Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for March 12th, 2008

Mr Rees Takes the Bike

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So today I went to Steveston Bikes to collect my trusty steed. It has been cleaned and serviced and a new rear brake fitted. The tires have been inflated to a pressure I would never attempt manually. They also etched my driver’s license number onto the frame – for free, and I bought what is described as “bicycle pyjamas” but is in fact a large plastic bag to put over it as it has to be stored outside. It has lived in a storage locker for the last 16 months, and had not been used much before that.

I felt that if I was going to write about bikes, and I should get back in the saddle. And indeed, it was a very pleasant afternoon, though I think next time I will spend a bit more time and see if I can find my gloves. I do not wear any special cycling gear, except for the helmet required by law. I am not at all convinced that helmets are necessary. But I do find the data which shows that the more bikes there are the lower the accident rate is very compelling. And we would all be much healthier if there were more bikes and fewer cars.

On my ride today I saw lots of robins, mallards, a bald eagle and a rabbit, not one of which even so much as raised an ear to my passing. The properly maintained bike being almost silent. Which reminds me. I need a new bell. As was remarked yesterday, when you drive through an environment at speed you really don’t care what it looks like. On a bike you have time to appreciate where you are, you are part of it, not looking at it through a window in a steel box. And of course I could stop and look at anything interesting – so I should have brought my camera along too. Fraser Titan is dredging at the bottom of No 5 Road and another one of those huge Honda car carriers was honking for it to get out of the way.

I think $35 for a professional tune up was money well spent, and I would happily recommend Steveston Bicycle & Kayak Shoppe at London Landing. The bakery next door is good too. And as long as the weather is reasonable I intend to be out and about on the bike more often. I might even be able to get into some of my old trousers again before too long.

Oh and one thing I should have mentioned about Richmond’s bike routes. There are no special cycle push buttons at signalised intersections, as there are in Vancouver. On Williams Road there are bike detector loops at the stop line – but the painted dots to show you where to stop have all faded away. For many busy intersections, it is safer to stop and use the pedestrian button than take a chance as many drivers are purblind and incapable of proceeding at any speed near or below the posted limit. But I can report that today several commercial truck drivers took extra care to give me room – which is not something that busy Mums in Hummers or Chevy Subdivisions think about.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 12, 2008 at 4:57 pm

Posted in bicycles, Road safety

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Sustainable Urbanism: Searching for Sustainability at the Suburban/Rural Edge

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Douglas Farr Public Lecture

Tuesday, March 11, 7:30 pm SFU Harbour Centre

Streaming video

Doug Farr is a pivotal figure in sustainability today, leading and practicing at the crossroads of urbanism and green building. His firm, Farr Associates, holds the global distinction of being the first and only firm to design three LEED Platinum buildings.

At the same time, he has served as Chair of the LEED Neighborhood Development Core Committee, leading the development of sustainable performance metrics for urban development.

His new book, Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature, is a leading text on enhancing the sustainability of urbanism and his lectures are essential to understanding the pending sustainability convergence.

Doug Farr talked about integrating sustainable urbanism and agriculture on the urban edge. Having evaluated the sustainability of East Fraserlands, a project along Vancouver’s river edge planned by DPZ, Farr has been commissioned by Century Group (this evening’s sponsor) to consider opportunities for sustainable solutions at the suburban/rural edge in the Southlands of Tsawwassen.

Doug Farr is a Chicago architect. The mission of his practice is to design sustainable human environments. He has been closely involved in the leadership in to create LEED ND. Some of their developments include Lake Pulaski Transit Oriented Development (TOD) 1998 on the west side of Chicago. In 1999 they produced the first LEED platinum building, the Chicago Centre for Green Technology. “Urbanism did not come up at all in the first LEED standards” and there was no mention of building around transit. It was basically a systems integration approach – heating, lighting ,waste water and so on. Most clients really did not see the need: for instance at Orland Park TOD they were told to “remove the green stuff”.

Minneapolis at 46th & Hiawatha, a development relayed to a new LRT system there was a fight over density. Initially buildings had to be 1½ storeys, but after discussion it was agreed that four storeys could be accepted and an extra storey could be added if it was a green building. In Normal, Illinois he produced an Uptown development around a traffic circle: the area within the circle was used for stormwater detention, all the buildings were LEED certified.

