Thursday, January 28, 2016

City of Langley proposed capital budget: walking, cycling, and parks

Last night, the City of Langley held an open house for people to ask questions about the proposed 2016 financial plan. This includes the proposed 2016 capital budget.

The engineering department with a proposed capital budget of $4.8 million, and the Parks & Recreation Department with a proposed capital budget of $2.3 million, together represent 68% of capital investment in the City of Langley.

Over the years that I have been posting about the City’s capital investment plan, I have been disappointed because the City had always deferred budget line items for specifically improving walking and cycling infrastructure. I am pleased to see that this year is not the case. In fact, the City of Langley is proposing to invest $740,000 for cycling infrastructure along 203 Street.

When it comes to improving walking infrastructure, the City is proposing to invest $100,000 this year to enhance and build new sidewalks thought-out the community. This is in-line with the recently adopted Master Transportation Plan. Beyond sidewalks, the City is also looking to invest $50,000 to rehabilitate neighbourhood walkways which allow people to walk through otherwise dead-end streets.

When it comes to transit, the only direct control that the City of Langley has over the delivery of transit services is the quality of bus stops. The City is proposing to invest $100,000 to improve bus stops in Langley.

The single largest Engineering project proposed is $600,000 to rehabilitate 56 Avenue between Glover Road and the Langley Bypass.

Over the years, the City of Langley has invested in improving sports fields and playgrounds in the community. These are expensive items, and can bump investment in other parts of the park system. This year the City is proposing to invest $500,000 to build a sports field, and $100,000 to upgrade equipment, at Penzer Park.

On the Parks and Environment Committee last year, we passed a resolution asking that City Council consider deferring investment in sports field and playground upgrades to allow investment in more passive elements of the parks system.

I am pleased to see that the City is proposing to invest $180,000 to expand the trail system in Langley. An additional $20,000 will be invested into the Nicomekl Floodplain to plant more native trees, shrubs and berries to manage invasive species. The City will also be investing $30,000 to improve signage at parks.

To get an in-depth understanding of the proposed 2016 capital budget, I suggest that you download the full 53 page overview.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

TransLink can learn from the TTC when it comes to pushing information to riders

Last week, I posted about an internal TransLink report written by former Interim CEO Doug Allen. One of the recommendations he made was that TransLink needs to improve its communication with customers.

When it comes to communication, there are some things that TransLink does well. For example, TransLink’s online presence is second to none in North America. The agency’s Twitter account is usually the fast way to find out what’s going on with the system.

Not everyone uses Twitter, and many transit users don’t have access to a smart phone. Whether by Twitter, phone call, text, or visiting TransLink's website, you have to pull information from the agency. TransLink is good at making information available if you are willing to seek it out.

The other way to get information to customers is by pushing it out. When it comes to pushing information out to riders, TransLink has room for improvement.

As I mentioned yesterday, I was in Toronto last week. I used the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) services to get from my hotel in Downtown Toronto, to my work located in Leaside. This involved taking a subway and a bus.

While TransLink's customer service is far superior to the TTC's on many fronts, the TTC does a far better job of pushing out information to its customers.

One of the things that you can never do, when it comes to providing transit service, is give people too much information when there is the slightest distribution or change in service pattern.

A display at a TTC subway station noting a service delay. Select image to enlarge.

In Toronto, if a subway train is delayed by even a few minutes, the TTC pushes information out to its customers right away.

If you are riding the SkyTrain, you’ll notice that there are sections where the train goes slower than normal. The TTC announces these types of slow zones on its trains, stating that the agency is busy replacing tracks in these sections to improve service. While these small disruptions might seem trivial, people get less stressed when they know what’s going on.

When I was in Toronto two trips ago, there was a major service disruption on one of the subway lines. The TTC was announcing there was a disruptions almost continually at every subway station, plus providing information on how to get around the disruption on the screens in every subway station.

The TTC also pushes out information on its buses too. For example, one of the subway stations was being renovated which required buses to stop at different bays than normal. The TTC programmed buses to announce and display information about this change.

I don’t think TTC riders get upset when that agency pushes out information about every single little thing that could impact one's journey on the system.

