Toilet deserts of New West

The SkyTrain Station at 22nd St in New West is unusual in its isolation from commercial buildings. With no adjacent cafes, restaurants, or stores of any kind, 22nd St is a weird little bubble of activity within a sleepy neighbourhood of single family homes. 

If nature should “call” while you are at 22nd St Station waiting for a train or bus, you are out of luck. The only toilet can only be accessed with the aid of a (typically absent) TransLink station attendant. The nearest business you could ask is a doctor’s office, several blocks up the hill – but even if they might let you use their facility, they are closed evenings and weekends. 

As a fascinating NY Mag article about bathroom culture in North America pointed out, everybody poops, but nobody likes to admit it. One of the side effects is the emergence of public spaces that fail to meet the most basic biological needs of the people who go there. Without an easily accessible public toilet at 22nd St SkyTrain Station, men have taken to using the side of the building as a urinal. Women hold it in better (or perhaps are just sneakier), and parents caught in this toilet desert with a newly toilet trained preschooler are completely out of luck. In other areas, toilet deserts could be created when a bloc of businesses all restrict toilet access to paying customers only, or when the public toilets are closed seasonally or for lengthy periods.

So the big question is, does the City of New Westminster have a duty to ensure reasonable access to public toilets within commercial zones? And if so, how should this be done? Should funding be allocated for creating and maintaining universally accessible public toilets? Should businesses be encouraged (or even required) to allow reasonable access to bathroom facilities upon request? 

Several City committees have been asked by Council to discuss the issue of public access to toilets in New West, including the Access Advisory Committee, the Seniors Advisory Committee and the Committee I sit on, Community and Social Issues. The request reflects concern for seniors with dementia or health problems that require fast access to a toilet, but the issue also affects young children, people who are homeless, and anyone who has ever really had to go RIGHT NOW. 

What do you think? Are toilet deserts an issue in the city? Are there specific places where you see more public urination because of a lack of public access to toilets? What do you think should be done to fix these problems?

Flat-fare transit system, not ‘smart’ cards, is the way to go

In 2013, TransLink will launch a new electronic fare system that would allow it to charge riders only for the distance they actually travel, rather than by zone. But just because they can charge more for people traveling long distances doesn’t mean they should.

A ‘smart’ card system is anything but. It makes intuitive sense to drivers to say that someone traveling from King George to Waterfront ought to pay more than someone going from Columbia to Sapperton. But when it comes to public transportation, riders paying more for traveling a longer distances hamstrings efforts to get  more people out of their cars.

TransLink should be doing all it can to provide incentives for suburbanites traveling long distances into work to take transit instead of driving. I understand that it costs more for TransLink to carry them, but it is more challenging and  impactful to remove a car from the road that would travel from Surrey into Vancouver than a car traveling only a few blocks.

The current zoning system is terrible. There’s no good reason a person should pay more to travel from Patterson to the next station, Joyce, than from Patterson to Metrotown on the other side of the zone boundary. The zone system also makes it vastly less attractive for residents of Coquitlam and Surrey (and beyond) to choose the SkyTrain over driving. (Exclusive transit use is almost unheard of in those areas, as I know having grown up in Coquitlam/Port Moody. Service frequency is too low, and there are significant gaps in bus coverage, depending where you need to go.)

The fare changes proposed are better than the current system. But what we really ought to do is implement a flat-fare system. Yes, it means that we subsidize riders in the ‘burbs. Taking transit at least some of the time is easy in New Westminster, much of Vancouver and parts of Burnaby. Everywhere else in the Lower Mainland, it’s a significant sacrifice. Paying more for less service makes it even less attractive to choose public transit.

More details on SkyTrain crime in New Westminster

Last September I wrote that New Westminster’s SkyTrain safety statistics challenged our community’s assumptions about crime issues at our five SkyTrain stations. First of all, crime is generally down. Secondly, when measuring overall incidences of crime per 100,000 passengers, 22nd St. Station turned out to be worse than the much busier New Westminster station.

But one thing that  I didn’t have was insight into just what kind of crime we were talking about. Fare evasion was lumped in with more serious crimes like assault and drug possession in the data I had access to. But I just saw that the Vancouver Sun has produced a series of infographics on SkyTrain crime (violent crime and drug crime) as part of a bigger series on public transit issues in Vancouver.

