Sunday, December 4, 2011

Back to the Future

A few weeks have gone by since my last post, straddling my unfortunate election defeat in city elections.  I was overtaken by some new voices on Victoria's City Council and I wish them good luck.  You are on probation for the next three years! 

And thanks to all those in Victoria who invested their confidence in me over the last three.  Got more votes this time than last, but the shifting fortunes of electoral math put me a few hundred votes and one spot out of the running.

Back to business, however, or so to speak.  I've always got projects on the go on cycling, walking or other transportation initiatives and now, as an outsider, I'll be back in the gallery at city hall where I hope to keep an eye on projects I began or helped to move forward.  I see some of those losing momentum and other priorities popping up.  I won't be shy about sharing my views and critiques of the city's performance. 

I hope also to be launching a "Municipal Watch" element to my web page and invite comments in on local issues, not just in Victoria, but around the Capital Region.

First up, though, is the seemingly endless debate on what to do with our new Johnson St. Bridge.  Shovels have only just been put into the ground to start work moving utility lines and setting up new intersection treatments for cyclists and pedestrians connecting between downtown and the Galloping Goose trail.  Still, carping critics have come back with some "new ideas" about how we can design rail into the road bridge, certainly a service we want to see remain in Victoria, but no "solutions" are as simple as those critics would have us believe.  Sent some notes back to the local paper after a recent story on bridge plans.  Not sure it will get published, so here is what I wrote:

The new bridge debate:

Several weeks ago Ross Crockford raised concerns about the delay imposed by the need to move Telus services from the bridge site, expressing concerns about timelines and budgets.  Now he wants to impose more delay and add new costs to consider new design issues not contemplated during the successful referendum on the new bridge.

Our council proposed a full service bridge that included rail.  Mr. Crockford’s efforts made sure that rail was discarded, time lines were extended a year and costs for the project were driven upwards.

When his organization was courting the cycling community, many of his dot org colleagues were making the case that bringing rail into downtown really wasn’t necessary – it could serve just as well by moving the station to the Roundhouse and dedicating the existing rail bridge to bicycle and pedestrian traffic.  That was a necessary strategy when it became clear that the other proposed fix – the “two lane solution” – was found to be untenable, something that even Crockford admitted after working through the modelling with professional traffic engineers.

The push for more delay and more cost abandons one of his other constituencies – those who have always been certain that cheaper fixes were available with the old bridge (they don’t add up).  Asking for more design work will generate more expense – there is always more to assessing capacity on the bridge than finding out whether or not it will carry a semi-trailer or two, or an equivalent weight in an light rail vehicle.  The AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) guidelines for bridges are easy enough to find out, even if the specific manual referenced is too expensive for Ross.  A little web sleuthing will find easily enough the specifications for design vehicles for most general purpose bridges and our bridge will carry that weight.  But that’s not the issue for a lift bridge.  What will be the issue are the demands imposed when the bridge is lifting – the weight and capacity of the structure itself and the mechanical and electrical tolerances to lift and close, when the weight of the vehicles it will carry are irrelevant.  That’s a clear scope change, a cost driver and a another straw to clutch at.

A responsible analysis would also require a more detailed traffic analysis to determine what the impact would be on traffic system performance at peak hours.  The interruption would conceivably be a minor inconvenience at times of the day when traffic is light, but vehicle, cycling and pedestrian demand is concentrated during morning and afternoon rush hours when any LRT service would also be on the bridge.

The city needs to focus on the practical challenges of completing the new bridge to provide the service design, timelines and budget approved by referendum.  

Coming back with some new blogs soon I hope.  Already have some critiques aimed at new councillors and they haven't yet taken office! 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Campaign notebook

Less than a week to go until Election Day in Victoria on Saturday, November 19th.  Spend much of my afternoons and early evenings knocking on doors and stretching the campaigning into the all-candidates events sprinkled around Victoria's neighbourhoods.  Last night it was Fairfield, tonight we head for the Burnside Gorge Community Centre and Tuesday we'll be over in Oaklands.

On the doorstep and at our "trade fair" tables (a much better approach than standing up to read from your campaign brochure for 2 minutes), I've spent time talking in depth with voters about key issues.  Here's more of what I am hearing and where I stand on some of those key issues.

The bridge debate has been raised again by our local tabloid, but there is really no news.  You'll have to go back into my older posts to get some details on the issues dealt with during the referendum campaign, but suffice to say that the project has been well informed by the advice of several teams of competent engineers, bound by professional codes of conduct and some with decades of direct experience with our bridge (a key point after some critics ignored the advice of one U.S. engineer whose experience they relied upon to promote a local fiction.  They conveniently neglected to mention his advice not to use his projects as models to inform our own bridge assessment, since he had found even similar designs to be unique for every structure and every location and that we would be best served by focusing on our own bridge).

All sorts of numbers have been picked out of emails or pulled out of thin air, but again, only the reports signed off by consulting engineers should inform the discussion, and care needs to be taken to understand where those figures fit into classification systems that provide various levels of confidence and cost certainty for any major engineering project.  Along with the detailed engineering analysis of some of the specific challenges of refurbishment, the costs and logistical issues pretty clearly pointed to the choice we made and the community endorsed in referendum, to go with a new bridge.

Discussion on seismic issues havebecome almost incoherent, with some scribes suggesting that we need to be more vigilant about adhering to the most rigourous building code standards for important infrastructure, however with the exception of the bridge, since that would conflict with the personal  agenda of the publisher.  Never mind that bridges and key transportation links are critical for the delivery of emergency services and essential to recovery efforts post disaster.  Never mind that bridges are consistently at the top of priority lists for seismic upgrading and protection across the world for the purposes of emergency planning.

Earlier today I heard "greenwashing" tagged on the bridge project, exposing again a deliberate lack of understanding of how transportation systems work and the critical relationships between supportive infrastructure and the attraction to cycling and walking, important strategies for shifting transportation choices to sustainable modes.

This just scratches the surface of the issue.  More detail, as noted, can still be found in the older posts on my blog.  Next steps on the bridge project start this week:

Rapid transit is also showing up on voters' radar.  Costly projects always do and need to be approached with caution.  LRT has been endorsed as the right solution by every level of government involved in the project and, while solid funding commitments have not yet been made, our provincial minister has said consistently that we need to plan for the long term and he's confident that we've made the right choice.  The federal minister has also indicated support for cities who want to invest in forward looking transit solutions to deal with transportation challenges and to help build more resilient local economies.  Going through the next steps of a thorough business case analysis will be essential, but I don't expect that study to derail the project.  Good work has been done to date and public consultation has been open and ongoing. 

Critics on one side are targetting the project on costs and numbers, but have very little of substance to offer.  It mostly boils down to fear of costs, (ignoring that business as usual will cost at least the same, if not more, and provide few solutions to our transportation challenges in the region.  Recent comments attack the "multiple account evaluation" used to assess environmental and social impacts alongside costs and economic issues, relying again on sources from the National Post (not known for progressive thinking) and the author whose broadcast comments included an admission that he knew nothing about Victoria's transportation system design or dynamics but who is also leading a campaign against rapid transit in Waterloo, where both federal and provincial analysts have found the project to be sufficiently sound to warrant several hundred millions in senior government investments.

I've seen some other chatter about the concerns expressed on the doorstep about LRT and the need therefore to step back from the project.  Certainly it is important to listen, but there is a also a responsibility to lead.  The steps necessary to confirm the business case are embedded in the project and any thoughtful analysis should provide sufficient endorsement of the project on environmental and economic grounds to warrant continued efforts to secure the federal and provincial funding necessary to get the project on track.

Off for more mainstreeting, doorknocking and another all candidates meeting.  Hope to be back on the blog soon with more to report.  There's so much more to talk about and so much more to do.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

There's more at the door

On the campaign trail the issues echo from door to door.

Many who are sympathetic to the premise of the "Occupy" message have lost patience with the occupiers and want to take the city's Centennial Square back from what most see now as a squat.  The square belongs to the rest of us too.

