Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holiday Break!

Happy Holidays!

I'll be enjoying my BBQ Turkey from ReUp BBQ, skiing at Mt. Washington, and working on my knitting...

Meanwhile, I leave you with this, an amazing and beautiful video of our home planet, taken by the International Space Station as it flies over us. Check out the thin blanket that is our atmosphere. Check out the cosmic radiation causing the northern lights...

See y'all in January!

Monday, December 19, 2011

How to Advertise Car Sharing (not)

So here is a series of ads from ZipCar - these being run in the Washington DC area - which plug car sharing.

The idea is "sometimes you just need a car". Which is right! Sometimes you do! Now, think of your target demographic: mostly young, urban...appreciative of smart humour...Now, dream up an ad campaign which will appeal to this crowd...Ready?

So here are two of the ads:

What do you think?

I must admit I am a little perplexed.  For starters, it doesn't actually look like these folks actually need a car. It just looks like they're being dumb and unprepared. So I'm not sure I find either of the images above very convincing, or clever, or particularly funny. Just...well...dumb. In fact, I think it is kinda stupid to insult transit users and cyclists while plugging your car sharing business; after all, these people are your target audience!

Here's another set in the series:

OK, unlike the previous images, clearly the grumpy people in these two situations do in fact need a car to haul their equipment. So maybe a passing grade here. But still, not very funny. Maybe a Thule rack on the train with the canoe on top, or the bus with a trailer behind it, would've been a little more "over the top" and hence chuckle-worthy. This, though? Meh. In fact, it'd be interesting to know exactly how many ZipCars come with roof racks or trailer hitches in order to accomodate these two situations. Not very many, I betcha. So in all likelihood the proposed solution - ZipCar - won't even work for these folks. So not very well thought out.

This is the only one that I like:


Thursday, December 15, 2011

NWest Advisory Committees

The newly elected Council is already in full swing! The councillors have chosen which committees they are going to chair...have a look:

[straight off the City's website. Click on the eye-chart to enlarge it.]

This is just the advisory committees. There are external task forces and other external organization liaison postions as well. Have a look. I'd say the interests of the Council are pretty clearly delineated. It's also pretty clear who's doing the "heavy lifting"...

There's also a newly-minted Master Transportation Plan Advisory Committee. No surprise as to who is chairing this one: Councillors Cote and McEvoy, jointly.

I note that when I applied to sit on committee this year (right before the elections), this committee was not on the list. So I'm not quite sure how they are going to "staff" it...

Monday, December 12, 2011

Parting the Waters

Wow. This is cool. Those Dutch, at it again!

[be Moses!]

[the thing is made of some kind of impregnated wood]

This is a very modern "bridge" in southern Holland. It crosses a moat, which surrounds a historic fort with earth berms. The water level in the moat is low (chest height) and constant, making this construction possible. Too bad we can't get something like this between the Quay and Queensborough...

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Conduca in italiano

We signed out the Cinquacento (aka Fiat 500) from Burnaby Green this weekend. Just to see what it was like. That's the Modo advantage: you get to drive around in all kinds of funky vehicles!
[this is one small car]

The Cinquacento is the Italian equivalent of the VW Beetle. It's got similar folk legend status, and, like the Beetle, has recently made a comeback with a retooling of the classic model. It's cute and curvy.

This is one small car. It appears sized for a slightly undernourished post-war Italian population. Yes, there's a back seat, but if someone of, say, Dutch build (that would be myself) uses it, the person in the corresponding front seat has to sit diagonally, because their knees hit the dash otherwise.
This particular Modo car is a convertible. My darling husband, trying all the buttons, wound down the roof (over my complaints - note the snow in the photos!). No, dear, turning the heat on full blast does not recreate the warmth of Italy!

[tiny tiny trunk]

The car gives new meaning to the word hatchback...the trunk door resembles nothing so much as a kayak hatch; a little flap that lifts up to reveal an oval hole. I miss the bungy cords! The space within is truly minuscule. What blows me away is that this trunk has one of those glow-in-the-dark escape tabs on it. Who could possibly fit in there??? As you can see from the photo, it doesn't even fit 2 grocery boxes end-to-end! Luckily you can fold down the rear seats, and then your groceries will fit. But access to the rear seat is really not very easy, so my d.h. started loading and unloading through the sunroof. OK, as a joke...but still...

On the inside, the seats are very high so it is easy to get into the front seat. The window space is small, though, and you feel a bit like you are in a submarine. Visibility is, unfortunately, not very good, and doing a shoulder check through the side windows is very difficult.

The car is zippy enough, but has a very short wheelbase. This makes it remarkably maneuverable in parking lots but rather "swimmy" on the highway.

In short, cute car, but probably not your best choice for family grocery runs or IKEA trips.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Cyclists and Liability

Another common thread in the VACC questionnaire responses was a misunderstanding about cyclists and liability.

In BC, a cyclist has a legal right to ride on the road. Cyclists may take as much lane as required to ride safely - this means, if there is no shoulder, or if there are parked cars, the cyclist is legally allowed to ride in the middle of the lane. And yes, this sometimes slows traffic. For brief stretches (a few blocks) there is nothing illegal about this, the cyclist is supposed to pull over and let vehicles pass as soon as it is safe to do so. In places where the road is marked with "sharrows", there is no obligation for the cyclist to pull over. It is shared space.
It is certainly not dangerous (or even seriously inconvieniencing anyone) to cycle down the middle of the lane down the business strip of Columbia Street in New Westminster (either in Sapperton or downtown). These are 30km/h zones and cars shouldn't be going faster than a cyclist in these areas anyways (bikes ride at 25 km/h).

From recent statistics, in about 98% of accidents involving bikes, the cyclist is the one who gets hurt, and vehicle damage is small. So the burden on the liability insurance system from "dangerous cyclists" is very low. A cyclist involved in an accident usually damages only him/herself.

In fact, most cyclists are covered by liability insurance. Home insurance policies (or renter's insurance) covers cyclists' victims in case the cyclist is held liable for causing the accident. In addition, some motor vehicle insurance policies cover cyclists (ie. drivers who on occasion ride bikes!). Because these liability costs are so low, insurance companies throw this coverage in as a freebie!

Again from the statistics, the most dangerous cyclists is one who:
  • is male, between 30-50,
  • rides on the wrong side of the road, or
  • doesn't pay attention
Ignoring a "traffic control device" is only a cause of about 7% of the bike collisions. Bikes blowing through stop signs isn't causing a ton of accidents.

If the cyclist is not riding against traffic or being inattentive, then chances are the driver is the problem. The most common driver fault is being inattentive (ie. yakking on a cellphone). The next-most common fault is not yielding to the cyclist by:
  • passing them and then turning right, cutting them off;
  • turning left in front of a through-going cyclist
  • crossing an intersection - usually residential - without stopping for the cyclist who has the right-of-way.

Suggesting that a cyclist who is slowly and carefully towing a trailer through New Westminster's business zones, hogging a lane, requires liability insurance, demonstrates ignorance of some basic facts.

Claiming that said cyclist is endangering others is nonsense, as demonstrated by ICBC statistics.

Claiming that this person is endangering themselves may well be true, but this is blaming the (law-abiding and fully insured) victim for the faults of the driver.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

New West's Transportation Survey

As you may know, New West is starting on a transportation plan. Here is the information. There are no open houses planned yet, but stay tuned. Meanwhile, fill in the survey! The deadline has been extended to Dec 16.

The link on the main city page doesn't seem to work. I had to dig a bit to find a door into the survey. Click here to participate.

