Thursday, February 26, 2015

Solutions, not symbols

We should be designing bike facilities to make it safer, more comfortable and more convenient for more people to choose cycling for some of their daily trips.  The obsession with a two way cycle track design for Pandora, unfortunately, is more about making a statement than providing a genuine solution to complex design challenges.

The city of Victoria has set aside funds to extend concepts for a cycle track – a physically separated bike lane – along Pandora between Store and Cook St.  They will host open houses and discussions with the community on what of three design options they will choose to deliver on a promise to implement new designs to raise levels of service for cyclists in the city.

Any one of the three proposals mimics designs already in place and working in other jurisdictions, though at least one option – unfortunately that which meets the notional budget more so than the service delivery objectives, falls short of dealing with one of the critical elements of effective treatments.  It proposes dropping cycle tracks and creating “mixing zones” at intersection approaches, where cyclists and traffic will go through a sorting according to their direction of travel.  While Victoria’s traffic speeds and volumes are much less challenging than they are in many larger cities, the potential conflicts suggest that this design will fail the test of delivering significant improvements to meet the needs of “all ages and abilities”.

Predictable red herrings are raised about travel delay and increased emissions, but changes to street design are never a zero sum game.  To improve conditions for one travel mode (in this case cycling), will almost always have an impact (sometimes real, sometimes perceived), on someone else.  To keep whole the level of service or capacity for drivers simply misses the point.  The objective in any bike facility is to compromise, to some extent, the attractiveness of driving, and to make it more appealing to choose cycling.  The premise that it will increase emissions is not supported by the weight of evidence.  To the contrary, anything that makes it easier or more convenient to drive grows emissions.  The analysis embedded in the report focuses on incidental emissions while ignoring the benefits of trip conversions generated by positive evolution of a more balanced network.

Of the two cycle-track options, a vocal few are insistent that only a two-way cycle track is supportable, dismissive of the paired one-way designs that probably make more sense in the Victoria context.  Research is cited to support the obsession, but without understanding the concept or the real findings of the research.  While there is a correlation between some two-way facilities and greater increases in travel along those corridors, I could find little in the report that suggests cause and effect. Some of that shift can likely be associated with context and trip generation patterns that have nothing to do with facility type.

Victoria, unlike many North American cities embracing new designs for cycling, has no effective grid pattern, an important element of facility design.  Where there is something of a grid, downtown, the available space parallel to Pandora, along Johnson, provides an effective paired couplet opportunity that better serves destination travel patterns in the city.  The availability of better facilities do shift some trips, but more so route choices for existing cyclists than they do to generate shifts from other modes.  What is most important is to provide complete and effective connections between origins and destinations or “trip generators” – home, work, shopping, services etc.  Like so many drivers who miss the point of traffic system design, some voices in the cycling community now insist that facility design alone will generate dramatic change, as if trails and cycle tracks, like aimless roads, are simply perpetual motion machines rather than essential connections for people traveling with a purpose and a destination in mind.  The best facility in the world will not provide much appeal if your destination is not found along the “chosen” corridor.

Another emergent theme is that Pandora will be “the extension” of the Galloping Goose on the downtown side of the new Johnson St. Bridge.  One of the premises of the flawed logic is that because movements to other routes are not well served at the bridgehead, Pandora is the logical choice since it will offer the path of least resistance.  For those majority of trips that are destined for places other than those few found along Pandora, or north and away from downtown, what does it matter if the complex movement is executed at the bridge or a few blocks to the east, or wherever that change in direction must take place?  Designs in other cities show well enough that complex intersection treatments can be used to accommodate the types of movements critics insist cyclists will not make at the bridgehead.

While some compromise of vehicle movements will accompany whatever design is chosen, the objective is not to create failure simply for demonstration purposes.  In case anyone forgot, roads remain public rights of way meant to offer options, not lectures, on travel choices.  The variability of cross-sections along Pandora has not been thoroughly analyzed for the purposes of the current proposal menu.  Very little surplus space is available west of Douglas, and any displaced traffic would move at first blush, to Fisgard, which has no capacity to absorb additional volumes.  Many of us may not choose to drive, but many more will, and they are citizens too.  Reducing auto dependence, for better or worse, is a process of erosion, not obliteration.

