#elxn2021 Housing

Are we all enjoying our election now?

I spent a bit of time this weekend looking at platforms, and thought I would review the housing policies announced so far, seeing as how housing policy was in the news a bit this week, housing policy is interesting to a local government type like me, and I happen to live in a community where there are persistent numbers of unhoused and precariously housed people, where the rental vacancy rate is stuck at an unhealthy under 2%, and where the housing market is becoming out of reach for a larger number of current residents and people who would like to live here.

Canada has a Constitution in which housing and municipalities are provincial responsibilities. We need to keep this in mind when talking about federal campaign promises, especially in areas where the federal government wants to intrude into local government planning processes. The reality is they will need to work with provincial governments to make any changes in things like zoning laws or “red tape” around the building approval processes. They do, however, have significant financial resources to fund housing, and can leverage that to incent provincial and local governments to make changes if they want access to those funds. They also have significant, almost unlimited, taxation powers to similarly incent changes in how the housing market operates.

What are the major parties proposing to address the housing crises?

The Conservative plan has been recently touted by some members of the Bro Wing of the Vancouver YIMBY crowd, and there is a lot in the housing section of their Platform on the Supply Side. The “Housing Problem” is framed as “supply is not keeping up with demand”, which suits the traditional YIMBY narrative. Alas, the primary tools to deal with that seem to be stopping foreign speculators and making mortgages easier. Oh, and building 1 Million new homes in three years.

Let’s start with that aspiration. Canada currently “starts” about 250,000 homes a year, and we have (if we want to compare to our G7 cohort) a housing deficit of about 1.8 Million homes. If we are meant to read this 1 Million in 3 years as all homes, that means about 250,000 over the current rate for the next three years, or a 33% increase in homebuilding. This is ambitious, based on the current reality of the building industry and material supply situation that is challenged to keep up with existing construction. If it is meant to be read as 1 Million over the base rate, then we are talking about a 130% increase in the current rate of building, which would be impossible outside of adopting a serious wartime reconstruction effort, and seriously inflating the cost of construction, so let’s assume the former.

Anyway, there is little detail on how they would do even the more modest 33% increase. The aspirational goal is not reflected in any of the details in the rest of the plan. Call me a cynic, but I don’t see the modest suite of boutique tax credits and crackdown on foreign speculation as leveraging a massive boost in housing starts. Add this to the climate targets as great numbers we will never reach.

There is a good bit in the plan incentivizing Transit Oriented Development by tying federal transit funding to Municipalities approving density near that transit. This is a good idea theoretically, though I am not sure what the mechanism would be. In the BC context, I suppose they could ask a Municipality commit to a more growth-oriented Official Community Plan, but the negotiations between adjacent communities (such as, say, West Van and the North Vancouvers) over who had to take what density over what part of a new Transit Line would surely bog down any kind of negotiation about transit expansion. As we have learned from some current examples, OCP commitments can be ignored by a City with little or no penalty, and you can’t stop building a transit line if a new Council is elected and reneges on the promise when the NIMBY voices arise. The chicken and egg debates should be interesting to watch. Also, this would seem to do nothing to get new transit built to already dense communities, nor to densify communities where transit service already exists. A good idea theoretically, but in practice likely to become one of those “Red Tape” things that will only be an impediment to both housing and transit. Let’s let the Transit agencies decide what transit they need.

There is a telling bit in the platform that is window into the mindset of who this platform is written for (perhaps as much as the uber-suburban photo they use as the header for this section of the platform – I stole copied it for my header here). When listing off the “Everyday Canadians” (they didn’t say Old Stock) that were impacted by the housing shortage, they include “…the retired empty-nesters wanting to downsize without losing all their home equity to pay for an overpriced condo”. This only-houses-are-homes mindset pervades the platform, including the plan to stop foreigners from buying “homes” for two years (and maybe longer), while providing tax benefits to encourage foreign speculators to buy up rental properties. Add this to the boutique tax credits they want to give landlords to “encourage rental investment”, and steadfast resistance to extending capital gains taxes to houses, and it became clear the need to put roofs over heads is secondary to securing the value of the housing stock as an investment. Then they will make it easier for you to get a higher-risk mortgage to get into that market. Though gas on the fire is something every Party promises.

