Posts Tagged 'british columbia'

Surrey’s reluctant rapid transit lab rats.

I have mixed feelings about the decision by Surrey’s new mayor and council to scrap the city’s planned light rail project.

The old plan was for an all-new $3.5 billion surface-level light rail network connecting downtown Surrey with Guildford, Newton, and Langley. $1.65 billion of funding was already secured for the Guildford-Newton section of the route, bids were being taken, and pre-construction was underway.

The new plan is to take the $1.65 billion and apply it instead to a continuation of the elevated SkyTrain from downtown Surrey to Langley. Beyond that it’s sort of fuzzy.

surrey rapid transit lrt skytrain

On the one hand, I agree with incoming mayor Doug McCallum and the majority of Surrey voters that the light rail proposal was a dud. At vast cost it would have done nothing to improve travel time between the four centres that couldn’t be achieved far more cheaply with designated bus lanes and traffic signal priority.

This isn’t merely the opinion of some random internet chucklehead: Metro Vancouver’s regional transit authority, TransLink, arrived at the same conclusion back in 2012 when it studied a variety of Surrey rapid transit scenarios.

surrey rapid transit lrt skytrain

From TransLink’s Surrey Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis, archived at skytrainforsurrey.org. (Graph has been modified to highlight relevant columns.)

Comparing the “LRT1” option (the now-rejected light rail plan) with “RRT1A” (SkyTrain to Langley, plus Bus Rapid Transit on the King George-104th Avenue corridor), the latter was rated as superior in the categories of “Transportation” and “Financial”.

Surrey’s outgoing councillors apparently had other priorities than speed, capacity, and return-on-investment. As they saw it, a light rail network could be built more cheaply than SkyTrain, bringing slightly-more-rapid transit to more neighbourhoods more quickly.

I get the sense, reading some of the arguments against SkyTrain, that they’re being made by people who either never take transit, or if they do, aren’t in much of a hurry to actually get where they’re going.

For example, some Surrey boosters perversely make it a demerit against SkyTrain that commuters would be able to ride all the way from Langley to downtown Vancouver without changing trains. As they see it, a forced transfer at Surrey Central Station would discourage some riders from travelling onward, keeping their business in Surrey.

But the main anti-SkyTrain argument was summarized in that TransLink study, where the light rail option won out in the “Social & Community” and “Urban Development” categories.

What it boils down to is the widely held perception that SkyTrain’s elevated guiderails are a “blight on the urban landscape”.

I have a hard time imagining how guiderails could make Surrey’s mile upon mile of strip malls and low-slung office buildings any uglier. But thanks to the Photoshopping skills of the Fleetwood Business Improvement Association, I don’t have to imagine:

surrey fleetwood skytrain guiderail visualization

Fraser Highway and 160th Street, Surrey, with superimposed SkyTrain station.

surrey fleetwood skytrain guiderail visualization

Fraser Highway in Surrey, with superimposed SkyTrain guiderails.

Grim indeed! But it doesn’t really conform to my experience of Vancouver’s SkyTrain-centred suburbs, which I find quite congenial:

beresford street patterson station burnaby

Beresford Street near Patterson Station, Burnaby. From Google Street View.

rumble street edmonds station burnaby

Rumble Street near Edmonds Station, Burnaby. From Google Street View.

For some people high-rises and raw concrete are the workings of Mordor, to be opposed without compromise. I sympathize with their quaint tastes but also wonder why they go on living in a big city. To me the guiderails, footpaths, and glass towers give these neighbourhoods an endearingly retro-futuristic look:

pinetree way lafarge lake station coquitlam

Pinestreet Way near LaFarge Lake Station, Coquitlam. From Google Street View.

boundary road joyce station vancouver

Boundary Road near Joyce Station, Vancouver. From Google Street View.

The writer of the Georgia Straight op-ed linked above points to Lougheed Highway in Burnaby and No. 3 Road in Richmond as exemplars of ugliness. But they’re really not that bad…and most of the ugliness is a hangover from the decades of auto-centred sprawl that rapid transit is meant to curb:

lougheed highway gilmore station burnaby

Lougheed Highway near Gilmore Station, Burnaby. From Google Street View.

number 3 road richmond brighouse station richmond

No. 3 Road near Richmond-Brighouse Station, Richmond. From Google Street View.