A host of design challenges associated with a one-way cycle track are likely manageable, though they will have visible and significant impacts, both in compromising vehicle travel and in offering better options for cyclists, and those benefits will be no better served, certainly no worse, than the symbolic flag raising of a two-way separated facility, which poses more difficult compromises for system functionality, not just for cars, but oddly enough for cyclists and pedestrians as well.

The cost of the two-way fix exceeds even the one direction cycle track by enough to fund several projects like Pandora and Johnson, all the spot improvements the city has contemplated, and then some, the city’s share of changes to Esquimalt Road, completed some years ago, three times the budget of all the speed zone signs that people didn’t want to spend on real solutions.

Lately a new theme is also emerging to suggest that it is the value of the two way design will affect only one street.  That’s an appealing fiction, but fails to hold up under scrutiny.  Only Pandora will be affected, apparently, though if your route or destinations draw you towards Johnson, you have now been abandoned by advocates who a different agenda.  Complete streets are out, they want to choose for you, like so many others, what route you should take.  For other users of our transportation networks, the diversion of traffic will affect many other streets, most ill-equipped to handle the extra volumes looking for alternatives.  Signal timing that affects cross-streets, pedestrian movements and create issues for transit, emergency services and other transport needs will be given short shrift.

Don’t rush to “demand” a two-way cycle track as that pre-determined choice that must emerge from the public process (why bother?) now proposed by the city.  It may emerge as the politic solution, less likely the right engineering solution.  At the very least, for those who want to engage in that process with a more open mind, make an effort to understand, rather than cherry pick, from the research, and recognize that the choices made will not emerge in a vacuum.  They will have real world, practical impacts on the ground, here, at home, in Victoria.  Any and every thoughtful student of engineering will understand that everything is context sensitive, and even those designs that we steal or borrow from other locales have to be adapted to our unique situation.  We need solutions, not symbols.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Old news in no news . . 

Candidates continue to talk about "forced" increases in the budget for the Johnson St. Bridge.  Like other "new" information, the facts present a rather different picture, and one that has been available readily enough in the public realm.

For most of the term of the current council, I've been attending meetings where project teams have been reporting on progress of the project or bringing scope change requests to the table.  Some of the changes have indeed, added to the cost of finishing the bridge.  None, however, have been force fed to those making choices, though those who have lost those votes might believe otherwise.  Certainly those candidates who have their own agenda, and who have, if at all, observed from a distance, will likewise represent good decisions as a road to ruin.

A case in point, and there are a few big ticket items that are similarly missing from the spin cycle, is those new features that could not have been anticipated when we chose to opt for replacement over a more risky, if not futile, attempt at refurbishment of the existing bridge.

Sometime after our referendum the federal government announced a new shipbuilding program.  It will bring new work and bigger vessels to a variety of yards on the west coast, and our own Point Hope will take on some of the projects and leverage new investments in their operations.  A new graving dock with 250 new jobs attached to it has been in their plans and, with the new contracts and a new, more secure tenure on their property (another story that needs sharing), they are planning to add value to Victoria's marine industrial economy.

The prospect of larger vessels sailing through the channel between the bridge piers demanded some substantial changes to elements of design, not the least of which will be fendering to offer protection of the asset should a larger vessel encounter troubled waters or otherwise get a little too familiar with the bridge.  Engineers recommended, and a majority of council agreed, that adding fenders to the piers would be useful, if not essential, to protecting the city's investment from harm.  Those who imagine themselves as opposition, rather than just a minority voice at council may continue to simply say no to anything associated with the new bridge, but that would be foolhardy, to say the least.  A more skeptical observer might even suggest that in so doing, the critics misread their role on council and, instead of paying attention to getting the city's work done, continued to fight a referendum long ago lost.

Council could have chosen to ignore the advice.  No one was forced to adopt any of the changes.  But that would have been foolhardy, if not irresponsible.  Those new costs were added to the budget, in public, after a full debate and follow the vote of the majority of those elected.  Nothing forced, nothing hidden, nothing resembling an overrun.  Just a clear choice made to protect assets and ensure the city's investment would enjoy the same protection any business or homeowner would want for the durable goods or operating equipment they need to run the show.  Truth be told, those costs will be covered well enough by the new assessments and new jobs being brought into the city.