The toilets have been trashed; a tree squatter apparently threw a jar or jug of urine at a city worker and drug use and addiction issues have overtaken any semblance of protest.  "Occupiers" are asking the police to enforce the laws, but only those that deal with the people they don't like, forgetting that they too are running afoul of the law.

Impatience is bubbling over in the media and across the community.  The city's response has always been measured and respectful of the rights of free speech.  "Occupy", however, are clearly not the only inhabitants of the square, and no longer in control of what is happening there.  To be fair, it belongs to everyone, not just those who have laid claim and planted their flag.  The city now has to apply the laws as they stand, fairly and with equal application to all.  That is why the notice to vacate and the application for an injunction as been made.  It would be nice to have the legitimate protests find a better means of expression than an implied declaration of independence within the square where no laws with which the occupiers do not agree apply.

We have always made it clear that the square will be needed for community events and expect those with whom we have communicated understand and respect the rights of others.  Their choice now is to demonstrate that respect and can expect that the police and the courts will follow through with their respective authorities, to apply the laws that exist to ensure that the rights of broader public access to the public realm are supported in principle and in practice.

A few other issues are showing up at the doorstep, including a few comments on the bridge.  Most are supportive and understand that it is a significant and necessary project to ensure that we have a functional, safe and durable transportation system.  More still want it to be more supportive of alternatives like cycling and walking and can hardly wait for the new project to begin. 

Our work at council, and mine in particular, will be to watch both the budget and the details of planning and design that ensure a calm traffic environment and the preservation of much needed greenspace are incorporated into the project.  Both objectives have been a theme in Vic West where many residents feel a sense of ownership over the bridge and the approaches.  It is close to home for them, but the bridge will also need to serve the rest of the community and most pointedly the users of the bridge.  Many of them will be the growing numbers of people, who choose cycling or walking for transportation. 

Many concerns have been expressed about details of access and connectivity of cycling and walking facilities.  My attention on those issues has always been pointed and focused and, notwithstanding the skepticism of some commentators, the completion of a more expansive trail piece on the bridge, on-road bike lanes, and the added traffic that can be expected from the E&N trail can be expected to noticeably increase cycling and walking on the bridge.

A few comments have been levelled at the city's finances, which are easily available and truth be told in good shape.  Parks and recreation budgets are well funded and the evidence is clearly on the ground.  Check out Fisherman's Wharf Park, Cridge Park, a new tot lot in Burnside and a bike skills park alongside Cecilia Ravine to get a sense of what has so far been accomplished during our last term.  There are no disappearing budgets in community centres and the investments in Pandora are as likely to be recovered, and then some, by the associated lifts in property values and assessments that will come with the rescue of the green.

Safe routes to school is an issue in any neighbourhood with children and schools.  The ongoing investments in traffic calming and pedestrian safety is something I expect to carry beyond current successes and apply to underserved neighbourhoods.  Kids and families across the city need a safe and appealing environment to support walking and cycling to school.  I plan on working with interested residents to audit neighbourhoods and school communities to help shape ideas that can give somefocus and detail to our ongoing work on pedestrian and cycling plans unfolding across Victoria.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

On the doorsteps of democracy

Elections are won or lost on the doorsteps, both literally and figuratively.

Connecting with constituents in the comfort of their home, rather than downtown at city hall, is often the best way to spend time talking about issues and finding out what they like, or what irks them about how their city is governed (and the same holds true on provincial and federal issues).

I've been involved in dozens of elections, most often as an organizer or volunteer in support of other candidates, only more recently as one myself. I love the connection you can make with people on their doorstep, or at the grocery store, coffee shop, or community event.  There is so much more diversity to be found than clustering within one's own community of interest that, by design, is more exclusive and less broadly democratic than the deeper pool of citizenry that is at least eligible to cast a vote in our elections for various levels of government.

It's frustrating, of course, to watch as participation declines - only 27% voted in the last municipal election in Victoria; higher, but eroding, percentages vote provincially and federally.   At the municipal level, candidates need to reach out to a shade over 6,000 residents.  That’s a lot of doors to knock on.  I can assure you that  there are so many diverse issues that people want to discuss.  One issue that has been raised lately at the doorstep in this campaign is the “Occupy” movements in Victoria and around the world.  What started out with so much energy, vitality and community support has started to become a debate over tactics and the evolving nature of the occupations themselves.   Of course some people would never find common cause with the protest.  However, it is also fair to note that even among would-be supporters, there is concern over the movement’s strategy and tactics.

The grievances are real and legitimate and the right of protest fundamental.  Unfortunately, for many, this has become a different debate – not about the “occupy” movement so much as the “occupiers”.  There is a disconnect between the ‘occupiers’ and their original support base that can be seen in the use of public space for protest.  At a certain point, one has to ask the questions about how to affect change and get beyond the simple act of protest.  It seems improbable that the path to reforming global corporatism requires the indefinite loss of public spaces for the broader community. 

On the doorsteps, I've encountered some surprisingly positive support for the city's careful and considered approach to accommodations with legitimate protests, and elsewhere, some frustrations with the apparent expansion of an occupation that is less protest than pretext.   The questions have to be raised about how to disengage so that the protest can evolve to find more productive and sustainable expression that has, at least, the hope of recruiting the real 99%. If it doesn't, the message will be lost and "Occupy" will be just another "rebel without a cause", and to the exclusion of the broader community who have an equal claim to our public spaces. How democratic is that?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Housing and the profit motive

Lately we've been pilloried in the press or at council meetings by a property owner and some other local voices frustrated by the city's unwillingness to approve a motel conversion to "affordable" housing.

On the surface, it's an attractive proposal; sprucing up an older hotel that the new owner bought in a bankruptcy sale to improve conditions for dozens of long term residents and securing a supply of housing for an underserved demographic - single men.

The reality is never so simple and council turned down the project for a number of good reasons.

When the bankrupt Traveler's Inn chain was being offered for sale, the city itself looked at a number of properties, a bold move on its own.  We hadn't before bought property to provide affordable housing and, given our caution with taxpayers money, we pursued only those that we thought we could secure at a reasonable price and could be easily converted to housing for some of our target demographics.  One is now filled with the very hard to house and another is a more challenging project to convert single units into more spacious family housing for our first nations community.

When we first entered the market, the economy seemed to be on the rebound and, apart from the city, private investors were looking to pick up properties in hopes of easy conversions to other uses.  Some of those bidding on properties may have over-reached and paid more than the true value, or failed to recognize the challenges of rezoning to fit their ambitions. 

The Douglas St. site lacks some necessary elements to support good housing and the property is not currently zoned for residential uses.  A real problem with the proposal was that the costs of improvements would have been pased onto existing residents in higher rents, arguably no better and prehaps worse than what they might get elsewhere in the private housing market. That's the difference between affordable housing and profitable housing.

While some may assume that the zoning is a minor challenge, the city's purchases met existing local zoning and avoided the costs and issues that rezoning may raise in the community.  Of particular concern for our city's future would be freezing the land use at the Douglas St. location; preventing a more thoughtful, appropriate conversion of the property to commercial and upper story residential and compromising plans for more transit oriented development along the corridor. 

At council, we often have to look at these longer term land use issues and weigh them against seemingly attractive short term fixes or favours for individual development to detour the threat of conversion to less attractive uses.

Victoria has done a lot of good work and has been partnering with numbers of players to create affordable housing and other options to help ensure that people who work in Victoria can also live in Victoria.  Nearly 800 units have been built or are in progress; a significant contribution to the fight against homelessness.  It doesn't mean though, that we are going to approve every proposal that comes through the door, and this one had more negatives than positives.

Progress on this key issue is steady and measurable.  Somewhere between the tent cities supported by some and the substandard or overpriced market housing proposed by others are the real solutions.  Those are the options we have to pursue and keeping up the momentum on that agenda is where council will be going over the next three years.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Issues on the street

I've started knocking on doors as we approach the municipal election coming up November 19th.  I'm running again for a seat on city council here in Victoria and seeking a seat at the CRD board table, both in my ongoing pursuit of building a sustainable city and a sustainable region.  Many of the issues I ran on in the last election are still relevant, and some of those I've been talking about on my blog are on people's minds too.

