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Metro Vancouverites on the move: Walking more, taking more car trips to shop, car-pooling more

October 10th, 2019 · No Comments

Like many reporters, I just love census data and census-like data. So it was Christmas Day when TransLink released its big set of data from its 2017 “trip diary,” a massive study the agency does every five years to monitor how people are getting around in the region.

Lots of great info to ponder. Their data is here if you want to check out your own municipality. My story is linked here and text is pasted below.

One thing I was curious about was how this data matched the data that Vancouver, the city, collects. Vancouver also does a trip diary but uses a different methodology. While TransLink has 28,000 different households doing one day each, Vancouver tries to follow the same 2,000 households year after year to see how their patterns are changing. (Because Vancouverites are so mobile, they lose quite a few every year.)

The two sets of numbers showed a lot of similarities: the lowered share of the pie for solo car-driving is about the same, as is the increase in walking. But Vancouver data has noticeably higher numbers for walking and biking (Vancouver has 28.5 per cent of the share is walking; 7.3 per cent for biking. TransLink’s diary has 23.4 for walking, 3.8 for biking) and lower numbers for car passengers, i.e. car-pooling. TransLink has it as 12.4 per cent of total trips; Vancouver data is only at 4.9.

Transportation planner Winston Chou says that may be because Vancouver is still relying on people responding by landline, which skews their numbers older. They try to compensate by weighting their results, but he said they likely need to move to a different contact methods to get more young people in their sample.

In the meantime, story below.

Raphael Titsworth-Morin walks everywhere from his Fairview apartment: To work downtown, to shopping nearby, to movies or restaurants, to business meetings as far away as the University of B.C. – a 90-minute walk even at his brisk pace.

“Some of my friends find it comical the extent to which I’m willing to walk around the city,” says Mr. Titsworth-Morin, a 29-year-old web developer who moved to Vancouver four years ago from Halifax.

But he has found he prefers walking over crowded buses and rapid-transit car lines or biking. He used to commute a lot that way in Nova Scotia, but found he didn’t enjoy it so much in Vancouver when the rain is pouring and his workplace has no bike facilities. And, he mentions, his girlfriend has started walking more, too, in spite of bad knees, also because of the crowds on transit.

Mr. Titsworth-Morin is a living illustration of one of a number of trends emerging in Metro Vancouver, when it comes to how people get around the region, that were underscored when the region’s transportation agency, TransLink, released preliminary results recently of its massive “trip diary” count.

That census-like diary got people in 28,000 households over three months in the fall of 2017 to record for a day every trip they made, for what purpose and how. It was the first “trip diary” conducted in the region since 2011. The results showed the number of people walking for work, shopping, entertainment and school is up by an amount that surprised even veteran transportation planners.

“We saw very significant gains that we did not anticipate,” said Geoff Cross, TransLink’s vice-president of planning.

Walking trips went from an average of about 650,000 a day in 2011 to 1.1 million in the region. The propensity for walking is particularly high among 25- to 34-year-olds, at 100,000 trips a day, with the 35-44 group just a hair behind.

They include people such as Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, 52, who walks many days from his condo near the Granville Bridge to city hall in Mount Pleasant, graphic designer James Gemmill, 50 (South False Creek to everywhere), non-profit founder Heather Piwowar (Fairview to the West End and back), downtown office worker Karen Ho (walks home to Mount Pleasant regularly) and former city councillor Andrea Reimer (Mount Pleasant to all over the city), who said she now walks more than she used to. Like Mr. Titsworth-Morin and his girlfriend, it’s partly because the transit lines are so crowded.

“It’s gotten pretty crazy and pretty much all the major lines,” she observes ruefully.

And, while the increase in Vancouver was notable (283,000 walks a day in 2011 to 484,000 in 2017), the numbers also more than doubled in West Vancouver (7,000 to 16,000), Coquitlam (20,000 to 48,000), and Richmond (40,000 to 80,000). Even sprawling and suburban Surrey, often seen as the place of unavoidable car travel, saw walking increasing from 89,000 trips to 158,000 trips a day.

Mr. Cross said some of those gains reflect the changes many suburbs are seeing as they work to create new walkable neighbourhoods.

“There’s a lot to be said for their land-use policies and the growth around transit.”

The TransLink trip-diary study acts as a kind of vascular ultrasound done every five years on the region’s transportation veins and arteries. It allows planners to see what is working and what is not in terms of getting people out of single-occupancy cars, and showed a wealth of other trends that planners are just starting to interpret.