Had I been at the table, and I'm always paying attention, I would have made the same choice.  Don't trust your city with those who would sell you short to look good on paper.  It's penny wise and pound foolish.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Myth busters and missing links . . .

In the wake of a convenient “release” of information about costs of the new bridge, some of the facts missing in the story line may help to paint a more complete picture than that offered by those with a more pointed political agenda.

Today’s big myth:
There was never a $35 to $45 million dollar project.  Those figures were provided in the condition assessment completed six years ago, proposing a notional budget for a drab, off the shelf bridge to replace the existing structure.  The report spelled out, by the way, that the numbers provided should not be used for budgeting purposes.

Council of the day chose a more complete project – one that included on deck bike lanes, an expanded bridge to accommodate the Galloping Goose trail, another, fixed bridge connection to link the Goose to and from the new E&N rail trail, a cantilevered sidewalk to provide better levels of service for pedestrians and those with mobility challenges, and a road realignment to dispense with the “S” curve, which generated an average of 40 reportable collisions a year. 

Council also looked for a project that would allow the current bridge to remain open until completion of the new crossing to keep traffic of all sorts flowing between downtown and points west, critical to the health of the city’s economy.  One could imagine that those choices would provide a rather different cost picture than those thumbnail estimates.

Journalists covering the story or provincial ministers privy to any city request for funding might have been at least exposed to those rather different project scenarios, even if the implications didn’t sink in.  Self-inflicted forgetfulness is always a good strategy, I suppose, but the facts have been there all along.

Council also responded to the less than enthusiastic public response to creating a replica of a cookie cutter highway interchange with a structure that would provide a more aesthetic gateway to bookend the city’s harbour.  Past generations of city builders did as much for our heritage; we owe it to future generations not to devalue our city by dropping big box suburban sensibilities into the heart of Victoria.

That project concept, at the very least, was very clearly presented to the public, vigorously challenged by those attached to the old bridge, and, despite protestations to the contrary, Victorians had their say, and voted their approval in a referendum by a substantial margin.  The former Minister, to be fair, lives far enough away from the bridge that she wouldn’t have a had a vote to cast in that referendum, so perhaps wasn’t paying attention to the details presented to those who did.

More myth busting to follow.  Stay tuned.

Every vote counts . . . 

Transit is a big issue in the Capital Region, and nowhere are the challenges more acute than in the bus bays and along the routes that connect students between home and their studies at the University of Victoria.  Pass ups continue to be a problem, and students have been left by the side of the road watching full buses pass by.

Flashback a few years and some of the problems were more entrenched and some issues that might be behind us were very current.

When I sat on council from 2008 to 2011, the province appointed those nominated to sit at the Regional Transit Commission.  I was picked by Victoria's Mayor Dean Fortin to the seat at the table, but the province, governed by a Liberal government unsympathetic to councillors who also happened to hold an NDP card dragged their feet for more than a year before the mayor's persistent harassment had them relent and finally file the Order in Council necessary for me to fulfill those duties.

For students at the University in particular, the appointment couldn't have come at a more perfect time.  At the city we had been working through our "Late Night, Great Night" strategy, one element of which was trying to ensure options for those who traveled between homes at residence or around the region with all that downtown has to offer. Just as critical was the need to find students holding jobs in our bars and restaurants a safe ride back home after a late night shift.

More suburban sensibilities that held the balance of power at the Commission were dragging their feet.  They weren't prepared to spend a nickel more to improve service, and didn't care much, it seems, for the needs of a growing student population whose transportation choices didn't fit in a driveway and a three car garage.

The issue came to the table again at the first meeting after I took my spot and the UVic students society were there to give voice to those frustrated by the slow pace in evolution of transit services.

When the vote came to extend late night service to UVic and other neighbourhoods around the capital where student populations are high, my vote made all the difference.  I cast in favour of the service expansion and late night buses started rolling around the capital.

