Monday, December 31, 2012

Investing in a more vibrant downtown . . .

Happy to add something more to the discussions about how to inject some new vibrancy into Victoria’s downtown economy.  It’s something that I’ve at least had something consistent to offer over the last few years.  It’s a bit of a contrast to new converts who have more recently discovered the issue and are looking for new voices and new ideas to bring to the table.  Notwithstanding that any strategy will need to be a team effort, requiring everyone on council to be pulling in the same direction, more or less, it would be as useful to have some confidence that there is a coherent connection between the “nice things to say” and the “better things to do”.  Talk is cheap enough, but concrete action is going to cost more, both in real dollar terms and in the expenditure of political capital to support investments or make decisions that may be at odds with the sometimes confusing directions offered by the changing winds of more populist positioning.

Case in point is the Pandora Green project that our last council was pilloried for, from both left and right, for being either too expensive or aimed at disenfranchising those for whom a tent city was, at least then, a convenient soapbox on which to stand in defense of our street population.  Most of our council, at least, was focused on a coherent and consistent strategy to aggressively pursue funding and property opportunities to increase access to diverse housing and shelter options for our most disadvantaged citizens.  It’s still a better, and actually a cheaper, solution for everyone than the tent city debacle that plagued what is now Pandora Green only a couple of years ago.

Homelessness is still a problem enough, but the opening of a new shelter and another project to rescue bankrupt hotels is now paying off, in some measure, in the provision of supportive housing for some of those most in need.  For the afflicted neighbourhood along Pandora, the disappearance of the boulevard squat has been a welcome relief from the downward spiral of disorder, and the new plaza and boulevard improvements are creating a more livable environment for both the more transient users of Our Place to the more permanent residents living in apartments and condos dotted around Harris Green.  Over the longer term, the revival is also likely to attract more local business investment that is as likely to pay for the costs of the project through increased assessments, contrary to the hand wringing of those who have, as always, decried the expenditure of public funds unfairly extracted from their pockets.
The other fiscal dividend may still have a long gestation as we try and realize the savings that will emerge from a strategy that shifts management of what was an increasingly intractable policing problem to a more appropriate social services model.  Police calls to the area dropped by more than 25% soon after the completion of the project and, along with the housing and other supports we so desperately need in our community, the longer term prospects for at least containing the growth in policing costs should emerge from investments that work in concert with one another.  Making downtown and nearby neighbourhoods more attractive and reducing the impacts of difficult social issues is going to be key to sustaining, if not reviving, some of our economic vibrancy in Victoria. 

That’s a lesson that should be understood by the councillor now promising to make the downtown economy a priority.  Scoring political points by looking for ways to cut the city’s investment in affordable housing made for a good few news stories, but it was never a good strategy for building a healthy downtown economy dependent at least as much on presentation.  Likewise, her campaign video trashing the city’s investment in Pandora Green probably made friends and influenced votes, but I hope the councillor will be so good as to at least rethink, if not climb down from that particular plank, or prank.  Making mileage with the grass-roots community was good politics then, but there’s a new year coming and a new parade to chase, even if the more comprehensive and coherent collection of plans and policies built to emphasize downtown density, new economy industrial zones and other more substantive approaches to economic diversification are in play.  Teamwork, it seems, is less appealing when it’s all about being a new voice, a different voice, an independent voice.

I’ll be watching to see what’s under the Christmas tree next year.  It’s bound to be something fresh, or at least half-baked, again.

New look for an old problem

Nouveau bean counters have kept quiet about a recent parks project that emerged in James Bay, a neighbourhood near to downtown in Victoria, BC, though numbers of other park projects have borne the brunt of ire over the expenditure of tax drawn funds aimed at greening the community. 

Fisherman’s Wharf Park underwent a transformation over a few years, turning a patch of grass, and not much more, into a first rate, interactive playground and, towards another end of the field, a more extensive and expensive project of rain gardens and other features designed to replace conventional storm water management utilities with a more naturalized and effective system to gather up the overload of winter storms and filter the water before it finds its way back into the nearby harbour.

The very visible and stunning project was welcomed by neighbourhood activists, but found some dissenting voices among those whose more basic objective is to prevent the spending of tax dollars on anything they can see, let alone a seemingly superfluous window dressing project aimed at presentation, more than effective management of the city’s always too generous budget resources or physical assets.

Moving the project ahead over the term of the last council was no easy feat, with some eyebrows raised over costs associated with the improvements, while at the same time willfully blind to the benefits delivered by new approaches to managing some of the more fundamental services of urban infrastructure that cities remain responsible for.  Many are, at best, unfamiliar with the maze of pipes and other utilities hidden underground – the ones that carry the water to our taps, take away the waste after it’s been flushed away, or the hundreds of kilometers of storm sewers that are there to channel the floods of wetter seasons, draining the roads and carrying water away from our buildings and houses so we can continue to function as a city more than a swamp.

In Victoria, as in many other cities, those pipes are aging in place, and not very well, with some of our own system 100 years old or more.  Where breakdowns occur, the cost of digging in and replacing pipes is an expensive and repeating emergency that has to be dealt with, and the slow but steady replacement of the unseen infrastructure a dauntingly costly exercise, the magnitude of which is grasped by few enough of our neighbours.  It’s the unseen deficit of infrastructure, once built by previous generations and that we are now seemingly resistant to repairing or replacing as the bills come in.

