Sunday, December 19, 2010

Following Transit

As debate starts to heat up around Victoria's regional rapid transit plans, looking back at the experience and coverage of transit issues in other cities will be useful to inform the discussion.

The Tyee covered the choices between rail and bus rapid transit systems in Vancouver, noting the performance of streetcars during the Vancouver Winter Olympics last February.

Victoria and Saanich councils have both endorsed rail based, light rapid transit systems as the preferred option, and the story helps to explain some of the reasons why what makes sense elsewhere is a good model for us to follow at home.

You can read the story here:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Green Buildings, Cycling and Transit

Just finished up making comments to the U.S. Green Building Council LEED for Neighbourhood Design. Sent my ideas for better defining their bicycle parking standards, contributions to cycling networks and quality of transit services serving developments. Hope it adds some value to their public comment process.

Find it at:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rapid transit and the evolution of our streets

Council recently endorsed Douglas St. as the preferred corridor a new rapid transit service connecting downtown with Uptown and the Westshore.  Transit will see dramatic improvements while pedestrians and cyclists can also expect some enhancements too.  Not so happy are some of those who believe that the reduction in vehicle lanes and on-street parking will destroy downtown business.  Some business fear that their customers will disappear and other voices decry the "war on the car". 

The development of the transit project has been evolving over the last couple of years, with extensive consultation involving the many stakeholders in the community that will be affected by the change.  Public protest notwithstanding, business has been consulted through surveys and the many open house events, all well advertised, and presenting ample opportunity for business owners and the public to get engaged.

Transit planners and city council are well aware of the concerns and have listened to feedback on the issues facing downtown business and the customers they rely on.  Highway congestion, growing density downtown and a need for more office and commercial space demands new approaches to transportation in the region and the transit plan is an important and positive step forward.

Future blog entries will share more of the research analyzing transit options and the work that has gone into developing this plan.

If there is a "war on the car", we are still losing - vehicle dependence is still growing in the region.  Walking for transportation has been dropping, mostly due to school consolidation.  Bicycle trips have jumped significantly, but still account for less than 10% of commuter trips in the region, though the share of traffic in the urban core is still higher than in any other city in North America.  Transit use is edging upwards, but more and significant investments are needed to attract people out of their cars.  It's not a "war", but we do need to provide people with more and better choices - it's an environmental imperative.  We don't have the space to accommodate more and more cars and the threats posed by climate change demand that we shift our choices to more sustainable modes.

The fear that businesses will lose customers is a more substantive issue than the overblown rhetoric about the attack on poor Hummer drivers.  We do need to be sure to share the thoughtful analysis that has gone into planning for a more transit oriented corridor into downtown.  Space for cars and on-street parking, however, is much less important to consumers than business assumes, and for many of them, the changes coming will be positive, if not profitable.

Let's start with a recent study out of Toronto, where bike lanes have been proposed for Bloor St., one of the city's key commercial arteries.  One of the key features of the new Douglas St. will be more robust bicycle lanes, often a target for some who would sacrifice bike facilities to preserve space for parking or vehicle lanes.  Transit isn't trying to dislodge people off of their bikes, rather we are trying to get people out of their cars, so disenfranchising cyclists would be counterproductive to the objectives of the project.  Besides, cyclists, no less than anyone else, are coming downtown to work, to shop or be entertained, and they are using the same routes and headed for the same destinations that everyone else is.  "Complete streets" that accommodate everyone are essential to a balanced and effective transportation system - preserving priority for vehicles is neither equitable nor sustainable.

The Toronto study is useful in at least challenging some of the misconceptions about business, their customers, and the impacts of changing street design on travel and shopping habits.  It's an interesting read for anyone looking for more background on what the future of Douglas might look like.

Here's a link to the study, and watch for more blog postings on my site:

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Failure of credibility

It's probably safe to assume that more people read Focus Magazine than read my blog, so many of those reading here may be familiar with the endless downplaying of seismic risks for our now condemned bridge (by virtue of the referendum vote of just better than 60% giving us the borrwoing authority we need to build a new one).  Their latest issue suggests there is no need to protect our bridge because much of downtown will be rubble anyway.

That's incorrect, since all new construction and many older buildings supported by heritage property tax holidays are being protected to current building code levels, so, as was the case in Chile (Focus must think we are Haiti), damage will be more limited, life safety better protected, and our ability to recover more resilient.