Transit is still feeling the pressure of a growing university population and will likewise be challenged by new projects that will add more students to Camosun College.  The governance model still lacks for more robust local control.  We need to wrest control of local transportation decision making from the province, where no expense will be spared throwing money at cars and trucks to save lower mainland drivers some commute time, but precious little ever finds its way to Victoria and the Capital Region, where our problems may be smaller, but no less frustrating, and our choices to transport ourselves may not always sell cars for Liberal backers.

A regional transportation authority has been talked about for years, and more needs to be invested in walking, cycling and transit to catch up with the travel choices of new generations and move us towards a more sustainable model.

A single vote made all the difference when it was needed.  Every vote counts, every time.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Johnson St. Bridge project, Victoria, BC

The view from here . . 

Contrary to not so popular opinion, Victoria’s Johnson St. Bridge project continues to move forward.

Construction on site is moving at a brisk pace and, despite the critics, many local elements are falling into place.  Bascule piers have been dropped in, roads realigned and underground work that should have fallen into separate budgets have also been completed on the downtown side.

To be sure, no small amount of ink has been spilled of late as elements of the project run into turbulence.  Cost and design issues are the subject of disputes between contractors, constructors and distant fabricators who have, at least, agreed to eat their costs and focus on delivering the product they were asked for.   Some asks remain unresolved, though the city remains in possession of a contract, and disagreements may be sorted out between private sector providers who can look for compensation on their side of the ledger.  The city shouldn’t have to pay for their missteps or private disputes. 

Some on council remain committed to more posturing than problem solving, and the loss of some staff midway through the project left some key controls unattended to.  Not a cause for celebration, no doubt, though most had the good sense to follow through with interim project management recommendations to right the course of the project when it became apparent that private contractors couldn’t solve issues on their own.

All in, the time contingency, at least, remains intact, and funding agreements with the federal government will be met, even with projected delays.  Do it fast or do it right – I would choose the latter.

The challenges identified by the project manager, at least for those who attended council sessions where issues were reported out, are serious enough, though none fatal to the delivery of a bridge supported by a majority of council and endorsed by democratic referendum before the last election.  The very specific comments of the city’s latest hire prescribed less panic than those who are elevating their rhetoric in the run-up to election day.

Cost dissection is a challenge for those determined to advance their own version of the math, but the reality is that nothing of new costs represents a bad investment or an easily foreseen circumstance such that finger pointers can claim out of control inflationary pressures.

Protection of a secure data line feeding info to the military was purposely left off the table until a private sector player decided that that project could proceed, as long as the city paid the freight.  Not a stretch to suggest that the risk of higher costs for damaging the line would have exceeded by far the agreement to pay for the work.  Even more problematic might have been the potential liability headaches the city could have faced if the old bridge were to collapse in an earthquake.  Damage to that line might have been a drop in the bucket in the overall scheme of things, but no doubt well in excess of city costs to move the line to accommodate the new bridge.

Extra dollars invested in protecting your investment from larger vessels now likely sailing into the shipyard after a new federal contract was awarded to various suppliers is also a good deal.  The long term business plan now emerging for Point Hope will return millions in new jobs and tax revenue never possible with the old bridge.  As the saying goes, the city should be run more like a business.  On this one, at least, the business case is about as solid as it gets.

There are those who will deliberately misrepresent scope changes as costs eating up contingencies, but that is not quite accurate.  For those on council who can do the math, choices made were deliberate adaptations to changing circumstances, not blindsides generated by mismanagement.

It’s a steep hill to climb back to the council table, as some have noted, though more are looking forward to a new bridge, and it is coming, than some of those who are convinced otherwise.

I expect that, should I be so lucky to win a seat, I’ll have the opportunity to pay more attention to the job at hand, and spend less time looking for my next career opportunity.   Always up to the task.

Thanksgiving Goose

Dissecting the Goose

Friction along the Galloping Goose and Lochside Trails connecting Victoria and its neighbouring municipalities is not a new issue and solutions have been the subject of ongoing discussions for years.

The recent interest generated by Victoria’s council debate is a good time to bring real solutions back to the table.  Many of those ideas critics are convinced are new have been analyzed already and most will offer little relief.

The free associating on costs of widening versus separated trails makes no sense.  No research that I have found supports the conclusion that building two trails is cheaper than widening a single trail.  Most often, costs of separated trails will be higher and, in the case of the Goose, some of those will be considerable.

