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?