Some possible things to consider:

- enhance bike facilities (complete the network!), including some dedicated routes to major destinations (high school, library)
- limit freight transport (dedicated times and/or routes)
- shift freight to other modes (eliminating use of New West streets for transport between Port nodes)
- advocate for better transit connections between Uptown and Columbia, as well as increasing service levels to and from SkyTrain stations to 10 minute intervals
- implement pedestrian malls along shopping streets; alternatively, slow traffic to a crawl along these routes by implenting the "red wave", narrowing the road, putting in more crosswalks, and giving pedestrians priority (using such things as "instant reponse" crosswalks, stopping traffic in all directions, and longer crossing times)
- maintain industrial river access as part of future planning
- improve and increase connections to and from Queensborough for non-drivers
- reduce parking requirements for developments
- put the City on an "asphalt diet" - no net increase in asphalt
- set mode share targets for the City to measure and improve the shift from driving to alternative transportation
- encourage City workers to leave their cars at home (by removing car subsidies and free parking from City Hall) - give bus passes (employer pass) and car-sharing in return
- promote car sharing throughout the City as a way to improve affordability, reduce parking needs, and reduce traffic

Add your own!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cyclists Subsidize Drivers

During the recent municipal election campaign, our local chapter of the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition (VACC) sent out a survey to be filled out by all the candidates (both School Board and Council). Most candidates took the time to answer the questions (which were posted here).

Reading the responses, it is pretty clear that a sizable portion of taxpayers believe that cyclists (and pedestrians) somehow are being subsidized by drivers. It then follows that in order to pay for the bike lanes, dedicated signals, etc, cyclists should be licensed in order to capture revenue. Sort of a user-pay idea. The idea is, I guess, that since drivers pay for insurance (liability), gas taxes, and vehicle licensing, that they "own" the road.

In fact, this is untrue. There have been numerous studies showing that the reverse is true: cyclists subsidize drivers!

A nice little piece on the true state of affairs can be found here (with lots of references in there too). I summarize:
  • cyclists and pedestrians use the local roads and not the freeways
  • local roads are funded by (mostly) municipal taxes - which everybody pays.
  • cyclists and pedestrians are far less likely to use the freeway system. But they pay for these as well, through general taxes.
  • total road costs are about $400 per year, per person (this is the costs from wear and tear). Only about half of this comes from gas taxes and licensing fees, the other half comes from general taxes.
  • the wear and tear on the road system due to pedestrians and cyclists is about 10% of that due to cars - $40 per person per year, in other words.
  • So, a  person who relies primarily on non-motorized travel pays $200 annually in general taxes but only imposes about $40 in costs, and so subsidizes this system by $160 per year. Conversely, a motorist who drives twice the average mileage imposes $800 in roadway costs but doesn't pay any more taxes...and is therefore being subsidized.
In addition, there are costs like parking: there are an estimated 2 to 3 off-street parking spots per car available in any municipality, with a total estimated cost of $1000-$2000. These costs are being borne by cyclists and pedestrians as well as drivers through municipal taxes.

Then there are the so-called externalities of pollution and accidents, which are borne again by everyone - through the health care system. These aren't even added into the numbers above, but will make the degree of subsidization even worse.

In fact, driving is so costly to society that it makes drivers selfish. If you have no alternative but to drive, you will strongly resist any move to level the playing field (for instance, to increase the gas tax, or to impose road/bridge tolls).

The way out is to improve the alternatives, not to make cyclists pay more!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Post-Election Parties

For the record, I am not a member of the NDP. Just in case y'all were wonderin'...

I have a lot of admiration for the social justice side of the NDP platforms provincially and federally, and I appreciate the hard work that our MP's and MLA's do. They really are approachable people and very knowledgeable. Some of them even have impeccable environmental credentials. But we part ways on many economic issues, where my leanings are on the "liberal" side...

I recently became aware of the rather large degree of overlap between the NDP and our municipal politicians. As supporters of one of our more popular councillors, my husband and I were invited to the "victory" party down at Taverna Greca last Saturday night. I felt a little out of place amongst the veritable who's who of the NDP in the room. I heard many voice sentiments like "it's great that all of ours got in", and "we swept Burnaby again". While I have nothing against the celebratory atmosphere, and cannot find fault with the hard-working folks making these election results possible -  after all, the point of elections is to win, right? - I am very uncomfortable with the disenfranchisement that can result from working the party system in municipal politics with the current voting system we have.

Check out our neighbours over in Burnaby. Once again, the BCA (the NDP slate) got a landslide - ALL council seats - with 60% popular support.  Yeah, it's great to win, but really, this is unfair to the other 40% of the population who didn't support BCA (it's clear that most voters in Burnaby vote along slate lines). Why should they not get 40% of the seats? It would still leave the BCA with the Mayor's chair and the majority on Council. What happens to opposing ideas - and some of them may well be good ones? There's no dialog in Burnaby City Council now, it's just an echo chamber. I really don't see how this is good for democracy. It disturbs me to hear influential people say, out loud, that this result is a good thing. It disturbs me even more to hear that this is something that these influential people are striving to replicate in New Westminster.

Now, New Westminster is not Burnaby. Contrary to what some might say, there is no NDP-run slate. Yes, there is a large degree of overlap in supporters between the NDP machinery and the campaign workers of the various candidates, but the overlap is NOT 100%. Some of the Labour-endorsed candidates have campaign volunteers and donors who would never vote NDP if their lives depended on it. Further, there is no requirement that one must be a member of the NDP in order to be endorsed by the Labour Council. Also, there is no platform, no "party line" that controls how the individual councillors will vote on issues, once elected.  There is not even a party "name", and there is nothing on the signs of the Labour-endorsed candidates that would allow the average non-involved voter to identify them (unlike Voice candidates). The Labour Council does not (yet) endorse a full slate of candidates (and, for the record, I hope that they never do). All these points make the situation quite different from Burnaby...but it's clear that it could head in the same direction, given some concerted action. And the other night at Greca there was a clear vibe that at least some people were considering such concerted action.

That said, if I look at how many votes the New West Voice candidates got, it is not enough to warrant even a single seat on Council, which leads me to conclude that their message - on Council topics, at least - is not resonating with voters. Two independent candidates outranked Voice. On the School Board, though, Voice candidates garnered about 43% of the popular vote, and indeed got 3 seats - exactly as they deserve! So right now, the system works fairly in New Westminster.

But it will stop being fair once slates (parties) get established, and I suspect both sides know it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

In Which We Drive Electric

So Modo has an all-electric, plug-in, car.

[Modo's full-electric car]

It's a Nissan Leaf. The car was purchased by Modo, without any subsidy (the BC gov't has recently introduced a rebate program for these things). They put it at City Hall because their data shows that the users in that area typically only drive the cars for 10-20km. And this kind of car is ideal for those users.

We booked it for an afternoon shopping excursion this past weekend. The car lives at Vancouver City Hall, so it was in fact an excursion for us to go and get it (and then drop it off as well!). But we really wanted to try it.

The car was fun to drive, but the most surprising thing is how much it just resembles a regular car, both inside and out. The biggest difference is that there's no key! The Modo fob lets you unlock the car, and there is no ignition key. Just a power button. Another button for the parking brake, and a selector for the gear. The car is very zippy - lots of acceleration. And it is dead silent. Just a little electric whine every now and then. What amazed me was that there are seat warmers - this seems ill-advised, in an electric car! Maybe I'm over-analyzing, but seems to me that if I drive in the cold and dark, with the heat on full and the lights blazing, my range will be

[just turn it on!]

Inside, the car has a lot of displays, some of which can be quite distracting. There's a "rear view camera", which shows what you are going to hit (or, more hopefully, what you WON'T hit) as you are backing up. The danger here is that you wind up staring at the screen and not out your rear window, which is probably what you should be doing...then there are all the screens with range and performance displays, which for a conehead like me are incredibly distracting.