For the next few weeks I plan on getting up into the blogosphere more frequently to talk about what I'm hearing on the street and on the doorsteps of Victoria.  My website at will be updated soon, and I've got a couple of videos up on youtube where I have had the chance to highlight a couple of key issues.

Here's one on housing:

And one on jobs:

I'll be talking more about other key issues, but here on the blog, I'll scatter some thoughts around about some of the things I've encountered around Victoria. It isn't planned to cover the most important issues first or last, just more of a report on some, sometimes surprising themes that are showing up in the community.

Yesterday in the Oaklands neighbourhood, apart from issues of taxes (always an issue and we get good value for our taxes here), there was a good reception, but I did have a couple of people talking about boulevards and green space.  Not top of mind for most perhaps, but there are a couple of good examples in their neighbourhood of residents taking control of city boulevard space in front of their houses to grow food or flowers and make something more aesthetic or more productive of space we haven't always been taking good care of.

We're in the middle of doing a "boulevard review".  It's coming none too soon.  Numbers of neighbourhoods have decided they want to take care of their own space, though the city still manages acres of grass separating the street from the sidewalk.  It's important to me, and to many of our residents, that we protect and enhance our urban forest, and many of our street trees live in the boulevards.  We've taken a more forward looking approach, widening out some of the boulevards to give some of those trees a little more room to grow and we're also mixing up species to ensure streets and the urban forest remain as healthy as they can.  Too often in the past, single tree species have been planted along our city streets and there have been cases where a disease outbreak has wiped out entire blocks of trees and left neighbourhoods a little barren.  It's not only a loss of the trees that are a worry, but also the impact this has on things like stormwater management, traffic calming, habitat integrity or heat island effects.  The urban forest is an incredibly important and valuable asset.

The urban forest is also a concern as we try to adapt to the impacts of climate change.  I'm always asking our parks department about their choices of species and they are working to ensure that the trees we plant now will adpat to the shifting climate zones we are facing not matter how much we do to slow global warming.  The effects will be felt for years to come and the trees we plant now will have to live for the next 100 years with the impacts of industrialization that have happened over the last 100 years.

Another emerging trend in urban boulevard management is all about food security and pride of stewardship.  Food security is a big issue for many in our community and Victoria has a growing community market culture, many residents doing their own backyard farming, and more who are looking to use the boulevards in front of their homes to grow something other than the latest golf green.

At the city, we'll be mindful of making sure that where we turn over the boulevards to residents, that we can redeploy our workforce elsewhere in our parks system, or if we can manage within our constrained budgets, using some of those used to just cutting the grass to work with residents on their ornamental or food gardens.  It would be a great way to get more from our public spaces and help keep jobs in the city.

We also have to be mindful of what we grow in the boulevards we may turn over to residents.  We don't want to plant nut trees if they have the potential to cause problems for children with allergies.    We also want to make sure that food grown in boulevards is well tended and harvested to ensure we don't create rodent problems, spread root systems into sidewalks or underground utilities (sewer, water, phone lines etc.) and we should be careful to ensure fruits and vegetables left untended don't spill out and rot on the road where they can turn into a slippery mess that creates a hazard for cyclists, or for pedestrians on the sidewalk.

Never thought there would be so many issues associated with the urban farming movement, but boulevards can be pretty small and the city is not the same as the countryside. There will be issues to deal with.  Still, it's an appetizing opportunity that many cities are taking advantage of, and Victoria needs to get on board. 

We've got some examples already of people taking on their boulevards and we're leaving many of them alone while we work through the review.  One fantastic example is in the Oaklands neighbourhood where we were door knocking (one of my council colleagues got the door where on resident has created her own farm on the boulevard in front of her house), and I heard from a couple of others concerns about managing the boulevards or other small greenspaces in the neighbourhood.  They were most concerned that the grass, or the weeds, were often left uncontrolled and looking too tired or creating other problems.  An small corner greenspace became a dumping ground for neighbourhood junk when some found it easy to hide their garbage in the tall grasses and dandelions that were taking over the space.

Our boulevard review will take some time and I'm looking forward to "digging in" on the issue.  It's important to me that we try and be creative around the management of our greenspaces and our urban forest.  Boulevard gardens are a way of partnering with our residents to take care of our city and bring some ideas from other cities into our urban fabric.  It's about sustainability and it's just one of the issues I expect to be hearing on the campaign trail.

Today's picture is from Portland, where residents are taking over entire intersections to create not just gardens but attractive community spaces for all to enjoy.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The road back from Vancouver

Back now in Victoria, and rested from a busy Union of BC Municipalities Convention in Vancouver, where some of the issues we have in common with other municipalities have been covered in last week's blogs already.  I've got more to report out on from the conference itself, but sometimes the experience is the journey as much as the destination.

I had a chance, as always, to explore again some of the waystations along the route, where Vancouver's version of rapid transit is transforming another neighbourhood and the journey allowed me some time and some real world models to reflect upon as we work through our own transportation challenges in the Capital Region.

As often as I can, I'll ride to and from events and conferences, easy enough between Victoria and Vancouver where the trip can be shortened using our transit and ferry systems on both sides of the water.  (Lucked out traveling on the Spirit of Vancouver Island where two of "my" bike racks sit on the car deck, but that's another story:   It's often a great way to get in a good, refreshing ride, add some training miles to my itinerary, and delivers a variety of other personal and community benefits along the way.

It's so much cheaper to travel by bike and transit, a positive on the expense ledger that conference travel adds to a councillor's public accounts.  I probably eat a bit more (chocolate benefits), but it's still far below the cost of traveling by car or by floatplane.  The plane might be quicker, a car not much more so, but for a week long conference and the opportunity to explore, there's so much added value to traveling by bicycle.

The most current of those values showed up soon after I left the hotel downtown (I've got a favourite that let's my bike into the room), as I meandered along to Cambie St. after the requisite visit to see how Hornby and Burrard bike lanes are performing (and they are showing good signs of growing bicycle traffic and comfortable enough adaptation for everyone else). 

Cambie was turned upside downtown for several years while the Canada Line was constructed and the Olympics came to town.  Use of the new rapid transit connection ramped up pretty quickly and has been enthusiastically embraced by residents and visitors alike.  A good service creates its own successes and Vancouver's model proves the point so well.

It's not the first time I've taken time to watch the neighbourhood reinvent itself, but this time, instead of heading straight for the ferry, I took more time out to circle around. perhaps the pivotal station along the line, a few blocks west of the southeast False Creek Olympic Village, a few blocks north of city hall and now an anchor for much new and positive development that is adding value to the landscape and opening up the neighbourhood for a more diverse mix of land uses and transportation choices.

Business and commercial space is going up, and not just low value, single story developments, but even some of the bigger retailers that might have fled to the suburbs are there taking advantage of access to rapid transit, and as well the pattern of settlement density better transit is clearly a catalyst for.   Residential is piling up on top of some of the commercial developments and nearby, more townhouse and neighbourhood residential scales down from the transit hub.  Bike lanes and path connections, bicycle priority treatments and everywhere more space for pedestrians all provide for a more diverse and sustainable menu of transportation options.  Still, there is a lot at the transit station for park and ride commuters and on-street parking, though not everywhere on every street, seems adequate to support driver demand.

There's a vibrancy back in this part of the city, no doubt less in evidence while transit was blazing its path through the corridor.  Still, over the sequence of trips I've made back and forth, the trasnformation of the hub appears to have been quick and dramatic.  It's useful understanding that the introduction of rapid transit, in whatever form, may be disruptive and needs to be well managed during construction, but also that the recovery can be dramatic and immensely positive.