The Sun’s graphics show:

  • New Westminster SkyTrain Station is the most violent station in New Westminster, and the fourth most violent in the whole line, with 26 incidents of violent crime reported in 2009. Eleven were related to weapons possession and 12 for assault. (The top three most violent stations in Metro Van are Broadway, Surrey Central and Metrotown.)
  • 22nd St. is the next most violent station in New West, but it is in the middle of the pack in Metro Van. Nine of the crimes are assaults, with four robberies and two sexual assaults.

In terms of drug-related crime:

  • New Westminster Station tops our local list again in terms of number of offences, but it’s almost all pot possession
  • Other stations in New West were fairly low on the list compared to other parts of Metro Van. Almost all the problems related to marijuana possession, though there was also some cocaine possession. Braid Station had one incident of drug trafficking.

Again, to put it all into perspective, TransLink moves around 700,000 riders daily. In all of 2009, there were just 26 incidents of violent crime and 27 of drug-related crime recorded at New Westminster’s eponymous “worst’ SkyTrain station. And, as I mentioned last time, the risk of death related to driving is six times higher than the risk of being a victim of any sort of crime in or around the least safe station on the line.

‘Seamless’ integration of bicycles with transit – when?

One of the strategies resulting from the Translink Regional Cycling Strategy Stakeholder Workshop Summary held April 6, 2009, was to “make bicycle-transit interaction convenient, seamless and intuitive.” Good strategy, but what is being done to realize it?

services_bike_lightrail
Light rail cars in The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) can carry six bikes. Photo: VTA.org

I don’t mind carrying my bike up and down stairs or using the elevator, but if there is a more convenient way, I support it! Seamless, well that is a worthy goal! Wouldn’t it be cool to ride your bike right onto the train? I admit that’s overkill, but seamless … I like the sound of that.

Intuitive … hmmm … I intuit riding to the station, dismounting, following the bicycle symbols down a ramp to the platform and boarding the car that is marked with bicycle symbols, where I hang my front wheel from a hook where a dozen or so other bikes are hanging. I then join fellow cyclists seated at the front of the car to chat about the freedom from the stress, cost, and general lack of well-being (for the earth and its beings) generated when commuting by car.

Results do not always align with strategy. Some of the best laid plans reach unimagined destinations. This is reasonable and sometimes unavoidable. My question to TransLink is: what are you doing to implement your strategy?

Since the workshop mentioned earlier, I have witnessed two occurrences of the suspension of the policy of allowing bikes on trains. One was the closure of the Patullo Bridge, and the other was the Olympics. I understand and even support them both (personally I never considered going near a SkyTrain station during the Olympics, and the bridge was an unplanned emergency. Ideal or not, some decisions must be made hastily).

(Note: If accused of misdirecting my question, I confess my guilt. In my defence, I have posed it on three occasions through the Regional Cycling Strategy Public Consultation page, once on January 20, 2010 and twice since.)

On April 6, 2009, TransLink established a forward-thinking strategy to welcome a form of supplemental transportation that has so much to offer. It is now the anniversary of that occasion, and whether the Patullo Bridge closure and the Olympics were valid reasons to suspend that welcome, my unchanged question is: what is being done to transform the “strategy” into reality?

New West SkyTrain safety stats challenge assumptions

Photo: Mark Bek
Photo: Mark Bek

I was raised to be a bit paranoid about personal safety. Like many kids raised in the 1980s, it was impressed upon me that the world was a dangerous and unpredictable place. I was taught to fear strangers, to look both ways (and then look again) before crossing the road, to lock the door and close the windows at night, and to be wary of walking the streets after dark. The cautions took, and I am one to triple check the locks before going to sleep,  refuse to cross when the red hand is flashing and get nervous when the sun goes down.

As a dedicated transit user and pedestrian, I have not bought into the popular belief that taking SkyTrain is unsafe, but I do carry with me a mental ranking of which stations feel more or less safe. I was surprised to discover that many of my assumptions were just plain wrong.

The latest crime statistics challenge popular belief of SkyTrain safety in New West. New Westminster SkyTrain, for example, was ranked as the second least secure in a 2008 survey of transit riders, but the actual rate of crime places it 13th on the list. I would have assumed that my home station, 22nd St. SkyTrain, would have ranked somewhere in the middle of the pack, but it’s actually the third-worst station on the line for crime after Surrey Central and Gateway. Columbia Station ranked 10th for crime activity, Braid 11th and Sapperton 19th. The gap between the rate of crime at Surrey Central and Gateway compared to 22nd St. is pretty big, however – the crime rate is almost twice as high at those Surrey stations.

Interestingly, in the 2008 survey, Waterfront was the station where people were most likely to feel safe – but it actually has the fourth highest rate of crime, just behind 22nd St.  Columbia and Braid are about as safe as Scott Rd. New Westminster Station has almost the same rate of crime as Main St. Sapperton is safer than Gilmore, but has a slightly higher rate of crime than Metrotown.

The rate of person crime incidents in or near stations, per 100,000 passengers for New West’s SkyTrain stations are:

  • 1.38 at 22nd St.
  • 0.80 at Columbia
  • 0.79 at Braid
  • 0.71 at New Westminster
  • 0.55 at Sapperton

I do think it’s important to measure the drop in crime as well, however. Some stations have seen huge safety gains in the past year. Biggest improvements:

  • King George & Brentwood (tied) – 78% decline in crime
  • Rupert – 66%
  • Edmonds – 64%
  • Waterfront – 50%
  • New Westminster – 47%

And the stations that saw an increase in crime:

  • Braid – 980% increase
  • 29th Ave – 73%
  • Main St. – 27%
  • Granville – 11%
  • Gilmore – 3%

I’m no statistician, but I do find it interesting to compare the rate of crime to other life risks to get a bit of context in terms of just how “dangerous” it is to commute by SkyTrain.

First of all, B.C.’s overall crime rate in 2008 (notably excluding motor vehicle offences) was 9,600 per 100,000 people – which was an 8% decline from 2007, and the lowest recorded crime rate in 30 years. The average rate of crime on SkyTrain across the system was 0.71. SkyTrain’s overall crime rate dropped by 33% year over year.

I am often frustrated at the perception that taking transit – and in particular, SkyTrain, is less safe than driving. Yet the risk of death related to driving is 16.8 per 100,000 for B.C. males (8.4 for females). That’s about six times higher than the risk of being a victim of any sort of crime in or around the least safe station on the line.

Another big takeaway from reading all these reports on SkyTrain crime is how the safety of the surrounding neighbourhood impacts the rate of crime at any given station. This is something all of us have the power to impact. Whether you’re passing through a station or living nearby, if you see crime, report it. Those of us who live near SkyTrains can paint over graffiti, pick up trash, and take action to correct other minor property damage – research shows that people are more likely to litter when they see litter on the ground, and that leaving graffiti encourages hoodlums to return and add more.

So, do your part to improve the safety of your neighbourhood. And let’s all just get over misplaced fear of SkyTrain.

Curb cuts, ‘councillor-proof’ signage and transit safety paranoia: Cote goes car-free

This is a guest post by New Westminster city councillor Jonathan X. Cote. Upon hearing of City Caucus’ civic leaders car-free challenge, which dared Metro Vancouver mayors and councillors to give up their car keys for a week, we at Tenth to the Fraser asked New West City Hall if anyone here would take up the gauntlet. Only four civic leaders were willing to participate: Abbotsford Mayor George Peary, councillors Suzanne Anton in Vancouver and Brad West in Port Coquitlam, and of course our very own Jonathan Cote. Here’s Jonathan’s account of how he fared without a car. Jonathan is also the only New Westminster city councillor on Twitter, so far. You can find him there @jonathanxcote.

Pushing two babies in a double stroller is challenging in a neighbourhood without curb cuts. Photo: Jonathan Cote.
Pushing two babies in a double stroller is challenging in a neighbourhood without curb cuts. Photo: Jonathan Cote.

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

Jonathan Cote with 21-month-old daughter Renee on SkyTrain. Photo: Jonathan Cote.
Jonathan Cote with 21-month-old daughter Renee on SkyTrain. Photo: Jonathan Cote.

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”

The dreaded stinky SkyTrain elevators. Photo: Jonathan Cote.
The dreaded stinky SkyTrain elevators. Photo: Jonathan Cote.

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.

The Reactions

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.

Conclusion

Renee Cote enjoys the SeaBus ride. Photo: Jonathan Cote.
Renee Cote enjoys the SeaBus ride. Photo: Jonathan Cote.

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.