The car is plugged in to a special charging station at City Hall. Someone had used it before us, so it wasn't fully charged when we picked it up - out of a "maximum charge" of some 150km, we picked it up with about 125km left.

[plugged in...]

We drove it to Sapperton (where we live), and then off to our usual grocery shopping. After running all our errands and driving it back, the charge left was about 25km. At this point, we called Modo and let them know that the next person would probably have to be put into a different car unless they weren't planning on going very far. The car needed a charge, and it does take several hours to charge fully again. Note: I don't believe we drove100km. There isn't a one-to-one correspondence between the estimated range remaining and the distance you've driven, because it depends on the mix of highway/city driving, regeneration on hills, etc. But still, clearly, as suburbanites, we shouldn't be taking this thing on a regular basis because it screws those people booking it after us. This is not the car you should be booking for a trip to Whistler!

Oh, and while we're on the topic of mileage, this car's odometer is calibrated with the onboard broadcasting system, so Modo knows how far you've driven it. No need to fill out any paperwork! Just fob out and leave when you're done!
But you do see the limitation on these vehicles: the range. It is like driving around with 1/8 tank, and no gas stations around; kind of anxiety-inducing. So, like I've said before, unlike hybrids, fully electric cars are not drop-in replacements for the family car. Even in a fleet like Modo's, the use has to be carefully planned, and for Modo it can work because they have a large range of alternate vehicles at the Leaf's location.  I see that Car2Go is in the process of launching a fully-electric (SmartCar) fleet in San Diego and also in Amsterdam. They have a different use model, one that doesn't require you to leave the car back at it's "home" location, so I am quite curious about how they handle the charging aspect.

The other big barrier to these vehicles is price. The Leaf costs on the order of $40k (for a small-sized car: like a Toyota Matrix or something)! This is way out of reach of most folks. Because the car is so new, there isn't much data yet on reliability or battery life, but I'm guessing it isn't 10 years. So a larger organization can afford these, but not your typical family.

All that said, I think this is great advertising for Modo.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Judging Candidates

I am having a hard time figuring out which candidates to vote for.

I've looked over all the responses to the questionnaires that NWEP, the VACC, TTTF and the local newspapers put out. I've read lots of opinion columns. I've pressed the palms of a couple of candidates and chatted with them. I've visited lots of candidate websites and read lots of pamphlets. But I'm not getting much wiser, mostly because the questionnaires and the responses, as well as the websites, seem full of generalities. So I have to resort to other methods...

There are a couple of things that get my dander up straightaway, the biggest one being candidates who avow "no tax increases", or the related "tax increases in line with inflation". Anyone that spouts either of these gets stricken off my list, instantly. Why? Because we live in an era of downloading, where the province and the feds are cutting spending left and right, leaving municipalities holding the bag. So my immediate thought is: what are you going to cut to make this happen? And the next thought is: just how much money are we talking about here? Last year the mill rate was upped by about 3%, resulting in an increase to my tax bill of some $100. Sounds like a lot of money, but really, this is basically equivalent to the taxes I got back from the province last year thanks to their tax cuts. And even if it wasn't, that $100 is going directly back into my community. And you know, I can't think of a place I'd rather invest it! This will pay dividends to me, my kids, and my neighbours - much more so than a foreign vacation or more consumer durables from out-of-town companies, which is what I'd otherwise blow my bucks on.

The next hate-on I have is for those who state they want New Westminster to "live within its means". This of course sounds Serious, but to me only demonstrates ignorance about how a City works and what it is supposed to do. New Westminster does not have a lot of sellable assets (ie. city-owned land). This means that for capital projects, it must borrow money. Yeah, we need to pay this back, and sure, it'll cause our taxes to go up. But see my point above: I think a dollar spent on a new Massey Theatre or acquiring waterfront property is money well spent, and I'm happy to fork over for it. And, unlike an individual or most businesses, the City can often leverage the money it puts up, by a factor of 2 to 4. It does this by going to the Province or the Feds and saying: look, we've put money on the table, how about doubling that? If the City just goes, cap in hand, to the higher powers, they are far less likely to get funds. Foregoing this ability to leverage on purely ideological grounds is shortsighted.

The next way of judging candidates I have is by their views on transportation. This is an issue close to my heart. We do not own a car, so I am a heavy user of sidewalks, cycling infrastructure, transit, and car-sharing. Further, I think our way is the way of the future - energy costs will continue to go up and more and more people will be forced out of their vehicles. Less dependence on a car means better health, better businesses as people shop more locally, and safer streets. So I look for candidates who understand this, and don't just mouth the words. There is at least one candidate who, like myself, does not own a car. Clearly someone who gets it, and encounters the utility poles in the middle of bike lanes and the non-existent sidewalks the same way I do, rather than driving by them in a car and not getting it.

I look at the VACC survey results and immediately can weed out candidates who see cycling as a "bauble", something not to be taken very seriously. Biking is not a form of recreation, it is transportation that deserves the same level of attention as the automobile. As in: dedicated lanes. Let's get this straight: the car still rules, here in New Westminster. The City spends waaaay more on car-based infrastructure than it does on transit, bike, and pedestrian-related stuff. We need to spend more on bikes and pedestrians. Anyone who says not, or claims that cyclists somehow do not pay their way, is ignorant of some basic facts and is off my list.

Another easy way to weed out candidates is to see if any do not support tolling on the Patullo, or if any support adding more road space to our city. Candidates with these views have not thought clearly about the unintended consquences of their policies, and are backing the wrong horse: continued motordom and business-as-usual.  This is not the way of the future, and these people should not be running our City.

Finally, I have tried to get a picture of the quality of work performed by the incumbent council. This is very, very difficult. You can read the minutes of council meetings, but I have found that there are precious few times when the council does not vote unanimously. In addition, if questions are asked, the questioner is not named. This means that it is very difficult to get any idea of who is simply sitting there warming the chair, and who is thinking. The last way of judging performance is by seeing who serves on which advisory council, and to talk to citizens involved to see if the Councillor actually does anything. I can't find meeting minutes or attendance records of any of these advisory committees on the City pages, so judging performance is practically impossible. This, finally, makes me quite cynical about motherhood statements regarding accountability and transparency.

In the end, unfortunately, I cannot find 6 council candidates who I can whole-heartedly support. I have 2 who I would rate as very good, 2 who appear OK, and then it degenerates rapidly into the categories of "who?", "useless", and "actively harmful". So I will have to pick two from the "useless" category to make sure the "actively harmful" set doesn't make it in.

I love voting, don't you?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Leotarded Traffic Ideas from Candidates

So apparently traffic concerns are top of the list for voter's concerns, in this election here in New West. I follow municipal politics pretty closely. More closely than most, I like to think. So I've been trying to find out just where all the candidates stand on the hot topic of traffic issues. There's not a lot of info out there, you actually have to talk to the candidates, attend get-togethers, etc.

And you know, I've come to the conclusion that most candidates haven't thought through our traffic problems. They certainly have no idea of how to solve them.

Witness dumb statements like:

- not supporting tolling on the Patullo: right. I mean, I get your commitment to social justice, and yeah, it sucks that many people don't make much money, but you know, once that new Port Mann opens with tolls, whaddaya think will happen? A related dumb idea, enunciated by another candidate, is that folks in New West shouldn't have to pay tolls on the Patullo (because it's "ours" somehow???). This is known as freeloading. Makes it sound like you are a Serious Contender, when the reality is you're OK with other people paying for the infrastructure you get to use. As for the social justice part, since when is it New West City Council's role to enable the low-income earners from South of the Fraser to commute to work? You'd be better off spending your political capital enabling affordable housing right here in our jurisdiction so lower-paid workers can live a little closer to "the office". And on lobbying Translink to provide better transit down there with good connections to SkyTrain - and that means funding the transit authority...which leads us to...