TransLink should become more aggressive in pushing information to its riders. This would improve how people perceive the agency, and enhance customer service.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Toronto’s alternate reality SkyTrain: The Scarborough RT

From time to time, I must travel to Toronto for my job. Normally things are so hectic that I don’t really get a chance to explore beyond Toronto’s Downtown. Because of scheduling this time around, I had some time during the day to explore the Toronto Transit Commission’s rapid rail network.

One of the things that has always fascinated me is the Scarborough RT. This 6.4km line was built using the same technology as our SkyTrain network in Metro Vancouver. The RT opened in 1985, the same year that SkyTrain officially started operation.

For two systems built using the same technology, during the same time period, they couldn’t be any more different. In Vancouver, the SkyTrain network is operated by computers. In Toronto, the RT is operated by a human in each RT train set. This was due to political reasons. Because the vehicles weren’t designed for operator cabs, space is at a premium in the RT vehicles.

One of the things about TransLink is that it is always working to make sure the transit system is in an excellent state of repair. If you go to any SkyTrain station, or ride in any SkyTrain vehicle, they are all in good shape.

The TTC has not invested in keeping the Scarborough RT in a state of good repair. It has only done the required maintenance to keep the RT from falling apart. The stations have missing ceiling bits, light fixtures are missing coverings, and while the stations are clean, they haven’t aged well.

When I was riding the RT, the announcements were garbled, and it was noisy in the cars. People really love the SkyTrian in Metro Vancouver, but people in Toronto hate the RT. They hate it so much that the City of Toronto is planning on ripping it up, and replacing it with a combination of subway and conventional light rail.

I snapped some pictures of my experience with the Scarborough RT.

Scarborough RT

While some people get hung-up about transit technology (I used to.) The Scarborough RT experience shows me that great rapid transit service is more about maintenance, frequency, and location than SkyTrian, subway, light rail, or BRT.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Latest data shows border traffic, Canadian dollar, fuel cost linked

In December 2013, I posted about US-bound passenger vehicle volumes at Lower Mainland border crossings. I was looking to see if there was a strong correlation between carbon tax, TransLink fuel tax, and people driving to the US. I didn’t find a strong correlation.

With the crash of the Canadian dollar over the last few years, I wanted to see if that influenced US-bound passenger vehicle volumes based on the most recent data available.

The first chart looks at US-bound passenger vehicles entering through Blaine, Washington compared to the average noon exchange rate.

US-bound personal vehicles entering at Blaine, WA tracked with average noon CAD->USD exchange rate. Select chart to enlarge.

There is a strong correlation between US border traffic and the Canadian dollar’s value.

How does US-bound passenger vehicle volumes correlate to the average cost of fuel in Metro Vancouver?

US-bound personal vehicles entering at Blaine, WA tracked with average retail price of fuel in Metro Vancouver. Select chart to enlarge.

As you can see, there is also a strong correlation. The interesting thing to note about this though is that the Canadian dollar and value of oil are tied at the hip.

Regardless, there has been a massive decline in the value of that Canadian dollar, and around a 25¢/l drop in the cost of fuel. This is more than the current 17¢/l TransLink fuel tax and 6.67¢/l Carbon Tax. So whether it is the weak Canadian dollar or plunge in the cost of fuel, tt is clear that the taxation on fuel in Metro Vancouver isn’t driving people to cross the US border.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Enjoy free appies, have a drink, and chat about solutions for Langley

The paperwork has been filed, and it is now official: I am a council candidate in the City of Langley By-Election!

To kick off the start of the official campaign period, I will be hosting an informal gathering. This will be a great time to get to know me better, ask any questions you might have, and meet others in the community. There will be free appies. Other food and beverages will be available for purchase. No RSVP is needed.

The details are as follows:

Where: Andreas Restaurant, 20227 56 Ave, Langley
Date: Thursday, January 28th
Time: 6 till 8 p.m.

I look forward to seeing you there!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Former TransLink CEO’s thoughts on the agency

Business in Vancouver recently obtained, through a Freedom of Information Request, a report written by Doug Allen who was the interim CEO of TransLink in 2015. The report was Allen’s State of the Union, and final report as interim CEO.

