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Building an infill/laneway, Part 4: Do you have the stamina, interest, location to make this doable?

February 17th, 2021 · No Comments

My neighbour spent $40,000 going down the road to building an infill house on his lot, with a plan almost identical to ours. He actually started a little before I did, also hoping for a place for their son, his wife and toddler.

But he gave up after a couple of years into the same process I went through. He and his wife sold at the top of the market to what turned out to be an investor buyer, and their young relatives, who had camped at the house with them for a while, moved somewhere else in the city.

We kept going because we felt we had no options. And, as well, I had prepared myself and everyone else at the beginning: “Be patient,” I was warned. “Anything can happen. There will be twists and turns.”

That’s the kind of thing anyone is going to have to weigh as they contemplate whether to house a whole other family on their existing lot, along with many other factors.

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Building an infill/laneway, Part 3: The part where I pay all the bills and the construction happens

February 17th, 2021 · No Comments

The Bula laneway house started to take shape on March 25, 2020.

Here is my unsolicited advice to those who build infills and laneway houses for us amateur developers.

There should be prenatal classes before construction starts.

A class where someone teaches you how to keep breathing deeply and staying calm when the budget-prep person at your builder tells you your project will now cost $100,000 or so more than you thought. Or when drugs are an acceptable option in the event that you get called out into the backyard to hear the construction supervisor say they’ll have to chop down a favourite tree to put in some new piece of required-by-the-city-for-the-first-time-ever plumbing infrastructure that will, by the way, cost an additional $10,000.

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Building a laneway/infill in Vancouver, Part 2: Two years of tussles over buildable space, sidewalks, trees, much more

February 4th, 2021 · No Comments

Part 2 of the series, the link and the text below. (Sorry no pix because I can only reprint what belongs to me, not the Globe.)

The low point in Phase 2 of the Ironman slog to build our infill house for my husband’s daughter and her family came when my patient architect let me know the people at city hall were suggesting we might have to decommission our existing basement suite.

That suite, where daughter No. 2 was living, would need to have the stove removed and stairs to the main floor put back in if we wanted to avoid the city requiring us to build in two enclosed parking spaces into the ground floor of the laneway.

That seemed like a “both roads lead to hell” scenario. One: Keep basement suite, provide housing for extra car, create architectural abomination, add costs. Two: Keep laneway house as non-grotesque building, lose suite, force daughter two to move to have some privacy, lose rent money.

That suggestion quietly floated away after a few weeks.

But it was one of several stomach-lurching dips in the roller coaster that we, inexperienced homeowners, went through during the year-long phase that comes before you ever apply for your development and building permits. It’s a year of long negotiations that precedes the second nearly-year-long wait between official application and actual granting of permits.

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Building an infill/laneway in Vancouver, Part I: The city decides to change the rules midway

February 4th, 2021 · No Comments

Hi all

I’ve kicked off 2021 by writing for the Globe and Mail about the five-year process of building my infill (technical term) or laneway, as many people know them.

Here’s Part 1, linked and with the text below.

By the time Ariel and Brad moved in last October, there were three children.

It was almost five years to the day after I wrote the first $10,000 cheque. Four-plus years of going through city hall hoops and hurdles, sliding down the snake and going back up the ladder, and then eight months of construction. And now the former toddler was in Grade 2, heading off to school with a backpack.

People like my husband and I are increasingly common in Canada’s expensive cities: rookie private developers who don’t really have a clue about what we’re doing, thrust into a strange new world of construction management as we try to find new housing in the city for children, parents or even ourselves.


City politicians are encouraging that more and more in high-cost cities, campaigning on promises of allowing more leeway for people who own single-family homes to add basement suites and laneway houses. In some cases, they’re encouraging owners to demolish the old place and build a duplex, a fourplex or even, in Vancouver, a sixplex – if Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s latest initiative ever gets traction.

There’s a reason for this sea change from what it was 30 years ago, when basement suites were controversial. In a city with a housing shortage and constant pressure to create more, it’s attractive for politicians to encourage homeowners to become the developers themselves instead of having the pros do it. We amateurs can make a personal plea to have others on the block support their development application.