I was reminded last year, of how little appreciated the assets held by the city contribute to our quality of life, or how cities deal with the routine and mundane impacts of our weather patterns, even as the climate evolves towards something more ominous.  Why waste money on planting more trees, I was asked by one critic?  I offered that a tree was a very good investment, actually, not the least for its ability to suck up huge quantities of rainwater that might otherwise find its way, unhappily, into your basement if the rest of the system was overtaxed.  We do happen to live in a city where it rains, at least on occasion and sometimes heavily.  Storm water systems can only manage so much and sometimes must rely on the natural environment to pick up the slack.

The new park design is more complex, but likewise substitutes manufactured underground utilities with a more sympathetic and natural design.  It’s one that can handle the storms and provides the added benefit of filtering toxins out before the water returns to the ocean.  It’s open and it’s simple.  If a system were to clog up or break down, it would be accessible and serviceable, though the need is so much less likely to arise since it better mimics natural ecosystems than a drain grate and pipe buried under ground, asphalt or concrete.  There are no valves and mechanical features to malfunction, since those are likewise taken care of by natural design – the landscape is its own safety valve, absorbing or storing water and slowly letting it percolate back into the water cycle.  It looks expensive, but apart from the initial capital works, the system maintains itself much more cheaply and the initial costs are not so different, really, than those we pay for the infrastructure you cannot see.

The new Fisherman’s Wharf park opened in the fall of 2012, with, ironically, some on the new council in attendance, including those who are lately looking hard to find new targets for cost and service cuts, claiming to be focused on the essentials.  Some of the discussions at council seem to have been aimed at parks, greenways, bike lanes and other facilities viewed as “nice to do”, over what cities “must do”.  That shows at best, a lack of creative thinking and a short-sighted approach to how cities manage assets and responsibilities.  Longer term costs are an issue as much as immediate capital challenges, and, truth be told, some of the costs can be covered through the increasing assessments associated with rising land and housing values in a neighbourhood much improved by the addition of a beautiful and natural park that provides the same essential services anyway. 

We need to start looking forward to the future, not back into it keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the past, and one which, in so many ways, may not have worked so well in any event.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Blue Bridge Critics Falling Down, Falling Down . . .

Above:  Geotechnical work for the new Johnson St. Bridge was underway in October of 2012 as city staff worked through competing bids for the construction project that will start soon.  Rumours of the imminent demise of the project are unfounded.

Op-eds in the Victoria Times Colonist have played out some of the tit-for-tat around Victoria's Johnson St. Bridge project.  Suffice to say the latest piece, similar to other agenda driven commentary, makes scant use of the facts.  The Request for Proposals process is now complete and technical evaluations are taking place that will inform a recommendation to Victoria City Council which, myths notwithstanding, will make the final decision on the award of a construction contract.

Here, for your reading pleasure (or otherwise), are some rejoinders to the last op-ed on process and product.


The process has always had flexibility for numbers of tasks and business negotiations, but always understood has been the completion dates for partnership funding and the construction schedule afforded by fisheries windows.   Extensions have been sought by proponents, all three of whom remain interested in winning the project, hardly indicative of a desperate for a deal scenario.  Budget limits are understood, whatever the contract language, and that is shaped by specialized legal counsel rather than any direction aimed at fleecing taxpayers.  Project elements, particularly specific scope changes that add new responsibilities and associated costs have been presented to council, in open forum, and endorsed by majority votes.

At the outset of the bridge decision process, Ross Crockford was concerned that the process was moving forward too quickly.  What’s changed?

Detailed design and construction optimization have always been in the hands of the successful bidders, just as indicative design is, and remains, under the direction of the city’s consulting engineers at the MMM group.  They’re responsibility is to ensure delivery of the bridge as proposed to council and Victorian’s in the successful funding referendum.  Evaluations of optimization strategies or details of design will be conducted, as they should be, by expert engineering staff and consultants who are responsible to council and the public to ensure that the bridge delivers on the fundamentals of design and function outlined during the referendum.

Recommendations will be forwarded to council, where decisions will be made.  Councillors will no doubt have access to information, in confidence, to protect proprietary business interests, as they would with any project in Victoria, or any other jurisdiction receiving multiple, competitive bids for any contract or project.  The awarding of the contract will ultimately be at the discretion of council, and reported on at public committee and council meetings.

The inference that this approach to decision making on proposals submitted to the city is unique to Victoria or to this project is not credible.


The fundamentals of the bridge are sound and the storyline that continues to be promoted of an untested design unfounded.  The technology is well understood and refinements will be proposed to ensure functionality for a unique bridge, as it would be for any bridge project.  There are few bridges anywhere that are not sensitive to their setting, context and unique construction challenges.  The single leaf bascule at this location is an appropriate solution.  Securing the deck mid-span is a less optimum design than a resting span on one side for good engineering reasons, whatever the traffic above.

The save the bridge campaign pressed by Mr. Crockford has sought to preserve a single span structure, making his claims on this issue less credible, if not hypocritical.

New comparisons

Comparisons have been made with a Miami project, another strategy that failed on so many indicators in the promotion of the “No” vote during the referendum campaign.  Like the many bridges that were offered up during the counter petition and referendum campaigns, this new example similarly fails to provide a credible comparison.  Critics will find what they like and leave out the facts that don't support the storyline.

Miami is at the very low end of earthquake risks and codes will be significantly different.  The seismic resilience of our own bridge is at the highest end and the cost differential for our project is only the incremental difference between our lifeline bridge designed to withstand an earthquake at an 8.5 magnitude (to offer to most commonly understood reference), over a less robust 6.5 event, quite different from a concept of bringing a bridge with no seismic resilience to even a modest, if not full code compliant structure.  The city settled on the maximum code available to meet a variety of objectives.  The cost comparisons on that element of the project are not credible.