LEED ND means “LEED for Neighborhood Development”. It is based on the observation of how much Americans drive and how far, for example, fresh produce has to travel to market: 1,500 miles on average. Children of middle class white families in up scale California developments spend 89% of their time indoors, or in vehicles.

He was sharply critical of Al Gore’s recommendations for action at the end of “An Inconvenient Truth”. He thought that Gore had“punted” the issue of transportation. What he wrote was not a mandate: that means “if the bus hits you, get on it”. By not directly tackling land use and transportation he had missed the single biggest greenhouse gas issue. We have seen in recent years the “tragic irony of efficiency” – per capita vehicle miles travelled had increased 5% which more than offset any gains due to Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards imposed on the automobile industry by the US government. At the same time average dwelling size grew 60% (from 1970-2005) but household size in the same period was declining. The Environmental Building News pointed out that even at present practices, transport to and from an office building uses 30% more energy than the building itself: and if that bldg meets LEED standards that rises to 130%.

The pillars of sustainability were set down in April 1996 when the 10 principles of Smart Growth were agreed. These can be grouped under four headings:

settle in the right location, create compact places, offer more choice and a fair transparent process.

In Atlanta, GA the average distance people drive is 35miles per day. But that is very heavily weighted by the suburbs. In the city centre residents driving distances average less than 10 miles.

The Charter of New Urbanism (also 1996) co-evolved with transit. The US Green Building Council was also formed in that year. All these institutions have become “Silos of Sustainability” promoting half measures, and each devalues the work of others. Conservation or LID development concentrates on issues like storm water and native plantings. He showed an image of an Arby’s at a suburban intersection. This could be a LEED Platinum Eligible building: “a unwalkable fatty food shack”. He also had an advert for a green building that proved hard to let that now offers free parking. He also took a swipe at Seaside – the first New Urbanist development. There the air conditioning condensers rust out every 5 years due to the sea air and the buildings also have to be painted every five years. The a/c units are located in between the buildings. This means that as soon as anyone turns one on, the house next door has to shut its windows to keep out the noise, and turn on its on a/c … and so on.

“We need to evolve to sustainable urbanism”. This has to be based on neighbourhoods that are walkable and have transit service. We need to establish relevant “weights and measures”. This what LEED ND does: its determines what where and how. A smart location is a pre-requisite: it is usually infill or adjacent to existing transit. On exception in the urban edge is where there is to be a projected transit extension. Land stewardship is central to the concept expressed as the neighbourhood pattern and design. No gated communities are permitted and the minimum density is 7 units per net acre (the US average now is 2). It is also includes erosion control and similar protection for water courses.

It is expected that there will be zoning code version, but so far 371 projects have expressed interest in certification in 42 states and 8 countries. The area covered in total is “bigger than Boston” and 80% of the projects are on brownfield sites or or infill. Many of the standards adopted have a carbon base and measurable public health benefit demonstrated by research. Even so the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) asserts that there is an “unproven connection between health and walkability”. They also accuse the proponents of a sociological agenda, as though building low density car orient4ed sprawl had no sociological effects.

He was critical of LEED ND. He pointed out that the prerequisites are a poor tool to balance competing trade offs, and they have had limited influence at the sprawling edge of the suburbs. So far they have had no discernible effect on sprawl. He gave the example of the East Fraserlands in Vancouver (on the Fraser North Arm at boundary. This was a former saw mill but included some woodland. The requirement of LEED ND is that 75% had to be previously developed and there also had to be a 100 ft set back of all development on riparian lands. So this site failed to qualify.

The “Southlands” in Tsawwassen are built up on all sides but have had no development on them, so they would also fail the LEED ND test. It is hoped that the current process will actually protect a lot of the green area from construction, unlike the original proposals which would have been a low density subdivision.

“LEED ND will not design a project” but he showed a simple, and familiar, diagram of a triangular site, based on earlier standards. This is now being used with a 10 minute walk circle to show how a dense neighbourhood can work, and reduce the meed for motorised trips.

He talked about “emerging thresholds” and something called the “80% rule”: apparently you need 2000 houses to build a TOD. (I may have this wrong as my typing could not keep up with the speed at which he was flipping through his slides). He introduced the idea of “biophilia” – people respond to nature and “nature shouldn’t be something you have to drive to”. So his developments have dual use stormwater retention and high performance infrastructure. The trip reduction potential stems from clustering buildings, but it also enhances neighbourhood health and security. The neighbourhoods are then linked into a “sustainable corridor” based on a transit line.

