Making Space for Citizens To Act

December 8, 2017

Last night we attended a session called “Making Space For Citizens To Act on The Issues That Matter Most” at the Wosk Centre.  There were about 50 people in attendance, perhaps half of them from governments of various levels; none, unsurprisingly, from City of Vancouver. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss ways in which governments and citizens can work more closely together “to co-create solutions” to the difficult problems of city-making.

The main speaker was Valerie Lammie, director of exploratory research at the Kettering Foundation, who has been city manager in Dayton and Cincinnati.  She immediately noted a structural flaw in the current profession of city management; that city managers’ contracts rarely if ever encourage or incentivize work with citizens, and that citizens are these days generally considered to be consumers or clients rather than partners. This view tends to accentuate a mistrust between politicians/civil servants and the community.

I was unsure of what she was suggesting to solve this lack of cooperation. She showed a cartoon from England in which “squares” [government?] and “blobs” [citizens?] failed to cooperate until, perhaps, the “blobs” became more like small “squares”. It didn’t seem to suggest any obvious (or good) solutions to me.

The speaker asked us speak about “cooperation strategies” that had recently worked for us. A small number of “successes” were raised including — as the comedy portion of the night — someone suggesting that the Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Not an opinion I share.  See also.

The speaker also talked about elected/appointed citizen or neighbourhood councils and similar bodies that have been used in various cities to close the engagement gap. She was thoroughly opposed to them, claiming they “didn’t work”, mainly because, she said, over time they became mini-governments with their own engagement issues.

I disagree. There are neighbourhood councils in Portland, Edmonton, and other places that seem to work, and I would still like to try it here in Vancouver.  Issues of rigidity and institutionalism can be overcome by the methods of selection at the neighbourhood level, annual turnover of membership, etc.  It is worth trying.

At the end of the meeting, we were asked to discuss impediments to community engagement. This gave me the opportunity to re-state my position that governments are becoming too big and too far removed from the individual citizen. I noted that we used to have wards but now have a city-wide at-large system. On top of this we have Metro Vancouver, Translink, and other regional bodies none of which are elected. At each stage, power moves inexorably up to the top of the hierarchy, and ever further from the citizen.  My position was, and is, that useful community engagement is almost impossible until power is returned to the neighbourhoods and the citizen.

All in all, I was glad to have gone to the meeting though I have few illusions that it will bring forth any solutions.

 

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Lack of Vision on Broadway

December 4, 2017

As we approach the 2018 municipal election, my supposition is that Vision Vancouver will run its campaign based on two primary issues: their so-called Housing Strategy, and the Broadway subway.  The “Housing Strategy” is no doubt the number one priority, and I will have plenty enough to say about that in the weeks and months ahead. But for today, I want to revisit the arguments against the massively expensive and very limited underground subway that Gregor Robertson and his developer pals are keen to foist on us. It is imperative that we revitalize the campaign against the Broadway subway to nowhere as early in the campaign as possible.

To begin, here is a piece I wrote before the 2014 municipal election. Some references may be dated, but the facts remain, and while I might change some details today, the conclusion is fixed and firm.

 

A Lack of Vision On The Broadway Corridor

Vision Vancouver, the developer-funded incumbent regime at City Hall, have decided to make a subway under Broadway, from Commercial to UBC, a major plank of their re-election campaign. Apparently it is beside the point that they don’t have the money to do it, nor any control over the funding, and that it is a bad and unimaginative idea, suited only for the profits of the regime’s crony partners. A subway we shall have, they say.

Let’s begin by looking at some of the yawning gaps in Vision’s proposal.

First, to claim this is a subway to UBC is simply false.  The subway, as currently proposed, will be dug from Commercial & Broadway only to Arbutus where westbound commuters will have to leave the subway, climb up to the street level and then wait for a bus to UBC to complete their journey, one way.  So, any commuter time savings discussed must take into account the time and inconvenience needed for this transfer. And, of course, the same inconvenient transfer will be necessary when leaving UBC to travel eastwards.

Second, all expert opinion suggests that putting the financing together and then building the tunnel will take eight years at least before delivering one second of improvement.  I suppose we must hang around in long lines waiting for an already-crowded 99B Line for another eight years, as there are no plans to improve the service before then.

lineups

In fact, under Vision’s plans for Commercial & Broadway, the commuting situation will get much worse.  They plan to add about 10,000 more people to that neighbourhood, mostly housed in huge 30+ storey highrise towers at the intersection, without any increase in transit. Those 10,000 people will simply add to the congestion and line-ups that already annoy so many travelers; and which can only be aggravated by years and years of subway construction work.