Cost comparisons are, in any event, out of date.  The Canadian dollar was 5 cents below the U.S. dollar at the time of completion of the Miami project and inflation would also have to be accounted for.  Florida is also a “right-to-work” state where wages are suppressed by legislative construct, reducing some input costs, but also exposing users of this particular procurement model to risk factors associated with higher injury and fatality rates, as well as questionable quality and timeliness of project delivery.

The Miami project also excludes numbers of other features and incorporated numbers of other projects that were added, and endorsed, for the new Johnson St. Bridge project.  They include road-works on approaches, particularly on the west side where road design has been found to generate an accident profile; elements of a harbour pathway project that will link to the bridge and other networks for cycling and walking; a separate bridge and trail piece to connect the new E&N rail with trail with the Galloping Goose and a terminus for both trails; as well as public art, bumpers to protect against vessel traffic, movement of a secure data line and other unique elements to our project..  None of these are provided in the “accounting” comparisons made between Victoria’s project and Crockford’s latest example.

Free association

While Mr. Crockford characterizes the city as “desperate” for a deal, it seems Victoria is more likely in the driver’s seat.  With three competitive bidders all eager to win this project, the city is not facing the prospect of relying on a single bidder who can dictate price.  The suggestions that city council will act as a “rubber stamp” can’t be taken seriously.  Final decisions on contracts always rest with council, and with this project in particular, there have often been divergent opinions on the choices before both the current and previous council.  Ross Crockford likes to characterize any decision with which he and his media sponsors disagree as a “rubber stamp” decision.  Far from pushing on with a project on the wrong track, the bridge is moving forward as intended, as endorsed by the council that made the choice in the first place, confirmed by a majority of new councillors and proceeding to meet the timeframes set in place to meet the important constraints for fisheries windows and funding partnerships. 

No amount of hand-wringing or story-telling in support of a failed agenda will change the facts.  It was a sound decision, made by those charged with making that choice, to choose a new bridge over the too good to be true fairy tales of a rescue and refurbishment project.   Bids have closed and a contract will be awarded soon.  Watch for more visible signs of the project to start appearing in the harbour and on the landscape around the bridge project.  Crockford, no doubt, will continue to tilt at windmills.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Housing on the Block

Last week Victoria City Council voted to cut funds for affordable housing.  The vote will be considered for adoption this week and deserves a second look.  It's indicative of a problem with so many governments who see themselves as an investment bank rather than a service provider.  Governments don't collect taxes to earn good financial returns, rather they collect them to fund the services and build the assets necessary to sustaining healthy communities.  Good on those who saw that difference in the first place.  Here's my letter asking for reconsideration.

Please reverse your GPC vote to cut Victoria's housing programs.

Clearly we have made a lot of progress in generating new partnerships to expand our supply of affordable housing and new private sector projects are moving forward that will add more market rentals.  Still, the job is not finished and the private sector alone cannot meet the specialized needs of disadvantaged populations and the many who remain homeless in our city.
Victoria needs to hang on to the leverage the city can exercise through funding contributions and partnership programs.  We cannot do that through the CRD alone.  Ensuring that projects are sensitive to local concerns will still be best addressed when the city has a strong voice at the table, and that voice is strongest when we have the leverage of being a major funding partner.

Victoria does face financial challenges, just like every other municipality in Canada.  It is simply not good enough, however, to wait until other governments return to the housing field to deal with the problems we face today.  There are still homeless on our streets and projects that will be needed to house them take time and planning.  The respite of a weak economy is not a long term solution.

Likewise, the obsession with funding challenges is also short term.  Many projects initiated by yours and previous councils are moving to planning or are nearing completion.  They will add to your assessment roles and help support the services Victoria citizens expect their city to deliver and the assets you are charged with managing.

Looking for budget efficiency is important to our citizens, but it is not your only task.  Housing now and in the future is key to the healthy of our economy, our community and our citizens.  It is critical that Victoria remain committed to that agenda by ensuring the resources and the influence the city exercises through our own programs are supported.

Please make sure that the good work we have started as a community does not stall and rethink the funding cuts supported at committee.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Your ship has sailed . . .

Another in the seemingly unending stream of harebrained letters hit the paper today, floating the fantasy that the city could be better served by a fixed link crossing in place of a new Johnson St. Bridge.
One premise of the letter is that the bridge lifts only for the occasional sailboat to pass through the channel.  Quite the contrary, an active and vibrant shipyard continues to operate at Point Hope and it will be a surprise to some how large some of the ships are that get pulled onto land via a marine railway that cost no small sum for the owners of the shipyard.  They’ve added a few spurs so that numbers of vessels can be anchored in the yard for repairs and maintenance. 
Many are much too large to fit under the existing bridge of course, and federal regulations would require a clearance of some 185 feet for a fixed link over navigable waters.  Even were those regulations to be tweaked to accommodate local conditions, the idea of a fixed span is unworkable if not nonsensical, and would require the alienation from productive use of great swaths of land downtown and in Vic West, eviscerating any of the imagined cost savings proposed by such a foolhardy project. 
Point Hope is already one of, if not the largest single taxpayer in the city, and choking off their business would be compounded by the disappearance of many smaller businesses that would have to be razed to fit in ramps and other infrastructure to facilitate a fixed link in support of the “free flow” of traffic the writer is desperate to pursue.
The shipyard is at a most perfect location for their operations and those others that will continue to suggest the city just move them out of the centre to a location more convenient to their myopia know nothing about how Point Hope operates let alone the next phase of their planned growth.  A graving dock that would allow them to work on larger vessels, perhaps even new construction, would fit nicely into the harbourfront and, in contrast to the complaints of some, contain some of the noisier operations with a more sheltered facility.
The graving dock plan, by the way, emerged after the referendum on the new bridge, even before a new federal shipbuilding program was announced, and has required some of the scope changes for the new bridge mischaracterized as a runaway budget by critics masquerading as media.
Point Hope has been a shipyard for almost 150 years, employs hundreds of skilled tradespeople and supports hundreds of other small businesses in the city.  It is a huge asset to our local economy in so many ways and, with their more ambitious plans, will employ some hundreds more, pumping more dollars into a city treasury that faces revenue challenges most of us are familiar with. 
Barring the predations of new councillors who imagine that they have a better idea for the use of the land, or want to promote more punitive strategies for dollar extraction from the shipyard business, Point Hope has a promising future that includes many more ships larger than the limited imaginations of commentators who continue to dredge up ideas I thought were scuttled long ago.