Shortly after Paul Hillsdon and I released “Leap Ahead: A Transit Plan for Metro Vancouver,” we were invited to the TransLink offices. This was back in 2013. One of the things that Paul and I said at that meeting was that while TransLink had a great reputation outside of Metro Vancouver, within Metro Vancouver, people didn’t trust the agency.

This isn’t a surprise as TransLink allowed the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) for years to say whatever they wanted about the organization. TransLink never responded to the CTF’s accusation, and never corrected the out-of-context, and sometimes inaccurate information presented to the public by the CTF.

At the time, Paul and I suggested that TransLink take a more active role in correcting this misinformation. We also suggested that TransLink start being more aggressive with how it informs people in our region about the organization and its accomplishment.

Unfortunately this advice was not taken, so by the time referendum was announced, all people knew was what they were told by the CTF.

One of the things that Allen noted in his final report was that TransLink was indeed regarded outside of Metro Vancouver as a well-run, world-leading transportation agency. According to Allen, “TransLink needs spokespeople to advocate for the origination, its performance and the good service it provides” within our region.

One of Allen major pushes as Interim CEO was overhauling TransLink PR. This included:

  • ‘over-serving’ the media during service disruptions;
  • Providing one-on-one interviews to the media with TransLink executive; and,
  • Starting to address subject matter that is controversial head-on, instead of letting TransLink critics tell the story.

Beyond its brand image, Allen also noted that TransLink needs to be more customer service focused. According to Allen “TransLink runs a safe, efficient, reliable transit system but leaves its customers with the impression of detached indifference to their experience, opinions or requests.”

I believe much work still needs to be done with how TransLink engages with the region, though there have been improvements made over the last year. Much more work is needed to change people’s perceptions of TransLink.

Besides branding, Allen preformed a core service review of the organization. TransLink needs to continue to focus on the safety and security of its customers. Allen said that “TransLink has a long-standing focus on safety and security… and an establish record of safe operation. The unions representing its employees have played an essential role in building this safety culture.”

Allen also noted that increasing transit ridership needs to become the overriding object of the agency. While this is nice to say, it is hard to do when local governments in our region and the province can’t agree on a way to pay for transit service expansion.

TransLink is an organization that is driven by fact-based metrics, Allen said that TransLink needs to do a better job of letting people know how it uses these metrics in its operations.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that the province uses TransLink as a way to escaping having to make decisions about transit in our region. Allen said that “the province must support public transit and the agency, TransLink, delivering the services. This support should be ongoing and public. Openly criticizing a public agency on a regular bases simply re-enforces uninformed views, particularly if the party doing the criticizing is responsible for the creation of the agency in the first place.”

This is much more information in Allen’s final report, and it is certainly worth the read. I believe that TransLink, the province, and local governments need to do a better job of letting people know that we have a world-class transit agency in our own backyard. People are more likely to support funding an agency that they trust.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Another residential-only project proposed for “mixed-use” Downtown Langley

If you walk along Fraser Highway in Downtown Langley, you will notice a large parking lot across from 207th Street. This was a former municipal parking lot that was underutilized. At one point, there was a development proposal which included ground-level retail. The market conditions weren’t right, and this development proposal didn’t move forward.

The Official Community Plan has designated the site of the parking lot as a combination of medium-density residential and Downtown Commercial. The City of Langley has received a rezoning request which would enable the construction of a 3-storey, 21-unit townhouse development on the site. The density of the proposed townhouse complex is only one unit above the low-density multi-family zoning designation.

In the Downtown Langley Plan, this area is known as the “East Gateway.” The area is suppose to transition gracefully from the more retail-focused Downtown Core, to the residential-only areas surrounding the core. In reality, it is more of an “anything goes” area.

Downtown Langley Urban Design Concept. Select image to enlarge.

The Downtown Langley Plan does state that these transition areas should be designed to “encourage home businesses.” The developer of the townhouse complex is proposing to have “the end units on the two buildings abutting Fraser Highway… to have private entries and decks with direct access off Fraser Highway to create additional pedestrian-friendly street appeal.”