Third, what would this new commuter paradise look like?  Under Vision, there is little doubt Broadway will consist of islands of massive towers separated by barren wastelands between the stops.

MAIN.Marine-Gateway600px

Even the pro-subway Urban Land Institute, in their Final Report in July, warned that Vision had gone hog-wild over towers. It is worth noting that there will still need to be street-level buses to move people between the stations and their high-rises; so the subway becomes not a replacement, but simply a very expensive addition.

Finally in this review, let’s take a moment for an overview of this $3 billion, 8-year project: Question: did you ever see a government-run mega project go over-budget and/or over-schedule?  I can’t think of one that didn’t.

So, after all that complaining, are there alternatives?  Yes, of course. And there are alternatives whether the $3 billion falls like manna from heaven or whether we have to do this without such largesse.  The prime failure of Vision’s plan is its lack of imagination.

For example, should that kind of money be available, Patrick Condon (who elsewhere has pointed out the contradictions in Vision’s plan) has already described the magnificent transit system we could have all across Vancouver for the same cost of $3 billion that Vision wants to waste on a single line between Commercial and Arbutus. Why would we not want to improve service everywhere rather than service a small slice of our needs?

What else?  We could move large sections of UBC to, say, the Post Office building downtown, and the Emily Carr site on Granville Island.  This would spread the transit load geographically and, at least in the case of the Post Office, would build upon existing transit infrastructure.

And/or we could insist that UBC and the high-tech companies the Mayor and Geoff Meggs have said will dominate the Broadway corridor move to flex-time scheduling, thus spreading the traffic load across the system throughout the day and thus reducing “rush hour” congestion.

And/or we could divert automobile traffic off Broadwayto 4th, 12th, 25th and 41st, for example.  Personally, I would be happy to see the entire Broadway corridor become a pedestrian/transit/cycle-only street.  A mix of short-haul and express buses would speed along their own dedicated lanes, as would bicycles, feeding retail along the entire street rather than just in towering shopping centres.

Finally, we can consider alternative technologies for moving people along Broadway.  An at-grade Light Rapid Transit system, costing about a third of the tunnel project but going all the way to UBC, is an obvious candidate.

OffLRTproposal

There are plenty of other ideas floating around.  What we know is that the three billion dollar hole in the ground is the least viable, the least effective, and the least neighbourhood-friendly option and, besides, it cannot be ready for almost a decade at best.  It is time to be creative and make better decisions for our commuters and our City today.

* * *

I note again that this was written in 2014 and there was an 8-year timeline suggested for building the subway — thus to be in operation from 2022 or 2023. No major work has progressed since the last election, and so we can assume the project is now aiming for 2026 or 2027.  Do we really want to wait that long to solve a traffic management problem just so developers, builders and real estate merchants can increase their profits while doing nothing for affordability?


Fair Fares

November 21, 2017

I spent much of yesterday at a Translink Stakeholder Forum at their offices in New Westminster. I joined about 20-24 other participants plus about 10 Translink facilitators and technicians. This was for Phase Three of their Fare Review process which began in the summer of  2016.  A final report, after a fourth round of dialog next spring, is scheduled for release next summer.

I guess I would have enjoyed Phase One the most because there I could have argued for what I believe in — transit as a free service available to all paid for by general taxes [far less expensive than you might think].  Unfortunately, by Phase Three, we are already deep into the vocabulary of transit as a commodity with “products” and hierarchical pricing.  Oh well, that’s a fight for next time.

It is important to mention that one of the self-imposed criteria for success in this exercise is to maintain not increase the amount of revenues collected; so new fare policies cannot add net cost to the rider on average.

When the results of the Phase One survey were refined through the Phase Two process (the documents for which are available), we were left with distance-based pricing as the sole option. Phase Three was to refine and define such an option.

We were first given two options:  (a) keep current flat-fare system for regular buses, with a distance-based fare system for “premium” services (West Coast Express, express buses, Sky Train perhaps), the distance-based fare to max out at the current 3-zone rate; or (b) make all transit fares distance-based starting at a slightly lower cost and going up  to the current 3-zone maximum.  Just about everyone agreed that there needs to be a mix of flat-fare and distance-based pricing. Much of the discussion centred around what should be considered “premium”.

