Monday, November 26, 2012

We Need a Pedestrian Revolution!

Both the City of New Westminster and Translink have declared their intention of following the "hierarchy of road users", as illustrated here:

[hierarchy of road users; pedestrians rule!]

Now, as we all realize, the City is not actually walking the talk. There are many instances where pedestrians (and cyclists) are being seriously inconvienienced in order to maintain SOV traffic "as-is". And I'm not talking about keeping cars moving on major thoroughfares here. Once you start really "thinking as a pedestrian", you'll see many examples of these planning errors in New Westminster. Here we go:
  1. In general, crosswalks are placed in locations not where people actually want to go (to bus-stops, mailboxes, routes to the store), but where planning deems it "safe". This is backwards. Crosswalks should be put where pedestrians go, and the traffic flow needs to be adjusted to enable this. The methodology should be : watch where the people walk. Then plan the infrastructure around their routes. Not : force the pedestrians to use a particular route because a traffic engineer deems it the easiest place to make a "safe" crosswalk.
  2. Cyclists are usually asked to dismount at intersections. This is complete BS. Nobody wants to get off their bike to walk it across the road, especially if they are riding on a designated bike route, like the Central Valley Greenway. If it is unsafe for cyclists to cross while riding, adjust the traffic and/or infrastructure to make it safe! By the way, there is already mechanism that allows cyclists to ride across a pedestrian crosswalk: it's called an elephant foot crossing; basically all it takes is a paint update, and bingo, bikes can legally ride.
  3. In construction zones, pedestrians and cyclists are routinely inconvienienced. The sidewalks and bike lanes are removed and/or relocated, usually to the other side of the street, to serve the needs of the construction. Only rarely is road space impacted. This, again, is backwards. Pedestrian and bike access should take priority; remove car lanes, if required, but preseve safe sidewalk and bike lane space during all construction and do not force foot and bike traffic to detour. Construct a scaffold-tunnel if necessary! Almost every construction zone in the City currently inconvieniences foot and bike traffic; the most egregious violators are the MUCF (the City's own building!) and the new Translink (!!) offices on Columbia. Come on, guys.
  4. Signalled intersections are, in general, completely set up for the convienience and safety of cars. In most cases, when the light is green for cars, the "walk" sign in the same direction will not light up unless some pedestrian has touched the button. And even then, the pedestrian will have to wait for the next green traffic light in order to see the "walk" sign light up. And sometimes, they have to wait a long time...Yep, backwards, all of it. Here's how it should be: especially in heavy-pedestrian zones (around RCH, along Columbia downtown and in Sapperton, along 12th), the "walk" sign should come on every time the light changes to green, whether or not anyone pressed a button; and if someone DOES touch the button, the most they should have to wait for a signal change is 15 seconds. There are places along designated bike routes where the signal change time is upwards of one minute. Seriously.
  5. Intersections along bike routes have a notorious flaw : cars may turn right at the intersection, while the bike route goes straight. The cyclist is therefore put in danger unless they move into the lane, preventing the cars from turning while the bike is in the intersection. Of course, this maneuvre is impossible to do if the crossing is button-activated, and, in any case, is likely to incur the wrath of the motorists! This is poorly designed infrastructure with the cyclist getting the worst end of it. Cyclists should have "boxes" at the front of every intersection so that they get a head start at every light, or, they should have their own light while cars are prevented from turning.
There are many examples in our City of car-oriented (backwards) thinking, and this is only a partial list of the most common planning mistakes. I'm sure you can find examples in your own. List them! Let's get a pedestrian revolution going!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Solar-powered eCars

At the Envision 2032 "inspirational session", we heard a very interesting talk from city councillor Judy Cullington, from Colwood (near Victoria). The City of Colwood has recently embarked on a big initiative to reduce energy use, with a big push to get folks to do energy audits on their homes and to get solar hot water installed. Do visit their website, it has a ton of great information on grants and programs for homeowners, businesses, and even some info for renters. A lot of the stuff is available to us here in New West as well! Solar hot water makes economic sense here in BC, and is pretty low-tech. Definitely a "low-hanging fruit" that we should be looking into here as well.

Anyways, one of the things mentioned in Ms. Cullington's talk was that one business (a bakery, as I recall) in Colwood had installed solar panels on the roof (fed into the grid) and was also using an electric vehicle (probably a Nissan Leaf). The business owner had done some calculations and claimed that his panel was giving him enough power to drive.

whoop whoop whoop ...there went my skeptic's alarm...

So. Off for a little one-on-one with my friends Google and Wikipedia...