The share of people making trips by car went down from 59 per cent to a previously unheard-of 55 per cent – a change that prompted many initial interpretations that traffic had declined in the region.

But the absolute number of car trips and kilometres travelled soared as the region’s population increased by about 200,000 to 2.5 million. The number of people driving solo around the region jumped 14 per cent from 2011. In 2017, solo drivers made 4.4 million trips a day out of a total 7.9-million daily average in the region.

However, the number of people riding as passengers in cars increased by about 30 per cent, another surprising finding. For years before that, there had been a steady decline in car-pooling since 1994, when it accounted for a fifth of all trips. The drop led planners to discount it as a long-term factor. Current TransLink plans don’t even mention car-pooling as a strategy for reducing congestion.

The share of transit trips remained about the same, which meant about 130,000 more transit trips than in 2011, but the increase barely kept up with population growth. (Mr. Cross said the results from 2017 don’t show the huge increase in ridership TransLink has experienced the past two years as service has improved significantly.)

Biking was also flat.

The numbers reflect changes in Vancouver’s economy, as the region went from mid-recession in 2011 to booming in 2017, said Mr. Cross.

Online shopping, it appears, has not killed off anyone’s propensity for going to stores. Shopping trips increased by almost 50 per cent over those years, going from about 950,000 a day to 1.4-million. So did having-fun trips. They went up 30 per cent, to just more than a million a day.

And people are travelling more in general, for more kilometres.

Jasmine Garcha is a typical example.

Ms. Garcha, 29, is a Simon Fraser University grad and nutritionist with her own business. So she travels all over the place from where she lives in Cloverdale to meet clients or teach, including faraway Kitsilano.

Her family also owns a construction business and is doing a lot of work in North Vancouver, so she goes there sometimes to help out her father and brother. And she schedules some medical appointments there.

She can walk to one grocery store and one drugstore near her home, but, for anything more, has to go to Langley.

All of that means many trips and a lot of driving.

Ms. Garcha lived in Brisbane, Australia, recently and took transit everywhere there, because even the suburban transit lines were so numerous and so fast. But it’s nearly impossible for her to even consider transit where she is, she says.

“When I did trips into Vancouver, I used to take SkyTrain, but if I was coming back late, I didn’t want to get off and have to wait for the 502 [bus] at night.”

She – and transit planners everywhere – are hopeful that an eventual SkyTrain link to Langley might help commuters such as her and create a big jump in transit ridership. But that’s many years away.

For now, she drives everywhere, mostly by herself – as more than half of people in the region still do.

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The search for what to do about dog poop, Vancouver edition

September 3rd, 2019 · No Comments

Engineers at Metro Vancouver tell me that they get asked about this topic by reporters more often than any other issue, including sea-level rise or drugs in sewage.

What to do about the by-products of the tens of thousands of dogs in the region seems to endless fascinate people. The breaking on news on this? Vancouver is putting out an official request for innovative solutions. My story in the Globe here. Full text also posted below.

Naturally, we’re not the only city concerned about this. It’s been suggested that Toronto condo owners have their pets’ DNA tested to find out who is behind poop problems there, while there’s also a search for solutions in Ontario generally.

In the meantime, still no word on what to do about all the cat poop (it can’t have the same treatment as dog stuff because of the toxoplasmosis in cat feces) and the goose poop (one of my faithful readers was more concerned about that the dogs, according to an email I got today) in the city.

By the way, you may all thank me now for my refusal to include any terrible dog-related puns in my story, which is something that seems to be a near-fatal affliction among newsies.

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Two-thirds say our housing crisis the result of “basic flaws of capitalism,” others say cheaters; critics say false choice

June 13th, 2019 · No Comments

Okay, 361 people voted in my silly little poll asking if our housing crisis is the result of “basic flaws of capitalism” or cheaters taking advantages of a basically good system. And 64 per cent picked door number 1, although I have to note that a number of Twitter commenters said I was posing a false-choice question. I agree this may say more about my followers than about housing.

A sample:

One person had so much to say, it couldn’t fit into a tweet, so here are his thoughts in full. Please continue piling on.