A second set of questions concerned discounts. Everyone agreed there should be discounts for low-income commuters. Some argued that these discounts should not be available during peak hours, but many others pointed out that low-income workers have little or no choice about when they can travel for work. Other suggestions included re-instituting the previously available weekly pass.  A secondary question was whether low-income discounts should be funded by raising all other prices?  The great majority of attendees agreed that this was OK and is in fact how current discounts are paid for and so why should this be different?

The final set of questions introduced the idea of fare-capping; i.e., you pay full fare until you have ridden a certain distance (per day/week/month, etc) after which all further travel for the period is free. Translink suggested it would be hard to have two systems – monthly passes AND fare-capping. However, virtually everyone in the session thought that monthly passes were the most convenient for regularly employed commuters, while a fare-capping system allowed lower-income or irregularly employed folks to get the benefits without having to fund a full monthly pass in advance each month. It was also agreed that fare-capping might prove an incentive to increase ridership.

It was an interesting exercise which I enjoyed. CoV Planners could learn some things about why this “sticky note” workshop seemed so much more useful and productive than the ones the Planners have tried for development projects and community plans.


Vancouver Tenants’ Union Pre-AGM

November 17, 2017

The Vancouver Tenants’ Union is looking for folks to help with their Constitution & By-Laws, and to run for the Steering Committee. Their meeting is tomorrow:

If you are interested in improving the lives of renters in Grandview and Vancouver, go along and help out.


The Myth of Supply

November 17, 2017

One of the most quoted of my posts from the last few years concerned the number of housing units approved versus the accepted demographic growth figures. It asked, “Why Are We Building So Much So Fast?”  It is good to see the piece on Dr. John Rose, which mirrors my concerns and asks the right questions in his academic analysis.

“As a resident of Metro Vancouver and observing all this construction around me, I thought: ‘How do we have a housing shortage?’ Maybe I’m missing something, but this doesn’t seem to stick. And this data supports that idea.”

In order to ensure his findings weren’t just a blip, Dr. Rose went back to the 2001 census, covering a 15-year span. He found that for each household added during this period, the region added 1.19 net units of housing. Put another way, for every 100 households that came along, Metro Vancouver added 119 net units of housing. According to census data, there are also 66,719 unoccupied dwellings in Metro Vancouver.

My original take from early 2016:

We assume — or at least I hope we should assume — that the development of our City is being conducted along some kind of reasonable prediction regarding growth rates, of population, say, and thereof of housing units required. After all, it would be madness just to build stuff with public funds — roads, infrastructure, amenities, etc — that wasn’t needed, right?

Growth projections for the City and the Metro Region from 2006 through 2041 are officially contained in the Vancouver Regional Context Statement (RCS) which was adopted in April 2013.  For purposes of this review, the relevant estimates are found at page 9.[1].

Table 1

These estimates project a need for 97,500 new housing units for an additional 163,800 population during the period 2006-2041. We now have ten years of data to work with (2006-2015), so how are we doing?  The following table shows the housing units approved in that period [2]

Building Stats

 

That shows that Vancouver City Council has approved a net increase from 2006-February 2016 totaling 32,849 housing units.

Now, a little math (can’t be avoided, I’m afraid).  For the period 2006-2041, the official projection was for an increase of 97,500 units.  With 32,849 already approved, that leaves 64,651 to approve in the period 2016-2041 – a requirement of 2,586 per year for the next 25 years.

However, we are approving far more than 2,586 a year.  The average over the last five years is 5,068 per year, and that rate is increasing so fast that the average for the last two full years (2014, 2015) is 5,984 building units per year – just about double what we actually need according to the City’s own estimates.

Approved Units

What does this mean?  It means that we will build the number of housing units we need in 2041 considerably in advance of that date.

Building Timeline

This graph shows the actual housing approvals through to 2016 (red), and the light blue shows the rate of building approvals we need to meet the RCS target.  The green line shows the projection of housing units if we continue to build at the average of the last five years, while the purple uses the average for the last two years.

The green line meets the RCS requirements by 2028 (13 years early).  The purple line meets RCS requirements by 2026 (15 years early).

Continuing to build at the rate set in 2014 and 2015 will create an additional 195,059 housing units by 2041 – almost 100,000 more units than the projections say are required.