A Nissan Leaf consumes 34 kWh to drive 100 miles and costs $38k (I'm not adding the cost of the plug-in at your house). A single solar panel delivers 4kWh/day and costs ~$10k to install (here in the Lower Mainland).

This means it would take 8 days of charging to enable the Leaf to drive 100 miles (which is about its maximum range). Put another way, on this energy diet, you are allowed to drive a maximum of 100 miles, once per week (or you can spread it out over the whole week). This isn't very much; it is very easily achievable by bicycle. A reasonable commute on a bike is 10km twice a day, or 12 miles total (this takes a moderately fit person about 20 mins each way) - exactly what the solarLeaf lets you drive. But at a 100x higher price point! So, yes, the solar panel is adding to the grid...but Mr. Bakery is very likely not self-sufficient in the energy for his driving. Although that's likely not his goal, I guess I would have been more impressed with him if he had decided to get an electric bakfiets (electric cargo bike) to pick up his supplies.

To put the costs into perspective, 100 miles per week of solar-powered driving has a capital cost of $48k. If you want 200 miles per week, you need to shell out another $10k. So, while it is entirely possible to "drive solar", it is very expensive and hardly a realistic option; most people who "need to commute" 24 miles/day are not going to be willing to pay $68k for a small car when you can get a gas-powered Yaris with a basically unlimited travel radius for a quarter of the price.

To relate this back to my "energy pie" post, we can reduce the amount of electricity required for transportation by making everyone who wants an electric car also purchase a solar panel or two, but this will still not enable us to run our current model of trucking and commuting without also adding significant new power sources (like a big dam or two).

It makes far more sense to invest in "solar powered e-bikes" for local (<30km/day) trips, as these are about 10x more efficient than the car (and much cheaper) - they are charged much more quickly to the same range.

Our current driving habits cannot be economically sustained on electric cars, with or without help from the sun. We shouldn't be fooling ourselves that this is an option.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Envision 2032, the Apocalyptic Version

It is hard to envision the future. Mostly, we tend to extrapolate from the past. And for us, for this generation, that means a path of continual growth.

So, the view of 2032 that immediately leaps to mind is that it looks like now, just more, and bigger. To make this future more "sustainable", we just need to "green it". So:
  • the same number of cars, but electric, 'cause that's greener.
  • people living in the same type of homes, only the buildings are more efficient. We can imagine more density - that means, more apartments - without too much strain.
  • stores are fully stocked, but with much more organic and locally grown stuff.
  • we expect that our kids and grandkids will have it better than us.
  • the same infrastructure exists, in roughly the same state of repair. Only it's greener, too. Maybe with more emphasis on local electricity generation.
To support such a future, if the number of people is growing, the economy must grow, too, to provide everyone with these amenities. And that means it needs to have access to an increasing amount of energy. "Percentage"-type growth in fact means exponential growth.

All of our businesses use energy. Some more than others, but we use a lot of it. Look at the "heavy industry" part of the pie in my post a while back. This sector employs a lot of people; if it is to grow, more energy is required. Same goes for offices and the retail sector. Yes, higher energy prices can force efficiencies, but after a while (decades, not centuries!) these efficiency gains start to plateau - they get smaller.  We cannot count on efficiency gains to keep pace with "forever" economic growth. And, as we all know by now, if something can't go on forever, it will stop.

If energy gets too expensive, the economy has a hard time growing. This means: people start losing their jobs. Which results in debt not being repaid, which means that banks start tightening their lending policies. It also means that people don't shop as much anymore, which starts shutting down service-related industries. The government finds itself in trouble, too: less tax revenue and more demand for its services. Cuts to programs ensue.

This is the world I think we are heading for. Energy is not going to get cheaper (unless the the economy tanks, in which case, skip straight to the next paragraph). There are far more people now demanding their share. All the new oil finds are "extreme oil": hard and expensive to get at. All "renewable" sources (solar, wind) require oil to produce and maintain, and are widely dispersed (and so require huge swaths of land). We need a huge injection of capital (which is already scarce) to retool our existing energy infrastructure and our transportation networks, and right now, government seems fixated on deepening our dependence on a fossil-fuel-based economy. A massive shift to electricity generated by renewable means is not going to be easy or cheap.