Residential-only buildings don’t activate the street and create the same appealing environment as street-front restaurants, cafes, and shops. Over the last decade, the residential-only Paddington Station in the West Gateway and Serenade in the Park Avenue area of Downtown Langley have been built. While high-quality projects, they do create activity dead-zones.

Residential-only projects are being built in Downtown Langley because of the current soft demand for retail space. If too many residential-only projects are built in Downtown Langley, the ability to maintain an appealing, walkable Downtown may be compromised.

Getting back to the townhouse proposal. The Township of Langley approved a very similar townhouse project a few years ago, but instead of having street-fronting decks, it had small-scale storefronts.

Drawing of a mixed-use development on 83rd Avenue in the Township of Langley. Select image to enlarge.

It would have been great to see this kind of design in Downtown Langley. It would support home-based business, and create an engaging, pedestrian-friendly public realm.

Sometimes a simple change can make all the difference. I wonder if Council will suggest any changes to the development.

The City of Langley is holding a public hearing for the rezoning on Monday, January 25 at 7pm. Details are posted on the City’s website.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Federal policy reduces local news, and local government accountability

Prior to working for an e-commerce company, for over a decade, I worked at local television stations throughout Metro Vancouver.

The broadcast sector encompasses radio, television, and “new media” which includes services like NetFlix. In theory, the main goals of federal legislation that governs the broadcast sector is the promotion of Canadian created content that tells our stories, Canadian talent, and local news and information programs.

Way back in the day, owning a local television or radio station was like having a license to print money. Because of this, the amount of support that local stations have to provide for the creation of local and Canadian programs is high.

Cable companies also used to make boatloads of profit. Because of this, they have to contribute a percentage of their revenue to the creation of Canadian programs, plus they have to operate community channels.

Over the years, local stations have made less (or no) money due to the changing nature of advertising. Cable channels still make money because owners get advertising revenue plus revenue for every person that subscribes to those channels.

Because of federal policy, these specialty channels such as Sportsnet or Food Network contribute less to the creation of Canadian programs, and don’t have to create local programs.

With services like NetFlix, Shomi, and CraveTV, the federal government has decided to waive the requirement to contribute to the creation of Canadian or local programs.

It feels like federal policy has been to eliminate local programs and reduce the creation of Canadian content.

Because of federal policy, media companies such as Bell, Rogers, and Shaw have reduced the quality of local programs, and have laid off tons of reporters and behind-the-scene staff at local stations.

In the coming year, there will be even less support for local and Canadian programs as the federal government has changed how people can subscribe to cable packages.

So why does this matter? For one things, less journalists are putting out more content. The quality of local news and information programs are deteriorating. With way less investigative journalism, all levels of government have become less accountable to the people.

When it comes to local council meetings, cable companies such as Shaw broadcast these meetings on their community channels. These community channels also cover local elections. Community channels allow people to stay connected with what’s going on in their community.

The CRTC, the federal body that regulates broadcasting, is thinking about not requiring cable companies to have community channels. If they move forward with this change, community channels will be gone.

This has local governments in our region concerned. Metro Vancouver is sending a lengthy submission to the CRTC. Metro Vancouver notes that:

A potential outcome of the review is that the entire portion of the levy currently allocated to the development of community programming (2% of the cable bill) could be reallocated to local, commercial television stations and the distribution of community programming through cable would cease. This outcome would likely result in the abandonment of a community channel entirely.

The Community channel is a vital element of the broadcast system and should remain so.

Local television is an extremely important element of the broadcast system also but is not more important than the community channel and is not more ‘deserving’ of the funds currently allocated to the community channel. Reallocation of community channel funding to local, private broadcasting endeavors is not an acceptable outcome of this review and would reduce the ability of Metro Vancouver communities to share their dialogue with each other and would likely mean an end to the broadcasting of council meetings.

While some people are likely happy that federal government policy has led to the erosion of local and Canadian programs, I am not. Having a less informed public is bad news for a democratic society.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Posting over at Price Tags

This week, I’m the guest editor for the blog Price Tags.

