Portland light rail to the rescue


Max interiorThe Amtrak train broke down at the station in Vancouver, Washington, a 20-minute drive from downtown Portland in normal traffic.

Vancouver Washington rail operations (right) seen from the platform

Vancouver Washington rail operations (right) seen from the platform

The Amtrak people did not seem to have a customer service plan. After 45 minutes they announced they were working to fix a problem with “the air.” The temperature rose; outside it was 35 degrees Celsius or 95 Fahrenheit. After an hour and a half, most people had climbed out to seek refuge in the small air-conditioned station or mill about on the pavement hoping for a taxi. But there were few taxis to be had — one Vancouver taxi driver who ventured into the area refused to go to Portland, because he said he was nearing the end of his shift — and Amtrak was not providing emergency buses or suggestions on how to reach the city.

There’s no public transit serving the Amtrak station in Vancouver. Vicki and I set out on foot for the nearest bus stop, 20 minutes away through an industrial zone and past the Vancouver city hall. A Canadian colleague had obtained the directions and came with us. The Vancouver bus system, C-Tran, connects over the Columbia River to the northern end of the Portland light rail system, known as the MAX. A driver named Chris allowed a crowd of us to board his C-Tran bus at no charge. He said the freeway was gridlocked because of a fuel spill, but most of his route would bypass the congestion.

Max 2Portland is praised for its liveability and culture, and the light rail and street cars are sometimes said to be part of one of North America’s best transit systems. In this case, we had no complaints with the MAX train, and our downtown halt was almost at the door of our hotel.

We were three hours late, and it wasn’t how we had planned to start a weekend visit, archbut the rest of our stay was mostly pleasant. Vicki attended a writing workshop on Saturday while I walked the city from Laurelhurst to Goose Hollow and back through Hawthorne. There are reminders of Vancouver-on-the-Fraser and of Victoria throughout, with a huge inventory of heritage homes and commercial structures dating back to the 1870s. The parks on the west side of the central area cover close to four times the area of Stanley Park in Vancouver, B.C. We enjoyed a picnic on Sunday in the Hoyt Arboretum before riding the MAX back down to our hotel.

cornerapartment 2Coca Cola





The restaurants are good, and so is the beer, and homeless people are everywhere in the inner city west of the Willamette River — lined up for handouts in the Old Town, flopped out in the parks, changing in the doorways of banks and retail buildings, begging or acting out at the major intersections.  They’re more visible and numerous than the homeless in Vancouver B.C., and this came as a surprise.

The Portland light rail system, by the way, has more length of track than the Skytrain system in Metro Vancouver, although it’s enclosed within a smaller area. Skytrain,  according to Wikipedia, boarded 117.7 million passengers in 2014 on a 68.6-kilometre system, compared with 38.1 million on the MAX with its 84 kilometres. I would guess that the MAX has more benign neighbourhood development benefits, but Skytrain carries more people.

It turned out that our Amtrak train was re-started and made it into downtown Portland a few minutes after we arrived on the MAX. We found this out when we called Amtrak to report the customer service problem. They offered us a $75 credit for our next trip on an American intercity train.


A homeless camp in a Vancouver suburb

2015 homeless camp 1 reduced

Nicole Read, the mayor in my home city of Maple Ridge, won election as a political newcomer in November 2014. The local election campaign was marked by concern over downtown property crime, linked by some to the presence of homeless people in vacant spaces nearby. The homeless have been a prominent feature of the town centre for more than a decade, but the incumbent mayor and council were blamed and Read  got the political benefit.

Weeks after the mayor’s swearing-in, a colourful row of tents sprang up on a residential street 200 metres from my home. In the 2014 Metro Vancouver homeless count, Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows together were said to have 39 unsheltered homeless people. By July 2015, the estimated population of the Cliff Avenue camp was about 60.

MR News homelessFor the first time in my memory, Maple Ridge  attracted attention for something other than a lost bear or a homicide, with the mayor appearing on CTV’s morning show on June 23 next to a spokesman for the camp. A Vancouver-based opposition member of the B.C. legislature was inspired to make the rare effort of driving to Maple Ridge to call for immediate action by the provincial government.

I have not figured out Ms. Read’s overall agenda, but on this issue she’s doing what she can. She has said, correctly, that the biggest contributor to homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. She has created a citizen’s panel and persuaded her city council colleagues to allocate money to the problem, for example by assigning outreach workers to look for individual solutions for the camp residents. But she recognizes that the longer-term responsibility for managing homelessness lies with the provincial and federal governments, and has taken steps to bring the province into the picture.

Maple Ridge mayor Nicole Read and homeless camp spokesman Al Guilbault

Maple Ridge mayor Nicole Read and homeless camp spokesman Al Guilbault

The late Jack Layton used the term “crisis” when he first published his national survey, Homelessness, in 2000. Considering the causes of homelessness, Layton wrote:

The U.S. and European pathways studies have been remarkably consistent: while there is a high level of mental illness among the homeless, this is not the main reason (or “pathway”) for their homelessness. Some people who have mental illnesses become homeless, and others — with identical mental illnesses — remain housed. The factor that led some of them to the streets is a combination of poverty and inadequate housing. In other words, poor people with mental health concerns ended up homeless, while higher-income people with mental health concerns remained housed.

