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...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Inconvieniencing Drivers

Thanks to Gordon Price for these two gems embedded in a post a few months back:

A paper that shows car use is peaking (a phenomenon that I've seen reported for the Pacific Northwest as well), and an article that tells us that pissing off drivers is public policy in many European cities.

The first article gives us evidence that car use in many cities is declining, and then gives possible reasons. The most interesting, and I think relevant to New Westminster, are 1) increasing gas prices (duh!), and 2) a commuting time "tolerance limit" of about 1 hour.

If car use has already peaked, then we shouldn't be building more capacity, you'd think...instead, we should be concentrating on creating gas-free alternatives within the magic 1-hour commute. New West is already ideally situated for this with excellent transit and good bike path connections, at least to points west (east and south, not so much).

As far as discouraging motorists, I like the ideas presented in the last article - these are things that are already common in Europe:
- completely eliminate on-street parking in downtown cores
- instead of the "green wave" for car traffic, make it the "red wave" through town
- give pedestrians longer times to cross (stop traffic for longer), or use the "scramble" at intersections: stop traffic in all directions and let pedestrians cross to whatever corner they want
- make all lights "instantly" respond to pedestrian requests for crossing
- close roads down entirely in shopping districts
- congestion pricing (pay to drive in, or through, certain areas)

I note that the new lights that have recently been put in at the intersection of Keary St and Columbia St (near the Emergency entrance of RCH) are "instantly" responsive to pedestrians and cyclists. Even if the lights have just turned in favour of the cars, pushing the pedestrian button will cause them to change back for you very quickly - as in, within a few seconds. This is really nice; it's a heavily used pedestrian intersection, what with the medical buildings all around and people heading to and from the Skytrain.

I hope more of these ideas make it into the business areas of New West - they slow the traffic down and make it a much nicer place to walk and bike.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Red Fridge Blue Fridge, Old Fridge New Fridge

Finally we bit the bullet and bought a new fridge.

Our old fridge, an Inglis Royal in colour "almond", dates from the mid-80's. It came with our house and is the last remaining appliance of the package left standing...It's starting to have some cooling issues, so before it dies we decided to go refrigerator shopping.

I gotta say, I hate shopping for appliances. It takes me hours upon hours, and I don't even do a particularly good job. I try to do as much as I can on the internet, but reviews on refrigerator performance are not easy to come by - there are simply too many models (and the Canadian model numbers are different those in the US - which is where most of the reviews come from), and most reviews seem to dwell on looks, convienience, and features. I couldn't care less about French doors, ice makers, or sliding crispers. I'm interested in reliability! The only thing I did want, this time 'round, was a freezer on the bottom.

I went to the library to read the Consumer Guides, but even here there was precious little info. They haven't rated "normal-sized" fridges, only big ones that are 36" wide. I don't have room for a monster that big in my kitchen. Urk. All I could conclude was that Kenmore seemed to be rated pretty highly on the reliability scale.

That's good, because that meant I just had to go to Sears. Whew. So not a total waste of time.

Then I read up on Power Smart, and on BC Hydro's fridge rebate program (get $50 back if your new fridge qualifies as the creme de la creme), and their fridge buy-back program (they will pick up your old fridge - if it's working - for free and give you $30). One quickly discovers that the rebate program is not easy to qualify for - it doesn't apply to all "Energy Star" appliances! Surprise! Only the very top-rated ones earn the $50!

Anyways, off to Sears, where, just by chance (I never check flyers) they were having a sale. And, wonder of wonders, the only mid-size freezer-bottom fridge that actually qualifies for the rebate program was $300 off! OMG! Sold! I would never have bought this fridge at its original price. But I'm sure happy with it. It's got these pull-out shelves - no more groping in the back for the jar of mayo...and I really, really like the fact that the freezer drawer is on the bottom. Bye-by bending down for the veggies!

Finally, check out the efficiency on this puppy: 390 kWh per year. Our old fridge has a sticker in it too: 135 kWh per month. So this new fridge is 4 times more efficient than that old one (which was top of the line in its day).

We'll have to see if this makes a difference in our electrical bill.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

More Thoughts on Slates

I had a look at the 2008 municipal election results for New West.

From these numbers, you can tell that the Voice candidates together got about 38% of the popular support. Since New West has 6 councillors, in the ideal case of  totally proportional representation, Voice should therefore have got...2 seats. And whaddaya know? They got 2 seats.

I believe that the two current Voice councillors have cut their affilliation with that organization, and will be running once again as independents. If so, this is going to be hard for Voice, since last time 'round, their next most popular candidate would've needed 400 more votes to make it to Council. Incumbents have a huge advantage, what with "name recognition".