There's lots more fault to find with Focus now, and then (during their long campaign against the new bridge), but for the time being, at least, one interesting read is an article from the Globe and Mail's Report on Business detailing some of the concerns of the insurance industry with respect to how well we are prepared for a major quake, which they also note is likely to hit the west coast sometime in the not too distant future.

An opening note in the article remarks on the need to upgrade critical infrastructure, including bridges,  to withstand a major seismic event.  My research, reported elsewhere on this blog or at my website, covered the issue from a couple of perspectives - bridges are at the top of the priority list of critical infrastructure and investing in protection or mitigation provides net positive benefits are two topics covered in some detail.

Now that the citizens, well enough informed I think, have endorsed the project, we are working towards covering off that one critical link in our own transportation network that will help protect life safety, ensure emergency response and other critical services have access to intact infrastructure, and provide for recovery in the event of an earthquake.

While Focus now suggests that the process and the decision are tainted by a "failure to inform", the real failure here is one of credibility.  There hasn't been much of value there on the issue of what potential threats we face in Victoria from a major earthquake, but just in case you haven't read enough, here's the Globe article:

Thursday, December 2, 2010

More on the sustainable city

Janette Sadik-Khan, visionary transportation commissioner in New York City, is profiled in this Esquire story.  "What's important locally?", you might ask.  The details of her transformation of the streets of New York are informative for any city, and the ambitious expansions of bike lanes and pedestrian spaces are models of what we can be too.  Some of it is already happening (our new bridge, for example, won't disenfranchise drivers, by the way, but it will provide dramatic improvements for cyclists and pedestrians).  More is coming and the change will be welcome.

Tax shifting and municipal spending

Municipalities have been picking up the tab to fight federal and provincial deficits for years.  Federal governments have been withdrawing support for affordable housing and the provinces have been dumping mental health and addiction issues out onto the streets of cities across the country.

At council I push back at one colleague often enough. one who consistently votes against municipal investments in housing, steadfastly holding firmly to his principle that this is a job for the province and the federal government.  We've been in a housing crisis long enough.  I'll continue to argue that our constituents don't care which level of government gets the job done, they just want more action on housing on homelessness.

We've been the catalyst for some innovative programs aimed at increasing the supply of market housing, as well as funding partners in new projects to build affordable housing or, as was the case with our recent acquisition of two hotel properties, taking advantage of immediate opportunities to secure other housing options for some of our more disadvantaged citizens.  We have to get beyond petty debates about whose job it is, and just get the job done.

To be fair, both provincial and federal governments in BC have come to our aid.  We could not have done this by ourselves.  Still, it has been, for Victoria, a much more proactive and responsive agenda we've been pursuing to tackle the scourge of homelessness, a challenge that has been consistently identified by voters as a top of mind issue.

The entry of local and regional governments into the housing field has been sometimes more incremental over the several years that critical analysts are again focused upon in their camapign to promote the fiction that municipal government spending is out of control.  It isn't and we've heard the same story before.

The fact that the spending trends are outpacing inflation and population growth across the board, sometimes, ironically, as is the case in the Capital Region, with more right leaning local governments seeming to be growing spending faster than those of us seen to be on the left, suggests that there is more to the spending growth than irresponsible governanance.

None of us likes spending more than we have to in order to deliver the services citizens expect from their municipal governments.  Sometimes they are even more than willing to pay the difference. The Capital Region has a parks acquisition levy that passed several years ago with overwhelming voter endorsement.

Those other incremental costs, the shifting responsibilities for housing, and for many local governments, what used to be provincial roads, or any number of other tangible assets we own that now face us as the "infrastructure deficit", are adding costs to municipal budgets.  The shell game going on in the background is the tax shift.  The province and the feds have been running successfully on a tax cutting agenda - an appealing platform for any beleagured taxapapyer.  Most of the responsiblities for public services are still there, it's just who does the work and how is it paid for that has been changing.

Dissecting a pattern of tax shifts and spending reallocations from one level of government to another would be a more honest analysis of your tax burden, who is pinching your harder and who is spending how much and what for.  Municipal governments provide a good product at a fair price and its still a bargain, despite what the critics are saying.  You aren't paying more for less, you are just "paying Peter, instead of Paul".

Local governments will be spending time over the next few months fine tuning their budgets, and they do so at meetings open to the public.  It may not be as entertaining as the latest movie or as important to your day as picking up the groceries or taking the kids to soccer, but it's worth coming down to watch the process at city hall sometime.  We'll be at the table early and often in the new year.