Friday, October 5, 2012

One vote at a time . . .

Next weekend I will cast a ballot to nominate the person I would like to carry the NDP banner in a by-election that must be called to replace my friend Denise Savoie, who retired from office last month after years of stellar service to the community.  My heartfelt thanks go out to Denise for all the good work she has done in Victoria and on the national stage to give voice to the issues and initiatives important to our community.

I will be supporting a candidate who reflects my values and priorities and someone who I think can carry forward the legacy that Denise has built in our community.  It is most important to me that in Victoria and across Canada that we focus on the coming calamity of climate change.  It is probably the most pressing issue of our time, and we need a candidate for our times. 

There is no challenge today more critical than our intractable dependence on fossil fuels to power an unsustainable way of life that must change, and not just for the reasons of environmental catastrophe that awaits us if we do not act.

New Democrats have a long and proud history of tackling the social and economic issues that reach beyond the comfortable and the well to do.  We brought socialized health care to Canada that is being eroded by those who believe we should return to a failed private delivery system that would cheat many Canadians of their rights as citizens. 

We have fought for decades for new models of economic sustainability and equity to ensure that our citizens have decent jobs to support themselves and their families, and can make a positive contribution to our country and to our communities.

We have fought for equality and the rights of Canadians regardless of race, colour, sexual orientation or the many other differences we celebrate in our diverse country.  No party has been a more vocal advocate for issues of social just than the New Democrats – past and present.

Canada also used to play a positive role in building a peaceful world and we have lost our way.  My father wore the blue beret with a pride that I could celebrate.  Today we seek military might and export aggression alongside the rest of the tools of our undoing. 

We need to be a voice again for peace and reconciliation at home and abroad, and we need to catch up to many of our partners in other nations who are working towards a sustainable future.  I fear that the only sustainability our current government is interested in is the outward flow of our resources and the return of money that will, ironically, pay only for the damage we will have wrought on the world and ourselves.

Health care will not only be pressured by an aging population who need the contributions of young and diverse flows of immigrants the Harper government is trying to keep out of Canada (except for those who can be exploited in servitude).  It will also be challenged by the epidemic of sedentary lifestyles that we have adopted and new diseases and pests that who need no passport, only a changing climate in which to thrive.

Our crumbling infrastructure needs the money that Harper invests in fighter jets, and climate change will challenge us here too.   It will be harder to create jobs from denuded forests, drought stricken farmlands, or to house people in communities flooded by rising sea levels.  These threats are real; the cold war targets we are preparing for are not.

We cannot move forward relying on the models of the past, and we need new, genuine voices for change, for sustainability and for a true agenda on social justice that recognizes the interdependence of our community and our environment.

I have considered all of these issues and face a difficult choice.  We have before us exceptional citizens with diverse histories and a commitment to our community and our country that demonstrates again that New Democrats have the best to offer the people of Victoria who want a responsible voice in Parliament.  But at some point I will have to cast my vote, and so, after having listened to those who are candidates for the nomination, and a feeling that I know all of them well enough to call them friends, I am casting my vote for Murray Rankin.

Murray brings a voice and a record of experience as well as something new for Victoria.  He has a history here, but much valuable experience elsewhere in the province and in the country.  I believe he offers us not just the best hope to keep Victoria’s parliamentary seat in the NDP family, but also the best choice to take the issues that matter to me personally and to many in our community on to Ottawa.  He will truly make an exceptional Member of Parliament and I believe he will be “cabinet ready” in a new government led by Thomas Mulcair.

I hope you will join me at our nomination meeting and cast a vote in support of that hopeful future that I believe Murray will well represent.  Let’s hope we have a by-election soon so we can get to work filling the big shoes Denise left behind.  We have much still to do.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Trade Mission

Last week’s trip to Long Beach, California, was a trade mission.  I helped staff a display for Carmanah Technologies, a Victoria based business that specializes in solar lighting systems for a variety of community and industrial applications.

Carmanah’s new crosswalk beacon system makes it safer to cross the street, a simple need at probably thousands of locations across North America where too many cars and too many roads are compromising the urban environment, discouraging kids from walking to school and creating a host of other problems in a society becoming too comfortably sedentary.

Solar powered systems are a fraction of the cost of hard-wired systems and Carmanah’s beacons have been well received by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.  The company’s previous forays into the marketplace connected them with the engineering or signal systems communities, but the Pro Walk – Pro Bike – Pro Place conference was a revelation.  The people at this conference are passionate about their work to humanize American cities and make walking and cycling an option for more people again.