Also worth noting is our own city history here in Victoria, where we have been shaped as much by the streetcar systems of the early 20th century.  The neighbourhood villages, not to mention our well to do neighbours in Oak Bay, owe their existince to the LRT of the day.  It's a hot topic on some of the chat forums, as it should be.  We need so much to be looking at not just the speed and flow of our circulatory systems, but also at the health of the community around it.  Current models of transportation and community design that are so thoroughly focused on auto transport are showing signs of ill-health - nobody is coming downtown because we have the best dollar store, the tastiest single slice pizza or the fastest slurpee.  What we most need is a better transportation and development model, and it's one where LRT is increasingly, clearly, the right choice. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

More from the UBCM

Conference sessions, cabinet presentations and networking sessions have been going on full tilt here in Vancouver.  A few highlights now before heading into resolution sessions to push for full public hearings on oil pipelines and coastal tanker traffic.  At this point the federal government is not planning hearings for coastal communities, intending only to hold hearings in the oil patch.  Let's hope we can send a strong message on that one.

Yesterday I joined council colleagues from Victoria and elsewhere in the region on a visit to the Dr. Peter Centre where HIV patients get the care they need.  We moved on to Insite where that innovative clinic tackles the most difficult of addiction issues at a safe consumption site.  They are saving lives and reducing the spread of deadly diseases like HIV and Hepatitis.  Good news followed this morning with the Supreme Court decision to protect Insite from closure by the Prime Minister's misguided agenda.

Made connections that will allow me to follow up on issues around our ship repair industry.  Stay tuned for more on the jobs agenda we'll be working on.  Attended other sessions on transit, on housing, on infrastructure renewal and lots of other issues.  I'll be back at the keyboard soon.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Victoria Issues at the UBCM

Got lucky on sunday and pedaled out to the ferry on my way to the Union of BC Municipalities in Vancouver.  Took the bus and Canada Line most of the way on the mainland.  I know that's cheating but it was late and I wanted to get downtown to my hotel to be ready for a couple of meetings before the conference really gets going Tuesday.

First up for me was a workshop on creating age friendly communities, an issue I take a keen interest in, not so much for my advancing years (my hair colour is evidence enough of that), but for the challenges we will all have to tackle as we design our cities for the future.  I'm a baby boomer and it's a huge demographic bulge that will change the nature of our city in so many ways. 

Victoria, by the way, is probably ahead of the curve in many respects.  We're already an active community and many of our seniors are no different than the rest of the population.  Take a look at the Galloping Goose or the walkers on the Dallas Rd bluffs and you'll see lots of our older citizens out for a walk, a run or cranking the pedals alongside their cycling buddies.  Obesity rates are lowest on the west coast, and other health indicators, from heart disease, adult onset diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments more common in aging populations, show Victoria leading most other cities in Canada.  We only trade spots on the rankings back and forth with Vancouver.

Towns and cities across British Columbia, and just about everywhere else in the world too, are looking for ways to adapt to the different needs of their own aging populations, and making their environments more supportive of healthy and active lifestyles is very much a priority for most.  It's a necessary response to the demands of their own populations, even if other governments profit a little more directly from our local work.  Health care costs are a bigger issue sometimes for provincial and federal governments; I'm sure they are happy to have municipalities fund parks, trails, sidewalks, bike lanes and the like - all the things that help support active lifestyles that innoculate people against some of the health problems of old age and sedentary lifestyles.

Back to the workshop. I was most interested in the presentation by Dr. Larry Frank, a professor at UBC's School of Community and Regional Planning.  He's a well known researcher on the health affects of community design and was one of the first to associate suburban sprawl with declining population health indicators attached to sedentary lifesytles and auto dependence.

I wanted to bring back a couple of stories from his slide presentation to talk about current local issues like our own rapid transit initiative.  One of the pressure points coming from critics of LRT is the suggestion that we can solve a lot of our transportation problems with HOV lanes that move more cars and perhaps a few more buses through congested corridors like Highway 1 and Douglas St.  Apart from the fact that it simply doesn't work on a couple of levels (it will never carry enough people to deal with current, let alone future travel demand and creates a whole new set of problems related to parking for all those vehicles), HOV for buses or cars also creates an insidious health problem that is particularly hard on seniors.  Dr. Frank has mapped nitrous oxide and other particulate emissions along transportation corridors in Greater Vancouver.  Not surprisingly, the most heavily travelled routes have the highest concentrations of those emissions, and they are of particular concern for the elderly with respiratory problems, or other health issues associated with the air we breathe.  The concentrations thin out pretty quickly beyond those corridors and there are pockets of health around the city, often associated with more walkable centres.

He noted too, that a denser, more transit oriented approach to transit actually induces more walking, enough that people who use transit are likely to get their daily prescription of physical acitivity just by walking between home and transit or to their destination at work, shopping etc., making transit a positive choice for healthier lifestyles.

For our own debate, however, the choice between HOV and, for some, the Bus Rapid Transit model, needs also to be assessed on the emissions equation.  LRT will run on electrical power, and eliminates point source emissions, a huge benefit to our air quality and, not coincidentally, a positive gain for community health.  Score one more win for LRT and more reasons to discount some of the oversold alternatives.  It's part of the reason why it has been so important to do a multiple account evaluation that measures benefits as well as costs, and not just the immediate capital expenses of construction.  Like the critics say, there is only one taxpayer, and we all know how taxing our health care system is becoming.  Why would we want to burden that system any more.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Voodoo Economics. LRT critics numbers don't add up

For Immediate Release
September 12, 2011

Councillor says critics’ plan will wreck transit

Victoria City Councillor John Luton, who sits on the Victoria Regional Transit Commission, is asking the “CRD Business and Residential Taxpayers” group to put their numbers through the same level of scrutiny they are demanding of BC Transit’s LRT proposal.

Luton said that the group’s prediction that the “business as usual” case will cost only $12 million extra over the two decades is not credible.  With lifecycles of 20 years or less, every bus in the fleet will disappear without significant investment.  Their plan does not account for population growth and will stifle economic development in the region, he said.  “Even today passengers are being left behind when buses are full and maintenance facilities can’t do all the work needed to keep our buses on the road.”

Luton says that the latest numbers being touted by the group must be reviewed by credible transportation and economic analysts and that a full accounting of alternatives they are proposing must be subjected to a “triple bottom line” evaluation.

“Their numbers are silent on new road building costs and the land values lost to parking under scenarios they are promoting.  Thousands of new car trips could be generated by their HOV plan”, says Luton.  “No calculations are made on greenhouse gas emissions or congestion impacts on economic productivity.”  Luton says that the group has levelled criticisms of LRT on their website but suggests they need to submit their plans to more rigorous independent analysis.  Those plans include HOV strategies that have proven ineffective in other jurisdictions or bus based systems that won’t meet long term transportation needs in the capital region. 

“Transit’s plan has gone through extensive public engagement, rigorous multiple account evaluations and years of planning”, Luton says.  He said that local commission members met with the provincial Minister several months ago to discuss the project.  “He told us he would consider only long term solutions to transportation problems and applauded the good work done so far on the LRT plan”.  The province has funding for Victoria in their transit plan and, with federal support, Luton says that the capital can build a sustainable, cost effective system and create a more attractive environment for investment”.
Discussions also covered local governance and funding issues that both the CRD and Transit Commission have been working on.

Luton says that LRT works well in cities around North America and elsewhere in the world, often in cities no bigger than Victoria.  “LRT is the best fit to meet our evolving travel demands, support environmental objectives and help spur economic development.  Critics are focused only on capital costs but ignore the clear limits of the models BC Transit has already looked at.”

Luton has already brought a motion to Victoria City Council asking decision makers to seek senior government funding and supporting an independent, peer review of Transit’s LRT plan on costs and ridership numbers.  He is taking the same concepts to the Commission to ensure staff’s work on the project is supported at the political level.

“Victoria is past the point where expanding capacity for car travel can solve our transportation problems.  We have to build solutions for this century, not the last one.”

For more information:
John Luton
250-886-4166 (cell)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

LRT still the best choice for Victoria and the Capital Region

The media, in all its forms, in and around Victoria, has been buzzing with discussion on the LRT project that BC Transit is planning for Douglas and the Highway.  It's something I've supported as a councillor and lately as a transit commissioner.  Likewise, councils around the region gave it the thumbs up when Transit asked for their endorsements and it has the support of many of those same elected officials when they sit around the table as CRD board members.  It has the backing of the provincial crown corporation that runs transit operations here in Victoria and across the province, (except for the lower mainland around Vancouver, where they run their own system and get substantially more provincial tax room to do it with).