- voting against property tax increases to fund Translink. This one's for the Mayor, since he's the only one with the vote,  but the attitude is there amongst the candidates. Dude, New Westminster is the first community to suffer when transit funding dries up. In case you haven't noticed, it all drives through here. So it's a dumb idea to get all ideological about how to pay for transit improvements. Yeah, yeah, we all hate taxes, but really we all end up paying somehow. It's called offloading, I'm sure you've heard of the term, it's all the rage at higher levels of gubmint these days. It enables them to look like Serious People in lowering taxes, while in reality doing nothing of the sort. So denying dollars to Translink to score political points is a leotarded and completely counterproductive move.

- supporting the Stormont Connector: oh man, did you not learn anything from the UBE excercise? What's that? You'd only support a tunnel? Right. Just as a reality check, such a connector would cost more than the Evergreen Line and Port Mann combined. So a) it hasn't got a snowball's chance of happening, and b) even if it did it would rip up the area around McBride - and that's right in the middle of New West - for years during construction, and c) like the Port Mann, this only serves as a traffic inducer. It's not a solution. In fact, it's leotarded to bring this up at all. We don't need more hare-brained ideas floating around for senior levels of government to pick up and start pushing - look what happened with Skytrain's turnstiles! (addition: also, Burnaby would have to be OK with this, since most of the connector would go through there. Not gonna happen.)

- free Sunday parking: face-palm. Just when we were making some headway in getting folks out of their cars, and redesigning streets to be more human scale, we get leotard-clad ideas like this. This is a solution? To what problem, exactly?

- traffic should bypass New Westminster: uh-huh. We'd all love this, like we all love motherhood and apple pie. But bypass through where, exactly? Burnaby'll be overjoyed and is eager to take any traffic we no longer want, is that what you're saying? I'm not really hearing any solutions here, only more blather in an effort to sound like a Serious Contender.

- we don't need a transportation plan: OMG, did someone actually say that? Well, apparently some candidates think that spending more money on more planning and consultants is a waste. As in, wasting your tax dollars, which of course sounds very Serious. I can only imagine that these candidates already know what to do, or something. If so, I'd love to hear all about it. Hello?

Here is what we should be seeing our candidates discuss:

- what to do about Front Street
- how should freight move into and through our city
- what to do with that Parkade on Columbia** and how this part of town should look in terms of traffic and parking
- how to encourage mode shift in our neighbouring communities - something which will alleviate our traffic problems
- communicating a vision for the industrial lands and access to them; is there a place for industrial river access?

I've not seen anyone coherently identify, much less discuss, these issues.

New Westminster needs to have a discussion about how to at least hold the line on, and preferably reduce, traffic volumes both in and through our city. We need a council that clearly understands the broader issues around our region's goods movement and transit, not one that just mouths the tired line about "traffic is bad" or engages in empty posturing. Real solutions will cost money, will be politically hard to implement, and will cause pain as people have to adjust their habits and expectations. But other places have done it. So can we.

**OK, a few candidates have made statements about the parkade - some quite weasily with statements like "I support maybe getting rid of part of it" - but none have tied it to a larger vision.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cat fight!

We have a cat. Her name is Misty. She's really, really, really cute (see picture). We got her a number of years back to get rid of the rats in our kitchen (eew. eew. eew.) Which she did, with admirable promptness.

[Misty enjoying some 'nip]

Unfortunately, the lack of rats now causes Misty to hunt birds. The other day she came home with a flicker:

[these birds are woodpecker-sized]

OK. Time for a collar, with a bell and a tag, so it makes lots of noise. We go out and get her one at the local pet store. 2 pm, we put it on her.

Misty hates collars. She spends the first 15 minutes rolling around the floor trying to get the thing off. Then she takes off into the garden.

8 pm, it's dark, and time for her to come in, or she'll be coyote fodder. We hear a yowling, hissing and spitting from the garden, and sprint out to find Misty crouched on the path, her tail the size of a toilet brush. Another cat disappears into the shrubbery.

We grab Misty and take her in. Dammit, the collar is gone. That lasted all of 6 hours...$12 wasted. Grrr.

The next morning, my husband is out at the shed getting his bike out to go to work, he calls me: "honey, we've got a crime scene out here!".  I go out, expecting a corpse or something, but what do we see on the garden path?

Two elastic cat collars. A red one, with Misty on the tag, and dark blue one, the tag engraved with the name Blue.

Clearly, a team effort!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Peak ... what?

The idea behind phrases like Peak Whatever is that we are running out of the cheap, easily reachable whatever. It doesn't mean that there is no more whatever available; just that the cheap stuff is all gone. When this happens, the price of whatever goes up, until a substitute is found. In some cases this is easy to do, in other cases, not so much. There are many things to which this applies.

Peak Oil. You've probably heard about this: the idea that the era of cheap oil is over. While there is still lots of oil in the ground, it's harder and harder to get out. The result: we can't ramp up production anymore, no matter what the price. For the last 10 years or so, this is what we've seen:

[image credit. Graph shows that no matter what the price, supply is constant.]

The result is increasing oil price as demand grows, with more and more pressure to develop lower-efficiency and higher-cost (in all senses - economic as well as environmental) alternatives like shale oil, tar sands, horizontal drilling, deep-sea wells, etc. But these sources hardly put a dent in the demand, because they are actually pretty low-volume compared to what we need to just keep the economy (actually, mostly the transportation sector, here in Canada) rolling with business-as-usual. While there is plenty of oil there in those tar sands, it's hard (and expensive) to get at.

Now, whether or not we are in, close to, or far from "peak oil" is quite controversial. There's a whole cottage industry out there trying to argue either way. There are doomers, peakists, and deniers. Here's a nice summary from a rational and well-informed blogger. Personally, I think that if we're not already experiencing peak oil, we're likely not far from it; and that, in any case, there are other reasons to start thinking about getting ourselves off of the stuff. Climate change being the biggie (and, no, climate change is not controversial).

But, there are other resources whose reserves are depleting:

We're into Peak Helium. Yep, that's the stuff that makes you sound like Mickey Mouse when you suck on a balloon. And no, floaty party decorations are not the major market for helium. Helium is used for cooling (superconductivity), and is essential for things like MRI scanners. It is used extensively in scientific analysis equipment (gas chromatography). It's used as a cover gas when growing semiconductors -  and this is really a huge market. It's used in welding. Helium is non-renewable and there are no substitutes. We can do better with what we've got by improving recycling (which will only happen if the cost goes up!).

Peak Phosphorus. Phosphorus is a main ingredient in fertilizer. There is no substitute, and it's non-renewable. It's mined, and there are not so many places on the planet where it can be found. Saskatchewan happens to be one of 'em: think potash. Current practises in mining, farming, and (non)recovery of phosphorus result in an unsustainable consumption rate of some 23kg/day (!!) per person. According to the article (click the link above) there is plenty of scope for improvement...but we need to get on it! Mostly we need to recover manure, and stop overapplying. Again, prices will be rising as this starts to bite, and then will people start being more careful with it. One hopes.

Peak Rare Earths. This includes a list of esoteric heavy metals (the mining of which is very dirty) used in modern electronics manufacturing. Reserves are estimated to be mere 10-50 years on some of these. One of these endangered species is...iron...expected to last 50 years at current consumption rates. It will take more and more energy to access deeper and deeper reserves, but that will become more and more expensive because of...peak oil. Another point to note: solar panels, smart grids, and high-tech "green energy" rely heavily on these rare earths!