As far as the non-market part of the housing spectrum, the entire Conservative platform seems to be 1,000 beds for people recovering from addiction. There is no serious plan outlined here to get the federal government back into funding housing in the way it did during the housing boom years of the last century, and the embarrassing conflation of addiction with homelessness is, well, embarrassing. It appears the Million new homes will have to rely on the Invisible Hand to wield the construction hammer.

The NDP Housing platform got a bit of guff from the same Bro wing of the YIMBY crowd last week, as Jagmeet Singh put out an unfortunate tweet that didn’t hit the tone they were hoping for – both playing up the vaguely xenophobic “stop foreign speculation” angle also prevalent in the Conservative platform, and floating a renters tax credit that is strangely absent from the actual platform. The Platform itself is as lengthy on housing as the Conservative one, and identifies the “Housing Problem” through a slightly different lens – that of the 1.6 million Canadian Households that are precariously housed (spending more than 30% of their income on housing) and the fastest-growing housing prices in the G7.

The big aspirational goal is 500,000 units of affordable housing in the next 10 years – perhaps not ambitious enough, but much more likely achievable than doubling our housing starts overnight. And by emphasizing the affordable component, they both indicate this is largely above the baseline of new building happening now, and is perhaps being more clear on where they see the Federal Governments role – inserting themselves more actively in the part of the housing spectrum where the market is failing to fill the need.

The primary tool here is fast-start funding specifically directed at affordable housing providers and Co-ops. To me, this is the place where the Federal Government’s major tool (they hold most of our money) is most useful. From the post-WW2 plan to build houses for returning soldiers to the 1970s investments in Co-op housing, it was always the federal government’s ability to finance large capital investment that made housing affordable for all. It is no coincidence that our housing crises began when the Federal Government got out of the business of building subsidized housing in the Chretien/Martin years. We can push the market to provide more housing, but unless we provide options for those the market has left behind, we are not going to get to where we were 40 years go on housing. It is also great to see the NDP talking about change CMHC rules to support innovative ownership models, such as co-housing and co-ops to bridge the gap between renting and traditional home ownership, between supportive and market housing. This is an area where Canada lacks innovation.

The anti-foreign ownership part is a 20% tax on non-resident purchases, but no outright ban, and of course a similar tip of the hat to stamping out money laundering The throwing-gasoline-on-the-fire part is slightly less ambitious than the Conservative plan, with a return to 30-year mortgages and an increase in the homebuyer credit for first time purchasers. They would also like to waive sales tax on affordable rental units – a small savings, but clearly directed and in the right direction.

The thing about the NDP Platform is that Housing section is supplemented with mentions of housing in the addressing poverty section (because putting a roof over someone’s head is a the first step to breaking the cycle of poverty for many), in the sections addressing the needs of veterans and seniors, and later under infrastructure investment. There is also a separate and very comprehensive section addressing the unique housing challenges in indigenous communities (both on reserve and off). There is a sense through the platform that housing is at the centre of a lot of inequity issues across our country, and that we can’t keep applying the market-only approach that got us into this mess and hope to get out of it.

I cannot comment on the Liberal plans, because we haven’t seen any yet. Just as I was about to hit “publish”, they roll it out, and there is a lot there! I will take as read the context of what they have offered as Government over the last 6 years as the housing market and homelessness have gone off the rails. It is banal at this point to say Liberal Platform Authors often overestimate the willingness of Liberal Governments to do things, but here is where their plan points.

