be lots of window space between sections to let light pass through, and the main gym and pool will have saw-tooth roof designs with clerestory windows facing north to allow ample indirect sunlight to fill the rooms.

Finally, the NWACC is going to help the City meet its aggressive climate goals. The current pool is the City’s single largest GHG emitter, the new complex will not only use electricity for air and water heating, it will generate some power onsite, and is anticipated to be the first aquatic center in Canada to be certified as a Zero Carbon Building. The building systems for energy recovery, air management and pool filtration will be cutting edge, likely the most technologically advanced pool in Canada when it is done. We are building it right so it saves us money in the long run.

So, it is all exciting. But there will some hassles between then and now. As we committed early to have the existing pool and recreation centre operating during the 2+ year construction process, we are really tight on space over the existing lot.

This means inevitable parking hassles for the users and adjacent neighbourhoods, starting with official groundbreaking next week when the fences will go up and the site will start to look very different. I hope people will be patient and understand the long-term goal here (and, yah, I’m looking at you, my Royal City Curling Club cohort!). We should be doing a grand opening towards the end of 2023, which is about a year later than we probably hoped when we started this planning process back in 2016, but the end result is going to be great.

FREMP 2.0?

I’m going to try herd not to be too political here, but there has been something brewing that intersects both with my City Council life and my being-a-Professional-Environmental-Scientist life. As is typical in both, I have had several conversations with lots of different people over the last year or more about this, but while I was talking, others were doing, and one of those get-it-done people has put together an event where people who both talk smarter than me and do more than me are going to talk about what needs to be done if we want to be smart about doing things.

I’m talking, of course, about FREMP.

The Fraser River Estuary Management Program was, for almost 30 years, a non-profit agency funded by all three levels of government that supported responsible development and environmental protection along the Fraser River Estuary – essentially from the ocean to the Mission Bridge. Along with a sister agency called the Burrard Inlet Environmental Action Program (“BIEAP”), this was an organization that brought stakeholders together to coordinate planning, protection, and development of the federally-regulated shorelines of the Lower Mainland.

This coordination meant that when there is a change in industrial use along the waterfront, when a community suggested a project like the proposed Pier-to-Landing walkway in New West, or when environmental remediation or compensatory habitat projects are needed, there was a “one counter” approach that allowed a coordinated review by the three levels of government and relevant First Nations. It was easier for each of the government agencies, because they knew where everyone else was on projects. It was easier for proponents because they could speak to one agency and not get mixed messages from different levels of government. It was better for the estuary because impacts and compensation could be coordinated based on a plan that sought to balance the many pressures on the system. As a bonus, all of the works along the river would provide data to an invaluable repository – data vital to inform future planning and to help us understand the health of the ecosystem.

FREMP wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t deserve to be killed. As part of the now-legendary gutting of Canada’s environmental protections under the Harper Government, the Federal contributions and support for the program were cut. This matters, because with all the interagency overlap in Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River, ultimately they are federally regulated. When the Port and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans could no longer participate, the Provincial Government ministries followed their lead, and the agency was folded, leaving local governments in a bit of a lurch. The Port was tasked with environmental reviews within their narrow jurisdictional parameters, and every project was going to have to find its own path. Regional coordination was no longer coordinated. Project proponents are on their own. There is no longer a cohesive regional environmental plan for the Estuary of the most important salmon river in Canada, or for the Burrard Inlet.

The situation is shitty, and has been shitty for long enough. Several stakeholders along the river, including local governments, environmental organizations, and First Nations are talking about what I hesitate to call “FREMP 2.0”. As you may read into the above, there is some political baggage around BIEAP- FREMP, and though it was valuable, it was not a perfect design. The discussion now is around what would a better FREMP look like? There are two important components, and the interaction between the two is obvious.

The first is a return to inter-agency review and coordinated regional planning in the estuary. A one-counter stop for project applications, and a clearing house for project details and data. This will benefit local governments hoping to revitalize their waterfronts, or protect valuable industrial land-use areas. It would also serve developers and industry who would have a clearer, more predictable path to project approval, mostly by having clear understanding of the stakeholders to be engaged. Ideally, it would also make it easier for First Nations to manage the constant demand for consultation feedback by providing them the resources they need to assure their concerns are addressed, and by assuring the knowledge they carry about the history and present of the river informs planning discussions.

The second is to provide oversight to the health of the estuary ecosystems. This would mean coordinated habitat protection and restoration, and a return to collecting that important data depository of the current and future health of the river that sustains us. Part of this is understanding the changes in the river that are coming with climate change, and developing strategies to address future flood risk, ecosystem services, and water quality concerns.