The endorsement from some local politicians has experienced some erosion as the issue of costs come up and well meaning but unworkable cheap fixes gather traction with individuals and organizations around the region.  None should have been surprised that a new transit model would come with costs and certainly all of them know that our current transit system comes with its own price tag.  The facts are getting out there, but the debate will continue.  Here's some of my perspectives.

Today, Green Party Leader Jane Sterk spoke up, and in the order that I read them, proposed the cheap fix of repairing the E&N and using that to meet our transit needs, then in the same release suggested we do no work without a regional transportation plan.  But also, we should save some money to "fix" the Admirals/Mckenzie - Highway intersection, because we know that's a problem.

Both the E&N upgrades and something better at Mckenzie are needed, but it's putting the cart before the horse to exclude those from the transportation plan Jane says is needed before we spend anywhere.

There is, not incidentally, many elements of a regional transportation plan already in place.  It's embodied in our regional growth strategy - something that aims to achieve small g "green"objectives in shifting trips to more sustainable modes, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and concentrating development to favour walking, cycling and transit.  LRT is still the best fit for all of these objectives and the alignments along the Highway and Douglas will always find their way to the top of the priority list for transit improvements in the region.

No argument with the Greens that the E&N is a valuable asset and one not to be dismissed, but it has limited utility for the LRT service Victoria needs.  It complements the rest of the transit system, but it's not a substitute.  Here are just some of the pros and cons.

The E&N can work for CFB Esquimalt and for their workforce particularly.  They have pretty much a set schedule that delivers a pulse of commuters in the morning and sends them home again the afternoon.  The base generates very little daytime traffic.  There are few other trip generators along the corridor, and the spacing between them is distant enough to allow for a heavy rail passenger service to be effective.  That's the foundation for an E&N commuter service, but for the rest of the day, investments in the line will better support more tourist oriented passenger travel and, more importantly for the economic survival of the railway, provide a very useful freight corridor that can help us get heavy loads and dangerous cargo off of the Malahat.

What it can't do is provide the all day, short headway, multi-destination service that will be delivered by LRT.  LRT will need a double track system for the length of the corridor, a real challenge along the E&N.  Rapid transit along the E&N would create other headaches that nobody is costing in their commentaries.  There are 25 level crossings between Langford and Victoria.  Few of them correspond to any existing or potential development opportunities that would make sense for a station location.  What you have instead is a series of now expensive, disruptive crossings that would radiate traffic congestion out from more locations along the corridor.  Some would be little more than a nuisance, others might be more problematic, but none would be exempt from creating other traffic problems.  Federal rail safety regulations demand a higher level of control at crossings than are provided at most of those along the E&N.  The trigger for those fixes are traffic volumes and numbers of trains.  The introduction of even a few additional trips a day along the railway will require already numbers of those expensive upgrades.

The LRT alignments already match high volume travel patterns in the Capital Region and both the highway and Douglas St. corridors are well suited to accommodate the conversion of right of way into a light rail line.  Stops and crossings correspond well with destinations and trip generators that make them sympathetic to traffic operations.  Current land use and opportunities for densification are also quite complementary to LRT, so much more so than the E&N.

Too much has been made of the apparent low cost of upgrading the E&N.  It seems like a bargain, but the current ask for $15 million is only a sliver of the costs.  Some of the capital and operational costs associated with that project aren't part of that figure.  Different stakeholders, including the same federal government we'll be asking for help on our LRT project from are already in for VIA service and some of the rolling stock. Different pots of money are being invested in other pieces of the system, so even the current accounting is incomplete.  The Island Corridor Foundation chose, wisely, to save the rail in pieces.  They'll work in distinct phases to upgrade a piece here and there, address bridge deficiencies, tackle more distant sections etc.  That, by the way, only gets us back, really, to the existing service plus a couple of extra commuter trains.  Adding more frequent and more rapid transportation service along the E&N was never contemplated in the business case analysis done by the province and pursued by the ICF.  That would cost considerably more than the hefty sum the province calculated was needed to rescue the line, and the full figure is orders of magnitude beyond the $15 million, and still doesn't complete what we need for our transit network.

There are other "green" elements missing from the buy now, plan later projects.  The E&N should reduce vehicle traffic by some measure, but still runs on diesel.  GHG emissions will come down, but won't make a big enough dent in our our carbon footprint.  It also can't meet the transit targets we set for ourselves in our own regional growth strategy, or mandated by the provincial transit plan.  LRT is still the only viable, long term solution to meet those objectives.  "Fixing" Mckenzie may be a useful, even necessary band-aid for those that suffer that intersection, but it's hardly green, and might not fare so well in a planning process that focused on sustainable transportation.

Housing for people, not cars
One of the other "solutions" driving around looking for a place to park is HOV lanes.  It may be a good way to start converting the road space we'll need to allocate soon to LRT.  Allowing some of our buses to queue jump heavy traffic and putting some of the significant number of cars already carrying extra passengers into those lanes could relieve some pressure while we assemble resources and do the design work needed to take LRT to the next step.  But it won't work for long and it's not something we can plan for beyond a few years.

Buses are good for some of our network, but 60% of our transit capacity is tied up on Douglas St. and our growth centres are headed to the west shore.  We can't redeploy until we've got a more efficient and effective people mover to serve that corridor. 

Just as an aside, because it's nearly always raised as a show stopper for Victoria, it's not about the population of our city and our region, it's about the concentration of travel demand on our target corridors and our lcoal attraction to transit.  By those measures, Victoria is already ahead of other bigger cities in our readiness for rail.  Our concentrated travel demand is well suited to LRT, much more so than larger cities with more diffuse settlement and land-use patterns.  And we have a high ridership per capita already, much better than most with bus only systems, and that's a good foundation for the better service and higher capacity only LRT can deliver.

Back to the buses.  They will move faster in dedicated lanes, but they still bunch up downtown and there's the capacity issue.  There's not a lot of growth to be expected in high-occupancy vehicles - most research runs counter to the overly optimistic projections of its supporters.  LRT by the way, can carry several times the number of people any HOV project can deliver.  What's more problematic is the long term future.  Any success of HOV lanes takes passengers out of buses and puts them into cars and brings those cars downtown (and are we ready to turn every second motorist into a transit driver and scheduling service?)  That's the intended consequence of the system in any event.  Current plans for LRT would convert about 150 on-street parking stalls into LRT lanes.  If HOV lanes generate additional vehicle travel demand in excess of that number, parking will get harder, not easier, for all those new multi-occupant vehicles.  That's expensive for developers, steals ever more road space from other users (delivery vehicles, taxis, bike lanes, wider sidewalks, etc.),  Worse, it forces every developer to add more parking, not less, into every commercial or multi-unit residential building.  Parking is expensive to provide and it makes housing less affordable and discourages higher value uses on commercial or other land.  Economically, HOV provides less value added opportunity for urban land and it means more space and more shelter for cars, fewer for people.

Other issues in the social media etc.

Blanshard St:  Doesn't subsitute for Douglas.  Destinations and trip generators need to be connected to LRT, not a block or so away.  Douglas St. confirmed over several studies and extensive public consultation.  Blanshard moves traffic, Douglas moves people.

Goose, the Lochside and Peninsula destinations:  Trails are not being compromised by LRT, despite the false alarms raised by some.  Peninsula destinations are more distant and can be served well enough by a little extra bus capacity (surplus vehicles from LRT project), and but for some local pressures getting a rough enough ride anyway, not where we have or are going to build density.  LRT to the peninsula would create development pressures contrary to our growth strategy, food security needs etc.  Even Tswwassen to Richmond is still a bus service, and it has more traffic than we do on this side of the pond.  Any additional LRT phases would likely head first towards UVic.