So I’m here to tell you what that is like exactly or, at least, what it was like from our end of the telescope.

I’m sure that people on the other end – experienced builders or experienced city-hall building-permit issuers – will roll their eyes at parts of my tale. “How could she not know that!,” they’ll say to themselves. But that’s the point.

We didn’t always know and we often couldn’t have any clue what was going to happen next, because it was our first, and likely only time, through the process. We don’t get to learn from project to project, the way professional builders do.

Things that might seem completely obvious to someone used to reading plans or negotiating construction budgets or complying with city processes were not at all obvious to us. (“Oh, this line here is a property line on the plan? I didn’t know that,” is just one of the many dippy things I said at various points.)

So this story isn’t just for you future rookies to educate yourselves before you jump off that cliff. It’s also for the people who are frustrated with us at the other end, because you have to deal with us when we’re confused and sometimes angry and sometimes clueless.

I’ll kill some of the suspense here and say that, in the end, we have a completely lovely house and that we think our construction manager was a hero. But…

So here is how it started.

When my husband’s daughter and her family moved back to Vancouver, after eight years away in the east, it didn’t take long for us to register the fact that it was going to be difficult for them to buy anything to live in. They were making more than the region’s median income between them as swim coaches, but that wasn’t enough.

Because I’ve worked as a reporter covering Vancouver city hall for more than two decades, I’d covered the city’s many efforts to find ways to create more housing. The laneway house program had officially kicked off in 2009, so I thought I knew the concept.

We had a special reason to be interested in laneway houses, because of the particular zone that our house is in. Most people who want to build laneway houses in Vancouver are restricted to about 750 square feet for a standard 33-foot-by-120 foot-lot. But our 1909 house is in an older neighbourhood of Vancouver, Mount Pleasant, where the zoning is different from the standard residential one that covers most of the city. It is one of several older neighbourhoods that ring the downtown where there are a fair number of early-20th-century houses.

In an effort to prevent the demolition of the older Craftsmans, Edwardians and occasional Victorians, the city started a program in the 1980s that would allow owners to add fairly large infill houses in return for an agreement to preserve the older house. It had been quite successful in Kitsilano, where mini-me houses sprouted in side and backyards. It was less common where we were.

But, as the price of housing started going up precipitously, a few owners in our area started using that program, often called “heritage light” or a Heritage Revitalization Agreement. We discovered we appeared to be eligible and that we could build a house of 950 square feet or more.

So I wrote the cheque in October, 2015 to a company called Smallworks, whose owner, Jake Fry, pioneered laneway housing in Vancouver. We signed a design-build contract for what stuck in my mind as “a laneway house that will cost $350,000,” and we set off.

The first thing you learn is that it takes almost a year of having your builder/architect negotiate with the city before you even apply for a development permit.

In the early batch of almost 300 e-mails that are in my files, we hacked our way laboriously through the dense undergrowth of early planning. We had the site meeting (in November), then some conferencing with the-then company architect over what his early conversations with city planners had established about how much square footage we would be allowed (December), then more meetings to come up with a preliminary design (January), then the developed design (February) and then the updated floor plan (March).

But things slowly ground to a halt at the city. At first, it seemed like just a small glitch; a new rule requiring 12-feet of clearance from main house to side property line. That kind of clearance was something that didn’t exist anywhere in the neighbourhood I lived in, because the big, old houses were built so close together.

Others in my neighbourhood were running into the same problem. “We also were broadsided by this reversal in city policy,” was one post on the Facebook group from “Rob” in our area. “I was quite far along on an infill proposal until I recently met with a city planning staff and got shot down.”

But, it turned out, that wasn’t the worst. Soon, the news started trickling out that some senior planner at the city thought there were too many of these HRA infills starting to pop up. The rules were too variable. Or something.

By late 2016, we were at a complete standstill. “Any clue for us what is going on?” was the subject line on Dec. 16.

This is the first of a four-part series.

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I did a strange thing this Christmas — I went all out on the Christmas-card thing

December 19th, 2020 · No Comments

A column I wrote for the Globe’s Amplify newsletter

The Christmas-card ritual was a fixture in my mother’s life.