Most of our current planning codes should replace minimums with maximums – e.g. street width. “The current regulations are backwards.” He sees the need for a national campaign. It is a curious fact that Richard Nixon created all the US environmental agencies – and that very little progress has been made since.

“It’s the placemaking, stupid!”

LEED should apply to land use as well as buildings. The 2030 Architectural Challenge is to gradually move towards carbon neutral buildings by adopting progressively tighter restrictions each year – “like a slow burn fuse”. His practice has shown that the targets is completely possible and they will have built a 120% efficient house next year, that is one that feeds power back on to the grid.

He is now proposing a similar 2030 Community Challenge. This will be based on reducing the average driving distance – less than the 8,150 miles per person per annum which Americans now drive which is equivalent to the North Pole to somewhere in Brazil. For a family this is now 21,500 miles a year, which is very nearly like driving around the whole world. “When you experience a city at 50 mph you don’t care what it looks like.” He aims for a 2% reduction pa in VMT which would produce a 50% reduction by 2030. You can do this by “planning to drive less” – for instance simply eliminating that trip you wish you had not made last year to your in laws. But by designing “resilient communities” we can make the US less reliant on fossil fuels and hence more able to withstand the uncertainties of the future. Essentially the Challenge is a call to invest in land use and transportation integration.

In one development called Atlantic Station the average drive distance is now 8 mpd, a 75% reduction over the Atlanta average. The big gains will be achieved in the suburbs, where the driving distances are greatest will be where the highest percentage of projects need to be LEED ND platinum.

Changing the type of light bulbs we use took 5 years: changing our neighbourhoods will take 20 to 50, corridors take 20 -100 years. “We started at the wrong end.”

He endorses the view of Bill Clinton that this change represents a large economic opportunity.

Q&A

  • Isn’t there a correlation between poverty and VMT? What is the role of legislation?
    A – Zoning is the way to make change. Vancouver is ahead of the curve. But in existing neighbourhoods there are “always bits being replaced” and it is here that the main opportunities will be found

  • The standard of 7 units pda is about of what is needed to make transit viable.
    A – It’s a compromise but you can exceed the standard and it probably ought to be 10 to 12.

  • The Spetifore Lands is the correct name for the site in Tsawwassen. There has been little public process. Is there a way that we can have a development that encourages individuals to experiment? Will your development end agriculture on this land? After all, it was this site that spurred the creation of the ALR
    A – The first plan was sprawl. We now expect to have a charrette. There is no plan yet but we expect to set aside
    of land either as green space, agriculture, or conservation. the basic question we are now asking is “Can we complete the town and make it a better place?”

  • An advocate for affordable housing asked if LEED ND requires mixed income, and given current building costs of around $1,000 per sf, how can that be achieved
    A – It is essential to end segregation by economic strata. In 1990 we reformed on “CNU ideals”(?) “LEED ND is the duct tape that solves every urban problem.” Usually they insist on 10 % each for sale and rent at affordable levels. The response is convincing the powers that be that it is doable. The private sector is currently not building to the market, and often all they have to do is right size it.

  • Are car co-ops just a gadget?
    A – NO. See the VTPI 2005 shared car study. Reducing car ownership actually increases wealth [note: I think he should have said “disposable income”] LEED houses cost more but the savings from redcuing car ownershop will pay for better houses.

  • Why don’t the politicians get it?
    a – In places that have a planning culture – like Tsawassen and Portland – they do. And the public’s involvement in the process is crucial. Mostly it is the local plans that do not help. You must remember that sprawl is legal – it is mandated and approved by certified Planners. Chicago is not a plan town but a deal town. The question there is, can we make neighborhoods and corridors?

  • Municipalities in Canada do not have the freedom of US cities, and they are bound to be concerned about the impact on property tax
    A – LEED ND is good government and fiscally responsible. the cost of infrastructure is much lower in dense, contiguous neighborhoods.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 12, 2008 at 1:34 pm

Redevelopment plan brings reality to Fantasy Gardens

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Vancouver Sun

Fantasy Gardens photo by Kevin Cawley on flickr

At long last.

Townline president Rick Ilich announced on Tuesday his plans to redevelop the Fantasy Gardens site with a mix of retail and residential development.

