June 22, 2020

Dueling Petitions in North Van

The North Vancouver City News Facebook group exploded on Sunday with duelling petitions, one for and one against maintaining the City’s street closures for COVID generated bike and pedestrian traffic.

First came “Take our streets back. Remove the roadway barricades in North Vancouver.”  Currently at 157 signatures.

Then came “Keep the traffic calming signs up!” Which currently has… uh… one signature.

I’ll keep you posted as the battle continues!


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Over the weekend I had an article published at that explores how North Shore property developers are adapting their businesses to survive a District of North Vancouver council that has refused to approve any multi-unit housing of any sort.  What I didn’t expect was that the story would wind up putting a human face on people who are usually presented as big bad faceless corporate monsters.

Included in the article is Oliver Webbe, president of the Darwin Group, who started the development side of their family business specifically to build projects on the North Shore, and who is now sitting on several pieces of land that he can’t touch. His approach is to just wait out the current council until they either change, or at least change their minds.

“In all honesty, it hasn’t changed our direction or what our vision is for our projects,” he says. “We’re staying the course. The reality is when you’ve got a considerably new council, it’s going to take a bit of time for them to get up to speed with policies that had already been in place for 10 years before they were elected.”

The other person that I talked to was Robert Brown, vice-president of the non-profit Catalyst Community Developments Society.  Catalyst had been invited by the previous District council to develop a six story subsidized housing project with senior’s respite facility on land owned by the District.  After several rounds of approvals and public meetings the near final plan was rejected wholesale by the council elected in 2018.  Brown explained to me that this rejection cost his organization several hundred thousand dollars – not an insignificant sum for a non-profit. His big frustration though was that he’d heard nothing from the District since the vote to shut the Catalyst project down.

“The strangest thing about this is that we went through that process, it got turned down, and we have never received a single phone call or correspondence from anybody at the district to say, ‘Would you like to discuss this? Would you like to revamp the proposal?’”

The thing that really struck me while reporting this was the genuine frustration that both Brown and Webbe felt. They believe that they have played by the rules, have done everything that was asked of them, and that they have acted in good faith.  Both of them strived to build below-market housing, to preserve or add more rental housing, and to build projects that will enhance the communities around them.

Those members of council who responded to requests for comments (Lisa Muri, who famously described meetings with Darwin as “keep your enemies close,” had nothing to say.) consistently talked about “traffic, environmental degradation in the form of forest devastation, and a general sense by residents that the project was out of step with their vision of their local community.”  The other notable response was from first-time council member and Deep Cove resident Megan Curren who wouldn’t comment on development questions, but instead chose to criticize Fortune for celebrating capitalism.

At the end of all of this, I walk away with a reminder that finger-pointing and name-calling do not build strong communities. Instead, it is critical that all of us, and especially the politicians that we elect to represent us, need to remember that inside every corporation or non-profit group are living, breathing human beings, and that decisions which may look politically savvy do have repercussions on people, businesses, and on individuals far removed from the vocal community associations that tend to dominate these discussions.

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A few years ago I was part of a group for whom Translink (then still under the Liberal governent) presented their plan for the new Phibbs Exchange in the District of North Vancouver.  Although everyone agreed that any change to the current godforsaken, wind-swept emptiness of a bus loop was a good thing,  we also identified three significant and obvious shortcomings: no public washrooms*; no Kiss ‘n’ Ride for passenger drop-off; and no Park and Ride lot for regular commuters.

If you were to take every study of how to increase transit use it all comes down to one thing: make it easy.  Sometimes making it easy is about accepting that a commuter using transit for half of her trip is still better than having her drive all of the way downtown.  Sometimes it’s just easier or more practical to drive to a hub and switch to the bus or Skytrain.

Recently I’ve been studying French at the Alliance Française de Vancouver.  They’re located on Cambie, just north of 49th, so from the North Shore it makes a lot of sense to take the Seabus and Skytrain for classes.

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If you’ve been following the plans by the Squamish nation to build 6000 units of housing near the Burrard Bridge, you’ll appreciate the sheer bravado of the local Tsleil-Waututh Nation.