Supply side:
    • Land use and zoning: 90+ years of highly restrictive zoning on a majority of our residential land. The city planners and leaders of the day were at least honest enough to clearly state that Single Family zoning was most definitely about preservation of property values, as well as segregation of classes/races. The City’s early money, having built their mansions in the West End, became upset when developers came along in the 1920s, bought up some of the earliest ones, and replaced them with economically more advantageous apartment buildings (right beside remaining mansions). Basically, natural urban economics at work. The result of their displeasure at this natural phenomenon, especially the resulting mixing of classes and races, became First Shaughnessy and the City’s first zoning plan in the late 1920s/early 1930s. There’s a rich irony that those who likely earned their wealth from unbridled colonial capitalism then turned around and used government power to both heavily restrict it and skew it mightily in their favour when it came to their own homes.
    • Of course, it must be mentioned that all this took place in a city wiped clean of its original First Nations inhabitants, and that many of Vancouver’s first 1%ers earned their wealth thanks to Lt. Gov. Trutch’s earlier actions, who believed “that British Columbia’s future lay in taking land from native people and making it available to developers such as railway companies.” BC, from its earliest days of violently erasing First Nations from their lands, has always been about development and speculation.
    • Since the first city plan established the dominance of single family zones, we’ve seen a few formerly SFH areas upzoned to multi-family, mostly in the 1960s (a small portion of Kerrisdale, along with portions of Kistilano and Marpole), and less so in the 1970s (Fairview). Other than that, and the already mixed zoned West End of the 1960s, most of our density has gone into formerly industrial areas (thanks largely to the anti-development changes brought in by Art Phillips and TEAM): False Creek south in the 1970s on old industrial wasteland, Champlain Heights in the 1970s on the old city landfill, Yaletown/downtown/False Creek North on post-Expo industrial/warehouse land from the 1980s-2000s, Arbutus Walk on old brewery lands, and finally River District on old industrial land. I don’t know the history of Joyce/Collingwood, but I’m guessing it was similar to Fairview in the 1970s: one of the poorest areas of Vancouver (after the DTES) and not wealthy/organized enough to argue against upzoning.
  • Any other density has gone in on a few select arterial roads (Cambie/Oak), where the 90 year old policy/philosophy of placing multi-family housing closer to pollution (noise and air) continues.
  • ALR: we can argue about the merits of the Agricultural Land Reserve, but it has clearly restricted the supply of land for development, whether residential or commercial/industrial, in Metro Vancouver.
  • Transportation: roughly 30% of our land is given over to roads and on-street parking. That seems…sub-optimal, in terms of land-use economics. That figure hasn’t changed since the first City Plan of 1927/28.
Demand side:
  • 1940s/50s: creation of CMHC to support housing construction via subsidized government-backed loans. By the mid 1950s CMHC provided mortgage loan insurance for all mortgages with a 25% downpayment, a substantial form of subsidy backed by all taxpayers.
  • 1970s: capital gains tax exemption is allowed for the primary residence (after capital gains taxes are brought in by Trudeau Sr. on other investments). This is now a subsidy worth $7-8 billion per year.
  • Accommodative central bank policy, especially over the past decade: the Bank of Canada tracks the housing market closely, and adjusts interest rate policy accordingly. Similar to with the ALR, one can argue the pro/cons of the past decade of record low interest rates, but access to capital in Canada has been very easy for most of the past decade. Canada has happily claimed its place near the top of the global debt to income charts over the past decade. That has changed to an extent over the past 12 months (B20 rules and a slight increase in interest rates), but these kinds of moves take time to have an impact on house prices.
  • On a smaller scale, there are other direct and indirect subsidies below the federal level: provincial home owner grants that reduce an already low property tax rate, along with some of the lowest municipal property taxes in North America (thanks to an outdated Vancouver Charter restriction).
  • Finally: zoning is also a large subsidy for property owners, especially single family homeowners:
Foreign capital:
  • with the above structures in place, in some cases for decades, I’d argue that the influx of foreign capital (both legal and illicit) simply added fuel to a fire that had long been burning. Vancouver has had a housing crisis for decades, if you were low to middle income. It just so happened that certain upper middle income and upper income classes (engineers, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals) got burned by that fire in the past 5-6 years, and were far more effective in complaining loudly about it.
  • we’ve been looking for an easy bogeyman to blame for our crisis, and most of us are looking everywhere else but in the mirror. So, foreign capital it is, and let’s conflate legal and illegal sources to boot.
I’m certainly happy to see the provincial government put demand taxes in place (FBT, School Tax, Speculation Tax), and launch inquiries into money laundering (long past due). But if we think focusing only on demand measures and illegal capital will solve our crisis, I think we are sorely mistaken. When our provincial housing minister argues that townhouses and duplexes are legal in BC…
…without acknowledging that municipal zoning restrictions make both illegal on most residential land, then I’m not confident that we will sort this out.
We’ve placed significant restrictions on supply for most of a century, at the same time as we’ve subsidized demand at all levels of government for 70 years or so. No wonder we have a crisis.
To answer your question: the system is not OK, we should definitely curb cheaters, and what we’re dealing with is typically what happens when government policies mix with subsidized capitalism: a bastard hybrid that benefits a chosen subset of the population. It just so happens that that subset forgot about its children…and they’re pissed, along with some of the upper classes who were hoping/expecting to join them in single family house land. Will the rest of the city’s residents be happy with any proposed solutions? Will we be honest enough with ourselves to properly diagnose the various, complicated reasons behind how we got into this mess? Based on discussions with friends and acquaintances, and reading media and Twitter threads, I have my doubts…