I know a lot of the people working in the field, from advocates to practitioners working for cities or states, and some of those who play a major role in developing standards or approving systems for making walking and cycling safer and more appealing in the U.S.  The conference has always had a few handfuls of Canadians and international delegates in attendance, and it’s always good to keep those networks current.  I think if you check with Carmanah, they’ll confirm my impression that I provided a valuable addition to the team, making introductions and connecting their guy with the people who are looking for the kind of technology solutions Carmanah has to offer.

Taking Victoria technology on the road to markets that matter is good for business and I was happy to be part of that.  Carmanah paid the freight – covering my expenses for the conference, and I think they got a good deal.

Previous “trade missions” to previous editions of the Pro Bike conference helped me do my work in Victoria, and our standard bike rack design is a result of my first trip in 1998 (the conference was held in Santa Barbara that year).  The inverted “U” design is now being used in numbers of municipalities in the Capital Region and the basic design has been adopted in Vancouver too.  Our racks are finished and installed by city staff, supporting good jobs here in Victoria.

My next mission unfolded in Philadelphia (2000), where I starting putting together our bid to bring the conference to Victoria.  By 2002 when the conference hit Minneapolis – St. Paul, we had won our bid and, along with other local advocates and a politician in tow, we put together a great promotion to make sure delegates signed up to come.  Pro Bike (as it started out as) had only come to Canada once before, but so many were excited to come to Victoria.  When it arrived in 2004 nearly 600 delegates were here, along with spouses and family, and the various business exhibitors that populate the trade fair element of the program.  Estimates of economic impacts for Victoria approached almost $500,000 in local spending (and yes some of that was on beer).

Pro Walk – Pro Bike next hit Madison, Seattle and Chattanooga, and I made sure I was at all of them.  The Long Beach conference brought the National Center for Bicycling and Walking together with the Project for Public Spaces and attendance has hit 800.  My attendance over the years proved a good foundation for connecting Carmanah to new markets.  Our conference centre asked me a couple months back about bringing the conference to Victoria again and one of my connections from the city of Vancouver will chase me down soon to talk about bringing it to the big city.  Economic development isn’t handed to you; it’s something you have to work at.

I expect Carmanah will harvest all the contacts made and realize some successes at selling their technology to cities in need – and who doesn’t need safer walks to school, a better pedestrian environment, lower collision rates and better health outcomes, to name a few of the benefits of making walking safer again.

Multiply my experience by the many companies and businesses in Victoria who export product or expertise abroad – across Canada, into the U.S. or overseas to established or emerging markets.  Trade missions are good investments, not just junkets for the lucky few.

I worked hard (had a good time with old friends too), and probably added some value to Victoria’s economic prospects while I was at it.  Don’t be fooled by those that offer discount ideas about how we can prosper.  We have to build what we have at home, but we also have to reach out for ideas and take what we have to offer to a world equally as eager for what we can share. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A week or so ago I dropped a note into the CBC's inbox and sent the same letter to our local newspaper.  It followed the news that Victoria City Council was facing signficant and costly challenges to upgrade the city's building portfolio, after seismic issues and the cost of fixes were shared at a council meeting.  The storyline suggested, incorrectly, that the last council was unaware of the issues and unprepared for the news.

Current councillors endorsed a motion to make sure consulting reports to the city were delivered and shared in a timely matter so council could consider costlier projects with the full knowledge of the pressures any new report might reveal about the city's financial challenges.  The motion and the story were founded on something of a fiction about how much was known about some of the elements of the city's infrastructure deficit, a liability councillors have known about for years.

Here's the unaired, unpublished letter I wrote in response to the flurry of news stories that followed the motion and discussion at council.

Kudos to Lisa Helps and Marianne Alto on pushing for timely release of reports to city council on the details of our infrastructure deficit.  They should know that a timely report to the last council began the discussion about the fate of the Johnson St. Bridge.

To Lisa’s question about whether or not we would have made the choice we did had we known about the costly seismic fixes needed for other city assets, the answer is yes.

Most of the cost of the bridge is unrelated to the fiction of architectural extravagance that Helps and others continue to promote.  Movable bridges are never easy and there are no off the shelf designs that can be dropped into place like a Spencer Rd. interchange. 

Even common models must be adapted to the idiosyncrasies of specific locations and extensive design work and modeling would have been required for any of the options that were considered.  The existing Blue Bridge, with its top heavy, overhead counterweight system, is not a good design for cities like Victoria, where seismic vulnerability is acute.  The engineer most experienced with our bridge told us that of the two choices Victorians had before them in 1920, they picked the wrong one.

Many Victorians, I think, would not, in any event, endorse Helps’ embrace of mediocrity in place of a more sympathetic design for a city that prides itself on presentation.

While the details of seismic issues facing numbers of city owned properties may not have been spelled out in detail, councillors past and present have been repeatedly warned about an existing and growing infrastructure deficit associated with aging infrastructure, including city building portfolios.  The bridge was at the top of the list and we chose a responsible course of action to check that project off the list and start planning for many of the other challenges Victoria faces.

It will be helpful to have timely and detailed reports on infrastructure challenges and other issues provided to council and the public, but councillors should take care to make sure not to re-shape the facts to fit their own storyline.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

What's Up . . .

Social media and so many other websites are demanding my attention.  It's keeping me from updating my blogs on what's new or an issue in Victoria I'd like to comment on.  That will still have to wait for another day, but here's a news release I just popped out this afternoon.