Now that there are 7 billion of us on this happy planet, it's probably time to start thinking about the carrying capacity of the place. There are physical limits to growth in a closed system such as we inhabit. Exponential growth (as we are currently demanding from our economy) is by definition unsustainable. So, sooner or later, we're going to have to come to terms with peak whatever.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

New West family recreation

We live only a few blocks away from the Centennial Community Center, with its pool, the community center, the gym, and the Royal City Curling Club. Then, not too far distant, is the Queen's Park Arena and Arenex.

I can't get enough of this part of New West. I've been a loyal and appreciative client of the services offered by these fine organizations since we moved here with 2 babies, 13 years ago. The community center offers a preschool, which both my kids attended. Swimming and diving lessons at the Centennial Games Pool were a fixture of our week for years. For a while both kids did trampoline at the Arenex. I did aerobics at the community center (and put the kids in the child-minding service) for a few years when the kids were small and I was going squirrely staying at home. I can also highly recommend the Iyengar Yoga classes! The number of sports and other extra-curricular activities one can enjoy through these venues is mind-boggling. Just check out the size of the Parks and Rec Active Living Guide!

And you know, the best part about all of this is that we don't need a car to get there! Of course we're lucky, we can walk, but the place is pretty well served by transit.

Now our latest discovery is curling. The RCCC is an undiscovered jewel. It's not a city-run facility, and isn't affiliated with Parks and Recreation (your tax dollars do not go to support it). It has terrific ice, (apparently amongst the best in the Lower Mainland), and a nice bar - there's no music and the TV is turned down low enough that you can actually carry on a conversation. After walking by this place for years, we were bit by the curling bug during the winter Olympics - our whole family was glued to the TV for the mens' and ladies' finals.

We started off last year by participating in some of the family curling events. These events are a terrific bargain - $60 for a family of four, which includes a 2 hour game and a dinner afterwards. Name me one other event that a family can do together at this price point. No equipment required - you can rent a broom at the club for a couple of bucks. Sign up soon, the events fill up quickly!

Curling is the quintessential Canadian sport - cheap (parents: waaaaaay cheaper than hockey!!!), the rules simple, the game difficult to master, suitable for young and old. The emphasis is on sportsmanship and strategy - have you ever heard of a curling fight? There is a real social aspect that is taken very seriously - it is de riguer that you stay for socializing (perhaps even a drink!) after the game. People apologize to their team-mates if they cannot make it for this. Training on this starts young - even the kids get hot chocolate and cookies after the game, in the junior programs.

This year we managed to register our kids in the junior program (you gotta be fast!), and ourselves in a recreational league. Who knows, maybe we will become members of the club at some point?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Site C and Natural Gas

Follow-up to my last post...

Money is pouring into Kitimat. There are at least 2 players (Shell and KM) now with plans to build LNG plants (that's Liquified Natural Gas). We're talking billions of dollars here. There will be a pipeline connecting the gas fields of NE BC to the new plants, and a shipping terminal to enable tankers to come in and out of the port at Kitimat. Destination: Asia.

To transport natural gas you need to compress and refrigerate it. That's what the plants are for. The freighters will be specially-designed as well (these are not oil freighters). Compression/Liquification requires enormous amounts of (electrical) energy. Estimates of the energy required are a bit hard to come by, but apparently are well in excess of 3,000 GWh by 2015 and another 3,000 GWh by 2017. Expect these figures to rise.
OK, so where is this electricity going to come from? BC does not currently have this kind of spare supply.

1 giant windmill = 5 GWh.
Site C = 5,100 GWh (~1000 windmills).

So we have a few options here:

1. put up 600 windmills to generate 3000 GWh. Turbines must be placed at least 10 blade diameters apart due to the turbulence they create. If I take an average blade length of 30m, that means the mills must be put 600m apart. Usually they would be put much further apart so you don't get something like this:

[a large windfarm with minimal spacing.]

Large windfarms are typically spread over 100's of square kms. For some perspective, 600 windmills is a very, very, very large windfarm. It would be up there amongst the biggest in the world.
2. Use site C. Although this likely will not be enough.

3. Use the natural gas itself. Build a thermal generating plant.

The end result will likely be some combination of all three. There are already wind operators eyeing the opportunity.

Some points to consider:
- Any wind farm or thermal plant built by a 3rd party will have to sell their electricity to BC Hydro.
- BC Hydro's deals are supposed to be vetted by the BC Utilities Commission and backed by a sound business case. Lately we've been seeing quite a bit of interference with how BC Hydro is run...but I'm sure our government will allow BC Hydro to negotiate the best deal with KM and Shell. Right?
- KM and Shell could always build their own generating plant, and would then not have to deal with BC Hydro. However, they would have to pay the carbon tax on any fuel they burn. note: there is no carbon tax applied to exports of fossil fuels (good thing too, or that coal terminal out at Roberts Bank would be out of business...)
- any of these alternatives mean that the new infrastructure is for the exclusive benefit of industry. Locals would not see a single electron from these new sources. Of course, they would benefit with jobs. One assumes that KM and Shell would invest in the local community as well (donate to arts and culture, that sort of stuff). All good, right?

This is what the landscape looks like when you want to be an energy super-power. We've all got a price. What's yours?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Natural Gas vs Wind Energy

Last Friday was the (First Annual!) New West Doc Fest's opening night, which I attended (kids in tow). We had a good time, the boys really enjoyed the MeatHead short (film student production about reducing your meat consumption).

The main movie, Burning Water, is about natural gas extraction in Alberta, and the effects of new technology ("fracking", or hydraulic fracturing) on the environment (specifically, on nearby aquifers wells - thanks Dad!). A thought-provoking movie, it showed the very real conflicts between a community - indeed, an entire province - which relies extensively on the oil and gas company funding, and the individuals who are negatively impacted by activities of those companies. If you can't drink your water anymore thanks to that nearby gas well, do you rock the boat? Do you alienate your neighbours? Do you move out? What about if nobody cares, including the government? After watching this movie I can better appreciate Weibo Ludwig's situation. It seems it is not until a large group of people is impacted, that the community decides enough is enough, and acts. A few "canaries" in the coal mine isn't enough. We're not there yet in terms of fracking (or the Tar Sands, for that matter), that's clear. Especially since the decision makers we keep electing  prioritize short-term economic gain over longer-term environmental pain.

The discussion afterwards with Matt Horne from the Pembina Institute was enlightening as well. Not very encouraging, unfortunately - the economic drivers behind exploration and the regulatory framework that currently exists are heavily stacked in favour of expansion in drilling / fracking.

One of the questioners at the end commented that northeastern BC was a great resource for wind energy, with somehow the implication being that putting in wind farms would displace the need for natural gas extraction. I think this may be a common way of thinking...unfortunately it is wrong, and Mr. Horne didn't speak to this at all. So here are my thoughts:

1. electrical energy is not a substitute for natural gas, and cannot displace it.
2. wind power is locally uneconomic. Especially given BC's current electricity prices.
3. electricity is difficult to transport. The existing electricity "pipelines" from NE BC to SW BC, Alberta, and the US would need major upgrading if we were to expand the trade. Of course, electricity is not transportable at all to overseas locations.
4. wind farms have their own problems - industrialization of the landscape, noise issues, bat/bird impacts...there is large local opposition to them where they are put in.

Let's look at some of these points in detail.

Natural gas is basically methane. Like electricity, you can use it directly for heating, cooling, and cooking. You can also use it to generate electricity in thermal generating plants. And because thermal plants can be turned on and off at the drop of a hat, they will be required as part of our (national) energy mix even as we move towards including more and more intermittent sources of electricity like wind, tidal, and solar.

In addition, though, natural gas is a feedstock or basic ingredient for producing methanol, which has many, many industrial uses (it in itself a feedstock for many plastics and pharmaceuticals). It's also a major ingredient in the production of ammonia-based fertilizer (via the Haber-Bosch process).