The more problematic “solution” touted by some of those offering advice is a change to protocols on the trail and have pedestrians walk facing bicycle traffic.  This needs to be discarded, and quickly.  We need to find fixes that work, not chew over failed strategies that will offer no relief for the very real discomfort trail users are experiencing.

Multi-use trails across North America use a tried and true pattern of directing all traffic – on foot or on bicycle – to stay to the right.  It is a simple approach that creates two directions of travel, albeit with differing speeds.  Cyclists are obliged to pass safely and responsibly and pedestrians need to be mindful that they are sharing a corridor busy with faster moving bicycle traffic.

Insisting that people walk facing bike traffic creates patterns that creates needless complexity and elevates risk.

First, the protocol would create four streams of traffic where once were two.  The need to pass either slower moving cyclists or pedestrians using the trail demands that those passing now negotiate their way through two traffic streams traveling in opposite directions in the space they need to pass.  Picking their way through that chaos is more dangerous and more complex than having to find space to pass any traffic, at whatever speed, moving in one direction.

Beyond the problems of potential collisions in a complex traffic stream, faster closing speeds for those moving in opposing directions dramatically increases the consequences of every unintended impact.  The speed differential between quickly moving cyclists and slower moving pedestrians is certainly a concern in a hit from behind collision, where someone walking at 5 or 6 km/h is hit by someone moving at 20 km/h or more.  Imagine, however, that instead of a differential of 15 km/h, the point of collision occurring at an effective acceleration of perhaps double that figure.  It’s not hard to imagine that injuries emerging from such a collision will be much more severe than those occurring at more modest speed differentials.

The scheme, doesn’t work anywhere else, so why would it work in Victoria?

A more effective fix is nothing new.  I’ve been pestering the CRD for some years to widen the trail to accommodate growing volumes of trail traffic.  The city, following studies on patterns of use, has finally paved a section of the trail south of the Selkirk Trestle, where an experiment with crushed basalt failed to draw more than token use by those traveling on foot.

Where the rubber hits the road, or the trail to be more accurate, is north of the Selkirk Trestle, particularly through Cecilia Ravine.  The trail is a tight three metres wide, hemmed in by rock bluffs that buffer the creek and a steep grade up to the Gorge – Burnside neighbourhood.

Blasting out rock or elevating the trail will no doubt be costly, but the alternative design that would create a separate trail for walkers could only be done alongside the creek, eroding sensitive riparian habitat and escalating costs beyond those conceivable for widening.  For reasons of directness and personal security, many on foot would likely remain on the main trail in any event.  This is one of a couple of key sections where extra width will be critical to accommodate growing numbers of trail users.

Past the Burnside Road overpass mural, the trail widens out to four metres, and most users can likely tell you that friction between walkers and cyclists is much reduced.  Space for passing is more generous, and cyclists have more room to give pedestrians a wide berth.   A shorter section that reaches the Saanich border needs some extra width also, but it will be easy enough to grub out a base and add some pavement on the flat topography available.

The next section between Tolmie and the Switch Bridge over the Trans Canada highway is also too narrow.   Intersections were rebuilt to support new traffic protocols - cross-streets face stop signs while the trail has the right of way.  Trail traffic volumes are higher than those roads and the right of way assignment follows typical transportation hierarchies for major and minor thoroughfares.  Here, the trail is the major traffic carrier.  Contractors constructing the intersections made a mistake when designs were in early stages and again I had to go back to the municipality to have them corrected.  New curb and gutter replicated the 3 metre cross section and had to be torn out and rebuilt to 4 metres.

Along this stretch of the Goose, a separated pedestrian tread could be built - a more comfortable arrangement that is useful where land is available and topography supportive.  It might mean acquiring a bit of private land to create a buffer between cyclists and pedestrians but the physical design is achievable.  None should be confused by the unsupported notion that it will be cheaper than simply widening the trail, but it would provide a much more appealing option for all users.

Again in Saanich, where the Lochside tracks north beyond the junction with the Goose at the far end of the Switch Bridge, extra width is badly needed.    Raising the trail grade is almost certainly needed to allow for extra width through the large culvert designed to accommodate trains of days gone by, and the rest of the topography is likewise tight, but widen we must.  CRD numbers are startling.  Year round averages indicate more than 7,000 trips a day travel the Goose and Lochside, perhaps 50% higher in fair weather, and volumes are growing.