Layton wrote that when Ottawa terminated its support for social housing construction about 1987, homelessness became much more common in Toronto, where Layton was a longtime city councillor. In fact, the first time I saw homeless people sleeping on a busy street in Canada was in Toronto, in 1989. As of 2014, Metro Vancouver estimates 2,700 homeless people in the region, sheltered or unsheltered, and the Toronto estimate for 2013 was more than 5,200.

I spoke with Joey, a Cliff Avenue camp resident who said he is employed most days through a day labour service but can’t afford an apartment. He said the camp was set up after a wooded property nearby was fenced off and the occupants evicted. People are tired of being moved around, he said, and they’re tired of the conduct of Maple Ridge bylaws officers, who have confiscated family photos and personal souvenirs along with other possessions during many evictions. The homeless in Maple Ridge are making a stand at this location at the edge of downtown, conveniently close to the Salvation Army shelter and kitchen..

I asked Joey about permanent housing, and he said he was enjoying his time outside. He said the hope for many campers is to get access to a big, quiet camping area where they will be left alone.

Homeless people have been present in our personal lives since we moved to the Port Haney neighbourhood in 2001. They squat in vacant buildings or camp in the trees,  subject to removal by the authorities, or by arson, demolition or new construction. People have tried twice to camp in an alcove under our parking area, and our homeowner group has created a barrier and then strengthened it. My view is that provincial and federal governments should implement a vigorous housing strategy covering everything from the middle of the rental market to crisis housing, but to be truthful, I do not expect an end to unsheltered homelessness in Maple Ridge or elsewhere.

In its latest update, the City of Maple Ridge reported that since the outreach workers went to work in April, “eight people that were part of our unsheltered population have been moved to services appropriate to their circumstances.”

[On the day after this piece was posted, Mayor Reid of Maple Ridge announced that the government of B.C. had agreed to provide financial support for the establishment of a “temporary” shelter in order to move at least some of the campers off the street. Maple Ridge residents who had complained about the Cliff Street camp through Facebook and newspaper chat threads now attacked the shelter proposal on the grounds that the homeless do not deserve support and the shelter will threaten social order.] 

Detail from 2014 Metro Vancouver homeless count

Detail from 2014 Metro Vancouver homeless count

3 vaguely cheerful thoughts on Metro Vancouver’s transit vote

Slide from 2010 planning presentation (South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority)

Slide from 2010 planning presentation (South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority)

Elections BC advised us on July 2 that Metro Vancouver residents have rejected a 10-year transit plan, which was to have been funded from a sales tax hike. The political gridlock around transit funding, already 17 years old, will continue.

It’s sad for most of us that Western Canada’s largest urban area can’t figure out how to run a bus service. Most of us — because a minority, I’m guessing 15 per cent, would prefer to see public transit privatized or abolished.

However, there’s modest consolation for those who voted “yes”, like myself.

  • Leading up to the vote, the regional council of transit mayors reached near-consensus on a complex transit plan after years of shilly-shallying. The plan achieved a decent balance between business and political objectives. (Unfortunately, the mayors abandoned the job of campaigning halfway through the plebiscite period; as of July 9, the council website stood frozen at May 30, still hoping for a “yes” outcome.)
  • The margin of defeat could have been worse. When hate filled the air in the early days of the mail-in voting process, I expected a 23 per cent vote in favour of the tax increase. The conversational tone shifted, back to the normal ill-tempered grousing, and in the final count the “yes” share of the vote stood at 38 per cent.
  • A coalition of diverse pro-transit groups emerged, although their level of commitment varied and their campaign was ineffective.

As the Vancouver Board of Trade (among others) has recognized, there are good economic, environmental and quality-of-life reasons for continuing to develop a regional public transit system. However, the political path forward is not clear. Among the possible scenarios we find:

The Treading Water Solution: We decide, without deciding, that our transit problems are too big and too difficult to solve. We drift along and cope with what comes up. In the near term, available money will be bunched into the improvement of arterial bus lines while community shuttle services are scrapped. Overall, per-capita spending on transit services will subside.

The Canadian Solution: Political leaders gather in a room. Nobody needs to know. They chop the master plan into manageable bits, agree on some creative ways to share the pain — hey, maybe property developers in transit corridors could pay more — and the glory, and the announcements begin to roll. There’s a distinct risk that sexy, high-profile projects will dominate the agenda, at the expense of more modest and cost-effective improvements; but there would at least be some excitement generated around transit benefits. (We have approached this blissful state in the recent past, but due to certain developments, the opportunity was lost.)