Instead of waiting years for a District of North Vancouver council to finally approve a significant housing development, they’ve applied to the federal government to add the 45 hectares of the target property to their reserve lands. This would mean they could proceed without council approval.

Or, as one grouch on Twitter described it:

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This week the municipal council of the District of North Vancouver voted to prohibit the keeping of pigeons in the District.  Or, more specifically, they voted to prohibit the keeping of pigeons by one resident.

Even that wouldn’t have particularly bothered me, except that the homeowner in question, Kulwant Dulay, happens to live next to the sole person complaining to the District about his pigeons – District council member Betty Forbes.

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What is this — a café? A library? A corner store?

Unless you regularly travel by transit to Langara College or the Alliance Française, you’re forgiven for not recognising this as the 49th and Langara Skytrain station. This photo was taken from the west side of Cambie Street looking east on 49th Avenue.

And unless you’re standing in front and looking directly at the entrance, there’s no way to identify this as an essential part of urban infrastructure.

Why is Translink so bad at signage? The last time we travelled by Skytrain from Waterfront Station to the airport, we wondered why, unlike every other subway system on the planet, Translink didn’t have big prominent station names on the walls of the stations. One station looks pretty much like another, and when you look out the window at a station platform upon arrival, there’s no obvious signage to tell you where you are.

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Every once in a while you read an article that really challenges long-held assumptions.  This one at the 99% Invisible site tells the story of a Swedish town that realized that plowing major roads first, then side streets and sidewalks, actually disadvantaged women in a significant way.

As researchers dove into the subject, however, they discovered that male and female driving patterns were markedly different.

While men mainly commuted to and from work, women drove all over to run errands and to take care of elderly family members. They also walked more, trudging across often-unplowed intersections, sometimes with kids in tow. Aside from health and safety, that labor, when tallied up, was found to be worth almost as much to the economy as paid work.

“This work contributes hugely to GDP,” explains Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, a book about how women are often left out of design.

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In previous posts, I talked about subways and automobiles in China, but what really stood out in my recent visit to the country was China’s approach to other forms of transportation.

In Metro Vancouver’s North Shore municipalities, even low-hanging fruit like a new bike route or an express bus lane seem to face intractable obstacles. Despite declaring a “Climate Emergency,” local councils still default to private cars when designing their cities.

Our travels to China show just how much can be accomplished when government just steps up to the plate and makes changes.

Chengdu, population 10.5 million, is the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, which borders Tibet, and is known for pandas and spicy food. Once you drive past Chengdu’s first ring road, you can look in any direction and see dozens of fifteen- and twenty-storey apartment blocks stretching to the horizon.

This is the kind of population density that makes complaints about densification in our own region laughable; the density in China influences transit planning and construction by a government which understands that infrastructure investment is positive (and often necessary).

Admittedly, lots of things are easier in a one-party police state, but by the same token, that doesn’t necessarily make them bad ideas.

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Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it was generally acknowledged that both the traffic and the pollution in the city was out of control; in 2010, a traffic jam on the China National Highway 110 slowed traffic for 100 kilometres, and lasted for most of two weeks.

The Chinese government is still building and maintaining an impressive network of multi-lane freeways, highways, and flyovers — with regular toll plazas — to move large volumes of automobiles relatively efficiently, but the Chinese government has also tried to move the country (or at least the major cities) away from internal combustion engines.

As well as making lots of safe space for transit users, bikes, electric motorbikes, and pedestrians, the Chinese have done one other thing to improve the traffic mix in Chengdu and Beijing: they’ve made it really hard to own a car. Much like the licences and charges in London and Singapore, rules in China pretty much limit car use in the city to the very wealthy.

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When Gordon recently posted a short item about plans to use facial recognition to speed Chinese subway users through ticket gates, I was actually riding those subways in Chengdu and Beijing.

What the story didn’t say is that the delays at the subways aren’t at the turnstiles, but at the adjacent “Security Check” where every passenger has his or her bags, purses, or backpacks x-rayed, and undergoes a wand scan for prohibited items. Millions of these checks are a part of daily life in China at subways, museums, offices, and public places.

Along with the ubiquitous video cameras, ID checks, and security personnel we found that they just became part of the routine after a couple of days.

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