Local tech company Carmanah is taking me on the road to help promote lighting and beacon systems that make crossing the street easier and safer.  Who could argue with that?

I haven't missed a Pro Bike conference since I started going in 1998 and brought the whole show here in 2004.  It's a growing event and nearly a 1,000 delegates will attend - engineers, planners, advocates, and companies that do business in support of cycling and walking (bike rack manufacturers, bike share promoters, and of course companies like Carmanah that have technology that can support active transportation.

Part of my mission is funded by the CRD - I'll look for sessions where I can steal ideas (I'm good at that), that will help us as we work here to implement a regional pedestrian and cycling plan.  Design and other programs are evolving fast and this is my professional development opportunity as well as my chance to take away ideas for a more sustainable capital region - part of my mission in life.

Don't be shy - visit my Capital Bike and Walk site at or my bike parking resource at and donate to the cause.  Your support helps us continue the work we need to do to keep a firm grip on our title as the Cycling Capital of Canada, not to mention a most walkable, livable and healthy city too.

For immediate release

September 6, 2012

Road technology offers two way travel for ideas

Capital Bike and Walk Executive Director John Luton will travel to the Pro Walk – Pro Bike – Pro Place conference in  Long Beach, California next week to showcase local Victoria business with Carmanah Technologies and cover learning sessions he hopes will inform implementation strategies for the Capital Region’s Cycling and Pedestrian Master Plan.

Luton will be helping staff Carmanah’s exhibit at a trade fair element of the conference where the company’s innovative solar powered crosswalk lighting systems will be promoted. 

He’s also working with CRD staff to bring back lessons learned to share with local designers and advocates.   “Programs and engineering for active transportation are evolving fast and we need to embrace the most current and cost effective solutions to help realize our common objectives to grow cycling and walking for transportation”, says Luton.  “At Long Beach, I’ll have access to some of the best ideas at work in the world”.

Carmanah's solar flashing beacons can be found across the region and in jurisdictions throughout North America.  A strong Safe Routes to School component to the conference is an ideal target market that Luton hopes to help connect Carmanah with. 

“Making walking to school safer is key to getting kids back on their feet”, says Greg Miller, Managing Director of Traffic at Carmanah.  Carmanah’s new beacon system is known as a Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon or RRFB, which is a new device that has been proven by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration to be effective at reducing dangerous pedestrian collisions.  The new device will soon be installed by the District of Saanich on Burnside Road near Marigold Elementary and Spectrum High School.  Saanich is the first municipality in the region that will be installing the new device as part of an evaluation process.

 Luton aims to look at bike share operations, separated bike lane designs, “complete streets” for buses, bikes and pedestrians, car-free streets or events, and more on the newest in bicycle parking.  Capital Bike and Walk continues to work with the Downtown Victoria Business Association, local staff and other user advocates to expand and improve bike parking options downtown to meet rapidly growing demand.

 “I’m excited to be promoting the best of Victoria business and anxious to help keep Victoria and the region building a more active, sustainable and prosperous community.

 For more information:

John Luton,

Executive Director, Capital Bike and Walk

Home:  22 Philippa Place

Victoria, BC  V8S 1S6

250-886-4166 (cell)


About Carmanah Technologies Corporation

As one of the most trusted names in solar technology, Carmanah has earned a reputation for delivering strong and effective products for industrial applications worldwide. Industry proven to perform reliably in some of the world's harshest environments, Carmanah solar LED lights and solar power systems provide a durable, dependable and cost effective energy alternative. Carmanah is a publicly traded company, with common shares listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol "CMH”. For more information, visit



Public Relations: David Davies


Sunday, August 12, 2012

New letter off today as I work on various issues.  Lots still to do, but finally sent my letter to the Minister of Transportation about ferry terminal work on Salt Spring Island.  Today's news on building infrastructure to support cycling in the Capital Region reminded me that this missive was overdue.

Here's the letter:

August, 2012

Honourable Blair Lekstrom, MLA
Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure
Province of British Columbia

Dear Minister:

Your ministry and BC Ferries will soon begin upgrades to the Fulford Harbour ferry terminal on Salt Spring Island, the main access for travelers arriving from Vancouver Island at Swartz Bay, north of Victoria.

At this point, BC Ferries and your Ministry are not planning to provide on road facilities on the approaches to or treatments at the terminal to improve levels of service for cyclists.  There are a number of issues this oversight presents:

·         This is inconsistent with your mandate to provide for all modes of transportation along BC’s public roads networks.

·         It undoes much work we have done with the CRD, Islands Trust, and others to develop a cycling plan for Salt Spring Island that would connect locals and visitors alike with key transportation links like ferries and routes between communities on the island.

·         It undermines the work we have done with BC Ferries on equipping vessels with bike racks and inviting cyclists to use the system to reduce reliance on vehicles and;

·         It undermines efforts to create cycling tourism opportunities for Salt Spring and other routes connected to and through the Capital Region.

I’ve worked on a variety of projects to improve cycling in the Capital Region, on Salt Spring Island and also with BC Ferries to provide better facilities for cycling to enhance mobility, improve community and individual health, and contribute positively to our economic diversity and sustainability.

·         I worked as both a consultant and an advocate to develop plans for cycling on Salt Spring Island;

·         I worked with Island Pathways on Salt Spring to develop new trails and identify route and facility opportunities on the Island

·         I worked with BC Ferries to introduce a pilot program to equip ferries with bike racks and to ensure that new ferries in the system are equipped with better bike facilities;

·         I have worked for years promoting cycling tourism on the Island and surrounding area, including a project that profiled a “Tour de Ferries” concept that would help BC Ferries grow this important niche market.