For comparison, have a look at the 2008 election results in Burnaby. Here there were 3 "slates" in the running.  BCA, the "Burnaby Citizens Association", garnered 51% of the popular vote and all the seats on council. The other slates got lots of votes, but it takes 30% to get a single seat on council in Burnaby, and they split the vote between them and so got shut out. Independent candidates (not affiliated with any slate) got a mere 8% of the popular support. In Burnaby, slates are so dominant that unless you are affiliated with one, there is absolutely no chance of being elected - you need 12,000 votes to get a council seat, and the highest-scoring independent there achieved a mere 2,500 votes.

It looks like people use the "slate" label to judge candidates, rather than looking at the individual candidate. This isn't surprising, really. Getting to know what the candidates are like means actually reading about them, watching them in action, and, if possible, talking to them. More than once. This takes a lot of time and effort, and who, in this day and age, has that kind of time?

When I vote, it's like a hockey pool: I want to chose my own team. A little "union" here, a little "business" there, some activism thrown in, and most importantly, a positive community vision. And this is still possible in New West. As the example of Burnaby shows, it appears to become impossible once slates become firmly established.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Municipal Elections and Slates

Just in time for the municipal elections, some food for thought.

Currently, New Westminster municipal politics is pretty non-partisan, notwithstanding the fact that "Labour" apparently supports some council candidates.

There are moves afoot, however, to change this. "Voice" is clearly creating a "slate", and is using the word "slate" to describe those candidates supported by Labour. In so doing, Voice is creating an "us versus them" conversation, where none existed previously.

I think this is a really, really unfortunate development. As slates become established, democracy is seriously compromised. Why?

It has to do with the very crappy way we vote. All BC municipalities vote using a "plurality-at-large" or "block voting" system. You know how this works. There's a single pool of candidates (no "ridings", or, as they are known in local politics, "wards"), and every voter gets as many crosses to mark as there are seats on council. Those candidates collecting the most X's are elected. This sounds simple, but has unfortunate side effects, which are most clearly visible in some of our neighbouring municipalites: Burnaby and Vancouver.

Block voting regularly produces total landslides for slates with the highest level of support (note: "highest level" does not mean "majority". Majority means 50% or more.). This has been happening in Burnaby and Vancouver for years; a single slate totally dominates the Park Board, the Mayor's Office, the Council, and the School Board, and the number of seats they obtain on each body is far in excess of their share of the popular vote. As people start voting more for the "slate" and less for the person (which happens naturally as slates get more press and become more "normal"), this tendency gets worse and worse. The cynic in me has a hard time believing that Voice does not realize this.

In addition, it is very difficult under such a system for minorities to gain representation. Typically minority candidates, even if part of a slate, will get fewer votes than their non-minority running mates, and they will not be elected. This is a real problem in Vancouver, for instance, where, despite years of trying, and with a large constituency, no Indo-Canadian has ever made it to Council.

To quote Wikipedia, "the block vote causes a total distortion of democratic principles, so it was gradually ... eliminated". In Canada, only BC uses it in municipal elections. All other Canadian cities use a ward system.

Individual cities cannot change anything about the way they vote (which might include such options as moving to preferential balloting, electronic voting, or a ward system). Municipal elections are run according to Provincial legislation, and so far, the Province has ignored Vancouver's requests to allow it to establish wards. That city's toying with electronic ballots will also require Provincial approval, which so far has not been forthcoming.

Our voting system here in New West works for our current relatively non-partisan politics, but local politics will become significantly less representative as slates become established. For this reason, I have very serious reservations about voting for any politician who clearly identifies with a "slate".

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec by Train! Car-free Holiday Number 4!

My husband has family back east, so every once in a while we go back there to visit. Since the kids are in French immersion, we thought we'd take them to Quebec to get a feel for the unique culture and history there, this time out.

VIA rail has excellent and regular connections between Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec (City). Montreal's in the middle with the two others being about 2-3 hour train rides in opposite directions. There's WiFi on the train and it is comfortable, and staff is friendly. The stations are very centrally located. Montreal's is on the subway, Ottawa's is on an express bus-route, and Quebec's beautiful station is within walking distance of the old city.

VIA shares the track with freight trains, however, so sometimes there is trouble and you get delayed....this happened to us when we got stuck behind a broken-down freight train and ended up 1.5 hours delayed (thereby missing other connections, which VIA tried to put right). 

Ottawa and Montreal have car-sharing companies (Virtucar and Communauto, respectively), and Modo has a cross-sharing agreement with them, so there are good mobility options if you do want a car. There is apparently also some connection with VIA, as per the prominent advertising in the Ottawa station:

[train/carshare combo!]

Maybe our Modo could do something similar? Although in BC, the train isn't a big transportation draw...would be more sensible to have some deal with the ferries...