I guess the deposed council had a different vision in mind for Surrey. Who knows, maybe it would have been great: as a non-Surreyite, I was keeping an open mind.

Since I rarely travel south of the Fraser River, King George Boulevard would have been a handy spot to experiment with a form of rapid transit that hadn’t been tried in Metro Vancouver. If light rail were successful there, it might have opened up new possibilities for expanding the network in other parts of the region.

And if, as I anticipated, it flopped, it wouldn’t inconvenience me that much.

Despite overblown warnings that killing light rail would mean losing the $1.65 billion designated for the first phase of the project and returning to square one in the planning process, the various levels of government seem to be on board with reallocating the money to SkyTrain. But it’s not clear yet how much SkyTrain can be built with $1.65 billion.

Assuming the whole $3.5 billion intended for both phases is still available for Surrey’s rapid transit plans (no-one knows yet where the remaining $1.9 billion will come from), how much will be left after the Langley SkyTrain extension?

Mayor McCallum claims that the SkyTrain cost estimates have been inflated, and that it can be built for the same price as light rail. In which case the Guildford-Newton section could be done using SkyTrain as well. But that’s almost certainly balderdash.

The SkyTrain For Surrey campaign, which steadfastly opposed the light rail plan in the days when resistance appeared futile, has been pushing for both components of the RRT1A option from that TransLink study: SkyTrain to Langley, plus Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) from Guildford all the way to White Rock.

surrey rapid transit options skytrain brt

BRT is a step up from a mere express bus route. It refers to a combination of designated bus lanes, traffic signal priority, and fare-gated stations with raised platforms for quick all-door boarding. A BRT route can’t carry as many passengers as light rail, but it’s way more flexible to build and operate:

  • It doesn’t require specially trained drivers. Its buses can be operated by anyone from the regular pool of drivers.
  • It doesn’t require its own operations and maintenance centre. The buses can be serviced along with the rest of the fleet.
  • It doesn’t need to be constructed all at once. Buses can easily switch back and forth from designated bus lanes to regular traffic lanes. (Also, unlike trains, buses can steer around accidents and obstructions.)

It would be great to have SkyTrain lines extending all over the region, but sadly SkyTrain costs a fortune to build, and it’s not getting any cheaper.

Light rail is more affordable, and offers a smooth and comfortable ride, but the speed advantage over an express bus isn’t enough to make the upgrade worthwhile.

BRT seems like a good compromise on routes where SkyTrain is unrealistic. At a moderate cost it offers moderate capacity, moderate speed – and maximum flexibility.

Or maybe I’m wrong. At any rate, I’d like to see BRT tried out somewhere in Metro Vancouver – ideally, somewhere out of the way, like Surrey, where I won’t be affected if it turns out to be a flop.

M.

In the wake of Metro Vancouver’s 2015 transit referendum I made the case for spending more on buses and less on pricey rail projects. A couple years later, worrying that “cost disease” would soon make rail projects unaffordable, I said: hmm, on second thought, better start building them now. More recently I argued that the character of Vancouver’s low-density, family-friendly neighbourhoods could best be preserved by stacking singles and seniors in high-rise clusters.

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Proportional Representation and the hard work of coalition-building.

bc pro rep referendum ballot

My ballot has arrived for the mail-in referendum to change British Columbia’s voting system. I have no plans to return it.

Most of what follows I wrote months ago. I hesitated to publish it, on the grounds that if I didn’t care about the outcome, why jump into the debate?

On the other hand, since I’m pretty sure adding one more bag of hot air won’t tip the scales – why not?

***

As a grumbler who disdains BC’s three main poltical parties about equally, the tactical consequences of switching to Proportional Representation don’t matter much to me. As I argued before, any partisan advantage would be short-lived anyway. Over the course of a few elections, ideological alignments would shift in hard-to-foresee ways as parties adjusted to the new landscape. By the time things settled down, the debate would be about switching to whatever the next sexy new model of democracy might be: some kind of instant Twitter polling, maybe.