 

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The Vancouver dilemma: How to build new apartments without displacing tenants.

May 16th, 2019 · No Comments

I had a story in Tuesday’s Globe about a couple of old and very inexpensive apartment buildings on Oak Street in the heart of Marpole, which are up for redevelopment. (Full text of story after the break.)

The owner wants to build 91 new units to replace the 1959 and 1964 buildings on site with 43 units between them. The problem: Even though the owner is offering 30 per cent off of whatever the new rents will be to existing tenants (which is more than the 20 per cent the city requires), it’s unlikely that any of them will be able to afford such a jump. So many will be forced out of the area and possibly even Vancouver.

That’s the Sophie’s choice that Vancouver is going to be facing multiple times in coming years, as apartment owners holding 50- and 60-year-old buildings decide whether to redevelop, upgrade, or simply let things deteriorate.

The applicant pulled this project from the public-hearing line-up Tuesday, after a suggestion from the city that it might be better to wait until after June 11, when council will be hearing a report on even more protections for “vulnerable tenants” in these kinds of buildings.

Unknown whether this project will go ahead if council asks for a lot more compensation or guarantees. It’s a case many are watching closely to understand where this council will land on projects like this.

Of course, some might say that the real problem here is that so much (needed) new rental is forced into a limited number of areas, most of which are the sites of old and cheap rental. If some single-family (really, triplex) zones could be switched over to apartments, that could alleviate some of these awful choices, they’d argue.

But there’s also the issue that many of these older apartments need loads of maintenance. Even if they aren’t redeveloped, any number of landlords are looking at significant upgrades which, guess what, frequently entail kicking out all the tenants, doing the renos, and then renting at higher prices.

I await the sophisticated solutions to this, but don’t see any in sight yet.

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Squamish plan for massive development by Burrard Bridge gets a surprisingly warm welcome

April 14th, 2019 · No Comments

So my big story for the week was the news that the Squamish are moving ahead with plans to create a huge new development by the Burrard Bridge. My story was in the Globe Thursday, with a follow-up including the mayor’s comments on Friday. (I’ll post the full stories below.)

The reaction on often-toxic Twitter was very positive, with people (at least in my stream) very excited about the thought of a lot of new housing in an area where there’s a huge demand, as well as the news that the Squamish are seriously considering making the units all rental.

I’d advise people not to break open the champagne just yet, as some members apparently are arguing in favour of the early money that some condo development would provide. As well, no one is saying what prices the units might rent for yet.

Some people are also dubious about the idea of having Westbank/Ian Gillespie as the partner, given his penchant lately (Vancouver House, Butterfly, Oakridge, Kengo Kuma tower) to build for the ultra high end. He did do the Woodward’s building, granted, with its two social-housing components, but that’s quite different from trying to figure out a market approach to providing affordable rental. CHMC people sound very excited by the project and say there’s money available (cheap financing, etc.) if the Squamish do decide to make some or all of it lower-cost.

In the meantime, the really interesting story behind all this is how the Squamish were slowly pushed off their land, which was a permanent settlement, not just a summer camp for them.

This timeline from UBC provides some excellent information and mapping of what happened over time.

As I said earlier, I’ve posted the full stories below

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Airbnb-style rentals getting fines, investigations into 820 units — but critics say city is losing the battle

March 15th, 2019 · No Comments

Like many other cities, Vancouver is fighting the war against short-term vacation rentals that take housing away from long-term locals. Their info here.

The city was the first to put in rules last April. Yesterday, they released results on the numbers of licences and investigations.