More than the left:  I've been talking to developers, not normally associated with the left, anxious to see LRT move forward.  They see it as good business - it gives them some certainty for building and developments that take advantage of LRT to reduce the cost of supplying expensive parking spots, while increasing residential and employment density.  It's good business sense and doesn't belong to one side of the political spectrum or another.  The BC Liberal Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure said we had a good plan and didn't want to see us back at the table asking for more money in five years.  He told us to plan and deliver transit services for the long term.  The federal minister said at FCM earlier this year that he wanted to work with local government to build transit infrastructure.  Neither the provinical or federal ministers are closet lefties as far as I know.

"Most will still use their cars" - given options, people do change their habits.  Less than half of commute trips in Victoria are by car (but more than 70% do in Langford).  Victoria is not so different from other cities.  Our transit share is already very good for a smaller city so the potential for growth is good, with good service.  Tracks on streets are nothing new and work well enough.  Most would be better on the highway and Douglas where crossings would be perpendicular.  Too many oblique crossings on the E&N are already a problem for design and safety issues.

Land values:  Business case on land value lifts produced for BC Transit were done by professional real estate consultants and used BC Assessment information.  The number crunching was based on other systems in North America.  All pretty good sources.  We're not the first city considering rapid transit; it has been done before.

"Transit isn't taking HOV lanes seriously":  Transit's initial analysis found HOV lanes wouldn't noticeably improve transit service (moving people) so a more extensive investigation wasn't pursued.  That's different than not doing the work, it's that HOV doesn't offer a solution and that's not what some critics wanted to hear.

An independent review is a good idea and will be needed to secure senior government funding.  Don't expect that review to find fatal flaws in the plan.  Transit is pretty successful at moving people and managing transit in the province.  It has competent staff working on development and analysis of the project, with help from the provincial ministry and outside consultants also with good credentials.  In Victoria we have some recent experience with peer reviewed projects and the work of the city and our consultants passed muster on that one.  Transit knows that LRT is a significant investment and have done their homework.  Writing fairy tales would be a career limiting move for those involved and harmful to Transit's business interests.  They compete with other crowns, public agencies and departments of government for budget and they know they are under taxpayer scrutiny.  The work is solid and a review will confirm its the right direction for us.

Happy to weigh in now and again.  Hope some of you will read beyond the headlines and the easy answers.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Rapid Transit - A Capital Idea

BC Transit is moving forward with plans for LRT (Light Rail Transit) to service the Capital Region.  We've endorsed it at the local level (I sit on the Regional Transit Commission) and the provincial Crown Corporation that governs Transit across the province has now also endorsed the plan.  We took the plan to the provincial Minister of Transportation, who is also supportive of longer term solutions rather than the short term fixes favoured by some.

Dissecting the issue, analyzing the plan and countering some of the misinformation promoted by critics should help us move the right decision forward.  We need to chase federal funding for the project to match what the province is planning for from their provincial transit plan fund - $14 billion province wide - so we can reduce the burden on local property taxpayers, a fair comment from the critics who are concerned about costs.

The alternatives to LRT - BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), HOV ( High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes or "business as usual" simply don't add up, whatever fantasies some critics want to dream up.  I'll turn first, though, to some of the limits of buses to attract the kind of ridership we will need to meet our targets for transit mode share or by any measure, our obligations under provincial legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Richard Layman is a U.S. transportation and urban revitalization consultant and advocate who has put together a nice, brief outline of challenges posed by bus oriented options in North America.  I'll add some of my own notes, but Richard's comments are a good counterpoint to some of the fascination particularly with Latin American BRT systems that have proven successful in helping to solve some of their transportation problems, most notably in Curitiba, Brazil.  We can learn much from their experience and buses do offer a lot of value as part of a more comprehensive and integrated system of mass public transit, but it won't be enough to meet the challenges we face here.

One scribe in particular noted the need to respond to customer preferences for mobility choices and his best solution is still the car, and the better that options replicate that service, the more likely it will attract those choice customers.  Buses won't do that.

Layman's list (and my notes):

1. Much less per capita ownership of cars, far greater transit dependence.

My reading of this says that in Latin America or other Third World countries, people don't have the choice, like they do here, to drive, so they already have to use the bus or whatever public transit is available.  It's a no brainer that if you provide a better bus system, it will fill up. 

Not necessarily so in North America.  You have to provide a level of service that makes transit as comfortable and attractive, at least for some trip purposes, to the car.  In most of North America, that solution has been the streetcar, the commuter train or the subway - they are more spacious than our buses, no matter how they are dressed up, and they are more comfortable.  "Choice" riders are not getting onto the bus, but they do often, in many cities, take rapid transit. (Cities with true rapid transit have twice the ridership of places like Victoria, even with a good working bus system).  Certainly our projections for ridership in the CRD suggest that the "mode share" (the percentage of people who will be riding LRT or getting on the bus), will be much better with LRT.

2. Lower wage structures so operating costs for buses are much lower than in North America.

This may not be well spelled out in the Transit cost analysis, but it is worth noting.  LRT vehicles carry about twice as many passengers as do even the most spacious buses, and they will need someome to operate them, (not to mention cleaning, repairs, maintenance etc.).  All of these are good, family supporting jobs and though I'm not one to go looking for ways to cut jobs, I am mindful of the cost efficiencies of a system that may grow those jobs more slowly.  Operators are on thing, but the lifecycle costs of buses vs LRT should also be cause for concern.  Buses are very labour intensive and not nearly as durable.  It may be one factor in the Transit analysis that finds the per passenger operating cost of LRT offers us the best return on our investments.

3. Willingness of patrons to stand much closer together, so that buses in Latin America carry 2 times the number of passengers/load compared to the U.S. (crush loads).

Try getting North Americans out of their SUVs to get up close and personal for longer trips - 30 minutes or more, jammed into even a bigger bus.  It's not in our DNA and although it may work in places (Tokyo, Mexico City etc.), it's unlikely to attract people here out of their cars.  Even during rush hours, Skytrain in Vancouver, for example, feels spacious enough (and I've often not been the only one also bringing a bike on board).  It is a much more attractive option for those that more often still have other choices.

4. Inability in the U.S. (maybe a challenge in Canada too) to create the kinds of separated busways and all the other conditions that define true BRT compared to what we might call "rapider transit".

Sure, our BRT option did look at an exclusive, separated right of way (remember how well that was received?).  It is essential to providing the time advantage necessary to out-compete the car.  It worked so well in Richmond (BC) that everyone ran in the opposite direction and the system was quickly replaced with the Canada Line (and the surplus buses are now your connection to the ferries).  Ottawa has had a more durable system, but they too are looking to convert to rail based systems.  The busways there are awful, sterile canyons that cut up neighbourhoods far more emphatically than streetcar systems like Portland's for example.  Those are good examples too of the shortcomings of BRT - buses can go anywhere, and when the system fails to meet expectations, development may well take them elsewhere, making them a much less effective community planning tool than more fixed systems like rail (even our current urban settlement patterns in many Victoria area neighbourhoods are the result of long gone streetcar systems).

5.  General unwillingness of choice riders to ride buses, regardless of the quality of service.

We are still very much attached to our cars, perhaps less so in Canada than in the U.S. where transit ridership is lower, but still a very sticky attachment.  We will need to do a lot to encourage people to make the switch from the private automobile to transit.  While we are experiencing some shifts in personal transportation choices (bicycling is growing dramatically as a percentage of traffic but the raw numbers are still small compared to European cities, by comparison), but for all the investments in the current model of transit, we are making very few gains in ridership and our transportation problems aren't getting perceptibly better. 

Some critics still insist that a few tweaks to the current system can solve all of our transportation challenges with penny wise investments that are too good to be true.  That they are, and I'll try and explore some of those issues in future blogs.  You can also follow more of the discussion on the LRT4DRD facebook page.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Pedestrians and the Bridge

There was lots of discussion on strategies for pedestrians and cyclists after the city closed the rail bridge a couple of weeks ago.  One of the non-starters was the suggestion that the "two lane" trial proposed last year by critics and repeated at council would somehow improve the situation for pedestrians.

The "two lane solution" doesn't work well for cyclists and will create serious enough problems for traffic management, but one of the things it can't do is provide any space for pedestrians.  They are sometimes shortcutting down the ramp access for the Ocean Pointe Hotel (and there's another issue - what happens to their access if that inside lane is closed).  Peds are chancing gaps in traffic to run across to the sidewalk on the south side of the bridge. 