She had special books with rows and columns, so she could track the name of each person who had been sent a card, which of them had sent her one back the previous year and who perhaps needed to be struck from next year’s to-do list.

She wasn’t a huge Christmas traditionalist. She let us know every year how much she hated shopping for presents because she was bad at it. She ditched real trees when I was still in elementary school, acquiring one of the earliest plastic trees manufactured, a hideous stick-like contraption. In the years of experimental vegetarianism, she did not cook a turkey.

But the cards were sacrosanct.

In return, our homes in Regina, then North Vancouver, received cascades of mail every Christmas when I was a child, cards that became part of the decorations as they were hung along strings tacked to the walls. Sometimes we’d run out of wall.

I didn’t mean to abandon the tradition as an adult, but I was always, you know, sooooo busy with my urban Vancouver life. I had my own traditions: making my own gingerbread houses for anywhere up to 12 kids, tree-decorating parties, baking endless rounds of cookies that filled tins stacked all over the floor.

I tried many years to keep up the card tradition. I’d buy whole boxes, West Coast-themed when I could find them, as well as occasional $7-apiece craft-store cards. I’d mean to send them. But, oh dear, the time to write all those quick but meaningful notes. Finding addresses. The frigging post-code hunt. Stamps. Geo-locating mailboxes.

It’s all so different in this (use preferred cliché word here) year.

There’s so much time that I never knew I had, now that there are no coffees, lunches, dinners, rambling shopping expeditions, unrestricted gym visits, music festivals, trips to non-B.C. destinations.

I’ve undertaken a lot of unexpected activities as a result.

Done almost three-dozen jigsaw puzzles. Taken up South Asian cooking. Re-watched Grey’s Anatomy. Learned to program my car clock. Knit a few sweaters.

And then, suddenly, two weeks ago, as I kicked into the whole Christmas thing way earlier than usual, Christmas cards entered my brain’s orbit.

Oh, I thought. I’ll send off a few this year. As I started to get into a rhythm, the list expanded. I’m up to 81 names now.

Not all have gone out yet because it turns out it’s a lot of work to crank up the old Christmas-card machine.

I had to find my last extant address book, buried in the cubbyhole reserved for old daybooks. Then it turned out that many of the addresses I had were years out of date or not there at all.

Finding addresses became a major project requiring all my investigative-journalism skills, since I wanted to avoid asking people directly. I did internet searches, hunted through social-media channels for ancient dinner invitations, drove past houses to get street addresses, checked out entry panels for apartment numbers, looked on Google Maps. In extreme cases, I paid the $10 fee to search their names on the government’s land-titles site.

Then I needed to find just the right cards – not some cheesy dollar-store boxes. No, they had to be original, something that conveyed the essence of me and/or the West Coast. As well, because I have a lot of Jewish friends (a couple of stints on a kibbutz in Israel has left me a legacy of a wide network of them in the U.S.) and for the non-Christians and co-atheists, I needed a wide selection ranging from traditionally Christian to cards with nothing but embossed snowflakes or Christmas fishes (see above pic). So I’ve been discovering the city anew by checking out various shops – which, because they’re small and arty, usually have no one in them but me, so safe!

And, finally, the stamps. As with so much else in the pandemic, what should have been a relatively simple task turned out, again, to require cunning or patience. It appears many others have had the same impulse as me. So there are lineups at every post office, even in supposedly empty neighbourhoods. And the offices are selling out of stamps. Not just Christmas stamps. All stamps.

And why am I doing it? Why not just an email? Or phone? I ask myself that. Is it just that, since we’re reliving the 1950s anyway these days (all meals at home on a menu in rotation, evenings spent playing board and card games, travel restricted to camping locally), why not throw this in too?

Maybe, a little. But there’s something more.

I think of the pleasure of the person getting the card.

For once, not a bill or a flyer from the local real-estate agent or newsletter from a politician or a plea from a charity.

Instead, a direct communication in old-fashioned cursive that my friends can hold in their hands, something that represents a distinct effort to do more than send a quickie “Hey, how’s life in the pandemic?” email. But not anything too elaborate.