My first post on Price Tags is titled Hello from the South of Fraser. I’ll be posting regularly on this site starting back on the 18th.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Affordable Housing in Metro Vancouver: Perception vs Reality

If you talk to most people in Metro Vancouver, they will tell you that this region is an unaffordable place to live. If you read, watch, or listen to the news, you will think that Metro Vancouver is on the brink of a mass-exodus of people because of the price of housings. Many local politician will tell you that we are in a housing crises.

This has created a perception that all housing is unaffordable in Metro Vancouver. Fortunately, this perceptions doesn’t equate with the reality of housing prices in our region.

Yesterday, I noted that single-family houses are in short supply in Metro Vancouver's most desirable areas. Due to space constraints, this supply will shrink further. The following table shows that the price of single-family housing is indeed unaffordable in most parts of Metro Vancouver. The only places that haven’t seen rapid increases in prices are Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge. Of course, these are some of the least accessible places in the region.

Single Detached Housing Price Index ($) for Metro Vancouver Municipalities, June 2007 - 2015. Source: Metro Vancouver Housing Data Book. Select table to enlarge.

The story is different when it comes to semi-detached and row-housing. While some parts of the region have seen the average price of these styles of housing increase over the last five year, other areas have seen a dip in pricing. For example, Burnaby has seen the price of these types of housing decrease by 11% over the last five years. The only place with a notable increase was Surrey at 20%.

Semi-detached and Rowhouse Housing Price Index ($) for Metro Vancouver Municipalities, June 2007 - 2015. Source: Metro Vancouver Housing Data Book. Select table to enlarge.

The price of apartments have dropped rapidly throughout the region over the last five years with a few exceptions. The average price of an apartment in Burnaby, Coquitlam and Port Moody has rapidly increased in the last five years. This is due to SkyTrain expansion, making these areas more accessible. Richmond has seen an 8% increase in the average price of apartments over the five years, likely due to the Canada Line.

Keep in mind that driving a car is a major expense. While rapid transit does increase the value of nearby property, recent research shows that rapid transit actually increases the overall affordability of an area due to massive savings in transportation costs.

In Vancouver, one of the most desirable places to live in Metro Vancouver, the average price of an apartment has only increased in the more exclusive parts of that city. The average price of an apartment in East Van, has actually gone down.

Apartment Housing Price Index ($) for Metro Vancouver Municipalities, June 2007 - 2015. Source: Metro Vancouver Housing Data Book. Select table to enlarge.

So, is there a housing affordability crises in Metro Vancouver? Certain municipalities in Metro Vancouver should do more to include row-housing in their community development plans. Increasing the supply of social housing must be addressed too, but this is in the hands of the provincial and federal governments. At the end of the day, I don't think there is a crises.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Is there really an affordable housing crisis in Metro Vancouver?

Earlier this week, I received my Notice of Assessment like every other property owner in Metro Vancouver. Over the past five years, the assessed value of my apartment has gone down. I posted my Assessment Notice online which prompted some of my friends to post their notices online as well.

A good number of people I know own apartments. What I saw from their notices was that the value of apartments has actually been relatively flat over the last little while which is a good thing for affordability. This is true whether you live in Abbotsford, Langley, or Vancouver.

One of the top of mind issues for people in Metro Vancouver is housing affordability. What I’ve noticed is that this conversation always seems to be about single-family housing. Over today and tomorrow, I will share some information from Metro Vancouver’s Housing Data Book.

Metro Vancouver is a desirable place to live for a variety of reasons, and the City of Vancouver is a top choice for many people to live within the region.

Being able to access the City of Vancouver comes at a premium. This part of Metro Vancouver is also pretty much built out. This means that for every new single-family house, row-house, or apartment built, something has to be demolished.

Building more single-family housing in Surrey or Langley won’t reduce pent-up demand for people wanting to live in a single-family house in Vancouver (foreign investors or not.) It’s really a simple supply and demand equation. There is way more people that want to live in the very limited supply of single-family housing than could ever be built.

The following tables show the total amount of housing demolitions and starts. Ground-oriented housing includes single-family houses, duplexes, and row-houses.