The limited space that might be used for cyclists on a closed travel lane would create serious safety issues for pedestrians if it was assigned a multi-use status.  Without robust physical barriers (a real engineering challenge), pedestrians and cyclists could be wandering in and out of heavily used travel lanes to avoid one another, never ideal on the rail bridge or in congested sections of the Goose, but at least mis-steps there have not been into moving traffic.

More of the discussion and an illustration at my flickr photo page:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Burrard Bridge comparisons part two

My last post talked about the traffic management issues that, at one level, illustrate why the Burrard St. Bridge is not a good model for critics promoting a "two lane solution" for our own Blue Bridge.  I've added a few more pics and some commentary at my flickr site to illustrate further some of the engineering challenges that should add another nail to that coffin.

Burrard has more width to work with and the separated bike lane has been installed using concrete barriers to provide some distance between cyclists and fast moving traffic.  The facility is designed to provide single direction bike lanes, with the east side sidewalk converted to bicycle only use and pedestrians assigned the west side sidewalk on the bridge.  This will prevent conflict in the confined space on the bridge, something that would be a serious problem if the bike lane was two-way or worse, multi-use, an idea that has been suggested by critics looking for "solutions" to save the Blue Bridge.  Some may profess an interest only in providing a substitute for the loss of acces to the now closed rail bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, but I believe that many are simply looking again to find some way to demonstrate that a "solution" exists that would allow the city to save the bridge while providing improvements for cyclists and pedestrians.

The photos should provide some food for thought on how much more constrained we would be on the Johnson St. Bridge, as compared to Burrard, where we have lanes that are narrower and the functional needs of a movable bridge can't accommodate the significant additional weight of an effective barrier system.

The need for robust separation would be particularly acute if a two-way or multi-use lane were to be contemplated.  While daylight is generous through spring and summer and into early fall, commute times across the bridge will be cloaked in darkness for many months of the year and bicycles in particular, riding against the flow of traffic on the bridge, would need some signficant separation from opposing traffic and blinding lights.  Engineering standards for multi-use or two way facilities adjacent to roadways demand more space than would be available on the Johnson St. Bridge where a standard dimension "jersey barrier" would rob at least two feet from the separated lane.

It's another example of where the math doesn't work.  The city's response so far has been to strengthen the visual cues for drivers to slow down and share the road across the bridge, and to encourage cyclists to "take the lane" to ensure safe passage.  It is a safer and more effective way of calming traffic and providing an adequate, if not ideal, level of service for everyone who will be using the bridge over the next 3 1/2 years while we work on our replacement structure.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Back to basics on the bridge

Last week the rail span of the Johnson St. Bridge was closed for safety reasons.  The rail stopped using it a few weeks ago and service has been suspended, at least temporarily, while the Island Corridor Foundation that owns the rail line scrambles to find funding for track fixes well beyond the bridge.

While the bridge may have been safe for cyclists and pedestrians to use for awhile longer, perhaps a few weeks or a month, the prudent approach was to accept the advice of the engineers of record and close the bridge.  It's a cautious approach and ensures life safety issues are addressed, protecting our citizens (as well as reducing our exposure to liability issues should the bridge fail without warning).

We're ahead of the game here, not so much like Minneapolis where the I-35 bridge collapsed in 2007, killing 13 and injuring dozens more.  I've covered that one elsewhere in the blog or on my website.

What's got me back on the bridge is the rise again of what I believed to have been a dead issue.  More than one council colleague raised the prospect of closing one lane to provide some separation for cyclists and, I think for some, the idea that it could be shared with pedestrians.  More on some of the design challenges in some blogs in the days to come, but first I wanted to address one of the flippant comments made during our discussion of what to do.  So far, a lot has been done already, with signage and on-road improvements to remind everyone to slow down and share the road while we wait for the new bridge.  Most cyclists I've talked to are very enthusiastic about the rapid response and the effectiveness of the new treatments in making their commute a little more comfortable.

More than once though, I've heard, to my frustration (and expressed in most unparliamentary language), that "they can do it on the Burrard St. Bridge so we can do it here" for one, or  "we took a lane away on Fort St. and it works there so it can work on our bridge".  Neither comparison stands up, however and you can find some photo links here that illustrate some of the differences.  Traffic operations don't lend themselves to simplistic solutions and misplaced comparisons.

The volume, lane capacity and intersection dynamics, particularly on the downtown side of our Blue Bridge will break down if we close a lane, not to mention, yet, all the other design problems of viewing the bridge in isolation from the surrounding road and sidewalk network.

The Burrard St. Bridge, by way of comparison, has six lanes to our three, but more to the point, when the bike lane pilot was introduced, lane capacity was cut by a third (taking one of three outbound lanes is the important factor to understand), while proposals for the Blue Bridge would take away half the capacity available for outbound traffic - and in close proximity to nearby downtown intersections, and those feeding, steadily, five lanes of traffic into the bridge.  (The single inbound lane is the opposite - it feeds several lanes so has all the relief it needs from congestion pressures, not to mention a long approach where vehicles can store if traffic is busy or, what is another key to our crossing, when the bridge is up and all traffic is stopped).

Here's what Burrard used to look like - and you can count the lanes.  It's just not like our bridge and not a useful comparison.  The math doesn't add up.

Fort St., another project used for comparison also doesn't add up for our bridge.  It's still 3 lanes, allowing for some traffic to be drained off to left turns during peak hours, and carrying about a quarter to a third less traffic than is using the blue bridge.  Again, the math doesn't work.  Here's a quiet moment on Fort.

And here's where the traffic that uses the bridge fits into the road dynamics on the west side.  It's useful in understanding how and why traffic keeps moving over the bridge through Vic West and into Esquimalt in afternoon peak hours.  The math should be pretty clear.  It's not something that would fit on the bridge itself, let alone the nearby street grid on the downtown side.  Intersections are too close, and feeding too much traffic onto the bridge to make it work.

More to come in blogs yet to be written, but I'll continue to argue, so far successfully enough, that our engineers shouldn't waste their time looking at two lane trials to solve a temporary problem while we wait for a new bridge.  For some, it's about clinging to an idea that the best research has already proven unworkable, but still looks like a pot of (fool's) gold at the end of the rainbow.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Latest on the Blue Bridge

While the chatter coming from various directions, promoted ad nauseum by some, that there are cheap and easy fixes that will save the old Blue Bridge, ongoing work by the city and its consultants continue to find evidence to the contrary.

With the new bridge project underway, though mostly on paper at this stage (design details), keeping the old bridge safe enough to serve for another three years remains a task at hand.  Rust never sleeps, of course, nowhere more so than on the wet coast, sitting astride a salt water harbour where the wind blows and the sea wash filter through the old structure.  Compromised rivets pop up like measles on a two year old.  Fixes will be more robust than band aids and bailing wire but the analogy is not too far from a harsh reality.

City staff and engineering consultants were out on the bridge Sunday, the 27th of March, chipping away at concrete to analyze rivet conditions along the steel members encased by the concrete counterweights - something no one has been able to look at for almost 90 years.

Starker still are unique points of failure that will be repeated throughout the superstructure.  Everwhere where there are rivets under stress, allowing salt water mositure to seep in between sandwich plates of cheap steel,  the integrity of bridge beams are increasingly being compromised.  Close examination of the interconnectedness of every part of the machine should dispel any notion of a complete and durable refurbishment without taking the entire structure apart.

Trying to do it on site would turn the Inner Harbour into a tailings pond.  A point of reference for marina opponents is the potential environmental impacts on the harbour from construction and operations, not to mention the disenfrachisement of people powered craft that enjoy the northwest shores of the harbour.  Those are very valid concerns.  By comparison, even repainting the bridge on site, a logistical nightmare on any movable bridge, and most problematic on bascule structures, would pose untold risks to the marine environment.  Look closely at what is already shedding and the concern should become apparent.