The Geronimo Solution: Gordon Price, Nathan Pachal and the coalition choir take on the world and score a convincing win for transit funding in a 2018 plebiscite. This is slightly plausible, given that some North American regions (Greater Phoenix, even) have voted in the past to fund transit. However, remember the following:

  • Large tracts of suburban Metro Vancouver will never get frequent transit. Never never never never never. Many residents in these areas will continue to feel disengaged from transit. Sure, they benefit from transit – through a healthier economy and so on – but the thrill just isn’t there.
  • Outlying municipalities of Metro Vancouver, even the urban village parts, will never see the frequent transit that is taken for granted closer into the big city.
  • There is no way to “fix” TransLink in a way that will satisfy the vocal critics. In the griping about TransLink accountability, nobody has put forward a public sector model for the transportation authority to copy, because every public agency, federal, provincial or regional, has a host of detractors. The discussion tends to come back to costs, and public employees making too much; and yes, you could slash administrative salaries at TransLink to half the public sector standard, and everyone would quit. Or you could organize transit along strict business lines, and cut the highest-cost services, and the biggest complainers — the people in the outer suburbs — would have no service at all.

The Contracting-Out Solution: Awarding some services to private contractors might  reduce wages, but at a political cost. The 2003-04 contracting out of food and cleaning services in B.C. hospitals might be doing us good in a bean-counter’s notebook, but a public racket was raised around those services that continues to this day. By the way, HandyDART, the bus service for the disabled, is already a contracted-out service. Has anyone noticed? HandyDART is the service that is most likely to be cut back in a financial squeeze.

The Amalgamation Solution: For supposed efficiency, we collapse the 21 towns and cities in Metro Vancouver into a mega-city, as has happened in Toronto in Montreal. It would likely make transit decision-making easier. But as I wrote in one of my earliest blogs, it’s not more efficient.

The Partition Solution: A Fraseropolis.com fantasy: British Columbia agrees to divide Metro Vancouver into east and west, with a Fraser region centred on Surrey to the east, and a Vancouver region to the west taking in the Tricities, the North Shore and Richmond. Spoiler alert: there are no functional benefits, but the partition might manage down the petty jealousies that contribute to our transit headaches.

The Magic Solution: This was occasionally raised in the “no” camp during the plebiscite process. “It doesn’t matter if we refuse the funding: they’ll find a way to pay for all the program improvements all the same.” Fire a few planners, and, poof! Billions of dollars will fall from the sky.

My preference, I suppose, would be a version of the Opt In/Opt Out Solution, where municipalities with acute transit cobble together their own political and financial transit packages. Mayor Linda Heppner of Surrey started down this path during the plebiscite process, undermining the council of mayors’ 10-year proposal by saying, “Yes or No, Surrey will implement rapid transit.” If she can win over allies from neighbouring cities, great. Considering the stakes for ordinary people, and the uninformed nature of much of the public conversation, local elected leaders have a choice: either take a tough, self-reliant stand, or watch your transit services dwindle away.

After the vote results were announced, two established polling firms, Angus Reid and Insights West, released snapshots of voter attitudes. The Reid organization reports that among those who took part, 51 per cent of survey respondents thought the plebiscite was “a bad idea”.

TransLink 2010 travel patterns 2

A sort of urban village at Coquitlam City Centre

Lafarge Lake, at the edge of the new Coquitlam downtown

Lafarge Lake, at the edge of the new Coquitlam downtown

The walkable urban village at Coquitlam City Centre has emerged recently, with a new area of residential towers, neighbourhood offices and cafes forming a bridge from older housing to the vehicle-dominated Coquitlam Centre megamall.

The Regional City Centre precinct is projected to reach a population of something around 50,000 by 2041, forming a commercial and cultural hub for the northeast part of Metro Vancouver. Continue reading

At Crescent Beach

Beach 1

The historic heart of Crescent Beach is partly screened from the rest of the city of Surrey, British Columbia by a railway line — operated today by Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, a 32,500-mile network controlled by Warren Buffett with all of 30 track miles in Canada.

Two and three generations ago, the railway line brought people out from Vancouver to enjoy days along the shore. Some built modest cottages and stayed for a few weeks during the summer, and a few of the old cottages still stand. On a clear morning, the promenade along the dyke from Blackie Spit park around the corner to the seafront cafes is one of the finest short walks in the region. Continue reading

“Best places”, taxes and crime in the Lower Mainland

Oceanfront houses, Delta

Oceanfront houses, Delta

MoneySense.ca, “Canada’s top personal finance magazine,” has posted a list of the “Best Places to Live” in Canada, ranking 209 cities and towns on a 103-point scale.

Top marks for 2015 go to Boucherville, Quebec, a south-shore suburb of Montreal, while New Glasgow in Nova Scotia comes last, making it either the 209th-Best or the Worst Place to Live in Canada. Continue reading

Oak Bay: behind the tweed curtain

House 2

The District of Oak Bay, population 18,000, is the third most heavily taxed municipality in British Columbia, of 161 listed in provincial tax tables. Property taxes on a representative house are 29 per cent higher than in the City of Victoria next door, and close to 90 per cent higher than the B.C. average.

The numbers suggest an affluent population prepared to pay for services such as an  independent police force — as in the highest taxed local jurisdiction in B.C., the District of West Vancouver. Continue reading