What’s the rush?  Why are we building way beyond – in fact, almost double — what we officially claim are the requirements to meet our growth projections?  Right now, we are on track to meet the housing needs of 2041 by the mid-2020s; what are the developers and builders going to do then?

Clearly we need to slow down the approval process.  However, the graph of housing approvals from 2006 to 2016 indicates that the rate of approvals is actually accelerating rapidly, with 2016 already rushing towards another 6,000+ total.

If City Planning and City Council choose not to slow down the amount of building in the future, it is surely incumbent on them to explain who these extra housing units are for.  Moreover, I hope the development and building industries are chatting amongst themselves, deciding who will survive the big mid-2020s shake out and who will fail.

I guess, as a final thought, that the City could simply announce that their projections were wrong and the building approval rate is necessary.  However, then they would have to explain why – just three years ago – they got their sums wrong by 100%.

So, Mr Mayor, what is the reason we are building so much and so fast?

 

Sources:

[1]  The Regional Growth Strategy is at http://vancouver.ca/docs/council/regional-context-statement-council-report.pdf

[2] All housing figures are from http://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/statistics-on-construction-activity.aspx (2011-2016) and http://former.vancouver.ca/commsvcs/CBOFFICIAL/stats/index.htm(2006-2010).

 


Bike Share On The Drive

November 16, 2017

It looks as though Vancouver’s bike share program will be expanding to include Commercial and Victoria Drives next year.

According to a report in the Courier, Vancouver City Council will be putting in $1 million of a $3 million cost to expand the system east of Main Street. The system will now cover the area from Victoria to Arbutus north of 16th Avenue.

I am supportive of the program in general. However, given the millions we as taxpayers are putting into this — and the fact that residents are still being charged $10 a day for the use of a bike — I hope the company’s profits will be an open book.


Can Meena COPE?

November 15, 2017

Meena Wong, COPE’s mayoral candidate in the last Vancouver election, is making noise again on social media. I assume this is in advance of her trying to get the nomination for COPE’s 2018 campaign. Unfortunately for her — and perhaps the party — she has dropped into the wrong side of the Marpole homeless shelter debate.

The Vision-dominated Council has decided to erect modular housing for the homeless in Marpole, and this has provoked a vicious push-back by local residents who don’t want to see that happen in their neighbourhood. They complain that there has been little or no consultation on the project and they want their negative voices heard.

Now, anyone who has read this blog for any period of time — especially during the prolonged Grandview-Woodland Community Plan process — will know that I have spent years arguing that the ruling regime at City Hall, Vision Vancouver, is regularly guilty of a mix of faux and no consultation when it comes to developments on behalf of their development funders. Based on history, I would generally be found manning the barricades at the side of the Marpole residents (although with snow just around the corner and the homeless situation at crisis levels, I would accept the shelter a done deal).

However, the Marpole residents are actually making a far darker neo-fascist argument based on class warfare. The proposed site is close to three schools. As reported in the Vancouver Sun:

“Why would you subject a kindergarten, Grade 1, 2 and on up children to possible dangers with people walking around the community?” resident Mike Burdick, asked. “There doesn’t appear to be any kind of standards for security or safety.” … When asked why he believed housing homeless people near schools was a problem, Burdick said it was due to the prevalence of mental illness among that population.”

In the Courier, another resident, Long Tran, is quoted as saying: “How can it be considered a safe place for the kids?”

There is, of course, no evidence that our homeless population is any more criminal or dangerous than any other group. In fact, the Mental Health Commission of Canada says it is a myth that people with mental illnesses are typically violent.  “In truth, they are much more likely to be victims of crime, hate, and discrimination than to be perpetrators of them,” according to the Commission.  And in this case, they are clearly the objects of hate and discrimination by certain residents of Marpole. They are not wanted in Marpole simply because they are homeless and poor.

Back to Meena Wong. She has thrown herself on the side of the Marpole residents and has refused on a number of occasions to distance herself from their despicable statements against the poor and mentally ill. Asked specifically to do this, she has avoided the question by complaining about the consultation process and mentioning — a propos of nothing — NIMBYs in Point Grey. It is perfectly fine to be active against Vision but not to throw the most needy under the bus while doing it.

Is this what COPE wants to be known for? Attacking the poor, the homeless, the mentally challenged? Hard to believe that the late Harry Rankin would have been, or Tim Louis or their current workers and organizers in DTES can be in support of this.