Just a little note with a beautiful piece of mini-art that sends the message, “I think of you still. You’re part of my life in this very strange time.”

What else we’re thinking about:

Once my Christmas-card rampage is over, I’ll be looking for more time-consuming activities to use up my many spare hours. So far, I’ve been cruising the internet looking for ever-more complicated South Asian, Thai or Korean recipes to make. An hour to toast and grind spices and then make a curry? No problem. That has led me to books like Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking. But I’m looking for more, so this is what’s on my Christmas list from 2020′s crop of interesting new cookbooks: Milk, Spice and Curry Leaves (Sri Lankan) by Ruwanmali Samarakoon-Amunugama or In Bibi’s Kitchen (East African) by Hawa Hassan.


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A “new generation of homeless people with brain injuries” means that just housing won’t be enough, say some mayors

October 4th, 2020 · No Comments

The issue of what to do about the growing prevalence and size of camps or clusters on the street of homeless people is one that is turning into a top issue for this provincial election. Many mayors are hoping the candidates will have some better answers that they’ve seen in the past. My Globe story on this.


Mayors of B.C.’s largest cities want provincial politicians to come up with new solutions to a growing problem of homelessness, addiction and mental health issues, saying the focus on providing housing alone is too narrow.

At least some, including Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog, say it’s time for the provincial government to consider radical steps such as institutional facilities for those who cannot live in a traditional setting.

The mayors of 13 B.C. cities plan to hold a news conference Wednesday to outline their demands for a new approach and to call on the leaders of B.C.’s campaigning political parties to make a commitment to help cities address the crisis. British Columbians go to the polls on Oct. 24.

The mayors say the NDP’s promises to ramp up the construction of social housing aren’t enough to tackle the problems. Hundreds of people are sleeping outside in major cities, occupying local parks in a growing number of tent encampments that have challenged cities to ensure the safety of both the people living within the camps and nearby residents.

Neighbourhood residents have complained about increased crime and the lack of provincial help for the homeless, a theme Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson has been highlighting in recent days as his party seeks to regain power from the NDP.

Some mayors in the just-formed caucus, started at the initiative of Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, say providing housing by itself doesn’t address the needs of a new generation of drug users who have overdosed on opioids but survived with serious brain injuries.

“We have a significant brain-injured population now that’s never going to function without supports. What the province is doing now is not enough because it doesn’t deal with those cases,” said Mr. Krog, a former long-standing NDP MLA. “If we have places to send people, then there will be progress.”

But he said he’s not talking about recreating 19th-century asylums.

“I’m not asking people to be strapped to their beds, drugged 24/7, and be presided over by Nurse Ratched,” said Mr. Krog, whose city has a homeless population of about 600, one of the highest per-capita in the province. “But people need routine. I’ve talked about smaller, community-based facilities or a therapeutic farm.”

Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley and Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart echoed the sense that homelessness, mental illness and addiction are swamping their cities, with new approaches needed for the very different groups caught up in those issues.


They say they can’t supplement the health system using their limited property tax dollars. It’s the province that has to provide the comprehensive remedies.

Mr. Hurley said he is concerned by the slow pace of change, which he wants to see addressed during the campaign. There have been lots of announcements about housing money, he said, but few actual buildings opened.

“We’re very frustrated at the slow speed,” said Mr. Hurley, who swept long-time mayor Derek Corrigan out of office in 2018 on a promise to do better on housing. He said Burnaby has pre-emptively rezoned six sites for social housing that could provide homes for 1,300 households, but the provincial money still hasn’t arrived.

Both he and Mr. Stewart in Coquitlam emphasized the need for better mental health services for those among the homeless or at-risk population. Mr. Hurley said they’re often only available during office hours, which is entirely the wrong approach. Mr. Stewart said people with mental health problems often end up with police as their only option during a crisis instead of a health team.

Like the others, he emphasized that just building housing, while useful for some people among the homeless population, is not going to be a complete solution for people with the kinds of challenges cities are now seeing.

“It’s not going to be solved by building a better cardboard box. We’re starting to see a whole new wave of people needing care because of brain injuries.”