Anyways, on to the sights...

Ottawa: of course the main attractions here are the museums. I can highly recommend the "passport" which allows a family to see lots of museums for a flat rate. Two museums and you've already paid for the thing. Our kids are interested enough in museums and history that we were able to see the Museum of Civilization, the Mint, the Museum of Fine Arts (you know, the one with Voice Of Fire...discuss that with your offspring!), the War Museum (admittedly I bailed after the WWII room on this one. Enough of death!), and the Museum of Aviation.

Then of course we had to "do" the Parliament buildings. Lots and lots of Canadians of every stripe out to see these, which was nice to see. Many of the folks on the tour were quite knowledgeable about how Parliament works, which was also quite gratifying.

Every night, there is a free light&sound show "Mosaika", projected onto the front of the main block of the Parliament buildings. You sit on the lawn in front to enjoy. It is meant to stir your little patriotic heart, and trots out all the founding myths of our collective Canadian soul: the native people, the land, the climate, that damned train, the diversity, etc. The show is very impressive (beats fireworks!) and quite enjoyable, even to those partial to over-intellectualization, like myself.

[obligatory Mountie on Parliament Hill. Beautiful horse. How'd they get than maple leaf thingy in the hair on its butt, though?]
[the locks in the Rideau Canal, sister to Neptune's Staircase of the Caledonian Canal in Scotland. Now on my "bucket list" : boating the entire Rideau canal.]

Montreal: well, let's start with the poutine for the kids, and the beer for the adults...we discovered Unibroue's Blanc de Chambly, a lovely wheat beer.
[the kids' favourite meal. Pictured here with bacon! A real heart-stopper...]

I found vieux Montreal to be a bit disappointing. It's quite small and totally loaded with art galleries and kitschy t-shirt shops. Granville Island actually beats this place for nice things hand-made...But Montreal is not all about the cobblestone streets. It's a big city with lots of buzz, a fantastic food culture (I've never seen so many restaurants!) and it is truly bilingual. Youngest Son was totally enamored, and has decided this is where he wants to go to university. OK by me!! I was checking out the real estate...quite cheap by Vancouver standards!

[Check out the length of the subway train! SkyTrain capacity pales in comparison...]

One of the higlights of our stay was a Segway tour in Parc Jean-Drapeau (located on the man-made island from Expo 1967). I wasn't expecting a lot from this, but we "did it for the kids", and it was actually a blast. We got a tour from a young man who pitched his talk at the kids, giving them all kinds of info on the purpose of life, on how to get the right girlfriend, on Quebec separatism. Mostly in French, with some English thrown in. Good fun.
[I wasn't supposed to be taking pictures while driving...]

Quebec: we stayed right in the old part of the city. Like its counterpart in Montreal, vieux Quebec is in danger of becoming "Disneyfied"; it's unclear how people could actually live here amidst the endless souvenir boutiques and restaurants. We were staying in an apartment hotel, attempting to cook at least some of our own meals, and it was not at all obvious where to get basic groceries. There is a fantastic market right near the port (Marche du Vieux Port) that sports a fine selection of cheeses, produce, bread, and sausages, but shopping for milk, cornflakes and spaghetti is not easy.
[streetscape of vieux Quebec]

It reminded me of Gastown here in Vancouver...although Gastown is changing as more condos appear, and more people move in with real-life demands. 

The old town is really beautiful for walking, and for history, though. The Museum of Civilization here is worth a visit. Again the real estate is cheap by our inflated standards...beautifully renovated 2 bedroom condos in historic buildings for $300k. Too bad about the weather 6 months of the year!!

Of course a visit here is not complete without checking out the Plains of Abraham. There's a good museum, but the highlight is the bus tour, hosted by Mr. Abraham himself. We did this in French - alone on the bus with a Quebec couple - and the interaction was really fun, right down to the hockey jokes.

[view from the Martello tower on the Plains of Abraham, overlooking the St. Lawrence]

One thing not to be missed is the free Cirque du Soleil performance under the viaduct. This is an amazing 1-hour show, complete with live music! Another great free show is the light&sound show projected nightly onto the mills in the old the one on the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, it's about patriotism...Quebec style. It's called "Image Mill". A lot more subtle and with hints of separatism thrown in. And, it's in 3-D. You get a pair of paper glasses before the show. Very cool.

I've spent most of my life in western Canada. After months of watching Canada: A People's History over the last months (highly recommended, by the way! Sign out the DVDs from the library here in New West!), I have a new appreciation for the French contribution to Canada, as well as a new view of Ontario's story. It really is quite a bit different from my own childhood experiences in Alberta. It's nice to know that there are actually cultural differences across Canada, and that yes, different parts of the country do "feel" different.