So even if we were to base our lifestyles around renewable electricity, we would still need natural gas.

Wind farms are expensive and transmission lines even more so. So to envision turning NE BC into a giant wind farm for the use of the lower mainland is (currently) unrealistic; it is way too expensive. We would have to be collectively willing to pay way more than $0.07/kWh for our hydro. And with the current flap about smart meters and dual rates, this is a political non-starter. Don't get me wrong: I think our electricity costs are way too low. But our decision makers are not talking about this.

If you are planning to serve a local market and/or one that is hard for the current system to reach - like the Haida Gwaii - then you don't need long transmission lines, and you could displace the diesel generators currently rely used. Wind is likely still more expensive than said generators (until the price of diesel goes up), but at least this is a starting point. So putting up some wind farms in NE BC to serve the local area may be reasonable - and I believe this is what is already being planned/started. But the population there is quite small, and unlikely to be able to afford this, more expensive, form of electricity without subsidization (aside for discussion: who should pay the subsidies?) Then, because not many people live up there, you will not displace much fossil fuel use this way, and you certainly won't affect the demand for natural gas - that is driven globally, and not (all) by energy markets.

Wind turbines do not produce much electricity, because wind is such a diffuse energy source (like solar). It takes 1000 windmills (!!) to displace the average power plant. Are we collectively willing to industrialize the entire Fraser Valley (which is a crappy wind resource) with wind farms (and you won't fit 1000 windmills in there)? Keep in mind that unless you want to pay for transmission lines (0.75-1.5 million $/km through flat farmland, considerably more through mountains) your wind supply must be local!

I won't go into detail about the impacts of windmills. Just use google to find out what's going on in southern Ontario and you'll understand the level of public opposition that we'd have to contend with if we were to start down this path here in BC.

In summary, turning NE BC into a giant windfarm for SW BC's benefit would be hugely expensive and would not stop the pressure to extract the natural gas. So what's the point? What do you want to achieve, and is there a better way to do it?

There is a lot of money to be made in exporting natural gas. The growth economy demands more and more energy every year. There is enormous pressure on BC to export every resource we've got. Because shipping it is difficult, the market tends to be local, and gas is currently cheap here. But it is very expensive elsewhere. Unlike oil, natural gas is not easily tradeable globally. But that is changing with new pipelines, trucks, and container ships. So companies are gearing up and investing in the ability to sell this resource to high-paying customers overseas. The BC government gets royalties from this. But, right now, those royalties are low, and not wisely invested, in my opinion. So most of the $ goes to the companies and we see little benefit. For a lesson in how to deal intelligently with natural gas royalties, consult Norway.

Of course, on the downside, natural gas is a fossil fuel, and when burned or processed releases sequestered carbon dioxide. Burn enough of it and we send ourselves back to the Eocene, when the poles were warm enough to support rainforests like we've now got here in coastal BC. Not only that, but methane (ie. natural gas leaks) is a far nastier greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

So you see this is not an easy problem, and there is no happy end. My druthers? Leave the stuff in the ground, and learn to do with what we already have. This means getting away from the growth economy. Looks like we are headed that way anyways, at least for the next few years...and it is not pretty.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Plug-in Electric Cars - Solution or Posturing?

I've written about electric cars before; I don't believe that these things are going to solve very many problems. note: I'm talking about the no-gas, plug-in variety here, not those battery/gas hybrids that you currently see driving around.

I've made the point that we cannot simply convert all of our transportation network to electricity and expect to keep motoring; there isn't enough electricity to do this without making some very difficult decisions about new sources (lots of big dams, or a nuclear plant - renewables can't provide enough).

I recently came across this article, which points out a few more reasons why you shouldn't expect electric cars to catch on any time soon.

Here is a summary:
- electric cars are simply too expensive, and the author of the article gives reasons why the price will not come down. A huge portion of the cost ($10-$15k) is in the batteries, and the problem with these is the large amounts of metals they require (30% of the cost). These are commodities that are not going to decrease in price as demand increases. And, since they require oil to extract, the cost of the batteries is dependent on the price of oil.
- electric cars are currently sold with large subsidies, offered both by governments and by the car companies themselves. Neither are economically sustainable, especially once sales increase.
- charging infrastructure is going to be very expensive to retrofit. If you have a garage, you can put a plug there, but if you are parking in the street or in a parkade, then this is much more difficult to arrange.
- Maintenance costs and resale values of these vehicles suck. Batteries last a mere 4 years, so buying a used car means you'll soon have to shell out $10k for a new battery.

The article points out that today's hybrids, with their much smaller batteries, make more sense from a cost perspective. Because of their much lower costs, they will (in fact, have already) achieve more market penetration, thus displacing more oil than pure electric cars likely ever will.

My conclusion: fully electric motors are great for public transportation and freight, where you can run overhead lines or 3rd rails and thus avoid the big batteries. They are also good for small devices that don't go far - scooters, carts, bikes. Small, cheaper plug-in cars (ie. not the Chevy Volt) can be used in specific situations, like in fleets with central management and constrained driving ranges (think golf course, university campus, downtown city core). But full plug-in car technology can't be economically scaled up to our current use model of 30+km private commutes and cross-country holiday drives. So, for instance, demanding that developers put charging stations in every parking spot in an apartment block is probably not a good idea.

Another interesting point that the article makes is that electric cars will not slow down oil consumption. Here's the argument:

If you buy a fully electric car, it may slow down your personal consumption, especially since the high cost of the car will additionally curb your ability to spend on other consumer durables made using oil. But your lower use will not keep any oil in the ground. There are not enough of you to affect oil prices in any meaningful way. Below a price of about $120-$150/bbl, demand for oil is increasing, driven mostly by demand in developing countries, because economic growth in our current world economy requires growth in energy use. (Above a sustained $120-$150/bbl we enter a whole new world, and it probably isn't one where we'll be worrying about what car to drive.)

The real reason why plug-in cars are a consideration at all is that governments and car companies can use them to make it look like they are doing something to address environmental and/or oil supply concerns. I'll let you judge the reality.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mountain Biking by Bus

We have recently discovered mountain biking - the kind of mountain biking where you zip through the forest on what used to be called "hiking paths".

This past summer, we rented bikes and biked up and down the forest trails at Lost Lake in Whistler, and had a great time.

Now it turns out that there is excellent single-track riding practically in our back yard! There is a whole system of trails on Burnaby Mountain, which is completely transit-accessible. Just take your bike on the SkyTrain and get off at Production Way. Buy yourself a daypass for $9 (student/senior $7) - this is your "lift pass" (of course, if you have a monthly or yearly pass, you won't need to do this!). Bus 145 will ferry you up to SFU, your bike goes on the front, on the rack (note: the bus driver won't help you put your bike on; it's not part of their job). If there's more than two of you, you'll have to split up because the buses only take 2 bikes. Take the bus all the way to the top, to the transit loop at SFU. The trails you'll want are the ones that head back downhill from University Dr. E; this is the ring road around SFU.

[Youngest Son screamin' down the trail]

Mom and Dad stick to the blue trails, but Younger Son is game for the black diamonds. Gear Jammer is fun, Mels Trail has got up and down bits. Most of the trails dump you on Gagliardi Way, which you ride down to Lougheed and then to Production Way station, from where you get the bus back up. Careful at the intersection of Gagliardi and Broadway, this is a busy intersection!

Alternatively, for a good workout, you can bike back up the hill on the Pipeline and Powerline trails.

The runs take about 30 mins and it takes 10-12 mins to the top, with buses every 15 mins. You do need a decent mountain bike with front suspension and good brakes (preferably disc brakes), and obviously, a helmet. Pads not required unless you're doing the black runs.

Ladies, there are no "facilities". Gents have got the bushes.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

NWT's Surprising Politics

I've just ranted about the recent provincial election results in PEI, Ontario, and Manitoba.

