Monday, September 26, 2011

Victoria Issues at the UBCM

Got lucky on sunday and pedaled out to the ferry on my way to the Union of BC Municipalities in Vancouver.  Took the bus and Canada Line most of the way on the mainland.  I know that's cheating but it was late and I wanted to get downtown to my hotel to be ready for a couple of meetings before the conference really gets going Tuesday.

First up for me was a workshop on creating age friendly communities, an issue I take a keen interest in, not so much for my advancing years (my hair colour is evidence enough of that), but for the challenges we will all have to tackle as we design our cities for the future.  I'm a baby boomer and it's a huge demographic bulge that will change the nature of our city in so many ways. 

Victoria, by the way, is probably ahead of the curve in many respects.  We're already an active community and many of our seniors are no different than the rest of the population.  Take a look at the Galloping Goose or the walkers on the Dallas Rd bluffs and you'll see lots of our older citizens out for a walk, a run or cranking the pedals alongside their cycling buddies.  Obesity rates are lowest on the west coast, and other health indicators, from heart disease, adult onset diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments more common in aging populations, show Victoria leading most other cities in Canada.  We only trade spots on the rankings back and forth with Vancouver.

Towns and cities across British Columbia, and just about everywhere else in the world too, are looking for ways to adapt to the different needs of their own aging populations, and making their environments more supportive of healthy and active lifestyles is very much a priority for most.  It's a necessary response to the demands of their own populations, even if other governments profit a little more directly from our local work.  Health care costs are a bigger issue sometimes for provincial and federal governments; I'm sure they are happy to have municipalities fund parks, trails, sidewalks, bike lanes and the like - all the things that help support active lifestyles that innoculate people against some of the health problems of old age and sedentary lifestyles.

Back to the workshop. I was most interested in the presentation by Dr. Larry Frank, a professor at UBC's School of Community and Regional Planning.  He's a well known researcher on the health affects of community design and was one of the first to associate suburban sprawl with declining population health indicators attached to sedentary lifesytles and auto dependence.

I wanted to bring back a couple of stories from his slide presentation to talk about current local issues like our own rapid transit initiative.  One of the pressure points coming from critics of LRT is the suggestion that we can solve a lot of our transportation problems with HOV lanes that move more cars and perhaps a few more buses through congested corridors like Highway 1 and Douglas St.  Apart from the fact that it simply doesn't work on a couple of levels (it will never carry enough people to deal with current, let alone future travel demand and creates a whole new set of problems related to parking for all those vehicles), HOV for buses or cars also creates an insidious health problem that is particularly hard on seniors.  Dr. Frank has mapped nitrous oxide and other particulate emissions along transportation corridors in Greater Vancouver.  Not surprisingly, the most heavily travelled routes have the highest concentrations of those emissions, and they are of particular concern for the elderly with respiratory problems, or other health issues associated with the air we breathe.  The concentrations thin out pretty quickly beyond those corridors and there are pockets of health around the city, often associated with more walkable centres.

He noted too, that a denser, more transit oriented approach to transit actually induces more walking, enough that people who use transit are likely to get their daily prescription of physical acitivity just by walking between home and transit or to their destination at work, shopping etc., making transit a positive choice for healthier lifestyles.

For our own debate, however, the choice between HOV and, for some, the Bus Rapid Transit model, needs also to be assessed on the emissions equation.  LRT will run on electrical power, and eliminates point source emissions, a huge benefit to our air quality and, not coincidentally, a positive gain for community health.  Score one more win for LRT and more reasons to discount some of the oversold alternatives.  It's part of the reason why it has been so important to do a multiple account evaluation that measures benefits as well as costs, and not just the immediate capital expenses of construction.  Like the critics say, there is only one taxpayer, and we all know how taxing our health care system is becoming.  Why would we want to burden that system any more.

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