But critics of Airbnb say the city is always going to be fighting a losing battle, because the agreement it has with Airbnb requires city enforcement to do all the work of checking on made-up business-licence numbers, units deceptively advertised as being not in Vancouver, and many other loopholes.

My story on all that here (and pasted below)

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You’d think people would be panting to have someone pick up and take away their old homes. But no

February 20th, 2019 · No Comments

Stumbled across this story by accident when I was researching something else. It turns out that there is a big market of people looking to buy Vancouver’s (and Victoria’s and anywhere else’s) older homes — and newer homes — that are being demolished for something grander.

The problem is: owners seem unaware or uninterested. So they continue to be demolished and/or recycled into sawdust.

My story here (and text attached below for those without subscriptions)

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Transit fights of the past illuminate the present: Remember Granville B-Line opposition, and Canada Line battle?

January 30th, 2019 · No Comments

Okay, youngsters, gather ’round while Grandma tells you about the old days.

As we’re seeing bubbling pots of protest in West Vancouver, Surrey and Vancouver over transit, just a reminder of some of the history.

Does anyone recall the massive opposition to the Granville B-Line — it did actually cost the NPA councillors a ton of political capital. They didn’t lose the election, but their wave of support definitely receded. Below is a story from July 1998 about the final vote, which describes the massive opposition along the way.

I won’t attempt to link to all the anti-Canada Line stories (or, as they were then, anti-RAV (Richmond-Airport-Vancouver) stories. But here is one that includes some interesting information on whether the P3 for that project really benefitted taxpayers. Don’t be influenced by the somewhat misleading headline.

Granville rapid bus service okayed despite opposition: City council voted unanimously to support the plan but critics vow to continue battle.: [Final Edition]

 

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North Van council rejects affordable-housing project: “non-profit model is untested”; “not enough to address climate change”

November 21st, 2018 · No Comments

Lots of concern and outrage across the region this week, after the surprise decision by the new District of North Vancouver council to reject the rezoning for a non-profit, affordable-housing project that included a seniors’ respite centre. Stories here and here.

The decision was striking to many for the grasping-at-straws reasoning used by some councillors, like the concern that it didn’t do enough for sustainability because it wasn’t a net-zero building (while single-family houses that are nowhere near that are built every day in the district, often entailing the demolition of something else on the site) or that the non-profit model “wasn’t proven.” That was along with the other evergreen “I support affordable housing but ..” arguments: not enough consultation, building too high, parking.

For those who missed it, here is my story on Catalyst, the non-profit company that was working with the district the last two years on this project. It’s the only non-profit developer in the region and seen by many as the kind of development company that’s desperately needed to help with the Lower Mainland’s housing disaster.

I’m also copying the story in full on the turn, for those without access to the Globe’s website.

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My intersectional, diverse, covering-all-bases voters’ guide to Vancouver council

October 19th, 2018 · No Comments

Okay, deep breath here as I try to provide some insight into candidates in one of the most complex civic elections in Vancouver’s history.

A word about the limits I’m working under, first. Usually when I do my little voting guide in the election, I can assess the performance of many of the candidates because they’ve been on the public stage at council, school board, or park board or in community groups, fighting for some kind of change.

This time, there are so many new candidates that I barely know many of them outside of what they’ve said in the last few months and their social-media presence. (Yes, I know, unrepresentative but using the information sources we have.)

Finally, this election is, more so than the others I’ve covered in 25 years at the city, about trying to sort out the ideology and identity of all the new parties and candidates. Before, we had right, left, and really left, for the most part. The question for many was a simple, almost binary choice about right or left, with some consideration given to who were the most credible candidates in those groups.

Now, people are curating much more nuanced lists, picking candidates by using many more vectors: young/experienced; male/female/other; party/independent; ethnicity; environmentalism/not; ideology, but way more fractured this time, with parties ranging from hard left to looks left but makes weird decisions to libertarian right to soft right to right mixed up with typically lefty housing policy.

For many, a simple right-left doesn’t work. The diehard COPE voters will never vote for anyone Vision, no matter what the Vancouver and District Labour Council says, seeing them as neoliberal sellouts. People inclined to support Vision in the past will be wary of voting for what they see as unreconstructed and unrealistic radicals, like COPE. On the right, the divisions are equally profound, with some seeing the traditional NPA as part of the problematic status quo, while some of those old-time NPAers are unlikely to support candidates who seem too extreme.

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