Table of Apartment Demolitions in Metro Vancouver from 2004 - 2014. Select table to enlarge. Source: Metro Vancouver Housing Data Book

Table of Apartment Start in Metro Vancouver from 2005 - 2014. Select table to enlarge. Source: Metro Vancouver Housing Data Book

Table of Ground-Oriented Housing Demolitions in Metro Vancouver from 2004 - 2014. Select table to enlarge. Source: Metro Vancouver Housing Data Book

Table of Ground-Oriented Housing Starts in Metro Vancouver from 2005 - 2014. Select table to enlarge. Source: Metro Vancouver Housing Data Book

When it comes to ground-oriented housing, there was an average net gain of 4,803 units per year regionally over the last five years. In the City of Vancouver, there was an average net gain of 288 units per year over the last five years.

Apartment units had an average net gain of 10,587 per year regionally over the last five years. In the City of Vancouver, there was an average net gain of 3,526 units per year over the last five years.

Affordable housing for people in Metro Vancouver requires that enough market-priced and subsidized row-houses and apartments are built to keep up with our growing population. The reality is that single-family housing will never be affordable in Metro Vancouver as long as the population is growing.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Remembering City of Langley Councillor Dave Hall

Yesterday afternoon, I was saddened to learn that Dave Hall passed away. Dave was battling cancer for some time; in November, he resigned from council. Dave served on Langley City Council for the past seven years, and prior to that served as a school board trustee between 1997 and 2006.

I met Dave when he became chair of the Parks, Environment, Recreation, and Culture Advisory Committee back in 2009. Serving on the committee with Dave, I really saw how he cared about this community and its people.

Dave regularly researched and presented information for us to discuss beyond what was required for a committee chair. He also encouraged us to research and present our own information to be discuss at committee meetings. Many of these discussions turned into resolutions which Council chose to adopt. Under Dave's leadership, we were the most active City of Langley Committee.

Dave was never one to shy away from controversial topics, and routinely brought forward items at council that he felt weren’t getting due attention.

Dave was also very active online. Dave frequently commented on the post that I wrote on this blog, usually countering points I made. We didn’t always agree on things, but I knew that Dave wanted the best for the people of Langley.

Dave was a strong voice publicly, and he was a mentor. On the Parks Committee, Dave gave other members the opportunity to chair meetings as a way to help them learn more about how the political process. He wanted people to be more engaged in civic life.

Dave was actually one of the people who strongly encouraged me to run for City Council back in 2014. Before and during the campaign, he provided words of advice and encouragement.

I will miss seeing Dave around City Hall and the community.

The City of Langley has posted about Dave’s passing, and will provide information about his Celebration of Life service when available. The City of Langley flag at City Hall will fly at half-mast in honour of Dave’s service to the community.

Monday, January 4, 2016

I'm running in the City of Langley By-Election

The holiday season is over, and life is starting to get back to a normal routine with one small exception. In the City of Langley, there will be a by-election on Saturday, February 27th. Due to health reasons, Dave Hall had to step down from Council at the end of November. This triggered a by-election.

The by-election was called in mid-December. Not that it comes as a surprise, but I have decided to run in that by-election.

I ran in the 2014 election, and lost by 71 votes. There were six council positions available, I was seventh on the list. While I didn’t get on council, I believe that people really supported the three principles I put forward: building an accessible and safe community, investing in Downtown, and enhancing our parks system.

I still believe in building a better Langley where citizens of all ages are safe, healthy, and prosperous. If I get elected to council, I will focus on the following key priorities:

  • Investing in a range of community safety projects that creates a Langley where everyone feels safe.
  • Creating stronger relationships with the downtown business community in order to build a more prosperous local economy for everyone.
  • Enhancing and improving the safety of the park system to ensure it meets the needs of citizens of all ages.

I’ve launched my election website at You can find out more about the campaign on the site including how my three priorities can be applied to creating simple solutions for a better Langley.

Over the course of the next eight weeks, I will be posting about my campaign for a seat on Langley City Council as well as the normal topics that I post about on this blog.

Happy New Year!