Besides that key issue, the mayors plan to emphasize the need for provincial candidates to talk about how they’re going to keep transit systems healthy until the pandemic is over and what kinds of supports cities will get as their revenue shrivels because of COVID-19 effects, even while some costs have gone up.

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A Vancouver councillor was on the hot seat two weeks ago, but does anyone remember now?

October 4th, 2020 · No Comments

With the provincial election now sucking up all political oxygen in the room, Vancouver councillors are getting to take a breather. For one of them, that’s a welcome reprieve, I’m thinking. My story from the Before Election Call times

Vancouver voters could be facing an extra visit to the polls within the year – on top of the provincial election – after a report into a conflict of interest for one Vancouver councillor concluded that he should give up his seat.

The byelection that could result, which would likely cost the city more than $1-million, will be required if Green Party Councillor Michael Wiebe voluntarily resigns or is forced to quit after a special city-appointed investigator concluded he had violated several sections of Vancouver’s conflict-of-interest rules.

Municipal-law expert Raymond Young recommended in his report that Mr. Wiebe be disqualified from holding office and that it would be “appropriate” for him to resign because he voted on two motions at council in May related to allowing restaurants and bars to operate temporary patios, when he owns one affected establishment and is an investor in another.

Mr. Young noted that amendments that Mr. Wiebe proposed and were then passed “enabled Councillor Wiebe to wear two hats when dealing with city staff: that of the council member and that of the business owner.” His restaurant was among the first group of 14 given a temporary patio permit, which allowed for four tables on the road in front of his business.

But Mr. Wiebe is not planning to resign immediately, saying that the whole report was a “bit of a shock” because he thought the investigation was still going on and he would have time to provide more evidence in his defence.

“I’m sorry for this situation but we’re going to figure out what happened. It’s incomplete and I’m going to continue to work through the process,” said Mr. Wiebe, who both apologized for what has happened but also insisted that he acted in good faith when he participated in council decisions about temporary patios.

“I’ve been very open about my interests and I’ve stepped away in multiple situations,” said the first-term councillor, who owns the small restaurant lounge Eight ½ just off Main Street and is an investor in the Portside Pub in Gastown.

He has declared conflicts on numerous other votes at council since he was elected in 2018, ranging from decisions on the Hollywood Theatre, whose foundation board he sits on, to community safety, because his mother was on the board of one of the organizations involved, to debates involving changes to patio definitions and alcohol consumption in public spaces.

He also said that, when he debated and voted on the city’s new temporary-patio system, he was making the case on behalf of many Vancouver business owners, including several who are in direct competition with him.

City councillors, who have faced accusations or concerns about conflicts many times in B.C., are typically not considered to be in conflict if their interests are in common with electors of the city generally, as laid out in city legislation.


That’s why city councillors can vote on taxes, even though their own taxes will be affected, or rezonings that cover the neighbourhoods in which they live.

But Mr. Young’s report said there weren’t enough voters with an interest in common with Mr. Wiebe to make that a defence.

“There were over 3,000 business licences issued to restaurants and bars in 2019,” he wrote. But the temporary-patio program “benefited less than 10 per cent of restaurants and bars in the city.”

Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who ordered the investigation by Mr. Young after a complaint from retired lawyer Michael Redmond, is not commenting on the arguments in the case.

“I received the investigator’s report on Saturday, September 19, am reviewing it to determine my next steps, and cannot comment further to maintain the integrity of the process,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

The mayor could ask council to vote privately on whether to ask Mr. Wiebe to vacate his seat. If that doesn’t happen, any 10 Vancouver voters can petition the court to have the seat vacated.

Several cases of that kind have gone to the Supreme Court since 2001, when the Community Charter and Vancouver Charter were changed to include the provision that a council member could be disqualified immediately from serving if they were found to be in a conflict.

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The negotiations over who gets the next big transit project in the region is underway; North Shore gave itself a boost

October 4th, 2020 · No Comments

Greater Vancouver’s North Shore communities got a big boost to their pitch to be next in line for rapid transit in the region with the release of a provincial study outlining five feasible routes across Burrard Inlet for a light-rail line.