The city and the CRD have known for years that the trail is becoming victim to its own success and badly needs an update.  Many other projects, from repaving crumbling sections to adding bathroom facilities at locations where longer distance visitors need relief, are two pressing issues.  It would be nice if the work we need to do didn’t have to wait for the sharp focus of an election campaign to generate the urgency we are witnessing at the council table or in the editorial pages.  The solutions are easy enough, we just need to get shovels to the ground to make them happen.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Campaign 2014. Putting sustainability back on the table

Aiming to get back to work
For the last few weeks I've been putting together another run at Victoria City Council and The Capital Regional District Board.

I've been hard at work in the community on issues over the last few years, but I've thought that the council table has missed my voice and the region needs practical approaches to some of the major issues and challenges we face.

People have been positively encouraging and I'm honoured to have their confidence.  I hope that their support translates into the thousands of votes I will need to bring back my commitment to the city and help us build a more sustainable future.

Getting coverage is challenge in a city where the media is focused on the mayor's race and many other local politicians are working on their own campaigns.  If they cover one, they have to cover them all and they sometimes lose track of how many people are out there in the field.

Getting my issues out there and giving voice to those in the community who are looking to the future means taking matters into my own hands.

I'll be profiling my agenda and the issues that our community is bringing to the campaign here on my blog and on handy, quick response facebook page -

I did put out a news release, always a little longer than some, I guess.  Local issues are hard to cover in a sound bite, a news clip or a quick paragraph printed in the back pages of the city daily or the neighbourhood weekly.

Here's the release they missed, but I hope you don't.  There is a lot of work to be done to build a sustainable city, and I hope I am up to the task.  Looking forward to the campaign, the energy I get from working the issues and the task of convincing a busy electorate to take time to think about their future and that of their children and getting out to vote.

Keep your eyes on this site to find out more.  Always have lots to talk about.

For Immediate Release
October 2, 2014

Luton aims to put Victoria back to work as he enters council race

Transportation consultant and former city councillor will contest for a seat at the table for the November 15 municipal elections in Victoria.  He is also putting his name forward to represent the city at the Capital Regional District.

Luton said that he will put his experience working on council and in the community back to work on the opportunities and challenges Victoria faces in term ahead.  “Victoria has a new sustainable transportation plan”, said Luton, “but we need to put our plans into action”.

Luton also says that the city’s many other plans need to move from the table to the street.  “Livability is key to our appeal as a destination for visitors and for new economy businesses increasingly attracted to the Victoria lifestyle. “

He points to new developments around the Legislature, land swaps that create new options for a people oriented waterfront and the need to “right size” parking requirements as practical challenges a new council will need to address on development and transportation issues.

At the same time, Luton said that we have to get back to some fundamentals in the city and across the region on issues like homelessness.  “We’re seeing seniors struggling, our shelters oversubscribed.  We can’t solve those issues with reckless budget cuts or solve everything with barn raisings and bake sales.”

Regionally, Luton says the sewage debate needs to move forward.  He supports a fully public model, saying that more privatization undermines transparent, accountable management, and threatens the essential public ownership of our water resources.

Luton says that pressing infrastructure renewal has to be funded by building a more vibrant city that brings people, jobs and services downtown.  “New developments we gave the green light to created more options to live and work downtown and allowed the current council to keep taxes affordable.” 

He says that the region needs someone at the table experienced with diverse transportation solutions that respond to changing times and addresses the fundamental challenges of climate change.  “When I last served on council and the transit commission I tipped the balance to provide better services for students and our “Late Night, Great Night” strategy”.  He says his energy is needed to help push regional transit solutions critical to the city’s new economy.  “Transportation is clearly an area where an integrated regional model makes sense.  We need to build a model that responds to local, regional needs as a counterweight to provincial control of strategies and priorities.”

Luton has been endorsed by the Victoria Labour Council and is working to earn the support of citizens and community leaders in the weeks leading up to the November election.

For further information:
John Luton at 250-592-4753 or 250-886-4166 (cell)