In his column a while back, the Vancouver Sun’s Douglas Murray (whom I respect a lot) interviewed UBC poltical scientist Max Cameron, who denigrated governments elected with sub-50% popular-vote totals – which would be nearly every government in Canadian history – as “false majorities”.

Cameron argued that Pro Rep, by forcing politicians to build coalitions across party lines, would reduce “hyper-competitiveness” and lead to a more consensual style of government.

I haven’t read Cameron’s new book and have no plans to, as it sounds super boring. That said, I’m not sure his premises are true: that current levels of competitiveness are unusually “hyper”, or that competitiveness is detectably less in jurisdictions with Pro Rep.

If competitiveness has increased of late, the increase must be unrelated to the voting system, which in Canada and the USA hasn’t changed; so it’s not clear why changing it would reverse the trend.

My main objection to his argument is that it confuses process – working across party lines – with outcome – reflecting majority opinion.

Suppose Party A and Party B, each supported by 40% of voters, form a coalition, the resulting government being half-A, half-B. Pro Reppers would argue that this government represents 80% of the voters. But couldn’t you equally argue that the A-B hybrid, never having been on the ballot, represents no-one?

To do the math another way: it’s not obvious that an outcome where 80% of the voters get 50% of what they want is fairer than one where 40% of the voters get 100% of what they want.

But in fact no voter ever gets 100% of what he wants because parties are already coalitions.

***

In BC it’s the 10-20% of Green supporters who are the noisiest fans of Pro Rep. They feel hard done by because their votes, being thinly distributed across a large number of districts, often fail to elect a single member.

I can relate to their sense of alienation: I feel, as they do, that my point of view is unrepresented in the legislature. In fact I’m even more alienated than Green supporters: I don’t even have a no-hope third party to voice my obsessions.

Therefore I find myself wondering of Greens: if they care so much about winning, why not just throw in with the NDP? To an outside observer, their platforms seem mostly identical anyway.

“To you those minor policy differences might seem irrelevant,” you retort. “But they mean a lot to Green voters.”

Well, sure. I get it. Given the choice of a party that more reliably presses their buttons, Green voters rally to that party. Fair enough.

But in a representative democracy, it’s rare for your opinions to line up perfectly with the party or candidate you support. Most voters have to balance their own policy priorities against the need to win over other voters whose priorities will differ.

Do Green voters imagine that right-wingers are gung-ho for every clause of the BC Liberal Party platform? No: as former Liberal premier Christy Clark put it in a recent interview, the provincial party is “a marriage of convenience between federal Conservatives and federal Liberals” – though that understates the divisions among free market fundamentalists, rural fogeys, and suburban working stiffs, unified by nothing except a dislike for high taxes.

Yet when election time rolls around, they all swallow their reservations and line up behind the local BC Liberal candidate.

The Liberals have done the hard work of putting together a coalition that is broadly attractive to a large number of voters all over the province. Their opponents have failed to put together such a coalition.

If left-leaning voters could get behind a single candidate in each district, which in our voting system is the way you actually win, they would have a lock on power forever.

Why don’t the NDP simply retool their platform to address the concerns of Green supporters?

Because they know that by coming out explicitly against the exploitation of the province’s natural resources, they would lose a significant number of blue collar voters to the Liberals.

Why, then, don’t the Greens retool their platform to attempt to steal votes from the NDP?

Well, that’s what they’ve been doing; and it’s been working, albeit gradually. The Greens are up to three MLAs now, and hold the balance of power in the legislature. With careful organizing and a few lucky breaks, in a couple election cycles they could supplant the NDP as the left-wing alternative in BC, just as the Liberals supplanted Social Credit a generation ago.

However, to vie for power the Greens would have to water down their environmentalist bona fides, opening up the danger of a purist party stealing votes on their left, handing victory back to the Liberals.

Since the Greens and NDP have figured out that under the current system there’s no room for two mainstream parties on the left, they’ve concluded that their best bet is to change the system.

Okay. That’s allowed. But forgive me if I’m unmoved by their moral posturing. Democracy is not “broken”. Nobody’s votes are “wasted”. All the parties get to play by the same rules, and some parties persistently lose.

***

Re-reading my earlier post on this topic, I got as far as the paragraph beginning:

Paradoxically, lefty media bias might be one of the factors helping the [BC Liberals’] right-wing coalition hang together.