I suspect that our economy is going to either stall, or shrink, in the coming decades. What sort of city do we need, to be able to handle this kind of reality 20 years from now:
  • housing bubble is finished: everyone's home is worth 50% of what is is worth today
  • more unemployed people and homelessness
  • more elderly on reduced incomes - nobody's retiring to Arizona
  • fewer government services (unemployement, healthcare, pensions)
  • no money for big capital projects like power grid upgrades, massive transit, new bridges, ...
  • no financial aid available to make your home more efficient or to subsidize your electric vehicle
  • liquid fuel is very expensive and/or rationed
  • uncertain or curtailed electricity supply
  • less choice in food (and it is seasonal)
  • fewer consumer goods: school supplies, fashion clothing, appliances 
If I put on my apocalyptic glasses, I get a vision, not of a green, shiny, eco-friendly city looking like something out of Popular Mechanics, but of something a little closer to present-day Kampala.

This kind of future means:
  • almost nobody can afford a private car
  • the trucking industry has taken a huge hit, although shipping by boat is still widely available
  • a thriving local repair industry (for everything from cars to appliances to clothing)
  • bikes everywhere, including for freight movement and as taxis
  • alternative and much smaller living arrangements, with shared cooking and bathing facilities - boarding houses are back!
  • a much bigger service industry (caregivers, gardeners, housekeepers, etc)
  • water-based transportation to link our city to where food is grown - a busy harbour
  • repurposed emtpy land, parking lots and garages for food production and/or housing
  • small farm animals in the city (chickens, goats, meat-rabbits...)
  • lots of street vending and/or covered marketplaces
  • clotheslines!
  • a well-used rail system
  • greatly reduced air traffic
  • compromised refrigeration
  • doing many more things by hand (washing dishes, washing clothes, carting stuff around, woodworking)
If we make the right choices, we can maintain things like:
  • a busy and well-stocked library (or two, or three!)
  • more local arts and music
  • a tighter-knit community that is more locally engaged, as it becomes more expensive (time, money) to move long distances and as more things need to be shared
  • people in better shape and a well-run medical system
  • good, affordable (free!) schools and a well-educated citizenry
  • tight controls on emissions and waste
  • low crime
If I look a little closer, I'm seeing that as the economy slows, we might get political extremism, hunting for scapegoats, "circling the wagons", protectionism...Hm. I'm taking those glasses off, now!

So, go back to that Envision 2032 survey.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Envision 2032

This past weekend, I attended a workshop run by New West City on their Community Sustainability Plan.

The City wants to engage citizens in what a "sustainable" New Westminster would look like, and wants to use this plan to guide all their other planning activities (transportation, energy, waste management, housing, heritage preservation, land use & planning, community well-being, parks 'n rec, ...).

I tell you, it was a brutal schedule! An "inspirational kick-off" event was held Friday evening (starting at 6:30, which didn't give me enough time to eat dinner!) - at which there were many excellent speakers - followed by an 8:30 start on Saturday with a morning full of break-out sessions and brainstorming. Barely time for breakfast! Ooof!

The City has identified 11 policy areas and asked us to envision what New Westminster would be doing / would look like in these areas in 2022, 2032, and 2062. Wow; 50 years out. I'll be dead. But our City won't be....

There are many areas in which I have a hard time making a contribution. Being a cone-headed scientist, my focus really tends to be on energy and transportation issues (geez, have you noticed?). I'm glad that our City has many visionary residents who were there to educate me about their vision for the arts, for housing, for accessibility (think demographic changes!), childcare, parks, business development...

Here are some points to consider when crafting your personal vision of what our city should look like:
  • New Westminster's population is expected to hit 100,000 in the next generation or so (current population: about 60,000).
  • the number of children will increase by several thousand
  • the number of seniors will increase even more!
  • New Westminster has its own electrical utility (buys wholesale electricity from BCHydro and resells to the residents. New West owns all the distribution network and the meters)
  • we have our own school district, which gets its own funding from the Province.
  • New West has a working river front, railyards, SkyTrain stations, and bus routes. And many hills!
  • there is effectively no arable land in our City; all our food comes from outside
  • there are 400,000 vehicles moving through our City today. The overwhelming majority of this traffic is not local.
  • what effect will climate change have, locally?
To become (more) sustainable, we need to reduce the amount of energy we use. Every resident, every business, every institution, and the City as a corporation needs to reduce energy by a large amount (think 80% by 2062 and you're in the ballpark !). In fact, since we're starting to run out of cheap oil, this will happen regardless of what we want, think, or do! The idea is to plan ahead: we want to be able to ramp down the "energy thermostat" while maintaining a high quality of life.

So, what infrastructure, community amenities, policies, plans, mitigation strategies do we need, to get us started on this path?

Anyways, if you missed this session and would like to contribute (or, if you did, and need to add more), go here!