But not about the results in the Northwest Territories. Why not?

Well, the NWT (and indeed, Nunavut) is a bit of a special case. It doesn't have any political parties! I think this is probably why it hasn't been in the news. You can't spin the election into a contest, with party A vs party B, and winners and losers. Makes for crappy copy, but (I think) better government...

The NWT is divided up into 19 areas (ridings or constituencies), and a single person is elected in each of them. Since there are no parties, the voters vote for a person, who is directly accountable to them. There's no party telling this person what to do, or deciding what his platform is going to be, or what the spending priorities are. It's all up to this one person. Each representative is elected by the same plurality system we use provincially - "first past the post" - so if lots of candidates were to run in a riding, you would get the usual vote-splitting problems that we now have (ie. people could get elected with low % of the popular vote). But in practise this apparently doesn't happen - hardly ever more than 2 candidates run in  a riding - maybe because the population is so small.

The NWT Legislature (those 19 reps) vote amongst themselves to elect the Premier, and 7 reps are similarly elected to form Cabinet. In these votes, the candidates have to obtain 50% or more support from their colleagues. So this sometimes requires more than one ballot (ie. a run-off). The Premier doesn't choose his cabinet, but he can (re)assign their portfolios.

There's no "opposition". Bills are passed by majority (ie. more than 50% support) vote in the Legislature. If the majority doesn't like important bills (like the budget), they can call a vote of non-confidence, and bring on another election. So it's in the interest of the Premier and Cabinet to bring forward bills that are favourable to a majority of MLA's.

So there's no "party platform", and the elected Legislature doesn't have an agenda. What's usually done is that at the beginning of the session, the Cabinet gets together and crafts a "consensus statement", outlining what they would like to do.

Apparently, despite repeated attempts by political parties to run candidates, this has not caught on and the system remains nonpartisan.

Sounds interesting, eh? I'm loving the parallels with New West's local politics! And I'm envisioning a whole new provincial model...anyone with me here?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Smart Meters

Yeah, I know, Pat J said it all. Mostly. But I want to rant, too!

There's been a lot of press about "smart meters" lately. Basically a lot of fuzzy thinking and fear-mongering, as far as I can tell. Of course, it doesn't help that the whole decision-making process surrounding the roll-out of these things appears to be cloaked in secrecy (thereby providing a petri-dish for conspiracy theorists).

In any case, the main purpose of electricity meters is to measure how much your household uses, so that BCHydro can bill you accordingly. Right now, this is done by sending someone over to your house periodically to "read the meter".

There are several things that could be improved about this system:

1. the meter could be made so that it could register your use in time periods. So, for instance, it could count up how much electricity you use in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night. Since this is easy to do in software, you can imagine having a "programmable" meter. This way, BCHydro could encourage people to use energy during overall low-demand periods by making the electrons cheaper then, of course publicizing when those times are.

2. the meter could be (periodically) connected to the internet, making the meter maid / man redundant, as they say in Britain. Also, if the meters are programmable, software updates could be "pushed" to your meter; BCHydro could tune the time-buckets without having to send someone over to your house with a USB stick. Also, smart meters make it much easier to determine if the power is out to your house - all you have to do is ping said meter. Right now, power outages are determined by driving a truck around the neighbourhood to see if the lights are on.

3. the meter could communicate with the appliances in your house (provided that they were programmable) to let them know when electrons are cheap. So, for instance, a programmable fridge or freezer could be told to run a titch warmer during high-demand times - saving energy without letting the food go bad. A washing machine could be programmed to wash at night. Any plug-in electrical vehicles could be used to "even out" demand a bit by letting BCHydro "use" their batteries while they are plugged in.

If we wish to encourage energy conservation, then clearly point 1 should be implemented.

Idea number 2 is a convienience for BCHydro, and it would have to make a business case for this, and either build it into the meter or not. Much of the hoo-ha has been that this business case has never seen the light of public scrutiny.

Item number 3 is not one that is going to save huge amounts of energy, and clearly our appliances are not in any kind of shape to take advantage of this stuff. The turnover on big appliances like water heaters, washing machines, and fridges is on the order of decades, so the possibility of having this happen is years out and shouldn't be driving the discussion. Besides, it is very unclear to me that BC requires this type of "moderating" of demand, because our electricity comes mostly from hydro, which is a very flexible source and can be turned on and off at the drop of a hat (it is much more dispatchable than a coal/gas/nuclear/oil - fired plant).

But in order get people interested in saving electricity, the most important thing is a rate scheme that makes peak electrons more expensive than non-peak ones. Yep, most people would see this as an increase in energy costs. Which it is. But guess what, pain in the wallet is the only thing that will cause us to conserve energy. And make no mistake, we need to do this. Our entire economy is built on growth. Growth requires an increasing energy supply. More widgets, more computer programs, more people = more electricity required. So, in an effort to stave off paving over ever more of our wilderness, BC Hydro is bound to encourage us to waste less. And, with bascially the cheapest electricity on the planet, believe me, we waste.

What I really don't get though, is that we are now giving everyone smart meters, basically at huge cost to the taxpayer, and not jacking up hydro rates to finance them. This makes absolutely no sense to me. In fact this is all backwards. You should instead implement a new rate scheme first, and offer "smart meters" for sale.  People who think they can save money (and aren't afraid of the Dr. Magda Havas WiFi waves) can implement one on their own dime. For low-income households you can supply "forward-financing" schemes, where the device is paid for out of its own savings, over time.

Variable rates are a fact of life all over most of the rest of the developed world. In Europe, they've employed a "low-tech" method for metering for decades: most houses have 2 meters on them - one for night use and one for day use. Those aren't provided by the government, either - consumers happily pay for 'em!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Provincial Elections - Crap Results Again

With the recent spate of provincial elections (PEI, Ontario, Manitoba), we can once again see the results of our shitty "first-past-the-post" electoral system. Here, in detail:

Popular vote: 52% Liberal, 40% PC, 3% NDP, 4% Green.
The seats: 22 Liberal (that's 81% of the seats!), 5 PC (19%).

In a more fair, representative electoral system, we would've seen:
14 seats Liberal
11 seats PC
1 seat Green **
1 seat NDP **

Exercise for the reader: explain to your kids how these results are obtained, and how they are fair, without using the phrase: "well...that's the system, honey".

Popular vote: 46% NDP, 44% PC, 7.5% Liberal, 2.5% Green.
The seats: 37 NDP (that's 65%), 19 PC (33%), 1 Liberal (1.75%)

In a more fair, representative electoral system, they would've elected:
26 seats NDP
25 seats PC
4 seats Liberal
1 seat Green **

Amazing, eh, how a split popular vote (I mean, how much closer can you get???) results in a majority government? Getting 44% of the popular vote in Manitoba is apparently a disgrace and cause for resignation. Contrast that with our Federal results, where a mere 40% of the popular vote gets Mr. Harper a majority government. Oh man, I love this system.

Popular vote: 38% Liberal, 35% PC, 23% NDP, 3% Green.
The seats: 53 Liberal (50%), 37 PC (35%), 17 NDP (15%)

In a more fair, representative electoral system, they would've elected:

44 seats Liberal
41 seats PC
28 seats Liberal
4 seats Green **

The voter turnout in Ontario has now dropped below 50% to an all-time-low, despite all kinds of new "convienient" ways to vote (lots of advance polls, mail-in balloting, etc). I say, there is no deep mystery in why people don't vote. Your vote only matters if you live in a swing riding. For the rest of ya, you might as well stay home. That, and the fact that your MLA isn't really representing YOU at all, they are mere tools of the party and only serve as bums-in-seats for the small group that makes the decisions.