Salt Spring Islanders need better transportation options – they have a new transit service and some cycling routes, but this needs to be knitted together and better connections provided to Vancouver Island and mainland destinations.   Your ministry must continue to work towards a more diverse and sustainable mix of transportation choices for British Columbians at home, when they travel in the province, or for our many out of province visitors who are looking for “green tourism” options for their holidays.  With falling passenger numbers and revenues, BC Ferries needs to grow traffic by offering new or improved services for current or potential markets.

We’ve made great strides in the Capital Region providing programs like Bike to Work Week (supported by your Ministry), extensive on and off-road infrastructure (supported by programs like Local Motion and the various cycling infrastructure funding initiatives administered by your ministry and that of your colleague in Sports and  Community Development).  We have a growing cycling tourism industry and are competing with many other jurisdictions, near and far, that are working to strengthen their tourism economy and enhance visitor experiences and attract more tourist dollars.

The failure to provide bike facilities at Fulford Harbour takes us backwards.  The recent Velo Village event that saw a dedicated ferry sailing fill with cyclists demonstrates  strong local and visitor interest in cycling in the region and on Salt Spring Island in particular.   We’ve made much progress in BC and we need to keep up the momentum.  Please work with BC Ferries to make sure that we provide a full service terminal, a road system that better serves all users, not just drivers.  Our health, our environment and our economic success depends on keeping those commitments.

John Luton, Executive Director
Capital Bike and Walk Society
Victoria, B.C.

·         BC Ferries
·         Minister of the Environment
·         Minister of Tourism
·         Local Ministers and MLAs
·         Opposition critics
·         Media contacts
·         Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition
·         Island Pathways (Salt Spring)
·         BC Cycling Coalition

Friday, July 13, 2012

Fresh letter to the city on bike parking - the low hanging fruit of bicycle facilities, but so hard, it seems, to get it right.

July, 2012

Mayor and Council
City of Victoria
1 Centennial Square
Victoria, BC
V8W 1P6

Re:  Bike parking and the city of Victoria

Last year Victoria completed and adopted a bicycle parking strategy designed to identify policies, legislation, guidelines, hardware choices etc., all in aid of increasing the supply of bike parking in the city and improving the parking hardware and services cyclists have access to when they visit downtown or other destinations around the city.  The new strategy will as well help to ensure that best practices are available to guide development of better storage at homes, workplaces or other destinations where people may travel in numbers.

Working with key stakeholders in downtown business and community groups, the city also introduced a new “Victoria” rack that sits in front of city hall and has lately been installed at many other locations around downtown.  The rack is aesthetic, functional and is now a signature piece of Victoria’s new street furniture.   That project, alongside a program of identifying and testing out “bike corral” locations, (where bike parking has replaced a handful of on-street parking spaces), is delivering more bicycle parking where it is needed and helping to raise the profile of cycling as a viable transportation choice.

The “Victoria” rack was unveiled by the Mayor and has been enthusiastically embraced by cyclists.  Through a unique engagement process that connected cyclists using the new racks with the Downtown Victoria Business Association and cycling organizations, refinements to the design have been introduced to improve the rack design.  More work needs to be done to build on the momentum founded on this partnership and to catch up to the increasing demand for bike parking created by a growing interest in cycling as a preferred means of travel for more and more trip purposes in Victoria and around the Capital Region.  New infrastructure investments like a more bike friendly Johnson St. Bridge, the E&N rail with trail, and new bike lanes in the city and surrounding municipalities are also helping to increase participation.

An installation plan that will replace numbers of outdated racks, expand the supply of bike parking downtown and pilot more new locations for on-street parking corrals has been completed by our task force and we are now looking forward to your continued cooperation to complete this element of the project.   Too many examples of old technology can still be found on city streets and many gaps remain where demand far exceeds the number of rack spaces available.  It creates frustrations for cyclists and often also presents hazards to pedestrians, poses operational problems for city workers, or damage trees or other street furniture installations.  We hope that the city can continue to work with us to celebrate another step in advancing elements of the city’s bicycle master plan by taking the bicycle parking strategy through to the next phase.

The benefits of providing well placed and high quality bicycle parking downtown reach well beyond the cycling community.

·         More and better bike parking invites people to travel to work or come downtown to shop by bike, go the movies or theatre or get to many other destinations that can only be found in downtown Victoria.  That adds to our economic and cultural vibrancy, it relieves traffic congestion for people who must or who choose to drive, and makes it easier for them to find accessible, convenient parking.

·         Well placed and well-designed racks also help make our sidewalks and pedestrian spaces work as intended.  The use of trees, utility poles or poorly suited street furniture for informal bike parking can impede pedestrians or create hazards in the walking environment, especially for those with mobility challenges or sight impairments.  Bikes can also damage trees or otherwise hamper city operations – bikes locked to garbage receptacles are just one example of informal bike parking that may interfere with the work city crews do to keep our streets clean and our downtown tidy.

Completing current initiatives to install more “Victoria” racks is one important step in implementing the bicycle parking strategy council adopted last year.  We are asking also for your ongoing cooperation to continue our work to implement other elements of this important city strategy.