Now those three cities will need to prove they deserve to get billions of dollars for new transit by demonstrating the line can get the needed ridership, partly by supporting land-use plans that will add more population and jobs, acknowledged the B.C. MLA shepherding the transit-planning effort and the head of the TransLink mayors’ council.

“There’s a lot of competition for transportation all across the province and we’ve got to have our ducks in a line,” said North Vancouver-Lonsdale MLA Bowinn Ma, who pulled together a group of stakeholders in 2018 to come up with a more coherent transportation plan for the car-clogged section of the region. “The North Shore is going to have to demonstrate we’re ready to receive a rapid-transit project like this and prepare their communities.”

The three North Shore municipalities – City of North Vancouver, District of North Vancouver and District of West Vancouver – have a mixed record on supporting new transit and housing.

While the city has added a significant amount of density and supported improved transit, transforming into an extension of downtown Vancouver, the District of North Vancouver council has quashed various development projects. West Vancouver, although adding multifamily housing for the first time in decades, saw a wave of public opposition to a rapid-bus line planned for the street near that housing. TransLink had to scale back its plans for the line in 2019 after the council voted against it.

TransLink, which approved the construction of two new SkyTrain extensions as part of a 10-year list of priorities developed by regional mayors in 2014, is now pondering what the next priorities are as it looks at refreshing that list and developing a new long-range plan to 2050.

Everyone in the region is jostling for more. A SkyTrain extension to Maple Ridge, another one down King George Boulevard in Surrey south toward White Rock, a gondola in Burnaby to take students to Simon Fraser University, a rapid bus to Squamish or Chilliwack – those are just some of the demands the Lower Mainland’s transit agency is facing.

What gets to the top of the list will depend increasingly on what those regions are prepared to do to add population around transit, said Jonathan Coté, the chair of the mayors’ council and mayor of New Westminster.

“A good transportation plan starts with a good land-use plan and communities that are willing to make changes,” he said.

Mr. Coté said it’s clear the North Shore has experienced a dramatic increase in traffic and congestion the past few years and it has been identified as a rising priority for TransLink. He said the provincial study adds invaluable planning information for TransLink, which will be needed as it goes through a long process to decide what the next priorities are and where the best cost-benefit scenarios exist.

The provincial committee studying the possibilities, after going through multiple others to connect the North Shore to the existing rapid-transit network in the rest of the region, came up with five options judged workable by engineering experts.

Two involve a new bridge alongside the current Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing. Three options have tunnels – one from Brockton Oval at Stanley Park to central Lonsdale; another one under the park to West Vancouver’s Park Royal and then to central Lonsdale; and a third essentially under the current SeaBus route from downtown Vancouver to Lonsdale Quay.

A rail bridge paralleling Lions Gate Bridge was eliminated because it would have required too much Stanley Park land for approaches, said Ms. Ma. Another idea, running the rail line underneath the Ironworkers bridge, was ruled out in the final round. Gondolas were also nixed, because the distance is so great that the towers would have needed to be as high as the Wall Centre hotel.

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Could Ugly Broadway become a beautiful swan? City says yes

July 7th, 2020 · No Comments

There are going to be many changes along Broadway in the coming years, as the subway goes in, 99 buses no long roar along both sides of the street, density of some description is added (once the new city plan or Broadway plan is decided on), and more residents and businesses are added to the area.

It’s been a utilitarian traffic corridor, except for one brief stretch through western Kitsilano, for a long time. But it doesn’t have to be like that forever, as city engineers told me for a recent story.

Text below for those who don’t want to link

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Some of Canada’s transit systems crushed at getting riders. And that was their weakness in pandemic

April 27th, 2020 · No Comments

Some of you might not have seen my latest transit story because it ran in the Alberta pages of the Globe. But it’s relevant across the country.

I looked at the difference between Edmonton and Calgary and, it turned out, that explained some of the differences in other parts of the country. It explained by Vancouver’s TransLink, one of the most successful transit operations in the country, was the first to have to make massive layoffs. Toronto, even more successful, was second. Winnipeg, which has healthy ridership too, also had to lay off and Calgary is looking at it if things go on much longer.

Why? The answer is in my story, here and text pasted after the turn. [Read more →]

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