…And it took me a moment to remember why I’d thrown that “paradoxically” in there. So let me spell it out, because I think it’s a mildly interesting observation.

When I talk about media bias I don’t necessarily mean deliberate coordination. Young journalists, freshly escaped from the progressivist petri dishes of the North American higher education system, might sincerely intend to give conservatives a fair shake; but they unconsciously communicate their disdain and disbelief through their word choices, their headlines, the photos they choose to illustrate their articles, and of course, through which stories they cover, and which they ignore.

In a multi-party system like Canada’s, this bias affects which parties get taken seriously. Populists and social conservatives, in order to avoid the taint of association with icky “far-right” ideas, self-protectively cluster with libertarians and Bay Street types under a single big conservative tent; while politicians from the lefty fringe, emboldened by their friendlier media coverage, feel free to flake off into purist micro-parties which splinter the left-wing vote – helping the unified conservatives take power.

That’s the paradox: that left-leaning media might, in clumsily putting their thumb on the scales, accidentally be tipping elections to the right.

Does the theory apply to the real world?

I mentioned already how, here in British Columbia, vote-splitting between the NDP and Greens helped the centre-right Liberals to stay in power for most of the 21st century. The last attempt at a BC Conservative party, which polled in the double digits for a few weeks back in 2011, was portrayed as a clown car of kooks and crypto-Nazis, and soon collapsed amid infighting by its not-ready-for-primetime leadership.

Contrast with last year’s election, in which the evidence was at hand to paint BC’s Green Party leader as touchy, paranoid, and litigious, but the media settled instead on Andrew Weaver, principled man of science; the left-wing vote was once again split; and the Liberals came within a hair of winning their fifth consecutive term. [1]

I also mentioned the UK where, if UKIP hadn’t been depicted as a gaggle of swivel-eyed loons they might have thwarted the Tories in a few vital seats, allowing Labour to win the very winnable 2015 election; in which case, the Brexit referendum would never have occurred. I don’t know enough about the British political scene to say whether the separatist, social-democratic Scottish National Party – who sealed Labour’s defeat by wiping them out in Scotland – were given an easier ride by the British media than UKIP; I’d wager they were.

It’s just a theory. It’s not really testable; there are too many other factors that decide elections, from scandals to stock market crashes to leaders’ winning smiles, for the effects of media bias to be isolated; and half my readers will argue that the bias I’m describing doesn’t even exist.

They might be right. Media bias is visible only when it’s going against you; when it supports you, it looks like clear-eyed acknowledgement of reality.

***

Incidentally, I find it hilarious that when someone frets that Pro Rep might lead to the election of “extremist” parties – by which they usually mean right-wingers – the Pro Reppers reassure us that, don’t worry, there will be a 5% popular vote threshold to prevent those cranks from sneaking into the legislature.

Apparently if the Green Party’s 15% vote share translates into a mere three seats, it’s a crisis of democracy requiring that the voting system be completely overhauled. If the Trump-Brexit-Rob-Ford Party of Canada garners 4.9%, it’s perfectly fair for those dangerous votes to be tossed directly into a dumpster.

I’m not sure what happens if the extremists ever squeak up to 5%. Do we have to change the voting system again?

M.

1. Vaugh Palmer, post-election: “[Andrew] Weaver promised to usher in a new way of doing politics – more dignified, more respectful. Instead, with his recent bad-tempered and overbearing outbursts, he risks becoming the latest example of the bad old way of doing things.”

In 2016 I declined to join the mass freakout over Trump and Brexit. A couple weeks back I wondered why people with strong political opinions are so irritated by undecideds and abstainers. And as always when electoral reform comes up, I have to link to my discussion of Nevil Shute’s wacky multiple voting scheme.

Apartment hunting in Vancouver.

I drove my friend X. to the open house. The usual routine: a mob of displaced renters waiting by the entrance for the building manager to appear; a two-minute tour of a bare apartment; a dozen people jostling for room in the lobby to squat and fill in the application form.

Returning to the car, X. grumbled at the absurdity of the building manager’s salesmanlike spiel, as if the mob could afford to be choosy. “Just tell me who I have to blow to get the place,” she said.

I drove her back to the tiny suburban bachelor suite that had been her home since 2014. It was clean enough and pretty quiet. The floor was noticeably tilted; I poured myself a glass of water and the fridge door swung open and banged on the wall, deepening the dent there.

The main thing her building had going for it was its location, a block from the SkyTrain. Alas, this had made it a prime candidate for redevelopment. She’d been given a year to find a new home.

When she moved in, rent was around $700. With provincial law restricting annual rent increases to 2% above inflation, it had risen to a bit over $800 – a bargain. Bachelor suites in her neighbourhood were now starting at $1250, in buildings likely to be torn down in a few years.

X. has good references, good credit, works steadily. She took time off between contracts so she could concentrate on the apartment hunt. She soon realized that was a mistake. With a dozen, two dozen applicants to choose from, why would a landlord take a flier on someone technically unemployed? Just skip to the next person in the pile.

Eventually she snagged an even tinier place in Marpole, a fifteen minute walk from the Canada Line. The building is a bit crummier, the commute a bit longer, but it’s only $1050 a month – a 29% rent jump. Not bad, considering.

***

I mentioned my friend Y. in an essay a couple months back. He’s in in his early forties, tidy and quiet, but with a spotty employment record, bad credit, and a history of drug use.

I’ve known Y. since we were in sixth grade, but we’d fallen out of touch until he moved here last year. I put him up in my apartment for six weeks and loaned him some money while he looked for a job and a place of his own.

He wound up in a rented one-bedroom in a house in Vancouver’s east side. It’s on the ground floor, with a private entrance leading to the backyard. Around here these are advertised as “garden suites”.

Y.’s garden suite has no stove, no fire alarm, and is separated from an adjacent suite by the flimsiest of partitions. The sound insulation is so poor that he can hear when his neighbour cracks his knuckles.

When Y. informed his landlord, who lives with his family upstairs, that his neighbour had invited a guest to crash on his sofa, doubling the noise problem, the landlord replied that he was aware of the extra occupant, and had upped the neighbour’s rent by a hundred bucks in response.

For this pleasant living arrangement Y. pays $1000 a month. He’d like to move; but if sober, responsible X. had so much trouble finding a place to live, what chance is there for Y., with his history of unpaid bills and far-from-glowing references?

***

Why doesn’t Y. just go back where he came from – in his case, the Canadian prairies?

If you’ve ever spent a winter in Saskatchewan, you’ll understand why he doesn’t want to go back. But even disregarding the west coast weather, balmy only by Canadian standards, Vancouver is still a pretty attractive place to live. Low crime, good infrastructure, clean air, lovely parks, mountain and ocean views – but I don’t need to enumerate its charms. Vancouver is, objectively speaking, attractive: it attracts people. Another million or so by 2041, if Metro Vancouver’s projections are to be believed.

That’s why I’m skeptical of all promises by politicians to somehow solve the problem of high rents and near-100% occupancy rates. If housing were cheaper and easier to find, that would only make Vancouver a more attractive place to live – which would attract even more people, putting more pressure on the housing supply.

If it weren’t for stressed-out renters losing hope and moving back to Moose Jaw, there would be no reasonably-priced apartments here at all. I’m not gloating over their departure. I may be forced to follow their example one day.

High demand imposes a sorting process: those who can imagine better uses for their money, like raising children or saving for retirement, will gradually drift away, leaving a helot class of rootless perma-adolescents to scrape a living pouring the cappuccinos and mowing the lawns of the rich and beautiful.

The various levels of government keep vowing to ease the helots’ lot by getting more affordable homes built. While socialist and free-market factions squabble over whether governments should build the homes directly, or tweak regulations to make building quicker and cheaper for private developers, the future sneaks up on us: dumpy apartment blocks like X.’s are flattened and glass towers arise; poorer people are displaced and wealthier people ushered in.

There are plenty of neighbourhoods near transit where it seems new homes could profitably be added without displacing anyone: ground floors that could be turned into garden suites, garages that could be turned into laneway houses, one-story retail and industrial buildings that could be rebuilt with a couple floors of rental on top – if regulations didn’t make it too pricey and time-consuming to bother.

But the more red tape you cut away to facilitate new housing, the more slumlords you’ll get renting out rickety suites to suckers like my friend Y., streaming in starry-eyed from the rest of Canada and the world.

Maybe, then, governments should take the lead in building affordable rental units. But they’re naturally focussed on helping the most desperate first. I’m pretty sure that the modular, supposedly temporary homes for the homeless currently going up around Vancouver will, in the short term, be trashed by their drug-using, unstable residents, and in the longer term be colonized by better-adjusted folks with an aptitude for navigating bureaucracy who will defy all attempts to relocate them when the modulars are due for removal.

Maybe I’m wrong; I welcome the experiment in any case. But many hard-working renters must have had the same thought Y. had, when he saw pictures of the inside of one of those modulars: hang on a second, that welfare crashpad is way nicer than the dump I’m paying a thousand bucks a month for.

If municipalities started throwing those modulars on empty lots along major transit routes, and renting them out to all comers at a shade below market rates, it would go a long way toward easing the crisis. I have no idea why no-one has proposed this. Maybe it would just be too pricey. (The units are about $110,000 apiece to build – excluding the cost of land.)

But if the public sector can’t manage to slap up no-frills, reasonably-priced rental units on a break-even basis, there’s not much cause to hope that private developers can ever build affordable rentals and turn a profit.

***

While the media focusses obsessively on how to increase housing supply, ways to reduce demand are rarely considered.

The easiest way to reduce demand is to make Vancouver a crummier place to live.

Anti-gentrification activists understand this intuitively. All that’s keeping hordes of yuppies from moving into Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and sprucing up the place is the many unbathed, mentally disturbed, petty-crime-prone people who make their homes there currently. The neighbourhood must be kept unpleasant enough that the number of yuppies stays low, so the down-and-outers can afford to remain.

The obvious problem with making Vancouver crummy enough to repel new residents is that the rest of us will have to live in the mess we’ve created. The strategy might not work, anyway: rich people, unlike you and me, have the means to insulate themselves from ugliness and disorder. They might decide high walls and private guards are a worthwhile tradeoff for sunset views of English Bay.

If we’re not prepared to trash our city to preserve it, we might consider erecting legal barriers to make it more difficult for non-Vancouverites to buy property or move here.

Taxes on foreign buyers, which the previous provincial government imposed and the new government has expanded, strike me as the very least we could do to constrain demand.

But as progressive conventional wisdom is cohering around the idea that everyone in the world should have the right to live anywhere for any reason, even these modest barriers have been decried as discriminatory, and are under legal challenge.

Alternatively, the federal government could simply lower immigration targets. Unlike the previous immigration peak in the 1910s, when Canada was still largely empty and agricultural, nearly all of today’s new arrivals wind up settling in a handful of crowded cities, where they compete with the native-born for housing.

foreign born canada 1871-2011

Source: Statistics Canada, 150 years of immigration in Canada.

canada immigrants rural vs. urban 1921

Click image for data.

canada immigrants cities 2016

Click image for data.

Yet I’ve seen no signs that burned-out big-city renters have begun to turn against mass immigration. At all education and income levels, unhesitating xenophilia remains an essential marker of right-thinkingness; anyone who suggests that immigration ought to be curtailed in order to protect the attractive features of Canadian urban life – modest houses with spacious yards in quiet, tree-lined neighbourhoods – is quickly shouted down as a nativist bigot.

Partly this is self-serving propaganda. Realtors, developers, and homeowners all benefit from having the largest possible pool of eager bidders driving up the price of local properties.

But it’s at least equally a product of liberal guilt. Many Vancouverites who (like me) moved here from elsewhere would feel hypocritical denying anyone else a boon that we enjoy, for no reason other than that we showed up first.

On this principle the ten-millionth arrival will be as welcome as the two-millionth; and I hope that ten-millionth resident will enjoy his three-hour commute from somewhere in the vicinity of Chilliwack.

M.

PS. A big part of the reason my friend Y. moved here is the easy availability of cheap, high-quality weed. Maybe Canada’s impending marijuana legalization will make Vancouver a bit less attractive to a certain kind of young slacker, and take some of the pressure off.