But the actual plan is some way off as he is going to do some very necessary public consultation. The biggest issue at this location is traffic congestion. Firstly because of the massive development of “Riverport” – a multiplex, bowling alley, ice rink, swimming pool, hotel yada yada – and now housing too! – just outside the distance which would have given the MoT some leverage. But mostly becuase of the evening peak hour tail backs from traffic trying to get to the tunnel which causes problems for the equally large retail developments at Ironwood and Coppersmith (a big box anchored by Canadian Tire) strip malls.

The Steveston Highway overpass of Highway #99 is one lane each way – which has been grossly inadequate for many years. And this intersection has also caused problems as traffic leaving the freeway northbound and trying to get into the industrial area also lines up – and the tail back can delay traffic attempting to get through the tunnel. Some recent “improvement” has been seen as the DoT has closed the scale at the north tunnel entrance. No doubt much to the relief of the tipper truck and container haulers, who were regularly prevented from moving further until they put their decrepit and neglected equipment back into roadworthy condition before being allowed to proceed. It may have helped reduce the conflict from merging trucks at the tunnel entrance but I do not feel any safer as a road user, knowing that these trucks will now be inspected much less frequently.

It will certainly be a welcome change from more temples and schools on this strip of land between No 5 Road and the Highway.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 12, 2008 at 9:56 am

Posted in land use, Traffic

Dobell still a lobbyist despite charge

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Vancouver Sun

Of course he “he sees no problem approaching transportation minister” on Behalf of Cubic. And Cubic also has the inside track on any new fares related equipment since they designed and built the current fare collection system. The software of which had to be custom designed to meet Translink’s unusual fare system – 3 zones but only MF dayime.

Dobell, a former TransLink CEO, registered to lobby Falcon on behalf of Cubic Transportation Systems Inc. about two weeks after Falcon announced he wanted to see TransLink bring controlled-access gates and Smart Cards to SkyTrain.

I am not sure if it is just Dobell, or the BC Liberals. There certainly seems to be a lack of understanding of the idea of “conflict of interest”. In general, it is a good idea to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. The rules in other places do seem to be much tougher than they are here. Over twenty years ago, I worked for the UK Department of Transport. I managed consultant contracts and got frankly envious that the consultants got paid more than I did and got to do the really interesting work, some of which got published in academic peer reviewed journals. But I could not work for these consulting companies in the UK if I left the Civil Service. And I really did not want at that time to be sent on contracts to places like Singapore or Hong Kong.

So I am declaring that up front, as I am no doubt totally unobjective where Ken Dobell is concerned. I have seen at first hand how he works. And the idea that somehow he is just another lobbyist is quite simply unbelievable. He is far too close to the BC Liberals, who have been giving him all sorts of plum jobs, and he is in receipt of public funds – including his pensions to which he contributed.

In a statement released Monday, special prosecutor Terrence Robertson said Dobell plans to plead guilty to a charge of failing to register as a lobbyist, and to return nearly $7,000 he received in fees from the City of Vancouver.

Dobell could face a fine of up to $25,000 under Section 10 of the Lobbyists Registration Act.

In his report, Robertson said he believed Dobell could have been convicted of influence peddling — a Criminal Code offence. But he said it was not in the public interest to charge Dobell with influence peddling because the career civil servant “held an honest but mistaken belief throughout that this activities were lawful.”

On Tuesday, Duff Conacher of the Ottawa-based Democracy Watch criticized Robertson for that decision.

Conacher, a fierce advocate for tougher lobbying rules, said “prosecutors should not be refusing to file charges in these cases because it amounts to letting people off the hook.”

I wonder really how “honest and mistaken” his belief was. Other people try this defense all the time – and they are usually told, by the judge or their own lawyer “ignorance of the law is no defence”. And whatever else Ken Dobell might be, ignorant is not one charge that can be levied against him. As City Manager for Vancouver, he would have been advising Mayor and Council on very similar issues. And I am glad he has had the sense to plead guilty to a lesser charge. But he can well afford to pay that paltry penalty and does not seem to have seen any need to curb his other activities. And there have been several prominent cases recently of people treated much more harshly for not demonstrating suitably penitent attitudes.

I also find it hard to accept that if there was a real possibility of a conviction on of influence peddling than the crown did not proceeded – or do we have a different standard for Very Important People than common criminals? Of course, plea bargains proliferate in our system. But is this one really in the public interest – or merely in the interest of the BC Liberal government? Who seem to be doing rather well at keeping high profile cases that touch them very close to home out of the courts.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 12, 2008 at 9:30 am