How any of these results are in any way reflective of the "will of the people" is completely beyond me. It slays me when the leaders get up and proclaim that "the people have given them a mandate"!

No. The system has given them a mandate.

But apparently nobody gives a rat's patootie about any of this, because we all keep voting down any reasonable proposed changes.

** Note: in all proportional representation ("PR") systems there is a threshold, below which a party doesn't get any seats. That's usually around the 4-5% mark, so in the above examples it'd probably mean that in PEI, the NDP and Greens wouldn't have gotten any seats, and in Manitoba the Greens would've been shut out also (with the other parties then getting those seats instead).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thank you Steve Jobs, or Why I Love my iPhone

Before the iPhone, I wasn't really an Apple kinda girl. But my iPhone has
revolutionized my travels. It's my travel info-portal. I can:
  • check bus schedules online,
  • check if the bus is actually coming,
  • change my bus itinerary on the fly, minimizing waits
  • book the nearest available Modo car
  • check up-to-date YVR and BC Ferries schedules
Here is RMD's list of iPhone Apps for the Car(e)less:

iTransitVan - an App that lets me check schedules at my favourite stops online, lets me find nearby stops and shows the schedules there - Translink's mobile portal (still only in beta), the best part of which is the next bus page. You have to know your stop number (this part is clunky but I'm hoping for improvements in saving favourites), but once you type that in and hit map view it shows you where the buses actually are! It is hooked up with all the GPSes on the can watch your bus approach...fascinating.

google maps - this one is still the best for route planning on-the-fly. Of course, it knows where you are, so it can tell you how to get to where you want to go. Very useful. Translink's site is too clunky. - Modo's mobile portal. Very handy, lets me see which cars are nearest me and their availability. I can also view my favorites. And book online, of course! (I'm sure ZipCar and Car2Go have their own Apps!) - BC Ferries' mobile portal, with current schedules and real-time ship position info. - YVR's mobile site. Up-to-date flight arrival and departure info!

During our recent travels to Ontario and Quebec, I easily found similar transit schedule applications in the cities we visited. So finding our way around a new city was a total breeze!

Steve, thank you.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Citizen Initiatives and Referenda

Because of the recent HST referendum I started researching the differences between a "referendum", a "citizens' initiative", and a "recall". These 3 things are different, it turns out, and have different rules. The rules are laid out in 2 pieces of legislation, which I summarize briefly below.

Referendum Act

This act summarizes the rules for running a referendum. A referendum is a public vote on a question that the government has decided it wants public input on (note: not a question that voters have decided they want to give input on!). As an example, in 2009, BC had a referendum on a new voting system called "STV".

Summary of the rules:
- in order to pass, 50% of the votes cast need to be in favour of the question.
- the referendum is binding on the government that called it.

These rules can be changed on a case-by-case (ie. referendum-by-referendum) basis, through separate acts of the Legislature (ie. they have to be voted on by MLA's). For example, they were indeed changed for the STV referendum; the threshold for passing was changed from 50% to 60% (as well as some other changes).

Another referendum, which passed, was the Recall and Initiative referendum, in 1991. This was instigated by the Socred government, which fell before they could enact the Act into law. But the subsequent NDP government decided to honour the results anyways, and duly proclaimed the...

Recall and Initiative Act

This act lays out the rules for how citizens can petition the government to force a public vote on any specific issue. It also lays out the rules for recalling sitting MLAs. BC is the only province to have such legislation!

The rules for turning a citizen-led initiative into a public vote are as follows:
- 10% of the registered voters in every constituency must sign the petition
- the signatures must be received within 90 days of the "start" of the petition
- once the signatures are received by the Chief Electoral Officer, and (s)he decides that the criteria have been met (ie. valid signatures, correct threshold, the petition is worded properly), the petition goes to a special committee of the Legislature (I've not yet managed to learn how membership on any special committee is determined, but presumably these are non-partisan), and this committee must decide either to refer the bill to the legislature for a vote into law, or to the electorate for a referendum vote. The committee may not change the wording of the question. One or more of the following rules may be changed, however:
- initiative votes, if required, are held at minimum every 3 years, specifically in 2009, 2012, 2015,...
- in order to pass, 50% of the total registered voters must vote in favour of the initiative, and 50% of the registered voters must be in favour in 2/3 or more of BC's constituencies.

If the public vote is successful, then there is a requirement for the petition (now a bill) to be voted on by the Legislature. It is only made into law if the bill passes.

For the recent HST referendum, the last two conditions were in fact changed:
- the date for voting was moved forward (to 2010)
- the conditions for passing were altered to 50% of overall votes cast in favour (no constituency limit).
These changes were made by a special act of the Legislature and apply only to the HST referendum we just had.

It is pretty clear that without the last change in particular, no initiative would ever pass. It is basically impossible to have 50% of registered voters vote in favour of anything. Heck, it's problematic these days to get 50% of registered voters to even bother voting!!!

Note further that the first 2 conditions are also almost impossible to achieve. Since 1995, there have been 7 tries at getting an initiative to a public vote. Only a single one has managed to achieve the signature threshold, and that is the recent HST initiative. Getting enough signatures in the extremely limited timeframe requires an army of at least 6500 volunteers working for a solid month to collect the signatures.

I conclude that the Initiative Act is flawed and basically useless. It only serves to bring issues to the attention of government, but getting a public vote to happen is still completely at the whim of the party in power. It's another tool, like a letter-writing campaign, a petition, or chaining yourself to the doors of the Legislature...I'm not sure it's any more effective.

(Note: Recalls have different, but equally stringent, criteria. Since 1995, 25 have been submitted, and 23 have failed, most because of insufficient signatures or because they were never submitted. There was one that "failed" because the MLA in question resigned when it looked like the recall was headed for success. Currently the BC Legislature website lists a 24th recall is in progress in Mission, but I suspect that's on the ropes.)

There's of course a larger discussion we should probably be having, does "direct democracy" fit in with the idea of a "representative democracy"? I mean, we elect people to represent us in government; we pay these folks to educate themselves about the issues, to debate and discuss, and finally to come up with a decision. Surely this is a better approach than allowing the general public (who are typically not educated about the issues) to decide public policy?

Unfortunately, it seems to me that people have no confidence that they are actually being properly represented by their MLA. In many cases, they didn't vote for that person, and don't even support the policies of the party that the person is a member of. Then, it really appears to most people that the party, rather than the constituents, control the MLAs. No wonder voters don't feel represented. The HST referendum was as much a show of resentment over Gordon Campbell's style of government, as it was a vote about tax policy. Is this a good way to decide important policy issues?

So maybe the real problem is that we first need to "fix" the representation part, and maybe reduce the level of control that the party exerts over the individual MLAs, and that the Premier's Office exerts over the government itself...and then we wouldn't need referenda?

Oh right, we voted on this already. That was that STV referendum to change the electoral system into something more representative - and it failed.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Send $ Now.

You think BC is climate-aware because we've got a carbon tax? Uh-uh. More like:

click here: Voters Taking Action on Climate Change to help draw attention to the serious amounts of CO2 we are exporting.
Thanks to Stephen Rees for bringing it to my attention.

Go on, send them 20 bucks. You know you should!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Catching the Train, Dutch Style

Those Dutch have all the fun.

In a recent effort to spruce up a dingy local commuter train station, urban planners have put in a slide at Utrecht Overvecht in the Netherlands. Yes, this is meant for commuters.'re running to catch your train...instead of sliding down the bannister, you clutch your briefcase to your chest and jump into the silver tube...

[photo credits: Simon de Wilde]

This thing is apparently getting quite a bit of press. Check out more pix here and videos here.

Can you imagine this at Skytrain Stations? Burrard or Granville, it'd be awesome! Of course, it isn't wheelchair accessible...