One recent letter to the editor promoted the fiction that we didn't do our homework on the bridge.  It's still a work in progress, but as the project moves forward we continue to confirm that the original findings of our condtion assessments have been followed by prudent and sustainable decisions.

Fresh pictures of our bridge in decline are newly posted in my flickr gallery at

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Green and the economy

No surprise that the federal government is underperforming in the creation of jobs for the future.  While we continue to float above some of the rest of western economies on a sea of oil, building a more sustainable future at all levels, doesn't seem to be on the Harper agenda.

See the story in the Vancouver Sun:

We have locally taken some of the stimulus funding to create our own green infrastructure, so credit is due to the feds for the investment in our Johnson St. Bridge project.  The new bridge will improve conditions for cycling and walking dramatically, inviting people to shift their trips to more sustainable modes. 

Still there is more to the green economy that our transportation systems design, and we have other initiatives underway that should help us meet environmental objectives, particularly reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  Elements of our sewage treatment options for the Capital Region include, potentially, recovering heat from waste and distributing it through a district energy system - one plant or heat source for many buildings and businesses.

If the energy centre comes to Victoria, we could link the system to yet to be developed brownfield sites at Rock Bay in the Upper Harbour area.  One of the directions we have been investigating might be to target the neighbourhood for a hi-tech park that would cluster knowledge and skills in a near downtown location and use the heat and energy from wastewater treatment to help support the industry.  The more central location would invite, as well, more sustainable travel choices and support greening of our local, light industrial sector.  At this point, it's an idea, not yet a plan, but something worth exploring further as various projects come into focus.

One of the initiatives the city has undertaken of late is to sign on with Mayor Gregor Robertson of Vancouver and Mike McGinn in a "Cascadia" sustainability initiative to try and attract complementary green business and industry to the northwest.  Kudos to Victoria Mayor Fortin for leading the charge on behalf of the city.


Hi-tech is already our biggest industry locally - it generates more dollars than tourism and other industries usually seen as staples of Victoria's economy.  Hi-tech is a fluid, mobile industry, and not just the clean energy supports will be important to attracting business.  The things we are doing to support active transportation - cycling and walking, and an active, outdoors lifestyle, are big attractions to businesses that can locate anywhere.  Building a better transit system will need to happen too.

The future of our region, economically and environmentally, will depend on how we respond to the climate change challenge and on the social ledger, creating a vibrant place to live, invest and work will also help us to address the other account on our triple bottom line.  It's something every level of government needs to tackle with us.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Something for drivers

Car insurance by the mile (or kilometer) is something that would benefit drivers who use their cars irregularly.  It's an idea promoted locally by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (  An incentive to use cars in moderation, mileage based insurance may be coming to Washington State in the U.S.  A bill introduced in the state legislature aims to remove barriers to introducing a plan.

Distance based insurance could encourage people to think before they drive - asking themselves if they really need a vehicle for any particular trip.  I drive my wife's car on occasion, but for most trips I bike.  It's habit, and a good one at that.  Helping people to make more sustainable decisions is good public policy, and the plan should be embraced by ICBC (the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia), which supplies our public, mandatory auto insurance in B.C.

Read more at:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Train in Vain

The Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway is still open for business, but efforts to keep the trains running could be threatened by the competiton for funding aimed at improving transit for Greater Victoria.

BC Transit is focused on the West Shore - Uptown - Downtown axis, desiging an alignment that would run along the Trans Canada Highway between Langford and the Uptown Mall, and then along Douglas St. to downtown Victoria.  While the public, (at least those paying attention to the project), strongly supports LRT (Light Rail Transit), provincial managers have favoured BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) in developing plans for the system.  The strong community support for LRT has lately brought Transit on board and more detailed work on the rail option is being undertaken.

Public enthusiasm may be tempered by the capital costs of LRT - it will take longer to implement and have a much higher initial cost than a bus system, but the many benefits of a rail based system may yet persuade decision makers to start planning now rather than waiting the 10 years or so when some planners suggest Victoria will be ready for LRT.  Why spend extra money on a short lived bus based system when the need for rail is visible on the horizon?

The challenge for the E&N is that its potential is more distant and the costs associated with upgrading the heavy rail system more forbidding.  A phased approach and incremental financing to get some useful service improvements have been proposed, but the longer term costs are still daunting. 

Still, the rail has the potential to fill some key service gaps that have not been entirely accounted for in transit planning.  Hundreds of commuters could take advantage of a commuter rail (not LRT) service that covered the long haul from Nanaimo through the Cowichan Valley and right to the door of the Canadian Forces Base at Esquimalt.  It could  help relieve some congestion on the Malahat Drive - a 350 metre high climb on the Trans Canada Highway separating Victoria from points north on the Island.  The Malahat already suffers heavy commuter traffic and sometimes winter weather clogs up the highway.  A well run E&N could offer relief for growing numbers of commuters living out of the transit region and accessible to the railway.

The $500 million calculated several years ago for improvements to the Malahat makes rail and transit alternatives look a lot more affordable; but tight funding and a focus on Vancouver area projects leaves little to invest in Greater Victoria's transportation challenges.

It's an unfortunate state of affairs, as crunch time is here for the little railway.  Victoria's Johnson St. Bridge project is a case in point.  $12 million is needed to keep rail on the bridge, something that would better commuter rail's chance of success.  So far, $15 million in costs have been identified elsewhere for the rail as far as Langford, and that only to achieve minimal standards for a modest commuter service.  Anything beyond that, either geographically or in terms of service levels, can be expected to add more to the bill.

It's costly, but is it worth the investment?  Certainly many of us in the community think so, but for Victoria in particular, the rail on the bridge might be a bill too big to swallow.  We've asked repeatedly for provincial assistance, without success, and have now appealed to the Capital Regional District - our services partnership with other local governments.  Apprehension exists around that table so the request for funding, although supported by the Mayors of numbers of affected communities, has met with less enthusiasm around some council tables and may face a rough ride at the regional board.

Victoria cannot, by itself, foot the entire bill.  We are already in for $50 million and the clock is ticking.  We need to get on with our schedule or face the prospect of losing $21 million in federal funding or missing construction deadlines.  We all want to see rail come to town, but clearly it is a regional service that needs regional support.  The rail doesn't run from downtown to Vic West, a few hundred metres away - it runs half way up the Island, and most pointedly, through several suburban municipalities who are now being asked to help out.  If they aren't now willing to invest in key elements of the rail corridor, what does it say about their commitment to the rest of the line?

Stay tuned.  If the money can be found, rail stays in the design.  If not, we can preserve the right of way but can't build the rail bridge right away.  It's an expensive decision either way - it's too costly for our taxpayers, but for everyone, a separate project will cost much more.  If we want the rail to survice, we'll all need to pitch in.  Here's hoping.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Guaranteed incomes and social outcomes

Carol Goar of the Toronto Star writes here about the 1970s "Mincome" experiment in Manitoba under Ed Schreyer's NDP and with the support of the federal government.  Guaranteeing incomes in a small community had numbers of positive outcomes for the community.  Goar notes, however, that a report on the experiment has never been written but research gleans from hard to get documents in Ottawa point to the program's success.

Thanks to Janine Bandcroft for tracking this one down.  Here's Goar's story:

Monday, January 24, 2011

Living wages

Esquimalt Council recently endorsed a living wage policy that will advance the municipality forward to esnure that city workers and contractors are paid enough to live in Victoria.  It's been spearhead by Councillor Randall Garrison.  It's slow going but it's a good idea. 

We need to find ways to provide more income equity in Canada and market forces are unsufficient to achieve that objective.  That said, a very strong supporter of free markets in this country, the Canada West Foundation, has even published recently on the issue of civil servant pay and the performance of governments and economies.  Holding onto skilled workers requires paying them a decent living and it is not cost effective to try and suppress wages or salaries in pursuit of illusory tax savings.  Governments, like any business in the private sector, are delivering a product or a service, and key to provide value for money is having that skilled, experienced workforce.  Losing staff or having to rehire, train up etc. is a costly strategy for any organization.

As living wage discussions take centre stage, some of the other discussions around compensation are worth looking at.  Here's the Canada West piece; good reading on the subject: