Walkable Cities: Can We Be Happier Than We Are?

walk

There has been a recent study that says that walkable cities do not make people happier. According to that study, this is because in the most walkable North American big cities such as Boston and New York City, there is a huge wage gap relative to cost of living for many of those city’s residents.

You can see where this is going already. With so many people working multiple jobs and trying to feed children, doing so at wages that are not in keeping with their financial constraints, the issue of how many walking paths, green spaces, or bike lanes in a given neighbourhood isn’t likely to make much of a dent on the happiness front in relation to those harsher realities.

My response to that, of course, is just this: duh.

Continue reading “Walkable Cities: Can We Be Happier Than We Are?”

Divided We Fall: Last chance to vote in the transit tax plebiscite

https://instagram.com/p/135puAEitB/?taken-by=breebop

The deadline to get in your ballot on the transportation tax plebiscite is 8 p.m. Friday, May 29. For those of you who haven’t yet mailed in your ballot, Canada Post is no longer an option. You must drop off your ballot at an Elections BC office. The closest ones to New Westminster are at Lougheed Town Centre (across from the H&M) or Central City Mall (across from Pearl Vision on the second level; bonus to this one is that you can drop by Central City Brewing after for a self-congratulatory pint or two … better SkyTrain over ….).

I mailed in my ballot a few weeks ago, and for me there was no doubt that I would vote Yes. If you choose to vote No, I ask only that you make your decision based on the question asked on the ballot rather than using it as a protest vote on tangentially related issues.

The plebiscite was a stupid, spineless tactic to avoid taking leadership on the difficult question of how to fund the desperately needed improvements our transportations system needs. But, we were stuck with this political theatre, and this is not a vote on whether we should be voting on this question. It is not a performance review of TransLink, or an open question on spending priorities. Voting no won’t persuade the government to spend more on education, reduce our tax burden, or find another method of funding TransLink.

As New Westminster blogger Mike Folka wrote on his Tumblr:

A yes vote is not, despite what some might want you to believe, a ringing endorsement of TransLink or its lack of voter accountability. Rather, it is the belief that if we want to improve movement in our region that we need to get serious about funding it and that a 0.5% increase to the PST (which will be paid by citizens, businesses, and tourists alike) is arguably about as fair and as stable a form of funding as any. Conversely, a no vote is really just a vote against the implementation of the tax. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not a vote against TransLink (they aren’t on the ballot) and a no vote will not magically result in TransLink reform.

(By the way, you should really read Mike’s whole post. It is excellent.)

Voting no means our region’s ability to move people suffers. That hurts you if you drive (more congestion – and remember TransLink is also responsible for roads), and it hurts you if you are using public transit, cycling and even walking (impatient drivers trapped in gridlock are a disaster for pedestrians).

Please, just answer the question on the ballot. A symbolic protest vote about something else won’t be heard in the way you intend. If you are pissed off with something else, write a letter to your MP or your local newspaper or your local blog, join an existing movement working for the change you seek, and remember these feelings next election ….

Like an old house, New West is blessed with ‘good bones’

Leafy Columbia Street.
Leafy Columbia Street. Photo: Briana Tomkinson

Although many think of it as a suburb of Vancouver, New West was born a city – one of the first on this part of the coast. It thrived in a time before automobiles remade the landscape and transformed our streets from social spaces to thoroughfares. It’s one of the reasons New West’s sense of community is so strong. But it also creates friction between people concerned with regional traffic needs and those who advocate for liveability within our community.

While the commercial centre of the Lower Mainland has moved downtown and (to our chagrin) the political centre remains in Victoria, our birthright has gifted us with some of the best elements of old-fashioned city planning. New West’s decline during the peak age of the auto may actually have been a blessing in disguise, allowing our city to escape some of the missteps of suburbs planned in the highway’s glory days.

Driven by both environmental concerns and new research on what makes communities thrive, there is a movement to retrofit auto-centric suburbs to become more walkable and compact. Luckily, like many of our old houses, New West may have its problems, but it is blessed with good bones.

Many parts of New West already fit the ‘new’ model of compact planning, but misguided attempts to accommodate road traffic within community streets have compromised livability in some areas. Just as many of our heritage homes were blemished by ‘modern’ renovations in the ’70s and ’80s, the appeal of many of New Westminster’s original neighbourhoods have been diminished by retrofitting to accommodate road traffic. It’s time to peel back the shag rug and restore the lustre of our streets.

Streets that welcome people are designed differently from those that merely accommodate them. They are usually narrower, with shorter blocks, and move at slower speeds. The best streets are diverse and let people move quickly between various types of zones: from home to work to cafes to shops. In New West you can see this dynamic at work Uptown. The leafy boulevards of Queens Park and the apartment blocks of the Brow are a short – and very pleasant – walk to several parks, the library, grocery stores, cafes, offices, restaurants and the public transit hub at Sixth & Sixth.

The volume of traffic that funnels through New West from car-centric developments in Burnaby, Coquitlam, Surrey and beyond is challenging to accommodate within our small borders. One reason why our commercial districts Downtown, in Sapperton, and on 12th St. and 20th St. struggle is because their identity is confused. They aspire to be thriving commercial streets while also moving road traffic. This identity crisis results in an environment that is not fully satisfactory for anyone.

Streets and roads have very different goals: a street is a destination, and part of a walkable community. A road is intended to move car traffic quickly from one place to another.

In the Downtown, several improvements have been made to try to enhance the streetscape and make it more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians, but attempts to placate the road lobby hold back Columbia Street’s renaissance as a neighbourhood destination. Front Street is clearly a ‘road’ and while it would be great to have unobstructed access to the waterfront, Front is a vital road connection. It looks to me like the City is taking a pragmatic approach to dealing with this problem by providing alternative pedestrian access to the Pier Park and waterfront. This attention to walkability, neighbourhood character and streetscape is needed in all our neighbourhoods.

Investing in our neighbourhoods will pay off in both liveability and economic strength. Recent studies show that cyclists and pedestrians actually outspend drivers at local businesses. While they may spend less per trip (because it’s harder to carry items home), commercial zones that are bike- and people-friendly draw more repeat business.

This consumer loyalty supports community connection as well. As neighbourhood regulars get to know each other, the social connection provides added incentive for customers to return. You can see this dynamic at work at River Market, the Coming Home Cafe, and at many of our local coffee shops as well. As Jeff Speck wrote in The Walkable City, “Creating a higher quality of life is the first step to attracting new residents and jobs. This is why … all the fancy economic development strategies, such as developing a biomedical cluster, an aerospace cluster, or whatever the current economic development ‘flavor of the month’ might be, do not hold a candle to the power of a great walkable urban place.”

Streets were originally places for gossip, commerce and play, not just for moving people and goods. Moving people and goods is important, of course, and provides such a clear economic payoff that our grandfathers and grandmothers willingly made room for the horseless carriages. But when we made room for cars in our cities, we underestimated the impact on public spaces. Planners must have thought that if it was good to move quickly by car from place to place, surely moving more cars more quickly would be even better. But the impact on community and the local economy has been disastrous.

There is no sense of community from within an automobile. From the driver’s vantage point, pedestrians, bicycles, children and other vehicles are too easily abstracted. They are seen as obstructions, not neighbours. It’s easy to forget there are people within each little pod on the road, and impossible to make more than the briefest connection (via honking, hand signals, a brief moment of eye contact) with those you are sharing the road with.

Reclaiming community streets and dedicating routes for road traffic is an essential part of our evolution as we continue to build the ‘new’ New West.

Transportation woes due to conflicting interests: transit or roads?

There are two peculiarities that we have here in the Lower Mainland that make transportation planning hereabouts a tad more “interesting” than most places. It also increases the danger that a transportation project is not as successful as it could be.

TransLink’s Double-Agenda
In addition to running our local public transport system, TransLink was given another task. The provincial government transferred the responsibility for the regional road network and some major bridges to TransLink. This has created an agency that is tasked to accomplish two goals. It has to plan, build and run the public transportation infrastructure, and it has to plan, build and maintain roadways.

To me, that seems like a very unusual set of roles to be combined under one umbrella. It creates a huge conflict of interest within the organization. On the one hand, they have to promote sustainable means of transportation and try to get people out of their cars, but on the other hand, they need to improve and extend the road infrastructure. These two things don’t go hand-in-hand.

In order to advocate transit, TransLink has to provide incentives for people to not get into their vehicles. This means spending money on improving public transport, advocating a change in attitude, and designing roadways in a fashion that matches these goals (bus lanes, bike lanes, priority signalling, light rail in the centre median, etc.). Improving transit does not usually involve building more and wider roads. However, in order to facilitate goods movement by trucks, they do have to do just that. These roads may be meant primarily for trucks, but will be inviting for anybody to use.

So, to me, the conflict of interest within TransLink is very much a reality. Which goal takes precedence? Transit or roads? An agency shouldn’t have to advocate for public transportation and be mandated to build more roads.

Divided Road Responsibilities
While, on the one hand, public transportation and (some) road responsibility were lumped into one and the same organization, responsibilities for BC’s road network as a whole is divided up between three entities.

  • Municipalities look after local roads.
  • TransLink looks after regional roads in the Lower Mainland.
  • The province looks after the inter-regional road network (although this one doesn’t seem as clear cut; not all provincial roads leave the region).

It leads to increased planning complexities when a particular road project involves more than one agency. Communicating between several levels of government requires constant, conscious effort. If the parties involved don’t keep up that effort, issues will fall through the cracks.

Even worse, each agency might just be looking after its own agenda. They are perpetually strapped for cash. They have limited resources. The funds they do have may have a time-limit attached to them. (For instance, says the federal government, “If you don’t use the money by date XYZ, we’ll re-allocate it elsewhere.”) Faced with the danger that nothing at all gets accomplished, the agency may assume a “let’s get done what we can” approach, obviously focusing on solving their own problem(s) first. How it impacts other agencies or what happens when traffic leaves the original agency’s jurisdiction takes the back seat.

Examples from New Westminster
It doesn’t take much effort to come up with road improvement projects that affect New Westminster. Here are three. One was a planned project that was put on hold, one is being planned right now, and one was actually built. They all seem to show quite clearly what happens when agencies seem to focus mainly on their own turf. These examples are probably well known to anybody living in or travelling through New Westminster.

The UBE
The United Boulevard Extension was one example where TransLink was pushing its agenda (to move goods) as far as their responsibility stretched: to New West’s city limits. What was going to happen to traffic once it hit New West was none of their concern. There was some dubious talk about a North Fraser Perimeter Road at some point in the future, but it was neither clear how the NFPR would run through New West and what its impact would be, nor when it was going to be built. No funding had been secured. So, it was just the UBE that Translink wanted to build. Their main incentive to build it at that time? The federal government was waving $60 million for improved goods transportation infrastructure in front of their noses.

It was only due to massive opposition from New Westminster residents and city council that the project was put on hold. For now.

The Pattullo Bridge
TransLink have a clear and relatively urgent responsibility. They own the Pattullo Bridge. It is not up to current safety standards. Therefore, they must take care of it one way or another. Not to do that would mean they are not doing their job, and it would make them liable should something happen. So far, so good. What’s not good is the way TransLink is looking at the problem. They seem to have been asking themselves:

  • What do we do about the bridge?
  • What’s the best and most economical way for us to do it?
  • Which solution will get us the closest to our “goods movement” goal?

So, they picked the variant that makes the most sense to them. A six lane bridge. They made this choice before much public input was gathered. The impact that bridge will create on either side is not their main concern. The new bridge solves their problem: the aging structure is gone, the liability problem averted. The two additional lanes are an added bonus at not too much extra cost. Their part of the road infrastructure will now allow for better goods movement. — Two goals met with one project! What more can you want as an organization?

Again, it is strong community support that will hopefully bring about some change. At least, for the first time during the Pattullo replacement process, TransLink finally seems to be listening to citizens’ concerns. It’s far from over, but we seem to be on the right track to see the bigger picture.

The Queensborough Bridge
This project completed about four years ago. The Queensborough Bridge (along with highways 91A and 91) are provincial roads. So, this example doesn’t involve Translink, but it shows the province used an approach reminiscent of TransLink’s. — And it shows what happens when a project using this approach is actually implemented.

The province wanted to improve vehicle movement across the Fraser River via the Alex Fraser and the Queensborough Bridges. So, they decided to remove two bottlenecks. They upgraded the Howes Street intersection in Queensborough and re-configured the north end of Queensborough Bridge and surrounding intersections to make traffic there flow more smoothly (or so they thought).

What they did not think too much about was what would happen once traffic left the road that’s under their ownership or how traffic would get from local roads to their improved roadway. These problems were not theirs to solve. They had their agenda (get traffic across the Fraser) and that was it. If traffic didn’t actually flow better in the real world, it wasn’t their roads holding things up. They’d done their share. — Sound familiar?

The result of this thinking we can all see on a daily basis:

  • 20th Street southbound is a big, nasty mess on most day, sometimes even on weekends now; it routinely backs up to 8th Avenue, often further.
  • Stewardson westbound is a disaster every weekday morning with trucks and cars lined up past 3rd Avenue on many days.
  • Even on the Queensborough side traffic routinely clogs Ewen Avenue, Howes Street and roads nearby, as well as the bridge onramp and the highway itself.

Was the goal of improved traffic flow really accomplished?

So, do we actually know the province didn’t really care too much about how traffic would get to or from Queensborough Bridge or is the above scenario just conjecture based on observation? Yes, we kind of do know. One day, a couple of years ago, I spoke to the New Westminster police department about the bridge and the traffic mess surrounding it. They said to me, “We know. The province designed it. They didn’t really consult with the city. Now, we have to deal with it.” Point in case.

Personally, I don’t know how the current situation compares to the time before the “improvement project” (I didn’t live in New West then), but I am having a hard time picturing the current situation as “being better”.

Conclusion
In order to not keep falling into the same trap with every new road project, it may be time to add another topic to the public discussion, a topic more general, beyond any single transportation project.

It would seem beneficial to re-visit how roadways and transit, over all, are being managed in the Lower Mainland and in the province.

Having responsibilities for roads spread across three different levels of government that are clearly having difficulties working together effectively, on one hand, and, on the other, combining public transit and road infrastructure responsibility in a single agency does not seem like a wise choice. It certainly doesn’t seem to be working all that well.

Family-friendly Pattullo rally planned at TransLink open house June 23

Pattullo rally poster
Pattullo rally poster

Opinion polling in New Westminster is pretty clear: New Westminster does not want a six-lane replacement to the Pattullo Bridge. TransLink’s public consultation in our community, however, has assumed six lanes as a given. Clearly, New West and TransLink are not seeing eye to eye.

New Westminsterites concerned about air quality, livability, pedestrian safety and environmental impacts of increasing traffic through our already congested city have organized a rally for the whole family in response to TransLink’s Pattullo Bridge Open House at Sapperton Pensioner’s Hall this Saturday, June 23. Supporters include New Westminster school trustees Jonina Campbell and David Phelan, the Surrey Citizens Transportation Initiative and New Westminster Environmental Partners.

Rally organizers believe TransLink’s public consultation process was unfair and that building a bigger Pattullo goes against TransLink’s own transportation strategy, which centres on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging development of communities designed for transit, cycling and walking. In previous open houses, TransLink has asked for public input on specific questions about planning details related to location and connections for a six-lane bridge, not whether a six-lane bridge is the right solution for our communities.

In the invitation to the event, organizers invite parents to bring their kids, bicycles and bubble-blowers, and participants are asked to keep messages “constructive, welcoming and focused on the issues.” Signs prepared for the event will include slogans like, “No 6-Lane Bridge,” to specifically reference TransLink’s current plans and “Give Surrey Transit Now!,” which is in keeping with their Transport 2040 Goals. Others will include: “Stop Driving Climate Change,” “A Good Planet is Hard to Find,” “Less Traffic=Safer Streets,” “TransLink: Put Our $ Where Our Public Transit Should Be,” “Plan Past Peak Oil: It’s Time to Think outside the Barrel” “Think Lions Gate”, “TransLink: We Need to Talk!” and “Stop Pushing Car Dependency.”

The rally will begin in Sapperton Park, rain or shine, at 9:30am to walk to the TransLink open house together with signs and letters to the TransLink Board. There will also be activities for children during the brief event.

Is TransLink vision too narrow for new Pattullo Bridge?

Pattullo Bridge. Photo: Pat Johnstone
Pattullo Bridge. Photo: Pat Johnstone

TransLink has proposed replacing the 75-year-old Pattullo Bridge with one designed to last 100 years. Unfortunately, after attending their open house in New Westminster last Feb, I walked away feeling that they had missed a crucial opportunity.

First, I did not see how TransLink’s own established 2040 vision to reduce emissions fits into their plans for an expanded Pattullo bridge. Their diagrams excluded any noticeable collaboration with other planners about provincial, municipal and federal roads. Also, I did not see any evidence that TransLink planners were encouraged to investigate other ways of efficiently and affordably moving people and goods that are already in use or being developed around the world. It seems by focusing on bridge placement, they failed to create a broad and visionary linked transportation network for the entire region—that includes not just planning with municipalities and the province, but also the ports and railroads about the important challenges we face in evolving our transportation and energy systems.

When I asked a TransLink planner if the models for future traffic volumes included the increasing costs of oil and gas as a factor, he regretted that they had not.

I understand that the end of cheap petroleum can change our economy. If we do not start to transition soon, even a temporary economic downturn can affect tax revenues available for large projects. I believe that no time is more important than now for clarity, collaboration and constant citizen participation. So before assigning today’s precious tax dollars to another expensive new bridge across the Fraser River, there is an urgency to get it right. And that got me wondering…

…how can we think outside the box that can constrain consultants and civil servants who are, without a doubt, restricted by a particular mandate that has been set out for them?

When thinking about transportation, we all need to develop our visionary capacity so that every project goes beyond short-term local issues. We have to learn to be visionaries and remember that citizens’ ideas about transportation are crucial.

Questions for us:

1.) During your travels, what kinds of low-emission transportation, for people or goods, have you seen that could be considered for the Vancouver region?

2.) When a lot of us are over 70 years old, what kind of transportation do you think we can rely upon for our daily needs?

Questions for planners:

3) When the Port Mann Bridge becomes tolled and cars and trucks divert to the un-tolled Pattullo Bridge, what are the projected impacts of pollution, traffic congestion, and bridge safety?

4) If tolling has undermined the reasoning behind expanding the Port Mann Bridge, is focusing on building bigger bridges going to solve our transportation issues with our best future in mind?

5) What ideas can be put into place, now and into the future, to avoid increased traffic flow through New Westminster’s 3 main corridors—McBride to 10th Ave., Royal Ave. to Stewardson Way, and East Columbia to Brunette?

6) As fuel prices continue to rise, what effect will that factor have on car and truck use on the Pattullo Bridge?

7) Since types of transportation and location of corridors determine the location of new development, what network is envisioned for guiding density for the next 100 years?

8) How can we protect our current green zones (parks, ecological reserves, forests, bog lands, tree farms, Agricultural Land Reserve and non-ALR agricultural use, etc.) as we accommodate changes over the next 100 years?

9) How does our region need to plan for the projected impact of Climate Change?

When it comes to the Pattullo Bridge, I am concerned that TransLink’s vision is too narrow. After all, road designers and bridge builders, when asked to address a problem, will always try to solve it by designing more roads and building more bridges. The result is that we, the users and funders, will not get what we need for our rapidly changing future.

Fortunately, the City wants the people of New Westminster to have a stronger voice in the TransLink bridge discussions, and you can help them have it by attending New Westminster’s open houses on The Master Transportation Plan on Thurs, May 3 at Century House from 2-4pm and the Justice Institute from 6-9pm. Even if you don’t have an opinion yet, your presence is important to inspire discussion in the region and build our shared vision.