The “Housing Problem” is summed up as “…for many – young people in particular – the dream of owning their own home feels like it’s moving further out of reach“, and indeed a theme of the Liberal Housing Platform seems to suggest renting is something people are forced to do in that whacky time of life, and government’s job is to support renters in overcoming this temporary set back and encouraging them to buy a house. It really is that dismal. Renters can enter some arcane rent-to-own scheme (supported by giving money to landlords, natch) or can set up a First Home Savings Account, because the one thing people under 40 spending more than 30% of their income on housing have is $40,000 of extra cash to save for a downpayment. A Home Buyers Bill of Rights only calls into contrast the lack of a similar effort to protect the precariously housed in rental housing.

There are many things here to help people enter the spiraling housing market: increasing the first time homebuyers credit like the NDP and meddling with the mortgage insurance market. There is also a two-year foreign purchasing ban just like the Conservatives, a tax on vacant foreign-owned property, and the ubiquitous tip of the hat to money laundering crimes. There is also an anti-flipping tax which will make at least one of their Vancouver candidates unhappy.

When it comes to the supply side, the Liberal ambition is to spend $4 Billion on “accelerating” building of 100,000 Middle Class homes (their underline emphasis, not mine) by 2025, which by my math is an increase on the existing baseline by 10%. There is some weirdness in here about providing this to Municipalities to do things like hire planners, and forcing cities to use vacant land for homes, but Middle Class homes is not something we lack in a community like New Westminster or something our planners spend a lot of time or energy on, nor is it something out inclusionary zoning efforts are directed at. there is a subtext in here I just can’t square with what our actual needs are.

But it’s the homelessness and the non-market portion of the housing spectrum where this platform really falls flat. The approach is “more if the same” towards a goal of reducing homelessness by 50% by 2027. A program that is, I note, not working and an ambition that is embarrassingly lacking in ambition. This is not a National Housing program or ambition appropriate for a G7 country, one of the wealthiest countries on earth.

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: 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.


It’s exhausting.

I just don’t know how to talk about this, especially in a family friendly way. Swears are all I got left. Not the kind you yell out, but the kind you just mumble. We are all waiting to get “around the corner”, the “light at the end of the tunnel”, or whatever metaphor you want for being done with the bad news. So we can start working on building things instead of rushing to fill newly dug holes, start getting healthier instead of staunching the flow of bad shit. But the bad shit keeps on coming. It can be crushing. Our tear supply runs low. Damn.

I don’t know if it is confirmation bias or something systemic, but fire seems to be a thing of modern New West, not just the legend of our past. Maybe it’s the cost of having so much 100-year old infrastructure that was preserved due mostly to decades of neglect, but still doesn’t quite have the value in it to fully modernize. Or the remnants of our pioneer spirit that emphasizes tacking on the new instead of maintaining the old. Or maybe it’s just a run of bad luck. Like the last one and the one before, this one hits hard, and will change us.

Like many people in New West, I have my personal stories about these spaces. The Pho place became our go-to for soup-like weather (like Monday was, strangely enough) when they replaced the reliable old-school pasta place that was there for so many years no-one remembers a time before. Watching the slow migration of the décor from Mediterranean to Vietnamese became part of the charm of the place, but the Hue-style spicy soup is what brought me in, and the staff are such nice people. We were rooting for them to survive the lockdowns.

I’m not a renowned denizen of night clubs, but even I had a couple of memorable nights at the serial-name-changed night club, some best-not-related (Happy Birthday, Jeremy!), but I think the night dancing with the Pattullo Bridge costume and losing a vote to a dead Kennedy will be one of the legends of my life.

And then there is the Heritage Grill, and yeah I am giving it the extra emphasis. So many plans were schemed in that back room with the sketchy AV system – more than a few of them implemented. So many New Westies met their cohort for the first time in that space, so much music (most of it good!). For all its quirks and foibles, that corner of Columbia and Church was a place where community was built. The owner, Paul, took a risk on opening a small live music spot 16 years ago when most thought Columbia Street wasn’t ready for this kind of thing. He then went about making New West ready for it, by making the space welcoming to artists, musicians, and any organization wanting to do something different in the community.This is how I will remember the Heritage. The backroom filled to capacity at a funraising (fundraising?) event for a political cause the folks in the room will remember fondly.