Our downtown bike parking task force will continue to work with business and leaders from the cycling community to monitor the delivery of bike parking downtown, to identify new locations and new strategies to keep up with the growing demand for racks and security, and help roll out new installations.  In support of that initiative we are requesting that the city continue to participate in our task force, and follow through with the actions and deliverables identified in the city’s bicycle parking strategy, as well as continue to work on those ongoing measures that council and staff need to pursue to support a more comprehensive implementation plan.

We are looking forward to

·         Working with Parking Services and Planning to build an alternative transportation fund proposed to follow the retirement of the capital costs of implementing the pay by space vehicle parking system.  The city should allocate some of those funds for installation of more and better bike parking racks and enhanced security and weather protected facilities where practicable.

·         Continue work on parking variance exchange programs to recover some of the value-added benefits that are associated with reductions in vehicle parking requirements for new developments.  Some of the proceeds of such a program could be invested in a retrofit program to provide incentives and best practices guidance for owners and managers of older commercial and multi-unit residential buildings that missed the bicycle revolution and need help in building solutions for better bike parking and storage, and for other destination facilities.

·         Introduce legislation to add destination facility requirements of change rooms, lockers and showers for new or refurbished commercial, institutional or other public and business construction into zoning bylaws to supplement the rack formula requirements adopted by a previous council.

·         Work with our task force to establish more prescriptive and appropriate guidelines for hardware choices or rack designs, as well as installation schemes  to ensure that bicycle parking is functional, convenient, secure and aesthetic, and also ensures practical delivery of the number of spaces identified in site or building plans, or for which hardware choices have been designed for.

·         Add a function to inspections to ensure that developers deliver on requirements identified in their building and/or site plans.

Our task force is happy to work with the city to help design further implementation plans for the bicycle parking strategy, provide letters of support for external grant applications and provide on the ground feedback to help ensure installations meet the needs of cyclists. 

Available programs may include:

·         Green municipal funds from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities or Gas Tax funds administered by the Union of BC Municipalities.

·         New funding options being explored by the CRD.

·         Various provincial programs that may be available to leverage investments in cycling infrastructure.

We look forward to working with you to help more of Victoria’s citizens make the switch to sustainable transportation.


John Luton, Executive Director
Capital Bike and Walk

Partners in this initiative include:

·         Capital Bike and Walk Society
·         Downtown Victoria Business Association
·         Bike to Work Week
·         Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition
·         Mountain Equipment Coop
·         City of Victoria

Friday, July 6, 2012

Photo:  Raised bike lane, No 3 Rd, Richmond, BC

Fine Tuning the Bridge

The Johnson St. Bridge and road approaches will be back in the public eye on Saturday.  Another open house will be held at Swan’s Hotel, within spitting distance of the bridge.  Turnout for the last open house was good.  Much feedback was provided for city project managers to incorporate into design features, particularly around the public realm.  For cyclists and pedestrians, a much better level of service will emerge on the new bridge.  Still the opportunity to tweak designs to reflect current understanding of target travel markets among cycling populations should not be ignored.

Pedestrians are being well taken care of, though a keen eye needs to be cast on the harbour pathway elements, new sidewalks on the downtown side, and the timing and connections through crosswalks that will help make foot travel more comfortable and convenient.  Now is the time to ensure that we get the details right.

For cyclists though, something is still missing.  To be sure, the new bridge offers a dramatic improvement over current conditions, and the features incorporated into the project a clear winner that helped secure endorsements from the cycling community that were key to the successful referendum.  Despite skepticism from some commentators, the much improved level of service for cyclists is likely to generate significant increases in the number of cyclists crossing the bridge every day.  On occasion, the numbers already exceed 4,000 trips a day – almost 20% of all vehicle trips counted on the bridge.

At every occasion though, when bridge designs were presented to council, or when I had the opportunity to share my ideas with staff and engineers, I pushed for a more emphatic design that would provide better physical separation from adjacent traffic on the bridge and along approach corridors.  It doesn’t have to be a cycle track like Hornby or the Dunsmuir projects in Vancouver, but there are other, more simple treatments that must be considered. 

Raised bike lanes are cheaper and more easily implemented than these more aggressive designs.  They make sure cars stay in their travel lane and raise cyclists a few centimetres above the vehicle lane, a few centimetres below the sidewalk.  It still features a “roll-over” curb that allows cyclists to move off the facility when or where they need to change lanes or direction, and it would still work for emergency vehicles when the situation requires it.

As the city works with firms that have made it this far in the process, they need to propose options for fine tuning pricing and design elements, and they should at raised bike lanes for the bridge deck and road approaches.  No doubt it adds some cost and complexity to a design that has faced enough challenges already, but support for shifting travel choices has always been key to the project and support in the community.

It won’t sit well with my colleagues who remain on council, nor, certainly, some who have taken my place around the table, that I am proposing another cost escalator, but there is an option.  Thus far the Province of BC has contributed not a penny to help build Victoria’s new bridge.  They recently regurgitated their fragments of cycling infrastructure funding programs and an innovative treatment like raised bike lanes should be eligible for support.  A sensible approach, though currently absent from program criteria, would have the province fund most of the cost of those improvements to help implement what is really an innovation rather than a routine project.   It might help them better design projects on their own bridges or provide a model for other municipalities so it may serve more than just local needs.

We need to get creative here – the bridge is designed for a 100 year service life and we can expect bicycle transportation to grow and maintain a very significant share of traffic using the bridge.  It’s not a major scope change requiring a new referendum or, like the illusory simplicity offered by those who would start all over again, a significant impact on project schedules.  It’s a feature that can work and can usefully help achieve city, regional and even provincial objectives.  It’s an option that deserves to be back on the table.