Several weeks ago the City of New Westminster hosted an Economic Forum. The forum was intended to highlight the changes that have been occurring in the city and promote future economic opportunities. The keynote speaker at this event was real estate marketer Bob Rennie. At the end of his speech Mr. Rennie suggested that New Westminster ditch the Royal City moniker for something more contemporary. Although I was out of town during this speech, I could almost feel the collective groan in the community following this comment. Personally I do not agree that New West should ditch the ‘Royal City’ nickname, as it is engrained in the collective consciousness of our town. Having said that, and probably more to the point of Mr. Rennie, the city should be prepared to look at how and when this traditional moniker is used.
That same week on a seemingly unrelated topic, the City made the decision to install swag lights along Columbia Street.
In the 1950’s swag lights hung over Columbia Street and contributed to a sense of pride in the community. During this time Columbia Street was known as the Miracle Mile for retail activity and drew in shoppers from all over the region. The decades that followed were not so kind to this street though, as New Westminster largely became known as a small, old-fashioned, inaccessible community. Just as prominent retailers began to leave the street, so did the traditional crown swag lights.
Today Columbia Street is starting to make a rebound; one only needs to walk along the street to see that something is happening down there. So it seems only fitting that the city has decided to permanently install replica crown swag lights along the street. To be honest, I am not a big fan. I recognize that this is mainly a taste issue and my opinions are very subjective. I have spoken to many people and heard a range of comments from “I think they are going to look great down there” to “the design of the lights looks dated and old-fashioned”. I am also probably the last person anyone should be getting style advice from. Having said that, I love cities and I take great passion in exploring the secrets behind what makes a city a great place.
I have been fortunate to visit a lot of great cities during my life and I don’t believe that these types of beautification programs are a key ingredient. I don’t need street banners telling me that I am in the big apple to appreciate New York. Nor do I don’t need signage indicating that I have entered the hipster capital of the world when I walk through Portland. There is something genuine about these cities and there is something genuine about New Westminster as well. Our historic buildings, our beautiful streetscapes and the river all tell the story of our community.
I also think we have lost an opportunity to allow ourselves to be inspired by the swag lights from a past era, but then to take this idea and design contemporary lighting that speaks to what the city is today and where we want to go in the future. New Westminster will always be the Royal City; I am just not convinced we need to put up ’50s-era stylized crown lights along Columbia Street to maintain our special place in the heart of Queen Victoria.
I started off my car free challenge by handing over my keys to the Acting City Administrator, Rick Page. I wasn’t really sure what to expect in the week ahead. When I had initially signed up for this challenge in June, I thought I would be working that week. I am very fortunate that I live within a 30 minute walk (10-20 minute bike ride) to my regular work and only a 10 minute walk to City Hall. So I wasn’t that concerned about being able to complete this challenge. Yet as it turns out, I had this week off, and with two young daughters and many family outings planned, the challenge became that much more difficult.
With New Westminster being the geographical center of the Metro Vancouver region, transportation issues are always front and center. As a city, we have one of the highest percentage of transit users, but we also have the distinction of being one of the most congested cities in the region. On New Westminster City Council, we are frequently discussing transportation issues and trying to promote alternative forms of transportation such as transit, cycling and walking. This is one of the main reasons that I felt it was important to sign up for this challenge.
Opening Day Moody Park Pool
My first real test for the car free challenge came with the opening of the Moody Park Pool. I would say that the pool is about a 25 minute walk away from my house. Nothing too staggering, but with my two daughters Renee (21 months old) and Leah (4 months old) along for the trip, I had a few more logistics to plan out. This was definitely a trip that I would normally have used a car for. One of the first things I noticed was how nice it was to not have to load everything into our sweltering hot car. Yet, we were now faced with the task of walking in that same heat. Luckily my wife is an expert at planning walking trips in the shade. We found some beautiful tree cover on St. Patrick Street which was a very pleasant street to walk on. The second major thing I noticed was the lack of curb cuts in my neighbourhood. I am sure anyone who has pushed a double stroller on sidewalks without curb cuts knows how annoying this is. Despite this annoyance, we arrived safe and sound and five minutes early for the grand opening of the Moody Park Pool.
The race to the in-laws
After being invited over to the in-laws for dinner, my wife and I thought it might be interesting to compare a car trip vs. transit. We both left the house at the exact same time. I knew right away as she blew by me in the car at 30 km/hour that this would be a tough race for me to win. Once I got onto the SkyTrain though, I knew I was gaining on her. Before leaving I had looked up the route to Surrey on Translink’s website, a very useful way to plan a trip anywhere on transit. After getting off the SkyTrain at the King George station, I quickly started looking for Bay 3. Unfortunately the signage was not Councillor proof and it took me a little longer to find the correct bus stop. Although I had missed my connection, I was very pleased that there was another bus that came by almost right away. My next major obstacle came when I arrived in Fleetwood. The neighbourhood has a lot relatively new townhouse developments. My issue is that all of these developments seem to only have one entrance/exit. Not a problem if you are traveling by car, but if you are walking, finding a direct route can be almost impossible. I found it very frustrating being able to almost see the complex where my in-laws live and then being forced to walk all the way around a mega block just to get to it. The final results Car: 26 minutes Transit: 49 minutes. Although the transit trip definitely took me longer, I was pleased and surprised by the frequency of the buses in Surrey on a Sunday night.
Our trip into the “Big City”
Given that I live about a 15 minute walk away from a SkyTrain station, heading to downtown Vancouver is a trip that I normally take by transit. Since having kids though, I would have to say that we go downtown far less frequently. So when we got invited to a bbq in the big city, I thought this would be a great opportunity to try out public transit with the kids. Upon arriving at the SkyTrain station, I realized we would have no choice but to use the dreaded elevators. In my opinion the elevators on the Expo line are a major deterrent for young families to use SkyTrain. After holding our breath, we made it up to the SkyTrain platform and began our trip downtown. Renee was fascinated by all of the people and the interesting scenery out the window. Definitely more exciting than a boring old car ride. Leah slept through her entire first trip on SkyTrain. On the way home, we decided to take a bus up the hill. I haven’t regularly taken the bus since being in university and I would have to say that the buses have improved significantly since then. The at-grade entry was perfect for being able to get the stroller on and off the bus.
One of the most interesting things about this challenge has been how people have reacted to me upon finding out that I would be going car free for a week. Generally everyone has been very supportive and interested in the challenge. Yet I have also been faced with some shock and skepticism. We had planned on going for lunch with my grandparents at Lonsdale Quay this week.
When I first told my grandma about the challenge, her reaction was that we would have no choice but to reschedule our lunch. It took me quite some time to convince her that we would be perfectly fine taking transit. As it turns out the SeaBus was one of the highlights on transit for the week, although it was difficult keeping Renee in her seat. I was also surprised about the genuine concern by some about our personal safety on transit. At no point in the entire week, did we ever feel unsafe while traveling on transit, yet there is definitely a perception issue out there.
Living car-free for a week has been an extremely interesting experience. Although alternative forms of transportation may not be as convenient, I found our trips to be much more enjoyable. You experience a street differently if you walk or cycle through it compared to driving. On our walk home from the Moody Park Pool, we made an unplanned stop at the library and took out a couple of books. This is a stop that would never have occurred if we had been driving. These unplanned and spontaneous stops ended up being quite common on our trips around town. Sometimes I think we are so focused on getting to where we are going that we forget that getting there can be half the fun.