The Heritage Grill became a hub for the Pride community, for the environmental community, and a few political careers were launched there. The $10 Burger and Beer fundraiser was the easiest way for a small organization to raise a little seed funding, and start a movement. Paul was so generous in giving space to the community, I’m glad to see the community is finding a way to give back to him. Help if you can.

Addendum: Hey, I’m not a tattoo guy. I’m apparently the last person on earth to not have ink in their skin. But I recognize that a tattoo artist also creates a community around their work, and the loss of this business also impacts our residents, our downtown and the people who put their passion and skill into a business. It just wasn’t top of my mind while writing this up, as it was not a business I had a personal contact with. No slight intended. Also, two other Funding Campaigns have been set up to support the owners of Happy Buddha and Pho Pho You to help them get through this time. Thanks Rosie for pointing these out to me!  

We feel the loss, those of us who received so much from these community businesses over the years, but I can’t imagine the loss being felt by those whose dream was building that business. Now, of all times, after a year of holding on by their fingernails, the tree branch is taken away. Overnight. Right when re-opening was on the horizon. Shit.

It’s too early to suggest what this means for Downtown. The loss of a 100 year old building and vibrant community-supporting businesses is tough. Another gap in the streetscape scares me just as much. The prospect that this site may sit empty for a decade or more, like the last fire site downtown where the owners appear to have no motivation to bring the streetscape back into active use, or the empty lot at the corner of 8th and Columbia where the owners have apparently lost interest in activating their approved plans, or the decrepit and effectively abandoned property at 4th and Columbia… There is a momentum here we clearly need to shift, only I don’t know how we shift it. That is the conversation we need to have if we hope for Columbia Street to be the community-supporting street many of us want to see. Does this fire push is back another step, or is it motivation to push us forward?

I guess we’ll see.

But for now, there are people to thank. The fire department once again spent an exhausting weekend making the city safe, dealing with stresses and dangers the rest of us can’t know. As has become practice for major events, the fire services of our neighbouring communities came out to provide assistance, and we owe those communities our gratitude. The Police were there to support them, managing traffic, keeping the public safe, and no doubt had to deal with both the curious and the devastated, and as always did so with professionalism. City engineering crews had to deal with drainage not designed to deal with this level of water or debris, and set to work assuring utility services are still useable by neighbouring properties. Electrical crews have to find a work-around to the loss of distribution line and transformers, and hope to get the local neighbourhood back up and running before Tuesday when everyone expects their life back to normal. In an event like this, there are so many people who need to do unexpected work on a long weekend – stuff that is definitely not in their workplan, and certainly not something they booked off work Friday afternoon figuring they would be doing. The very least the rest of us can do is see that the work isn’t thankless. Thank you all.

And then it’s over to us. The community, the BIA, the businesses downtown, the owners of property, and us folks in City Hall. Today the Province announced the restart plan version 2, we need to get those vaccines in our arms and show a couple more weeks of diligence and that light at the end of the tunnel will be upon us. Maybe the restart is the good news we have been waiting for. I know we’ve all been working as much as we can – emotional labour especially – over the last year. Now we get to do the other stuff, and see what we can build. So take a deep breath, mutter out a few curses, take time to think about all we have lost, and get to work building something memorable.


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.

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.

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”

I suppose we could 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. However, there is a significant chicken-and-egg problem, as we would need to see the building on the ground prior to approving the amenities, as Municipalities have proven a willingness to renege on growth commitments once they get their baubles, and I cannot imagine how the region would introduce penalties for local governments doing this, and the regional fray that would result.

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.

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.