All this to preface: if you care about the Fraser River, development along the river, and the protection of this unique ecology, you may be interested in this free Webinar being put on by the Climate Caucus next week. Coquitlam City Councillor is the main organizer and moderator, and she has three brilliant panelists who know much more than I about the ecology of the Fraser River, the threat, and opportunity. This should be a great introduction to the conversations that no doubt lie ahead for the Metro Vancouver region. Join us!

Population 2020

Statistics Canada’s population estimates for 2020 are out, and there is a bit of news coming from them. Maybe more “confirmations” than “news”, but it is interesting to look into our assumptions of how the region is growing compared to the data. As a Local Government elected type, I am actually more interested in how the population is growing compared to the predictions used to develop the Regional Growth Strategy that guides development in our City and the rest of metro Vancouver.

First, the headlines. New West grew fastest (as a percentage of population) of any Municipality over the 2019-2020 year. Residents will recognize the reasons for this, with a couple of fairly high profile residential developments coming on line in the last year and a half, including a couple of major Purpose Built Rental projects. Our being in first is likely a one-year blip, but our growth rate since the 2011Regional Growth Strategy was created is among the highest in the region, only behind Surrey, Langley Township, the Tsawwassen First Nations Lands and Electoral Area A (which is mostly UBC endowment lands). But the growth rate isn’t the whole story. We added just over 15,000 people in the last 9 years, compared to more than 120,000 in Surrey and 80,000 in the City of Vancouver proper.

How does this relate to the Regional Growth Strategy? That document was approved by all Municipalities in Metro Vancouver back in 2011, and serves as the master regional planning document. In order for our region to plan new utilities like water and sewer services, flood protection, green space needs, transit and roadways, we need to predict how many people are going to be living here in the decades ahead, and where in the region they are going to live. So the strategy includes growth predictions for 2021, 2031, and 2041 produced by demographic experts who do that kind of thing. As we close in on 2021, we have an opportunity to see if the predictions have so far got it right.

The newest Stats Can numbers are for 2020, so we can compare the actual change over 9 years with the predicted change over 10 years from the RGS:

Here are the headlines I pull out of this. Metro Vancouver predicted the regional population would increase by 18% over 10 years, it has increased 16% over 9 years, which puts us pretty much on track to be within 1% of the estimates. That’s pretty good. However, before looking at the breakdown by community, I want to project the growth rate of the last 9 years to one more year so we are having as fair a comparison to 2021 goals as we can (until after the 2021 Census, which should be available a year from now):

You can see that the population growth of the region is less than 1% behind what was predicted, meaning about 22,000 fewer people moved to the region than expected – not bad for a decade-long population trend for almost 2.8 Million people, especially as the factors affecting this (immigration, global socio-economics) are largely out of the control of local and regional governments. The difference in how this growth was distributed across the region is a different story, and this is something local governments have more (but not ultimate) control over.

That last table might be easier to digest in comparative pie charts:

Edit: To @MarkAllerton’s point, this may be a better graphic? 

Aside from Electoral Area A/UBC, you can see a few cities have exceeded their growth targets, and perhaps there are no surprises which ones: North Vancouver City (densifying its waterfront and the Londsdale corridor), Maple Ridge (a fast-growing suburb supported by lots of new freeway infrastructure), New West (growing a transit-oriented urban area), and Surrey (growing both its transit-oriented City Centre and its freeway-supported suburbs). Vancouver marginally exceeded its growth target as did White Rock and Delta. In raw numbers, Vancouver added 21,000 more residents than predicted (sorry, Councillor Hardwick!), where Surrey added 18,000 more residents than predicted and New West just over 4,000 above the goal.

Who didn’t meet their target? Again, the Tsawwassen First Nation is a bit of an anomaly, and for that matter so are Belcarra and Anmore, whose tiny population counts are irrelevant to regional trends. West Vancouver – the only significant municipality to actually lose population during this period of unprecedented growth – should surprise no-one that they didn’t meet even their meagre Regional Growth Strategy targets. Perhaps the bggest surprise is how far behind the Tri Cities are in comparison to their goals. All missed by more than 10%, even as they received the biggest regional transit investment of the last decade in the Evergreen Extension. Coquitlam is more than 20,000 residents short of the regional target – a number very similar to the number of extra residents that moved into Vancouver.

This is interesting, and is a conversation we have to have as a region as we look to update the RGS in the next year. Perhaps in the context of the first suggestion in a recent Op-Ed by Delta City Councillor Dylan Kruger (note: Delta is really close to its targets, though those targets are a little light due to lack of transit infrastructure planned that direction), where he suggests the region should:

“Tie provincial and federal grant dollars to achievable municipal housing targets. We can’t keep spending billions of dollars on SkyTrain projects without guarantees that cities will actually allow transit-oriented development”

Maybe we need to ask Metro Vancouver and senior governments to tie their City-supporting grants and benefits (new Metro Vancouver park money, Provincial and Federal Active Transportation funding, transit capital funding, Green Infrastructure funding, etc.) to municipalities meeting and exceeding the regional targets that those Municipalities already agreed to. It is the Municipalities who are building the housing that our region demonstrably needs that will also feel the greater need for green space and sustainable transportation investment to support those residents.

Premieral Popularity, Part 2

Remember when I wrote this piece three years ago? I made what I think was a pretty convincing case on a dubious data set that political popularity in Canada correlated inversely with time in office. The Angus Reid poll looked like this:

And I graphed popularity vs. days in office, and found a pretty strong correlation (R = 0.92!) suggesting a direct inverse relationship. The way to be popular as a Premier is to be new on the job:

What a difference time makes. Three years and a raft of elections later, the Angus Reid folks did the poll again, and here are the results:

Aside from the obvious (Horgan still on top; doesn’t matter if you are a Boomer or GenX as long as you are a white guy; PEI still doesn’t matter), I am stumped by trying to find easy single-cause narratives here. The one from three years ago certainly doesn’t work:

The correlation looks bad. If we take the anomalous Premier Rankin (who was very recently selected to lead a party that has been in power for a few decades, but has yet to introduce himself to the electorate) and the graph is as close to a random distribution as I can draw:

So my certainty from three years ago was misplaced. I was wrong.

But, hey, it’s Pandemic time, and surely that throws everything else aside. So we can safely assume that the most important public health and economic emergency of our generation must have thrown the numbers for a loop. Surely Premier popularity must correlate with their ability to manage the Pandemic and keep the voters safe, right?

Nope. Looks like the only thing I have reinforced here is that I really know nothing about politics. As you were.

Feedback

I don’t often do this, but I want to avoid misunderstanding in the community about my recent motion to draft a formal apology around the Komagata Maru incident, and possibly pre-empt my response being used out of context by my correspondent. I received an e-mail from an organization that occasionally spams local government officials with somewhat strident positions on a variety of topics concomitant with their name “Immigration Watch”. I don’t even want to excerpt the e-mail here because there were some pretty hurtful things in it, but I thought it worth sharing the response I sent the author.


Hello Mr. ______.

Thank you for writing to New Westminster Council. As the Councillor who moved the motion requesting the City draft a formal apology, I guess it is on me to correct a few misconceptions you seem to have about the motion.

To start off, no-one from the Sikh community or any other community “demanded that New Westminster City Council apologize to them for the Komagata Maru Incident”.

About a year ago members of the New Westminster community asked Council to consider a memorialization of the Komagata Maru event somewhere in the City**. The City has several similar memorializations of historic events scattered about, including a bust of Simon Fraser memorializing his European discovery of the estuary, memorialization of prominent Labour actions on the waterfront, plaques marking the Great Fire of 1898, the lives of those imprisoned in Woodlands, or the location of the historic Chinatown. We tasked our Museum and Archives staff to research of there was a local connection to the Komagata Maru incident that warranted such a memorialization. We anticipated, I suppose, that members of the South Asian community living in Queensborough at the time may have taken an active role in support of the passengers.

What we found was clear evidence in the written record that the New Westminster City Council in 1914 took a very active role in the incident. Far from being passive observers or advocates for reduced immigration (this was a decade when immigration to the City from European countries was booming), our Council took action to assure not that immigration laws were adhered to, but to “call on the Federal authorities at Ottawa to… if necessary, enact new laws, to effectively deal with the total exclusion of Asiatics from this country”. It was further suggested by our elected officials at the time that “all the ingenuity and courage of the Government would be exercised to keep out Orientals”. It is clear from the correspondence that this was a multi-partisan effort fueled by narrow economic interests supported by notions of white supremacy.

I do want you to note that these actions by our local Council were occurring in a community where there were already significant South Asian and East Asian populations. People from British India, China, and Japan were working on the farms in Queensborough, in the lumber mills along our waterfront, and in commercial enterprises on Columbia Street. They were building our community and raising their families, and were as Canadian as the people serving on City Council, even if they did not enjoy the same rights. Many of their descendants still live in New Westminster.

Hearing these narratives, and in light of the vision for the City outlined in our current Official Community Plan and this Council’s Strategic Plan for the term, which include creating “a welcoming, inclusive, and accepting community that promotes a deep understanding and respect for all cultures”, we recognized that the actions of the previous Council were exclusive and harmful to a voiceless portion of the community. There are many people whose actions I cannot take responsibility for, including the persons of varying faiths on the Komagata Maru, the Government of Canada that created racist immigration policies, or others who may have exploited the situation for personal or political gain at the time. I can, however, speak to the residents of my community with humility and respect, and recognize actions taken by the legislative body I now represent were specifically and intentionally harmful to residents of this community, and may make them feel less welcome in their home. It is for that – the actions of New Westminster Council that knowingly harmed the residents of New Westminster – for which I asked Council to issue a formal apology. I am happy that my Council colleagues unanimously agreed.

Reading your letter, you clearly have strong feelings about a number of issues involving the Sikh community. I hope you can approach these concerns with an open heart and good will towards your fellow Canadians. As an Atheist myself, I sometimes fall into the trap of characterizing an entire faith community through a lens that filters out their individuality or even their humanity. I try hard to see past my filter and recognize people as individuals, and put aside that broad brush. That, to me, is an ideal we should strive for not as Canadians, but as citizens of the world.


** It too late to edit the letter I sent, but I failed to give credit to Councilor Das for the motion she brought forward in late 2019 in response to the calls from the community. We get a lot of correspondence and delegations on a lot of topics, and this may have slipped by us if Chinu hadn’t put the issue into a Council Meeting agenda and motivated us to get staff working on researching the historic ties our community has to the story. Far from the footnote I am adding here, this work by Chinu was the important action that resulted in our memorialization effort, and I don’t want that to go unrecognized. 

Dangerous, indeed

I’m going to go on a rant here, and yes it is about Motordom. Some people don’t like when I rant about this, because most of us have cars, many of us are dependent on cars, and any questioning of the role of automobiles in our society is seen as an attack on individuals. Soon someone un-ironically mentions the War on Cars. But Motordom is not about personal choice or behavior, it is a societal structure that steals choice from us. And Motordom is so threaded through the fabric of North American society that it is invisible. Until you recognize it, then you see it everywhere.

This rant was caused by a segment about Dangerous Driving on the CBC television program Marketplace. For those not familiar with the program, it has been Canada’s premier (sorry Street Cent$) consumer protection news program for almost 5 decades.  They call themselves “Canada’s Consumer Watchdog”.

Last week I saw they were looking to be taking on dangerous cars, so I thought I would tune in, this being an interest of mine. What a great target – a product category that is directly responsible for at least 2,000 Canadian deaths and untold suffering every year. Alas, it was clear from the beginning that they paradoxically missed the consumer protection approach, and are instead emphasizing “Dangerous Drivers”.

From this framing forward, the story sequence is predictable, I guess. COVID streets are emptier, and this is opening them up for bad behaviour by faceless Dangerous Drivers. Or so say the various police agencies that the reporters interview. There are many nods here to various pieces of incredibly expensive police equipment (high-speed SUVs, thermal imaging cameras, helicopters) that they are throwing at this problem, apparently to no avail. What can be done?

This was followed by the human interest side – the interview with the families of victims killed by this product behaviour, and their Lawyers. Much anger is directed at Dangerous Drivers, but this being a consumer interest show, Marketplace must hold someone’s feet to the fire. In this case, those faceless feet are the seemingly unaccountable Courts, for making it nearly impossible to throw Dangerous Drivers into jail or take their car away. Maslow’s Hammer is applied judiciously.

Politicians need to pass meaningful laws” is a great call. But what are they asking for here? Stiffer fines and sentences for unlawful drivers? Or are they suggesting laws that address the safety of the consumer products in the middle of this? Remember, you are “Canada’s Consumer Watchdog”. We won’t know because they break for commercial.

In my CBC Gem stream, that commercial break includes a video ad for a new 300hp two-ton SUV capable of 230km/h, being marketed with images of different cars shifting and drifting at high speeds while Freddy Mercury implores us to “Tear it up! Shake it up! Break it up! Bayybeee!”Professional Driver. Closed Course. Do not attempt. Wink Wink.

When they get back, they take us – I kid you not – to a stunt driving school. There is some concern raised by Police that Dangerous Drivers are “making money off this” by shooting YouTube Videos of their dangerous exploits (kids today!) then they take us to a freaking stunt driving school:Wink wink.

Only Motordom can explain how “Canada’s Consumer Watchdog” can spend 16 minutes talking about this public hazard, and not even mention the product, instead emphasizing the irresponsibility of some of the consumers.

Imagine a company sold a coffee maker that, when used irresponsibly by a significant portion of its users, resulted hundreds or thousands of deaths. Would Marketplace dedicate an episode to chastising the people who used the coffee maker incorrectly? What if the deadly, irresponsible use of that coffee maker was what the manufacturer advertised when selling the coffee maker, even during an episode of Marketplace? What if features emphasizing this irresponsible use were designed right into the coffee maker as a selling feature? I’d like to think Marketplace would call for the coffee maker to be modified to make it less deadly or taken off the market. Or would they suggest stiffer penalties for irresponsible coffee maker consumers?

Only automobiles get this pass. That is Motordom.

Of course, this isn’t just the CBC. Even the Police whose job it is to enforce traffic safety, and who have the grim task of investigating those thousands of deaths, seem to be unable to get off the personal-responsibility narrative. There is a weird quote part way through the show by a featured traffic enforcement officer that I had to listen to a few times and transcribe to understand what the hell he was saying:

…its fine line from exceeding the speed limit to then, almost, bordering on the line of dangerous driving, if you will. Speed kills

What is this “fine line” he is talking about? Is he trying to separate what we all do (they just told us that 1 in 3 Canadians admit to speeding) and those actions of Dangerous Drivers, as if only the latter is actually doing something wrong? This is a traffic cop! Is it really that fine a line, or a line made fuzzy by Motordom?

If we agree speed kills, why are we allowed to sell cars that speed? Why is Acura advertising during this program a 6-passenger SUV that can travel more than twice the legal speed limit of any road in Canada? Why are there no automobile safety standards in Canada that serve to protect people who are not inside the automobile? These are easy problems to fix, and questions a consumer protection program should be asking the makers of these products and the people who regulate them.

We need cars, just like we need coffee makers. Not everyone needs them, of course, many live happily without them. However, we have built our communities around automobiles in the same way many of us have structured our brain chemistry around caffeine. The problem is, we are too shy to have a serious discussion about what cars actually are. Even our flagship “consumer protection” program seems to pretend that we cannot regulate the makers of cars to make Dangerous Drivers less deadly, by making the consumer product they are using less deadly.

And yeah, “Politicians need to pass meaningful laws”. I absolutely 100% agree with this. We need to replace the archaic Motor Vehicle Act here in BC and in most jurisdictions. We need to make it illegal to sell a car that travels twice the speed legal anywhere in the country. We need to make road hazards like this illegal. These are all much, much more important than saving drivers a couple hundred bucks on their annual car insurance.

But we won’t do any of those things. Because the marketers own the marketplace, and because of Motordom.

Pros & Cons

The first phase of the Agnes Greenway project has been installed, and is getting a bit of feedback online. That’s good – the City hoped to receive feedback on this important piece of infrastructure as a part of how it is being rolled out. I will write another blog post about that as soon as I get time, but before I do, I want address this niche-popular meme created by Tom Flood that appeared in my twitter feed, and excuse me for feeling attacked:

…and add a bit of a retort from the viewpoint of a City Councillor oft criticized because I like the idea of installing protected bike lanes, and agree with almost all of the “Pros”.

Right off the top, I need to say, protected bike lanes are expensive, and cities are struggling right now with so many overlapping challenges and priorities. Yes, I hear, understand, and accept the argument that an integrated bike network will save us money in the long run and improve livability to far outweigh the costs, but that takes nothing away from the current challenge of the immediate capital costs required for a safe network. Proper bike lanes are not a few planters and green paint (the latter of which is inconceivably expensive – it would be cheaper by the square foot to make bike lanes of engineered wood flooring, but I digress). If we want them to be safe for all users, we need to install new signage and/or signals at all intersections. This can mean moving street lights and telephone poles and power conduit. Installing grade separations often means redesigning storm sewer infrastructure. We may need to move or re-engineer bus stops, curb cuts, pedestrian islands, street trees, and, yes, parking. When you expand this out to kilometres of bike route and scores of intersections, these changes are not cheap.

The retort to this, of course, is they are cheaper than road expansions. Which is kinda true, but not really helpful. This infrastructure is almost always built in urban areas like Downtown New Westminster: a built-out City that is essentially out of the building-new-roads business. I don’t mean that rhetorically; we have a policy goal to reduce road space in the City and convert it to active transportation and other uses, therefore we don’t really have a “road building” budget line. This means we can’t just re-allocate from there to a “Separated Bike Lane” budget line. It doesn’t work that way. Yes, we spend millions every year on road maintenance and upkeep, but taking away from that in a significant way will widen an infrastructure deficit (unmaintained roads get much more expensive to fix when the road base fails and safety is impacted when signal lights and road markings are not kept in good working order) and so much of the spending is on infrastructure that supports transit users, cyclists, pedestrians (including those with accessibility barriers) that it is difficult to argue for where cost cutting here can occur without impacting everyone – not just the car users we usually associate with “roads”.

The presumption in the Pro list above that bike lanes make sidewalks safer is a presumption reliant on very well designed bike lanes. Integrating safer cycling infrastructure with safer pedestrian infrastructure is a serious challenge, as the number of “conflict” zones increases. Cycling advocates will recognize how pedestrian bulge design often makes cycling feel less safe on some arterial roads, but are less likely to recognize how important those bulges are to improving the safety of other vulnerable road users. Conflicts inevitably arise between what cyclists need to feel safe and what other users (especially those with mobility or vision impairments) need to feel safe in the pedestrian space.

Emergent technologies are making this more difficult. At the same time E-bikes are opening up the freedom of cycling to many more people, modified scooters and e-bikes travelling at speeds wholly inappropriate for sharing space with those for whom we are trying to build AAA “All Ages and Abilities” space create uncertainty. I think most people are comfortable sharing safe bike lane space with most traditional cargo bikes (left), but not with electric powered cube vans disguised as tricycles that are starting to appear (right):

I’m not sure how we design for all of the variations on the spectrum, or even if we should. I have harped before about the need for a Motor Vehicle Act that reflects emergent technology, but we have a lot of work to do here. Public perception of safety, and resultant political support for separated bike lanes, are going to be influenced by how we do that job.

There are really good reasons to put the backbone of a safe cycling network in the same place your transit network already is. That is because your community and transit network have (hopefully) developed over time in a symbiotic way. Ideally, transit takes people from where they live to where they work, shop and go to school along as simple a route as possible to provide best service the most people. All good reasons to put cycling infrastructure exactly there. This complicates things, as transit and cycling routes are really challenging to integrate. Lane widths and turning radii that accommodate efficient bus movement don’t make the lanes safer for cyclists. Line of sight and signal challenges abound. Bus pull-ins create conflicts, floating bus stops create accessibility concerns and rely on sometimes expensive grade-separation. Do we move or adjust bus routes to accommodate this other mode, or choose less optimum routes to avoid transit conflict? I think the answer is a little from each column, but the Transit Authority and transit-reliant residents may not agree.

Which brings us to one of the least discussed issues or urban transportation: curb allocation. There are so many competing priorities for this precious resource in urban areas: the limited space on each block face where road meets boulevard. It is fine for cycling advocates to say, uh, “forget parking” (as I have myself on more than one occasion), but you can’t scoff off that this space is needed for everything from the aforementioned bus stops to loading zones for your Uber driver to assuring accessibility for Handi-Dart to having a place for the becoming-more-ubiquitous delivery trucks to stop while they offload your Amazon consumables. Bike lanes want to be on that curb space, and designing for these conflicts is not easy or without political cost.

There is no way around it, building bike lanes in a built-out urban area like New Westminster means taking something away. We simply don’t have the space to seamlessly slot functional, safe, AAA bike routes in without impacting the status quo of how that public space is used. Cycling advocates will usually reply that parking and driving lanes can be taken away, and in many cases, that is true. But when that means shifting a bus route that a senior relies on for their daily trips, or it means a disabled person no longer has the safe access to their Handi-Dart that they have relied upon, it’s really hard to be smug and tell people to just lump it.

I say all of this as someone who is feeling the burn of failure in my 6 years on a City Council because my community has not built the bicycle infrastructure I would like to see. The varying reasons for that are probably fodder for another too-long blog post. I also write as someone who is receiving the e-mails from people who are not happy to see the arrival of a new bike lane that has been in the plans for years, because it has disrupted their lives in ways perhaps not anticipated. I also get to enjoy the less sympathetic e-mails from people who seem empowered by the latest Bruce Allen rant about an alleged War on his Corvette – but those are easy for me to ignore, because I have been advocating for safe cycling infrastructure for a couple of decades and there is nothing new to be learned from those hackneyed arguments.

Unfortunately, there is also little to be learned from the increasingly hackneyed arguments of some cycling advocates (being a good “progressive”, I know how to hold my strongest criticism for my allies). Building safe cycling infrastructure is important, it is a good thing to do, and I lament we are not moving faster on it. But the political will to do so is not strengthened by pretending it is super easy to do, or that it is a cheap, easy silver bullet to fixing all of our urban challenges. It needs to be balanced with the many challenging needs local governments are dealing with right now. Bike lanes will help with some and will demonstrable make others harder. That’s the job of Governance, I guess.

So instead of throwing nameless Councilors under the proverbial bus by assuming their craven motivations, find those that are trying to move our urban areas in the right direction, and ask them how you can help them build the political will in your community to move bike lanes up the spending priority list. Because, trust me, there are many people reaching out to them every day telling them to do the opposite.

Assessments 2021

Assessments are here. For those who own homes, this means a letter arrived in the mail telling you what the assessed value of your property was on July 1, 2019. It also tells you what the assessed value was over the previous three years. Some people are very upset to find their property has gone up in value, which means their property taxes are going up. Others are very upset that their assessed value has gone down, and their investment is losing value. At least, that is what I glean from Social Media, but maybe I need to get out more.

I have written before about the relationship between property assessment and property taxes, and about how the assessment process works, so this will be a bit of an update/summary of those posts. A bit of redundancy, but with new numbers.

First off, your assessment does impact your property taxes, but not as directly as you may think. The City has not passed a 2021 budget, so I do not yet know what the 2021 Property Tax rates will be, but in our last discussions, we seemed to be settling towards something like a 4.9% increase over 2020. I will round that up to 5.0% for the purposes of this discussion as long as we can all agree that is speculative and the numbers may change between now and when you get the bill.

That 5% means the amount of revenue the City will receive in property taxes from existing taxpayers will go up 5%, but it does not mean the cheque you write in July will necessarily be 5% higher than the one you wrote in 2020. First off, it only impacts the portion of property taxes that the City gets to keep. Last year, your residential Property Tax Bill looked like this:

So 58% of your property tax goes to the City, 35% to the provincial government through the School Tax, and about 7% to other agencies regulated by the provincial government. Everything else I talk about below here relates only to that to-the-City portion of the tax bill. To find out how the School Tax is set or how the BC Assessment Authority spends it’s 1%, you need to go to someone else’s blog. All this to say if the City put your municipal property taxes up by 5%, the amount of money you pay only goes up about 2.9% (that is, 5% of 58%).

If you look at your Property Assessment letter, you will note that the average change in property values in the City of New Westminster was a 3% increase. Because the City calculates its property tax rate based on this average value, a 5% increase will be based on this value. If your house went up in value by the average, then a 5% tax increase means the municipal portion of your property tax bill will go up 5%. The relationship between these two numbers is linear, so to calculate your potential increase, subtract the average value increase from your own value increase, and add the 5% increase the City is proposing:

My assessment (1940 SFD on a 5,300sqft lot in the Brow) actually went down by 11% since last year. So my Municipal taxes would go down by (-11)-(3)+5=  –9%.

My friend in Sapperton (1920 SFD on a 4,000sqft lot) saw her assessment go up by 20% over last year, so her Municipal taxes would go up by (20)-(3)+5= 22%.  Yikes.

Assessment is a dark science, and every year there are weird local effects of property values in one neighbourhood going up or down relative to others, and it is not always clear what the causes of these changes are. A recent example is the Heritage Conservation Area in Queens Park which was either going to cause housing prices to go through the roof and make the neighbourhood forever inaccessible to young families, or was going to crater the value of the houses dooming young families to inescapable debt, again depending on which Social Media account you followed. The reality is, it had little perceptible effect when compared to similar properties in Glenbrook North or the West End over the last 5 years. The market is bigger than one neighbourhood.

Properties actually sell “above assessed value” or “below assessed value”, a metric that is often used as an indicator of a market trend, since assessments are always at least 6 months old. However, it is important to remember that, in aggregate, things just don’t shift as much as they do in one-off conditions. If the person up your street who spent $50,000 on a new kitchen sells their house, they are likely to get more than the neighbour who has a black mold farm in the basement, even though both houses may look the same from the outside. Assessments are approximations of how the “typical” or median house of the size, age, and lot dimensions in your neighbourhood should be valued, not an evaluation of your wainscoting. Individual results may vary.

If you think your increase or decrease this year is unfair, there is a process to appeal your assessment, but you can’t dawdle. Local governments have to know the official assessed values by April so we can set our tax rates and get those cheery bills into the mail, so the Assessment Authority has to provide official numbers by the end of March. Therefore you only have until February 1st to file an appeal, but if you think you might want to do so, you should contact BC Assessment immediately and get the details about what you need in order to make that appeal. The important part is that the onus is on you to provide evidence that the appeal is wrong, not vice versa.

Making Hay

I’m not the only one who blogged a Year in Review. At the risk of giving them a little more Streisand Effect attention than they deserve, local political Council Watchers have risen a bit from the political shadows to throw a little light mud towards City Council. I would normally let it pass without comment, except that a comment by their sole elected member is misinformed and misinforming in a way that I think undermines the work of Council and the School Board. So I’ll risk a retort.

In her year-end letter to the community, Trustee Connelly suggests the following:

The truth of the matter is that since the Trustee was elected in 2018, the City has altered the Official Community Plan with exactly four amendments:

OCP Amendment Bylaw #8156 (to remove Heritage Conservation Area protection from 7 houses, on account of their lack of heritage value);
#8122 (To support the Heritage Conservation the Slovak Hall at 647 Ewen Ave);
#8151 (a housekeeping bylaw to fix some designations that didn’t match current use); and
#8145 (to allow a Childcare operation in a hall attached to a church on Sixth Ave).

Of those, only one involved an increase in density: the Ewen Ave amendment permitted the building of 5 townhouse units in exchange for permanent preservation of the Slovak Hall. The Sixth Ave amendment was to permit the addition of 114 childcare spaces to a Heritage-protected church location, and the housekeeping amendment was to fix minor errors included in the original OCP regarding four properties – including one (ironically?) requested by the School District.

But the OCP is older than the tenure of this School Trustee, as it was adopted in 2017. So let’s test her assertion against all of the amendments made before the Trustee was elected:

#7956 (allowing childcare spaces on vacant City land in Queensborough);
#8025 (preservation of heritage single family houses in Queens Park);
#8021 (44 units of Temporary Modular Housing for women in need of support in Queensborough);
#7982 (appending a small portion of commercial land to a Townhouse and Childcare project in Queensborough);
#8039 (requiring builders of new mutli-family buildings provide EV charging infrastructure);
#8042 (expanding the Heritage Conservation Area in Queens Park).

So, to reframe the Trustee’s concern: the City has “alter[ed] their new official community plan to accommodate more densification and growth” by a grand total of five (5!) family-friendly townhouse units and a Temporary Modular Housing project to support women facing homelessness. The question may be asked: which of these OCP amendments would she have asked Council to vote against?

I know what you are going to say: “What about all the towers!?” And that is a fair question. What about them?

In the time since the Trustee was elected, there have been two high rise residential developments approved in New West. The first was a 237-unit building in Uptown which was the first major residential development approved in Uptown in more than a decade. It was also recently amended – without added density – to go from mixed strata and rental to 100% Purpose Built Rental – filling a dire need in our community. The second was an increase by about 190 units at 100 Braid to support a shift from Strata to Purpose Built Rental. Other than the units in these two towers, there have been fewer than 80 dwelling units approved through rezoning in two years in a City with more than 34,000 dwelling units in the midst of a regional housing crisis. To be clear, none of these rezonings required altering the OCP. All of those units were fully in alignment with the existing Official Community Plan. They were also in alignment with the Regional Growth Strategy approved a decade ago by New Westminster in conjunction with all 22 regional municipal governments and the Provincial Government, who funds the building of new schools.

The Trustee is free to argue that the City is growing too fast or changing in ways she doesn’t like, if that suits her political motivations (though I would note the sum of all approvals above represent a growth rate of less than 1% a year). But it is disingenuous to claim OCP Amendments are instruments to create growth. They are actually the responsible governance response to growth, and looking at the examples of OCP amendments in New Westminster, are more likely to *restrict* densification through Heritage Conservation than actually support it. Even the rezonings  are not examples of City Council forcing new population to move into areas underserved by the School District, but the building of much-needed housing in areas consistent with a decade-old regional plan and and Official Community Plan that the School District was not only consulted on, but provided meaningful feedback to.

No doubt there are challenges related to regional population growth for School Districts, and anticipating how growth impacts the School District is a significant aspect of how the City reviews development plans. This is not a “particular challenge for New Westminster“, but common across the growing region. That is one of the reasons we have a Regional Growth Strategy and an Official Community Plan in the first place.

This is also why we have Section 476 of the Local Government Act that specifically requires Local Governments to have this consultation with the Board of Education. The Trustee would like “a coordinated effort to accommodate this growth as it translates to schools” and I retort with Section 476 of the LGA, and the active role the School District has taken in the OCP and OCP Amendment process. We do this not just because it is the law, but because it is a good idea. We do it so when the School District is planning, for example, a replacement for McBride Elementary, the School district and their funders in Victoria know what capacity is needed. This is also why Council has been supporting the School District in their aggressive capital plan over the last decade, bringing new schools on line and anticipating their needs in the decade ahead.

I recognize that part of politics is making hay.  Political Science is often about finding local wedge issues and figuring out how to use them to separate yourself from *them*. But when your argument is disconnected from the way governance works (both in practice and in legislation) then it seems disingenuous. Maybe it’s a dog-whistle, maybe it’s just misinformed. I’m not sure which is worse. We all want the residents of the City to have access to great schools, and the Board of Education and City Council have a good working relationship based on an honest understanding of the pressures we both face, and a strong desire to deliver on those needs. Happy New Year.